SWAG Crew: Damas Nawanda, Co-Art Director
Updated: Apr 15
Damas has always loved drawing and was determined to have it as part of his career. Little did he know that he would become Stairway Games' Co-Art Director. Here, Damas breaks down the responsibilities and new workflow he discovered as Coral Island's Art Director.
Q: What are the responsibilities of an art director?
From my experience, I realized there are three primary responsibilities of an art director: define the vision or look, communicate the vision, and ensure the consistency of the direction.
Q: Can you walk us through the three said responsibilities?
The first responsibility is every visual aspect of the game, from the crops to the town's architecture. After many thoroughly-detailed discussions from everybody, we decided to have a “never-ending holiday full of fun activities” as the game’s theme. We explored different looks and concepts for the game that may best deliver the resulting theme. It was a bit of a blue sky approach since there was little limitation during the exploration. Let’s say that there were lots of exciting ideas for the concept *laugh*. The concept artists, Reza and I, started to produce multiple lookdev concepts that best visualize that theme. We looked for references in different games and movies that might have suitable elements in realizing that theme.
This was one from the many lookdev concept explorations chosen for the game. I went with a very moody and chill vibe for this piece. It was influenced by modern Disney movies, especially for the shapes, colour and mood. To us, it seems like a game that we haven’t seen before and wanted to play. This piece is also the start of my journey as Coral Island's Art Director.
Next is to see whether this direction can be implemented in Unreal. Our talented team came up with amazing solutions in realizing the vision and we were pretty excited with the result. This gave us confidence in pursuing the art direction even more. Though, unfortunately, we realized that some of the implementation done here wasn’t able to be carried into the final product due to performance issues. Some have been improved to be better than before. Overall, the direction is still heading towards that initial theme we defined.
Our pipeline is pretty unique. Not all concept exploration is done in the preproduction. Our pipeline focuses on validating gameplay as soon as possible. We jumped right onto gameplay-heavy concept and assets that require quick turnaround. Because of this, the other concept exploration is done in the later production phase. The exploration is done simultaneously with the gameplay phase. One such example for us is architectural exploration. The second responsibility is to communicate the direction of the visual properly. To do it, we needed to break down what our art direction actually is based on the lookdev and identify the right characteristics that describe it best. By breaking down the art direction, we can use it as a guide to future visual assets and designs down the line.
Q: Are the characteristics used to shape the game’s “look”?
Yes, that's right. The words we associated with Coral Island’s theme are “playful,” “pleasant,” and “rich”. We consider them as an art pillar to realize the art direction. For example, to inject the playfulness into the game, one of the approaches we use are using exaggerated, stylized shape language and use fruity local colours. But what does that mean exactly? How sensational should it be? We say it should be fruity, but what are ‘fruity’ tones? We try our best to explain that in the art guide by making tutorials, showing the dos and don’ts of each approach. For example, we have a tutorial that can guide artists to pop more of the large and medium shapes at a certain proportion while keeping a rounded and wonky line. There are also diagrams, sketches, and reference pictures to help the artists get a more concrete idea of how everything should be. We need to deliver the visual we identified in such a way that each team member will understand it. I usually compiled them as an art guide. The art guide is the instruction book for different visual aspects of the game. I poured the vision I have in my head into writing and drawings using the team’s “language.” After all, the art guide was made to help not only concept artists but also 3D modellers, level artists, and other visual roles.
Q: What about the last responsibility of an art director?
The third responsibility is to maintain consistency of the direction. The most common way to do this is to give feedback on the team’s work. Feedback can be done by providing notes or paintovers or solving the problem together at their desks. It would be helpful for both the art director who gives feedback and the artists who create the assets to have a quality checklist. The checklist will allow the evaluator to be stern with the feedback and give a quick reference that can be used as a solution and example. For the artist, this would help them produce more consistent result most of the time, as the checklist is the reference for the design's quality.
For some cases, problems we encounter may be more challenging than expected. It may include for us learning their tools just for a better understanding and to speak in the same technical language. But sometimes, when a communal headache arises, stepping back and having coffee together to bounce ideas and boost our energy is the correct approach.
Q: What kind of workflow and management skills did you develop as you work on the game?
Personally, it was learning to switch between the two mindsets, the art director and the concept artist mindsets. It is quite challenging for me because making concept art is best done in a focused state of mind, and giving feedback throughout the day could break me out of it. My strategy is to have a good routine. Start the day as a concept artist, use the morning energy to focus on creating concepts while I still have it, then later in the day switch to art director mindset to give feedback for the team so they can work on it first thing in the morning.
Q: How does working at Stairway Games helped you shape yourself, both as an artist and an art director?
I feel fortunate to be able to work with Stairway Games, especially not long after my graduation. They allowed me to step up and make a mark in the industry. The team’s passion has fueled my passion for creating a game that will be enjoyed by many. Nothing can describe the feeling of putting our art into the hands of a lot of players and positively impacting them. Also, most of us have this contagious drive to prove something to the world; we want to show what an Indonesian studio can do on the global stage. Though it may be challenging, it is exciting to be part of that journey. To see Damas’ works, check out his ArtStation or drop by his Twitter or Instagram to chat with him!