Updates

The Art Director behind the Impostors

10/03/11

The art of Gotham City Impostors appears to be nothing but chaos promoted by a city that’s filled with citizens on the fringe of sanity, and that’s exactly how it’s intended to be. From the large buildings in Crime Alley covered with graffiti and signs advertising psychic services, to the small souvenirs that decorate the dilapidated gift shop in Amusement Mile, each nitty-gritty bit of Gotham is created with a specific vision in mind. The man in charge of that vision is none other than David Longo, Art Director for Gotham City Impostors and 12-year veteran of Monolith Productions.

We sat down with Mr. Longo to see just what makes him tick, how the idea for Impostors came to life, and to hear about his time spent with the legendary Jim Lee.

What was it like creating Gotham City Impostors from the very beginning?
It was a blast getting the opportunity to do something quirky and so obviously off the beaten path from the traditional Batman experiences. A lot of us here at Monolith worked together on the No One Lives Forever series, which was full of crazy gadgets (for example, the Angry Kitty Mine) and over-the-top characters (like the ninjas fighting in an Ohio trailer park that’s about to be wiped out by a tornado), so getting back to something with a healthy dose of insanity felt like coming home.

Getting permission to go crazy with a franchise as awesome as Batman though, was unexpected. When the team here at Monolith first discussed the idea in a hallway conversation, we were certain that the powers that be at WB Games and DC Entertainment would never give us their blessing. Doing a quirky shooter set in the Batman universe without Batman or the Joker seemed like an impossibly hard sell! The more we talked about it though, the more we felt there was a great opportunity to create a unique multiplayer experience with a fresh take on the fringes of the Batman universe. As our excitement grew, so did our belief that the idea would never fly. Instead of bringing up the idea verbally we decided to put together something to show how cool an underground war between Batman and Joker Impostors could be. We quietly worked on our own for a few weeks and busted our collective ass to mock-up an environment, some characters, and a video displaying customization to visualize the concept. It was about a month before someone finally noticed what we were up to, and once we were discovered they asked us to present the idea to the high court down in Burbank. Everyone down there immediately got it, and more importantly, they really liked it!

About a week later I found myself driving to the airport to pick up comic legend Jim Lee. (Naturally, I was really anxious.) We were about to present an idea to the artist responsible for illustrating some of the most badass Batman comics ever, and our game proposal was about misfits on the fringe of Gotham wearing towels for capes and cheap wool knit cowls. (Obviously these were not the heroic archetypes that Jim does so well.) I shared small talk with Jim as best I could until we got back to the office, where we presented the Impostors concept. We sang, we danced, and then turned to Jim, who had been taking in the presentation. He loved the concept! Turns out Jim is a big gamer and no stranger to shooters, so right then and there he started brainstorming ideas for the game. Later, when we toured the studio with Jim and showed him some of the exploratory sketches for how far to take the stylization of our characters, I asked him how far he felt we could respectfully take the game and he said, “as long as nobody mistakes the Impostors for the real Batman or Joker, go crazy with it!” Geoff Johns, comic writer extraordinaire and Chief Creative Officer at DC Entertainment, also paid us a visit and had the same excited reaction and provided his full support. One of the coolest outcomes from Geoff’s visit was getting a four part Impostor storyline in the Batman Detective Comics canon. How awesome is that?

Speaking more specifically to the creation process of Gotham City Impostors; did working on a world like this come naturally to you or was it a stretch?
I’m privileged to work with so many talented people. Everyone on the team helped define and create what has become Gotham City Impostors. From the look of the game to the way it plays. We don’t have lengthy design docs or style guides where we plan it all out first, and then make it. That would be paint by number, and I think paint by numbers are shitty paintings. We have a fluid process where ideas are proposed and published to the entire team, and we quickly try to prove them out to see what will be fun or look great. This keeps us open to new discoveries and from being overly attached to a description that sounded good on paper but didn’t really work out in practice. Our game designer, Craig Hubbard, does a fantastic job putting out key concepts to set the project in a direction and I try and do the same for the look and feel of the visuals in support of the overall game. But everyone builds on those concepts and contributes new ideas to make the game better.

Was working on a game as unhinged as Gotham City Impostors a challenge, or an aid?
“Unhinged” opens up all kinds of fun and interesting opportunities that you don’t have when you’re trying to create a game that’s faithful to reality. For instance, a homemade glider fashioned from kites isn’t something you would ever attempt in a shooter that’s restricted to convincing equipment in a real-world setting, without going down the sci-fi or magic route. But in a crazy game like ours, kite gliders, heavy guys using grapple guns, PVC rocket launchers, trampolines and bear traps… it all fit beautifully. It’s been liberating to work on an unhinged game that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

What was your absolute favorite part of the world to create?
I’m really proud of the work everyone has done on Gotham City Impostors. I’d love the credit, but the playful environments, the personality in our characters, the UI that looks like it would fit on the basement wall of a psychopath, the makeshift weapons and homebrew gadgets… the entire game was my favorite thing to create and everyone on the team was a part of that.

