Concept Design For Games Vs Films
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Aug 16th 2020
Updated On: Apr 26th 2022

So first a bit about myself, after 16 years working at Pixar (where I did a number of jobs, including Digimatte, Modeling / Texturing, and Visual Development / 3D Concept Art), I decided it was time to move into Concept Art full time. I also made the shift from film to games. Now almost 4 years into my modern gaming career, I've had a chance to observe, experience and learn the similarities and differences in the job of concept artist in both mediums. So here's some of what I've learned, in case there are others like me who are making the switch and want to have some idea on the major differences they may have to deal with.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.

Some quick notes...
In Films, Story Is King

Perhaps the number 1 thing I learned from all my years at Pixar is that "Story Is King" when it comes to great films. Every discipline in the film making process is there to enhance the story our characters are going through. And that includes concept art.

Every shot in a Pixar film is just filled with artistic choices that are meant to enhance the story, but here's just two simple examples to illustrate the point. First, the beginning of the Incredibles, young Mr Incredible is at the top of his game, the prime of his life, and everything is going awesome.

Copyright Pixar / Disney

Then a shot of Bob no longer doing hero work, he now works at an insurance company and all the joy has left his life.

Copyright Pixar / Disney

Notice how the colors in the first image sequence are strong, saturated and striking. And the second image is basically monochromatic, dull and lifeless. This isn't by accident. The colors used in these two sequences are designed specifically to enhance the story point. Bob's life used to be awesome (colorful), and now it sucks (bland).

Here's another example from Incredibles 2. Helen is now the breadwinner, and her new job is taking her away both physically and mentally from her family. So when a painting needed to be designed for the hotel room Helen is staying in, the painting was made to be an abstract portrait of Helen alone on the right side of the painting, and her family far away on the left side of the painting.

Copyright Pixar / Disney

Hundreds of these decisions are being made all the time, how can we incorporate the story we're trying to tell in every aspect of the film's concept design.

In Games, Player Experience Is King

So what about videogames? Is Story King? For some heavily narrative driven games, perhaps. But for most action / adventure, hack 'n slash, first person shooter AAA style games, the thing that is most important is the
"Player Experience". Basically, you need to put yourself into the role of a player in the game, and design everything to enhance that experience, enhance the fun the player is experiencing, immerse the player in the world. If I was playing this game what would I expect to see? What would I want to see? What concept design decisions would make me happier? What decisions would help me traverse the space I've been put into in a more economical way? What concept design decisions will help me find the bad guy? Beat the bad guy?

So videogames have a king, it's just a slightly different king.

For the rest of the article, I will outline 10 specific differences I've observed, big and small, now doing concept design for games. At their core, each point is really "focus on the player experience", but I will give these practical examples to bring the point home.

1) Design for the 360. In my film experience, a lot of things could be designed to look good from only one angle. I mean, if it's just in a single shot in the film, and the camera doesn't move much, design the front of the object, but no need to design the back.

While there is a portion of this in games (like for example, if you have a set of buildings that are made specifically to block the players from going in a certain direction), far more objects will be seen from every angle, because you never quite know where the player is going to walk. So keep that in mind, your object will more likely need to look good from every angle, so you must think in 3d.

2) Extra Attention On A Character's Back. This one is similar to point 1, but a little more specific. While I mostly focus on environments and props, many character concept artists have told me to make sure when doing concept for the playable character, especially if the game is 3rd person, spend a lot of time designing their back to look really cool. Because it's likely the player will spend a lot of time staring at the back. Maybe a flat red cape looks cool from the front of the character, but will be really dull if that's all you see for 90% of the game where you're staring at their back.

Guerrilla Games / Sony Interactive Entertainment

3) Avoid Giant Spaces That Aren't Fun To Traverse. In films, if a hallway is 20 meters, but you don't want to spend 10 seconds of screen time walking down it, you use a "cut". In games, there are no cuts (except in cinematics). The player will have to walk down that whole hallway. Will that be boring? There's a whole game design department whose job it is to lay out the 3d world in such a way that the player doesn't get bored or annoyed, but how can you, the concept artist, help them with that job?

For example, if there's a long hallway, maybe placing a couple of interesting items in the hallway will help break up monotony.

Or if the map the player is in is 1km x 1km, then you need to take that into account when doing your concept art. In films it's easy to paint these huge structures or vistas, but in a game you're more likely be limited in scale, so if you're asked to paint an environment, get some idea on how big the environment may be first. Avoid painting a 20km x 20km sized monolith if the actual size of the playable map is only 1km x 1km. Also, if the 3d world is quite large, it's likely you'll be designing some sort of vehicle, like a motorcycle, car, spaceship, perhaps horses, so that the player can travel faster through the environment. But if the environment is smaller, it's likely you won't be designing much in the way of vehicles, because the game designers don't want the player traveling through the world too quickly.


