Interview with Paul Richards, Concept Artist for Darksiders, Halo 4, etc.

I’ve linked to Paul Richards before, when singing the praises of the Design Iteration Combat Simulation. He’s worked on an impressive variety of games and is a remarkably prolific artist on his own time as well. A mutual friend was kind enough to put me in contact with him, and the ensuing interview was probably the most amusing and informative I’ve ever read (let alone conducted).

SPS: Could you talk a little about yourself, your job, and the projects you’ve worked on?

Paul: I’m a recent addition to the concept team at 343 Industries, the Microsoft studio that’s carrying on what I’m contractually obliged to call the “Halo Legacy.” Been here almost a year. Though my involvement in game art goes back to 1997. That makes me old, huh?


Church concept for Darksiders

SPS: What skills do you think have most helped you get where you are now?

Paul: Oddly, they have less to do with art and more to do with time management, communication (verbal and written), managing expectations (my own and others’), knowing when to be vocal, knowing when to shut up, etc. It took me many years to stop constantly sabotaging myself. You learn to take things less personally. You choose your battles. And most of all, you choose to work with good people — to always keep good people around you, pushing you, holding you to a higher standard. People, as I’m fond of saying, make the difference.

SPS: Any skills you have that aren’t really expected of someone in your position but that you feel have really helped you in your career?

Paul: Sound effects! You gotta make sound effects when you concept, and when you pitch them to others. “There’s this guy with this big fucking sword, and he’s all ‘WAAAAAAAOoooooooooom!’ Then he swings it, and it’s like ‘Fwosh!'”

I don’t think I expected to become an essayist, public speaker or tutorial maker of any kind. The “teach to learn” mentality graduall crept into me when I realized I like making people’s lives easier. Artists are going to pick and choose how and why they do art regardless, but it’s cool to *have* an influence in addition to *being* influenced. People like it when you can make them look better– when you can give them an edge…or at least some hacky solution.

SPS: What tools and programs do you see used the most for concept work in studios? Are there any others that you use in your personal work, or less common ones that you really love?

Paul: Everyone’s 100% digital now, which I say with disdain, because it means there are less drawings lying around game studios. On tables. On walls. Gone is the communal art pool, replaced by fleeting, on-screen data. So much amazing work gets done under people’s noses, seen by only a handful of people. I like sketching on paper for its concreteness — not to mention how immediate and simple it is. Someday they’ll invent a tablet that doesn’t suck and I’ll finally make the leap, but to me, that’s like developing a weird sex fetish. “Oh baby, I’d love to make art, but first lemme change into my Catwoman costume with the detachable tail. It’s the only way I can get off.” I don’t want things to ever reach that level. But instead of being exalted, people who draw and scan are lumped into this Luddite category. “Hey look, this guy over here still draws on paper.” “Still.” I hear that, and I know that person doesn’t appreciate the *ideas* put forth as much as their surface appearance. That’s what digital gives you almost right off the bat: a superficial slickness.

SPS: What are the most common tasks you’re assigned? How about the more unusual or most challenging?

Paul: Doors! People always want cool doors for stuff. The most unusual tasks come from a “random factor” generated by myself and other people. Whenever possible, I like to be part of the brainstorming phase. There’s nothing duller than executing on someone else’s idea, verbatim. Game development is like Project Mayhem in Fight Club : “*You* determine your own level of involvement!” Don’t just *get* tasks; make them, shape them, steer them in ways interesting to you. Prove over and over that there’s a *mind* at work, not just a wrist.


Another of Paul’s concepts from Darksiders

SPS: You’ve moved through a lot of different styles over time, from really stylized stuff like Darksiders to realistic games like Halo. Did you run into any particular challenges making those transitions? Any advice for others who are trying to switch between styles or hit a large range of styles for a portfolio? Any favorite out of them?

Paul: Style alignment is a tricky beast. Avoid it if you can. Solving creative problems is difficult enough without compatibility/competency concerns muddying the waters. I’ll return to the “idea vs. surface appearance” argument. A good idea is a good idea, whether delivered as a napkin doodle or a photo-realistic matte painting. When I sell myself as a concept artist, I’m not touting my draftsmanship; I’m telling people that I have ideas that I have the ability to represent pictorially. My current idea delivery methods are the most sensible and enjoyable I’ve found so far. When I see someone using more sensible, enjoyable ones, I integrate them. I’ll sometimes lean one way or the other if I think it will put an idea over better, but typically won’t veer from what feels natural unless specifically requested…which, thank God, doesn’t happen much. If you aim for authenticity in your work, rather than what’s fashionable, the right people tend to respond.

SPS: You seem to do a huge amount of thumbnailing in your work. Is that volume of thumbnails a typical part of professional visual development, or is there a particular reason you favor it?

