As Jagex’s art director on its browser game Runescape, Pascal Blanche is charged with maintaining the quality bar for a huge range of assets.
From characters to environments, and across effects and UI, he and his team have a daunting responsibility; they must fill the bulging MMO with colour and character, all the while respecting stylistic continuity and the wants of a ferocious fanbase.
With a wealth of experience behind him both at Jagex and beyond the walls of the Cambridge-based studio, Blanche has seen the model of concept art evolve and flourish. He’s a talent that aspiring game artists would be wise to follow, and a professional with plenty to teach even the most established game artists.
Develop caught up with him to talk about his career in the business of art, his responsibilities, and his perspective on a rapidly changing discipline.
What was your experience in the industry before you joined Jagex?
I’ve been in the gaming industry for over 17 years now. I started in small companies in France and moved to Canada where I was employed as the art director for Ubisoft Montreal for ten years. There I worked on the first official trailer for Assassin’s Creed and also on Myst IV Revelation, Naruto: Rise of a Ninja and James Cameron’s Avatar for PS3 and Xbox 360, all of which gave me some great experience. I really enjoyed working on it all.
And what made you interested in heading to the UK and joining Jagex to work on RuneScape?
After ten years away from Europe I really wanted to get closer to my family again. So I started to work as the animation director on the Outsider for Frontier, and just when the project sadly stopped, Jagex contacted me about the art director role.
The role offered me a chance to get into new territory and to work on a project with a hugely successful background and with so much continued potential. The production is constantly rolling from one update to another; and unlike most other MMOs we have weekly and monthly releases making the content and look of the game fresh and exciting. What’s more, at Jagex direct feedback from the community plays a big part in decisions made and the releases we put out.
Over all that time in the industry, how have you seen the role of concept art in video game creation change?
I saw the role of concept art growing up during all those years, and becoming the base of all gaming production. It has become essential for game design, art design and production design as well.
Most concept artists now are used to creating speed-paintings and thumbnails to get a rough idea pretty fast.
The needs of the production to an extent created the hybrid artists they’ve now become. Some concept artists are even good at storyboarding or illustrations, using other tools to create better and faster results such as Sketchup and Zbrush.
What in particular have you been focused on in your role on RuneScape?
In my role as art director I am the driving force in the continued evolving of graphical quality. The game has a great ten-year legacy of visual content, and with the tech constantly evolving there is a constant need to keep up-to-speed.
So while we are still releasing new weekly content, we are also creating pure graphic update projects and have started to rework the whole RuneScape Lore, one bit at a time.
My team and I are trying to create a more attractive and immersive game every day, whilst also continuing to respect the game’s unique and popular atmosphere and spirit.
With regard to your team’s role and creative output, how is the RuneScape franchise changing?
There are a lot of things that have improved dramatically in the eight months I’ve been on RuneScape.
Technically speaking we have made improvements to our proprietary game engine to allow us to make some of the visual improvements we wanted to make in areas like lighting, bloom and water.
The new UI is now much more user friendly and dramatically more visually appealing.
Large areas of the Runescape world have been, and continue to be graphically improved. Recently the swamps, the wilderness, the forests have received big updates making them current and very attractive, as all the new content pushes the visuals to new highs.
When you wander around the Myreque city – a vampire city – or fight your way up in the new Dominion tower, it is hard to believe that it is the same RuneScape as it was a year ago. It is more epic, more vibrant, better animated, and it is certainly even harder to believe that the game runs on a web-browser engine.
And what are your plan’s for RuneScape’s future in terms of its graphical direction?
There are two main axes. My focus is still to get a better experience from the player’s point of view. So on one side it is about the small things; like the player character redesign and animation, and overall the smaller eye candy pieces. Then on the other side there are the larger improvements like the environments and NPCs, to achieve a better sense of immersion and epic-ness; a place full of promise and challenges.
There’s still lots more work to do and it will be a constant and evolving process, but the game continues to amaze me and I look forward to each and every improvement to amaze our players.
What challenges currently face the graphics and art disciplines in game design?
The challenges are everywhere and that’s what makes the job so interesting. I think that the main ones are as we revamp, improve and update the Runescape franchise to attract more players, we need to stay true to its core.
The other challenges we face are brought about by newcomer competitors coming to the market, some of which have heavier engines. They are not constrained by maybe some of the tech issues we are, but with a proprietary system these are at least within our control.
Even with our restrictions I believe RuneScape continues to offer a phenomenal game experience to our players that is fully accessible, and now with the constant updates to the visuals as well as newly released content we remain a game to be reckoned with. I can confirm that Jagex is going to continue to surprise.
With regard to your discipline, how has Jagex impressed you as a studio?
Although RuneScape is my first massively mulitplayer online production and I am not sure how things work in other companies, I must admit that I was and still am impressed by the talent and the passion of the team here at Jagex.
After all an art director is only as good as the team he is working with and with the team I have come into all I feel I have to do is to give them some pointers and a little push and the magic happens. It is always good to get some fresh perspective on a project, and I hope that is what I am bringing. I have no doubt though that RuneScape will continue to grow and develop and I am certainly delighted to be working on this game at this point. It is so exciting.