splatoon concept art and character design
I've been a big fan of the Splatoon video-game series since the first release for the Wii U. My love was recently reignited by the Switch release, Splatoon 2 (which I've spent a lot of my time playing over the last few weeks), so I was really excited to find a concept art book for the first game on amazon. After receiving it, I felt like I should write a post about the detailed character design processes shown in the book, as I feel like the team at Nintendo have an unmatched skill for idea generation that I haven't seen from other game developers.
The book itself is massive, in thickness and format, which I really appreciated as it allowed for large prints of sketches and concept art to be housed inside, so I could get a really good look at the process of designing the game. I wasn't massively impressed with the design of the book jacket, but I did like the expressive nature of the design and how it wraps around onto the spine and back of the cover, as this represents the game itself really well; there's always ink of different colours flying around everywhere, making it a busy environment, which the cover shows really well. I just thought that the typography could have been implemented better, in a more expressive way, to fit with the cover illustration. I did, however, appreciate the spot varnish in the shape of ink splats (seen in the bottom left of the cover), which added a little more excitement.
There isn't much in the book about the design process of the 'inklings' (the main characters seen on the front cover) apart from what I have below. I was really intrigued by the rough sketches of the inkling on the left due to the different face shapes scribbled in the corner, as some of them feel very human or very pointed, which I think could have made the character have a completely different look / feel (definitely not as cute, which wouldn't fit with the vibe of the game, in my opinion). Interestingly, there are more design sketches shown for the 'octolings' (on the right, below- they are the villains of Splatoon's story mode) with lots of different concepts; some have very strange looking headdresses or weirdly shaped tentacles. I do prefer some of these more complex designs to the final product, as the final octoling appears to be rather simplified in style, not really feeling like a threat, especially with their simplified armour which originally gave me the impression that there wasn't much time put into the design. I wonder if maybe there could have been more variation in the design of the octolings (maybe through the use of different 'hairstyles' or armour) that would give them more personality, as the octolings all appear exactly the same in the game, which is a shame.
I really love the character concepts for Sheldon, the weapon merchant. I feel like this is a really great example of trying out completely different looks and styles that all fit the brief but create totally opposite impressions of the character. Sheldon's final design (found right, below) gives the impression that he is physically weak but smart, probably a bit of a nerd due to the tucked in shirt and pants, and that he is easily scared - hence his 'shell mode' - whereas the other designs create a strong, cool and even slightly scary vibe for him with a much bigger silhouette. They do, however, all fit the brief of a weapons merchant; I wouldn't have thought twice about his character if I had only ever seen one of these designs.
Similarly, I really liked the sketches of Captain Cuttlefish; I was interested by the fact that there seemed to be one main concept for him - no others were really explored (apart from one which looks suspiciously like one of the ideas for Sheldon's design?) but this idea was played with and evolved, particularly with the design of his clothes. I feel that his age is communicated really well in these designs; the slouched back, wrinkles, long white hair and bulging eyes definitely hit the stereotypical 'crazy old person' vibe. Something that impressed me with these designs was the sketches of him in different poses and from all angles, as this is something which I often struggle with. I think it helps to get a very specific feel for the character though; for example, in the sketches of his back we can see the strangle angle of his feet and that his hat is actually torn.
By far, the most detailed design process shown in the book is that of the Squid Sisters. There were a lot of different concepts for the characters; some of which had really interesting concepts that weren't carried forward. I thought the idea of a 'squid pose' using the sleeves of the sisters' tops was really interesting (left, below) and could've been used to recognise them. I also really liked the ideas involving them having completely different hairstyles to differentiate them (this is also explored below as one with a long ponytail and the other with a short bob). I also really loved the concept of using famous Japanese art in their clothing designs (right, below) and feel like this was a missed opportunity to incorporate a little more fun into the sisters' design to reflect their personalities in-game. An issue I had with the final design of the characters was that they were extremely similar so it was sometimes difficult to remember who was who, even though they had contrasting clothing and hair colours. I think a little more personality in each character, i.e. different face shapes, clothes or skin colours, could have helped this issue. It should, however, be noted that these characters were replaced in the second game with a pair who were much more individual in appearance, solving this issue.
There were quite a few different concepts for the outfit design of the Squid Sisters in the book. I thought the idea of having Marie wear white to match her hair was an interesting idea and could have helped the pair to have more individuality; in particular, I really think the concept of Marie wearing a white dress and black pants, found in my second example, could have worked well, as it would have created more contrast in the sister's outfits. I do think the arrow pointing directly down on this outfit design was best changed to point inwards, as it helps to reflect the two sides led by each character in the special 'Splatfest' events - players would pick whether they wanted to be on Callie or Marie's team - it's a shame that this was removed in the final design. Again, I feel that there were missed opportunities to give the sisters more personality, even just through their outfits; for example, the concept of one sister wearing a boiler suit, goggles and boots could have given one of them more of a tomboy look, making the characters more memorable and distinguishable. I do really like the contrasting colours used in their final design as this does help to communicate the two different teams in Splatfest events.
One of my favourite pages in the book was the page of designs for the Zapfish. Although they are much more of a background character - they aren't very important in the story mode and don't appear elsewhere - it is clear that the development team spent a lot of time trying various looks for them, in the form of a page full of little thumbnail sketches. I was really shocked to see literally over 90 ideas for different shapes, faces, and styles of the Zapfish here. I've never really sketched in this way, using very simple and unshaded line drawings in order to quickly get a whole batch of ideas down - but all of these ideas would have allowed for fast development and a lot of choice for the character design. I think the sheer amount of idea generation here is really impressive - I would love to be able to generate so many designs for the same idea! - so this has inspired me to work on my own idea generation skills now I have seen how professional game developers do it!
Although they're not the focus of this post, I thought I'd mention the environment designs in the book too, as some of them were really impressive. I love the detail that was put into the sketches of Kelp Dome, as it seems like the design team worked to make it feel like a realistic greenhouse, with pipes and watering systems included. I was mainly impressed by the start/goal and transport device designs (my last examples below) as again, there are so many different iterations of them - even though they are details that the average player wouldn't notice. This has really inspired me to redraw things and try them in different ways even if I'm already happy with the result of my original sketch, as something else might just look even better. This is also a reminder though that sometimes the first or most simple idea is best; the start/goal concepts at the top of the page are actually the final design used in the game, but they are the most simple of everything on the page.
Studying and looking through all of this concept art has definitely inspired me to really go for it during the idea generation phase, but also reminded me to look back and consider ideas I may have wrongly abandoned; as we've seen here, there were some missed opportunities and ideas that could have worked really well but were forgotten further down the line. From now on, I'm going to focus on considering all of my ideas as possibilities instead of favouring my first concept, as it isn't always the best direction to go. I feel like this book has helped me to remember valuable lessons I learned at the start of last year, which will (hopefully) help me in the new year ahead.