Paul: When the next iPhone comes out, everyone will want it. The iPhone after that — same thing. Stuff can always be improved. The better solution is always out there, elusive. You’re idea-mining, and idea-refining when you thumbnail. But, as I’m learning to conserve energy and maximize impact, I’m getting over the “36 designs on a page” kick, gradually whittling my submissions down to 3-5, max. I had a handful of people suggest I do this, but fought back because, “I’m a concept artist, damn it! I have lots of ideas! Don’t censor me!” I didn’t yet realize that “different” didn’t always equal “better.” It wasn’t until Sparth, my lead at 343, taught me about something called “the rule of odds” that I decided to pare back a bit. The rule states that an odd number of things looks better in a composition than an even number of things. It provides a logical stopping point for design submissions: when you reach a low, odd number, that’s enough! Anything you do beyond that actually *lessens* the impact. The most impactful odd number, by the way? One.


Thumbnails for a Spacewhale from Halo 4

SPS: Being at the front end of the art pipeline, it seems like there would be a huge amount of pressure to churn out quality and creative work regardless of how excited or inspired you are about the subject. How do you deal with artist’s block or similar lacks of inspiration at work?

Paul: You find something personal to shoehorn into it. If it’s not an idea you came up with, then you use it an excuse to work on composition or tones or color or your knowledge of plant life or whatever. You find a part of it that interests you. Gain something from it. Then, get it out of your life as fast as possible so you can move onto the next (hopefully more fulfilling) task!

SPS: What was your favorite thing you’ve ever gotten to do for work?

Paul: I got to go to Moscow once to make a presentation to a company there. That was cool.

Quitting jobs is satisfying as hell. It reminds you that *you’re* steering your fate, not the person paying you. After you quit, you’re free for a time, then you get to start over. New challenges, new people, new promise. And each time you ask yourself, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”


“The Librarian”

SPS: What’s the best general advice you could give to people who want to get into the game development?

Paul: Stay on your own path. Don’t be all things to all men. We already have enough impostors.

SPS: For people specifically hoping to get into concept art or visual development, what other advice would you have?

Paul: Ugh, I hate to admit it, but this is a “surface appearance” dominated industry, so work on that superficial shit as much as possible. Just don’t neglect the “idea” part. Having ideas and expressing them clearly and eloquently is so crucial. It’s where 90% of the creative fun takes place. Being creative is better than being pretty…but people still like pretty things.

SPS: Was there anything that, once you actually started working in games, completely blindsided you or that you felt incredibly unprepared for?

Paul: Cheaters. Frauds. Tasteless, passionless do-nothings who squeak by on little-to-no skill. They talk a good game to the right people, or fly so low under the radar as to be completely invisible. Those who don’t earn their keep are kept, and brilliant contributors whose praises ought to be sung from the high heavens are flushed without a moment’s hesitation. The value placed on “exceptional” is lower than one would expect, even by those who should know better.

SPS: For someone who only has a short amount of time to put together a portfolio (or wants to rapidly iterate, or what-have-you), what would be your best advice? Or how would you go about it?

Paul: It takes time to cultivate this stuff. Be patient with yourself. Note your progress by making a public record of it. Keeping a blog/tumblr/forum thread/Facebook gallery that’s a “playground” for all your fumblings and successes. Fumbling is allowed there — encouraged, actually. In the samples of work you show to clients, include only the successes. But definitely let yourself flounder and flop. Until computers do this job (and they probably will at the rate things are going) it’s okay to be human.


“Bubblegum Forest”

SPS: Since I suppose it has to be asked, what games do you find the most inspiring, and why?

Paul: Journey. It made me feel stuff, and its objectives were simple. It didn’t make me feel angry or inept even once. Also, it was pretty.

SPS: What (or who) are some of your biggest inspirations outside of game titles?

Paul: I enjoy solo or small-team efforts. They’re more pure, more personal. I’m less impressed by endlessly rolling film or game credits, and tend to focus on those key individuals that really made it shine. Comic creators are like this. Musicians are like this.

SPS: Do you have any resources you particularly love? Books, websites, tutorials, etc.

“The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri, Andrew Loomis’ books, and “Drawn To Life” vols. 1 & 2 by Walt Stanchfield. These authors speak directly to the artist I try to be. But my industry peers have always been my best resource. A day I don’t try to learn something from them is a day wasted.

SPS: You do a lot of smallish side projects, such as Babelab, Thumb War and your various articles on concepting and vis dev. Do you have any others planned, or any bigger projects you’re hoping to tackle some day?

Paul: This is where I bust out my “‘making it’ vs ‘making it your own'” speech that all of my friends have already heard. *ahem* If you’re earning a living as an artist of any kind, you’ve technically “made it” in society’s eyes. But is that enough? The mere “getting by?” No, no. You have to be a creator. You have to create for creation’s sake. Not to get the cushier job or the wider exposure or the more marketable “intellectual property”, but to express things in your own way. This is “making it your own.” I’ll leave specifics on this nebulous, because, honestly, they’re nebulous to me. But I know this: I’m on my path.

My friend Kynan Pearson, game designer (and all-around creator) at 343, said something I very much agree with. “You have to seize the throne, or make your own.”

Amen!

(You can check out Paul’s main gallery and many of his articles at autodestruct.com, and his blog at autodestructdigital.blogspot.com. He also runs Babelab, which is a quite excellent site analyzing pin-up art. Thanks again for an awesome interview, Paul!)