The right concept art can be the making of a good game, as Atomhawk explains

Magic Moments

It has been quite some time since I’ve written anything for the gaming press, having been ‘nose to the grindstone’ since my career shifted two years ago from internal art director – until Midway closed in 2009 – to being an external art services specialist when I founded Atomhawk Design shortly after.

I sometimes look back on my decision to move out of being at the core of a game development studio and into what some might consider the slightly less sexy world of outsourcing as I very much love being involved in the full cycle of making games.

To be honest though, I never really saw a move into pure concept art and design as a step away from my love of making games; more a change that enabled me to focus on the creative.

I’ve worked with over 20 development studios in two years, some of which have great creative processes and also some that don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time advising studios on how to make better artwork and decisions.

However every studio has their own needs and methods, and that is one of the things I love about this diverse and creative industry.


I’ve always been a big evangelist of conceptual design, and I believe in not only designing tangible game aspects like the art style, environments and characters, but also in the more woolly parts like key story and action moments. Things like taking the time to think about how the player will feel and what they will see as they witness a certain moment in the game. We call this a ‘key moment’ image.

In my earlier years of game development from the late ‘90s on, I often found that concept art mainly took the form of instructional sketches, intended as reference in the building of 3D models. This fairly limited use of the concept process is still seen in many development studios today.

Often characters, props and locations are designed in isolation. The first time the designs would all be seen on screen together, side by side, is when the game designers would use the 3D models to put together a scenario in game. Designers were often limited by what assets were available in the parts bin. Sometimes these game scenarios get an art pass afterwards to improve quality but the overall result is often that the scene is creatively constrained.

What we have seen in the last few years is the leading studios focus on crafting an experience for the player; much like in movie production, where each scene is storyboarded, each set and lighting scheme is designed to work with the angles it will be viewed at.


The pressure on art directors is well and truly on, as they need to think about the game narrative much like a movie director, cinematographer and editor. Some of the bigger studios have imported those very skills in from film.

The idea of key moment concept art has very much been born out of this evolution. The art team will often storyboard an action sequence and then explore key shots in polished colour images. These images capture not only the structural detail of the scene, but also the mood and action, which are often driven by lighting, composition and the pace of the scene. All this extra work doesn’t come cheap, but a number of other benefits justify the cost.

No matter how clear your vision is, a verbal explanation is often open to interpretation. In my view, one of the biggest issues in game development is artists and designers not being able to communicate the features they need to programmers, and also programmers not being able to tell the art team what the end result of a feature will look like until it is done. Producing a key moment image immediately brings everyone together around a reference point for discussion.

Key moments also double up as great marketing artwork, especially when the game engine is still a work in progress and the game looks like a virtual building site. You can keep your publisher/marketing team at bay for at least a few months with good artwork.

As the industry consolidates, the stakes are getting higher all the time. Graphics hardware and technology used to be the battle frontier between game developers, but now it is the creative content. I believe that where studios used to invest in their own technology, they now need to invest in their creative thinking to stay ahead of the competition.

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