The creative process here at Monolith has churned out a ton of great stuff. How does it all go down?
It’s my job is to be the keeper of the aesthetic vision for the game (which many people help define), to communicate it to the team, and make sure everything is up to the highest quality standards and consistent across the game. While I do get the opportunity help conceive of ideas for characters, props, equipment and environments, much of my time is spent coordinating with others on the team. Usually by reviewing art, providing feedback on specific things to refine, and reinforcing visual goals. That said, my personal creative process isn’t much different from the creative process we’ve set up for the team to imagine, explore, and develop a game:

  • Ideas: Everything has to begin someplace to set a direction. We start broad… a place, a character, a weapon or something else that’s needed. These conversations happen in meetings and hallway conversations. As we talk about the ideas, a fair amount of brainstorming, riffing off of each other’s ideas, proposing variations on a theme, or new ideas occur. This is an exciting part of the creative process where all ideas are considered, no matter how crazy. This is when practicality is less important than measuring the ideas against, “would this be fun?”, “would this look cool?” and “does this fit our game?” Once we think an idea has potential we get more practical and consider how we might go about creating or testing it.
  • Goals: Up next, we put all of our ideas into a set of easily described goals or requirements that are published on our internal forum. That way everyone can discuss and help refine the goals, and get everyone moving in the same direction. For instance, one of the goals we set for the look of the game was that everything should look gritty and tell a story, weathering and distress were essential because Gotham is such a corrupt and decaying city. These goals are useful to measure the success of anything we create. We try not to get into the minutia and over-detail our goals. To be honest, that’s for amateurs who want blueprints of the entire game before they begin, and it can also omit the “test and discover” component that’s so important to our process.
  • Reference and inspiration: Up next, we gather reference and inspiration material, which could be photos, illustrations, paintings, movie clips… all things visual. All the artists (and some non-artists) participate in this, sharing what they collect with others. We’ll go over references to further align everyone in the same direction by identifying what fits and what doesn’t fit the goals. This phase may include some competitive analysis, which means looking at other games so that we have a unique visual position that doesn’t compete with other games. Usually we’ll make some call-out sheets to capture the “best of” from the reference and inspiration images people have collected, especially for environments where we may have sheets for lighting, materials, architecture, etc.
  • Sketch: Even a realistic game is a stylized interpretation of reality. So, using the reference material we start doing sketches to accentuate the ingredients that will compose our game. From the reference our artists will sketch out ideas quickly and cheaply to cover as much ground as possible. This could be on paper, in Photoshop, or proxy shapes in a 3D program. This is not something done exclusively by concept artists. Everyone is encouraged to throw out ideas at the sketch phase. We regularly publish the sketches to the team so they can see ideas and get an opportunity to contribute more ideas. Even though the programmers, designers or quality assurance teams aren’t in the weekly art meetings, they still have great feedback and ideas for visuals. And it’s a great way to track the progress and let others in the company see the progress of our project as it happens.
  • Refine the concept: Often there are several good ideas in different sketches, and we’ll try and incorporate the best elements into a finished concept piece (if necessary), or go straight into production. Not everything requires a concept, of course. We hit the main themes and broad strokes and our artists help fill in the blanks between because they’re smart, talented, and by this phase have a pretty good idea of the look we’re going for.
  • Build: Any time a piece of art content gets built, there is still room to improve the ideas and our artists are encouraged to propose changes they think would make the piece stronger.
  • Review and refine: Often content gets in the game and looks great without changes. But, there are also times when things require tweaks for color, details, shape, composition, etc., to make it harmonize with the rest of the game, or just nudge the quality up. Luckily for us, there aren’t any big egos present on our team, so providing artists with critique and change requests is a smooth and pleasant process. (However, sometimes there are fierce aesthetic or functional differences of opinion. But those tend to be pretty rare!)

Alright, now let’s talk shop. How long have you been a fan of Batman and the Batman universe?
I’ve always been a fan of Batman in all the various incarnations. He’s particularly badass to me, because he’s a real guy. Sure he’s a filthy rich guy, but he doesn’t have magical powers or come from another planet, or something that makes him less relatable. In that regard Batman has always been one of the most non-traditional comic heroes, which is interesting to me.

The Batman franchise has also been experienced in more styles than any other comic franchise I know of. When Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns came out, it was an exciting and different Batman experience with an aging Batman coming out of retirement. It was really dark and sophisticated, certainly not the traditional take on Batman. In the 90’s, Batman: The Animated Series took a new approach to Batman with a deco/noir look that was unique and beautiful. Jim Lee took the classical comic archetype approach to Batman comics in a way that was fresh and modern. I loved the amusement park ride vibe to the first two Tim Burton Batman movies, I think there were some other movies… and then Nolan got a hold of Batman and took it into an awesomely plausible direction that was totally unique. It’s really cool that our game is part of a long line of Batman experiences that have been so different in tone, look and feel.