Randy Van Der Vlag is the Lead Artist on Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain for the DS, and in a presentation at the Montreal International Game Summit on Tuesday, spoke about how developer Big Blue Bubble pulled off, in this editor's opinion, some of the best visuals on the DS.
Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, by developer Big Blue Bubble, is set for release next week. A rarity on the DS, Fighting Fantasy is a first-person-perspective RPG, with visuals pushing the DS as far as the system can go (somewhere most gamers will be surprised by), and the solid gameplay to back it up.
Since GamingUnion.net's hands-on time with the Fighting Fantasy back in August we've been hotly anticipating the game, so we simply couldn't pass-up hearing from the game's Lead Artist.
When Van Der Vlag was brought on as the Lead Artist, he asked himself what he wanted Fighting Fantasy for the DS to be, and the answer was "epic". Not only that, but he wanted the game to look good, and not just "good, for a DS game." Considering typically judging graphics on the DS consists of greatly taking the system's limitations into account, setting out to not be lumped into the DS-limited-graphics-excuse was certainly one steep goal.
Of all the art and graphics in Fighting Fantasy, three of the main areas were Monsters, Rooms, and Weapons. When originally starting the project, Van Der Vlag and his team looked at a number of DS titles to see how far others have pushed the system's graphics. Metroid: Hunters showed off impressive visuals on the DS, and Brothers in Arms pushed the look of locations and items. Those are just two examples of the dozen or so games the team researched before setting out, and from them Van Der Vlag came away with the mindset to make Fighting Fantasy above all, a believable world to players.
Starting with room concepts, instead of only drawing lush concept art, the team also set out their environment floor plans from the get-go. One of the major factors in Fighting Fantasy's production, like most games, were its time constraints. The team was set on pushing the envelope though, so they made do with time-saving techniques, especially with their monsters. Fighting Fantasy's monsters aren't 3D, but instead are large 2D animated illustrations.
Van Der Vlag and his team opted for 2D monsters as opposed to 3D monsters for a few reasons. 3D monsters, while used in many other DS titles, would limit how far they could push environmental graphics, an area the team put much of their efforts. The other option, animated 3D renders for Monsters, simply "looks cheap" according to Van Der Vlag. Big Blue Bubble have a history of strong 2D games, and Van Der Vlag and his team admittedly love 2D art, so for those reasons they choose to go 2D with their Enemies. Furthermore, 2D enemies in other games are usually of low resolution, and poorly animated, so the team focused on showing what 2D Enemies can really be.
While choosing to go 2D instead of 3D didn't make things easier, they were still able to employ some time-saving methods so they could still keep their high goals for the game. For example, things like taking art of an arm, and mirroring it to create an opposite arm, only having to reposition it, and add proper shading. They also kept a considerable amount of attention-to-detail in their environments, as 95% of the game takes place in a mountain, they had quite the hurdle to clear to keep things from becoming repetitive.
Instead of slapping together stereotypical environments and enemies, the team relied a lot on research, logic, and creativity to keep things fresh. Two examples Van Der Vlag showed from Fighting Fantasy largely reinforced two quotes a former professor, Paul West, told Van Der Vlag back in his post-secondary days, "how will you know how far your ideas will go if you never push them there?" and, "how can you possibly draw something if you don't know what it looks like?" Some artists, as Van Der Vlag noted, are scared of taking in research as they don't want other's work to "taint" their imagination, which actually limits the pool of ideas they can pull from.
Employing his professor's logic, Van Der Vlag and his team designed believable levels. Fighting Fantasy's Orc kitchen takes from an open kitchen that Van Der Vlag saw in his younger years, the tables with benches pulls from his father's career in crafting furniture, and the chains along the ceiling mirror those of a butcher shop. There is also emphasis within environments that people have used them before the player got there, with finer details in place to convey that atmosphere. In terms of enemies, when designing the game's Fire Sprite, the team started with a stereotypical sexualized fairy-like enemy, with flames. The team however wasn't satisfied with the design, and when they revisited it they decided to drop the stereotypes, desexualized their fire sprite, and made the fire sprite's head simply an open flame.
While different from what gamers might anticipate for a fire sprite, the effect of the unique fire sprite are great. The fire sprite attacks by ripping fire balls from its face, and it became a creepier enemy when they removed it's ability to show expression on its face. As Van Der Vlag put it, "things are a lot creepier if you can't read their expression or see if they're looking at you."
Van Der Vlag believes that Fighting Fantasy's great world, beautiful enemies, and imaginative weapons all add up to one great looking game. What made it work, according to Van Der Vlag, was solid communication between the team, trust, and a belief that "you are never limited by the technology you work on, you're only limited by yourself."
Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is set for release early next week. Look forward to our full review of the game soon.