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Massively Exclusive: An interview with WildStar art director Matt Mocarski

Real feel, original style.
WildStar doesn't look like anything else out right now. We're not just talking about the game's mechanics; the game's stylized graphics make it look distinct. There's a lot of unique visual elements in the game, from its opening cinematic to the most recent screenshots, and while you might not like the more stylized approach, you can't say that it lacks personality.

This comes with its own set of challenges, though. After all, creating stylized graphics for a game means you're not just making the best-looking environments possible; you're also creating a whole new aesthetic and making environments that make sense within that style. We had a chance to ask WildStar's art director Matt Mocarski a few questions about the process of putting the game's unique look together, and he provided us some excellent insights into bringing the visuals from concept to reality. Whether you're a fan of the game in specific or stylized art in general, take a look at the full interview past the break.

Massively: What are the main inspirations for the look of WildStar?

Matt Mocarski: As an artist, I have very little interest in mimicking reality, so very early in the project we knew we wanted the game to have a stylized look. We also knew that we wanted to use technology in a way that would enhance the art, not dictate it. Once we had that general philosophy in place, we started exploring different visual styles.

Everyone on the art team has a love of comics and animation, so we were obviously influenced heavily by those media. But really we just focused on what got the team excited and inspired. While we were exploring different styles, some elements would connect with people and some wouldn't. People tended to like the stuff with a lot of personality. So we homed in on that, applying it to the rest of the game, and the next thing you know, we had a strong direction that everyone was stoked about.

It may be impossible to have a screenshot of this game that doesn't make you wonder what's over the hills.
Most of the game areas we've seen so far have made use of a very tight palette for the environment to create a mood. How does the use of color affect area design?

Usually we'll start with the mood and what's going on in an area before we settle on color. We have a ton of different environments and stories to tell. Color and lighting are the best way to get the player in the right mindset. We might have a magical forest with super-saturated greens and yellows that we want the player to feel a sense of wonder in. Then, in a small corner of that forest, we want to player to feel on edge, so we need to change the color palette in order to tell the story or convey the mood. We'll darken and pull in the fog to give a foreboding feel or change the color palette to browns and grays to get a look of death and decay.

We always start with the players' experience when it comes to the content. We think about what they should feel and start with shapes of the assets and the composition of the area. Does this feel peaceful or threatening or maybe chaotic? We have tools that allow us to easily shift the color pallet on the assets, sky, and fog, so usually that's what we layer in at the end. It gives us the freedom to change things really quickly, so if a quest is added at the last minute, we can go back, make some quick tweaks, and give the player a proper experience.

In addition to creating mood, our team is also thinking about what we call zone fatigue. Playing for hours and hours in one type of area will become boring no matter how cool the art looks. So we want to make sure that there's plenty of variety to explore. That can dictate color as well. If you've just spent a couple of hours in an area that is primarily orange, we'll try to throw you in a blue environment to keep things fresh and interesting, or in the case of WildStar, shoot you up into space for a while. I guarantee there's a huge visual difference between magical forests and a mining asteroid!

And with that, dragons don't look mundane any longer.
What's the biggest challenge in making the game's aesthetics unique in the crowded MMO market?

That's a great question. I'd say ignore everything and go with your gut. Honestly, if I tried to make everything about every environment unique from other MMOs, I'd probably fail. Early on, we did a little of that. We had an underwater zone that we were all excited about because we'd never seen it in an MMO. Then World of Warcraft announced Vashj'ir and we went back to the drawing board.

Shortly after that we realized we can't focus too much on what everyone else is doing; we need to simply make what works for our game and our story. I think we have fresh takes that will keep people engaged.

If there's one thing that will make us stand out, it's the personality of our world and characters. No offense to the other guys, but it seems to be ignored in the MMO space. I see it in a lot of other games like Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands, but MMOs have had pretty vanilla characters or at least don't focus on that aspect. I think it's going to be refreshing to MMO players who pick up our game.

Space: a really trippy frontier.
What's been your favorite element of the game's visuals to work on thus far (that you can talk about, obviously)?

Man, that's like asking which of my kids is my favorite. Honestly it changes all the time. One week I'll be floored by the environment team, and the next there's a visual effect that blows my mind. If you've got to make me pick, I just love our player characters. I'd play these guys in any game type. Seeing them come to life is about the best feeling I can get. I also love picking out customization options for the races. We get a lot of freedom to do some crazy things that get people so excited. I can't wait to see player reactions when we show more.

This zone will probably involve some dead ships.
Do the game's stylized graphics present any unique challenges that wouldn't be present with more "realistic" models?

Each is its own art form with its own challenges, but I'm biased, so I'm going to say that stylization is way more difficult! Seriously, I think the most challenging thing is that you can't use reality as reference. You have to design your own reference.

Take shaders, for example. In a realistic model, certain metals will reflect light and the environment in a very specific, scientific way. But when it comes to stylization, you need to take that then discover the best way to have metal look and react like metal in a unique way. Usually there's nothing to point to until you get a concept that gets you halfway there, then you manipulate the tech to get you the other quarter, and then you use the artist to take you to the finish. It's a lot of R&D and iteration.

Also, you need artists who can paint. We don't use any photo reference in our assets; we have to train each artist to hit a consistent look when he or she is brought on board. It's a lot of work, but we all think it pays off in the end.

Thanks for chatting with us!

This article was originally published on Massively.