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What's It Like to Art Direct a Major Video Game?

'Overwatch' art director Bill Petras and character concept artist Arnold Tsang talk about what it means to work in art direction and their inspirations for the game's unique look.
Most of the playable characters of Overwatch on display. Photo courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

The most striking aspect of the multiplayer first-person combat video game Overwatch isn’t how it plays or how this competitive shooter has quickly gained a 10-million-player-strong fanbase: it’s the look of the game. The landscapes, character designs, and color palette of Overwatch drip with personality.

Set 60 years into the future, Overwatch tasks players with taking on the role of one of 21 heroes, each with their own incredible abilities. From a talking scientist-gorilla, to a Russian soldier with a beam cannon, to a jetpack-clad member of the Egyptian army, the cast of characters players can choose is wonderfully diverse. Produced by Blizzard Entertainment, the game also strives for diversity in gender, sexual orientation, and body type—an admittedly progressive notion for a big-budget video game.


An early iteration of one of the game’s most popular characters, D.VA. Character concept by John Polidora. Photo courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

Bill Petras, art director of Overwatch, and Overwatch character-concept artist Arnold Tsang are two of the principle players behind the game's unique visual appeal. Speaking to The Creators Project, Petras describes the role of an art director as taking leadership in deciding the 'feel' of a game. “One of the main jobs that we do as art directors is have a vision for what the game looks like, of what the heroes look like, the feeling of the animation, the color palette, and the architecture of the buildings of the world.” And often that means putting ink to paper: “A lot of times the art directors themselves will do a painting of a concept to show a vision to the team. That’s step one.”


A design template for the character Reaper. Character concept by David Kang. Photo courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

Tsang adds that they’re also supposed to be a sort of cheerleader for the team. “Early on, our first job is to inspire and rally the team behind our vision. The development of the style guide is a huge first step in getting our feet on the ground for Overwatch.” Setting down the core of the game’s look is an incredibly important part of the early process. “After we had the core tenets in place,” says Tsang, “we worked with the engineers and some of the animators to start to realize that content and make visual targets that start to realize what we set out to do in the style guide. And we saw how things worked in the game engine, and how these characters moved and acted.”


Route 66, a vibrant and colorful stage of the game. Concept by Nick Carver. Photo courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

As for inspiration, both Petras and Tsang are inspired by comics, movies, early work in the Warcraft game series, and toys. But Petras adds, “I very much enjoy lighting and atmosphere. There are some early romantic paintings by Albert Bierstadt, from the Hudson River School: the painters from that era really inspire me.”


Petras adds that there was a lot of pressure to balance a feeling of newness with the core values of the company. Values which included, “big, bold silhouettes on characters. Just having very dynamic proportions and shapes. Some of the other games we do, like World of Warcraft, they all have big silhouettes with bombastic characters. We wanted it to be bold, and beautiful, and colorful. We wanted it to be a world worth fighting for. And we wanted to have humor in there, to have fun.”


Early level design inspiration for Overwatch. Concept by Peter Lee. Photo courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

Overwatch is out now for PC, Playstation 4, and XBOX One.


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