4) Metrics. Another related concept, Videogame Design Metrics refer to the sizes things need to be to allow the game to function and be enjoyable. While this is something that needs to be carefully considered by the game designers and the team building the final levels, its also something that needs to be considered by the concept department. For example, maybe all characters in the game need to be between 5-7 feet in order for them to share a skeleton. In which case, when designing characters, you need to keep that in mind, and don't make characters that are too big or too small, unless you're ready to try and persuade the game designers that its necessary for the game to be awesome. Or don't design characters with 4 arms unless you know the skeleton tools at the company can handle it. On the environment side, maybe for the AI to have two NPCs (non playing characters) walking through a door at the same time successfully, the door will need to be 8 feet wide. That might change the proportions of the designs you put on the door in your concept.

metrics for rooftop arena blockout by Ketul Majmudar for Spiderman (PS4)

Metrics are a give and take, especially in the blue sky phase of concept, you don't want to bring so many metrics into the process that it stifles creativity. But some metrics are important even at that stage, and they get more and more important as you enter the production phase of concept.

5) Lead The Player's Eye to Lead Them In Space. Many games have a goal to achieve that involves going from point A to point B. This can be enhanced through concept design. For example, in Destiny 2, you start a level seeing this giant something in the far distance. What is that? That looks cool, I want to go there! As you travel along killing enemies, you get closer, still seeing this giant building peak above the landscape, but it's getting closer. Now you're close enough to see what sort of structure it is, but how do I get there? Oh I see, a giant bridge. Follow the bridge, get inside, and then reach your final goal.

Copyright Bungie

This sort of leading the player needs to be a concern when it comes to your concepts. For example, making an entire area a giant pit may seem like a good idea from a visual perspective, but a pit can't be seen from far away, and so won't be an ideal design to lead the player in a particular direction.

You can also lead the player using all of the standard Composition rules as discussed in my tutorial
Contrasts In Composition. For example, if everything near you in dark, and the thing off in the distance is bright, people will travel towards it. If things close by are desaturated, and the thing in the distance is super colorful, people will head towards it. Using all of the composition rules that lead the eye around the painting can be equally used to literally lead the character in the environment. When lighting a level, the lighters may place lights not just to make a pretty picture, but also to lead the player. If I'm ever in a level and I don't know where to go, I frequently look to where the lights have been placed in dark areas, that frequently tells me where I'm supposed to head. So when doing a concept, keep in mind light placement as a way to get the player to travel in a specific direction.

Here's a practical example of that, again from Destiny 2...

Notice how these well placed lights lead you from where you are, to one ledge, to a higher ledge, and eventually to the exit. There's even a well placed tree log pointing directly towards the exit to help direct the player.

In a related note, a skybox is the unplayable area beyond the main map in 3d space. These used to just be skies (hence the name), but now can include all sorts of 3d geometry like terrain, to help make the world seem larger even if the playable area isn't huge. When doing concept design for a skybox, remember to include points of interest, these can be good landmarks to help orient the player so they always know what direction they're pointing in (North? South? East? West?). Objects in the skybox can also be aspirational content, make the player want to travel to a particular area in the skybox because it looks neat, and you may have a new location for a future expansion of the game.

6) Cover Objects. I have played a lot of videogames, but until I started working on them, I didn't realize how many objects are placed in 3d shooting games as cover objects, objects that player can hide behind to avoid getting shot. After this was explained, I now can't play video games without constantly noticing cover objects everywhere. So expect to design lots of crates and barrels. And it's extra important to make sure these objects are large enough for your player to hide behind. So if your player is a 10 foot tall robot, you won't be designing many wooden boxes, but you're likely going to be designing lots of shipping containers!

Copyright The Coalition / Xbox Game Studios

7) Distance Visibility. Especially in shooting games, it's important to be able to tell some information from far away, and that will affect your concept design. As 2 examples, first, short stubby weapons don't work well on enemies, because you want the player at a glance to be able to tell what direction the enemy gun is pointed. So favor longer barrels, or find other tricks like special shaped muzzle flashes to make sure its obvious in what direction the bullets are flying. Or a second example, in the game Disintegration from V1, one of the artists told a story about how the bad guys originally had black suits, but once they tested the game out they realized the bad guys were tough to see on the landscape, because their color hasn't different enough from the environment. So the art direction changed and the enemy suits became white.

Copyright V1 Interactive

8) Designing Buildings:

A few things to consider when designing buildings.

9) Painting Over Greyboxes. This isn't super different from films, but I've found it a little more common on the game side. The game designer has laid out a map as a "greybox", which is basically just a simplified version of the map that has all the correct dimensions set up for the space, and then your job will be to paint over top what the final game could look like. Here's an example below from Disintegration, the first image is a greybox, and the second is the final paint over to give the final world art team an indication of what the final set could look like.

Copyright V1 Interactive

10) Know Your Cameras. If possible, get from the game designers what lens they are using in the game (note that there may be 2 different answers, because frequently a different lens is used on console than on PC). Then use that lens for any work you're doing. If you're doing 3d concept art, just plug the lens into the software. If doing 2d artwork, at least try and mimic the lens. It's not important to be exact, but if your concept can mimic at least generally the player experience, that can be helpful. In films, having a matching camera is less important because in the final film camera lenses are going to change all the time, in games, the lens is more static.

Copyright Bungie


Hopefully these experiences have been interesting. And maybe they help you if you decide to make the transition from film to games!

This site is ©2023 by Neil Blevins, All rights are reserved. Twitter Mastodon Bluesky Instagram Blogger Facebook LinkedIn ArtStation Kickstarter Gumroad YouTube IMDB