The Art of SpyNet
Take a behind the scenes look at the stunning art of SpyNet
In anticipation of SpyNet’s upcoming release, we wanted to give you a closer look at the game’s unique art style! So we sat down with Z-Man Games Art Director Sam Shimota and SpyNet artist Ross Curtis to discuss the evolution of the game’s distinctive art style.
So Sam, what was your approach to laying the foundation for the visuals of SpyNet?
Sam: My fundamental goals are very similar for every game I work on: I want to find the heart of the game, express that as fully as I can, and as uniquely as possible. SpyNet was a challenge, from a uniqueness standpoint, because we wanted to use the game as a vehicle for a lot of referential humor and homages to our favorite spy/espionage/mystery/drama media without making the whole thing feel totally derivative. Fortunately, Ross Curtis has a visual style that is distinctly his, and he is passionate about universe building and concept design.
The visual style was a lock from very early on.
What were some of your thematic and artistic inspirations for the project?
Sam: When I saw Richard’s original prototype, with its bold and high-contrast placeholder art, my imagination went wild, spiraling in all directions from many of my favorite comic books, movies, and TV shows. I thought of spy/detective media like Bond, Dick Tracy, Batman, Mission: Impossible, Spy vs. Spy, Spy Hunter, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, and more.... I wanted to bring inspiration from all of these wonderful works forward into something awesome.
Ross: I wanted to draw from my art experiences and influences as much as possible, and to portray my own style while still challenging myself. I was really excited when we decided on a more “film noir” look. That sort of style provides a good sense of tension and motion, and helps to bring life to the characters as well.
I wanted to bring inspiration from all of these wonderful works forward into something awesome.
To really get to heart of the game’s themes, I did a lot of research. I was surprised at just how much the Bond universe has dominated espionage media. Truthfully, I wasn’t able to find as many good references as I would have liked. In some cases, we ended up dipping into referential material that was more tangentially spy-like in order to make the universe of SpyNet more robust. Of course, we wanted to include obvious homages, but we tried really hard to make it unique. There is a kind of ambiguous 70’s/80’s tone we wanted in there as that was a time when spy related media was very predominant.
How did the art for this project evolve over the course of development?
Sam: Ross worked with us to design the original characters, many of which were reminiscent of favorites from the genre but with unique personalities and their own stories to tell. We ended up with too many to choose from, and the most painful part of early design was deciding which characters to keep and develop!
Once we had the characters chosen, there was the matter of placing them into situations that were compelling and made logical sense.
Ultimately, I wanted something that felt very noir; featuring large, bold swathes of light and shadow, and a ton of atmosphere. We wanted the line work to be loose, fluid, and dynamic. It’s very challenging to introduce deliberate looseness into artwork without making it look sloppy or confusing!
Ross: Much of the artistic process was about zeroing in on style and content. I started out with a “dummy” template and kept sketching character ideas that came to my head. Since it was spy themed, I spent some time working the undercover angle, designing characters who were dressed in various work clothes. Meanwhile, I was also drawing isolated backgrounds to get some ideas for locations to put the characters into. Once the final cast of characters was selected, we started matching them up with scenarios and backgrounds. We didn’t want just static portrait type character cards; rather, something with a little bit of action to better-reflect the genre.
The characters needed personality within a single picture as well as performing a specific function.
Were there any specific concepts from the game you wanted to express in the art? How did you attempt to do this?
Ross: Absolutely. I wanted each faction to coincide with each other not only through the colors that represent them, but also with the roles that they fulfilled. I think that sort of consideration makes playing individual cards more interesting; like you’re really in charge of putting these agents out in the field. The characters needed personality within a single picture as well as performing a specific function. With having the characters in a situation that’s already in progress, it’s like telling the beginning of a story that the player can pick up on and go with.
Sam: With Ross primarily focused on telling the story of SpyNet, I was able to really consider how the art and graphic design would play with the mechanics of the game. All of the art throughout SpyNet contributes toward indicating game mechanics to the player.
The Mission card art is a great example of how the mechanics of play are integrated with the artistic theme of SpyNet.
First, the Missions tell more of a story about each faction; for example that the Tech faction favors a more behind-the-scenes approach to getting the job done, while the Enforcement faction prefers explosive, hands-on combat.
Second, the three-star Mission card illustrations feature more equipment, so that players can tell at a glance which cards are worth the most points.
Third, Mission cards for multiple branches prominently feature equipment from each, which bring in the color and personality of the represented factions.
Overall, SpyNet is quick to play and easy to learn, and we wanted to assist those features by making the factions incredibly distinct. We were able to do that using splashes of single colors in otherwise black and white art, along with graphic design tooled to express the personality of each individual faction.
Do you have any favorite pieces of art from the game? What makes them stand out to you?
Ross: That’s a tough one. As the process went on I found myself becoming fond of each piece. Anaconda from the Enforcement faction: as soon as I drew him, I thought he was great. Sam had suggested having him doing something subtle like coming out of the shadows. This evolved into him sneaking up behind his target with a garrote wire. I thought the whole scene turned out nice and moody with plenty of contrast. He’s easily my favorite character in the bunch. Another favorite was Hitman: a guy out in the woods who’s looking for the person looking for him. I especially loved it because it allowed me to illustrate some Watterson-inspired trees.
Sam: I have many favorite pieces of SpyNet art! Let me give you my top three.
#3: Pest Control: Originally, this illustration was very comical. The beard was just hanging on the lid of the briefcase with a wig. I laughed out loud when I saw it. We tapered it back into something a little more serious, though it took some iteration to make sure the mannequin face didn’t look too creepy.
#2: Ante (Infiltration). She looks like sort of a cross between Velma from Scooby Doo and Karl Ruprecht Kroenen from Hellboy. The remote-controlled robot spy cat gets me every time. I want a remote-controlled robot spy cat!
#1: Limonada (Counterespionage). I love the subtlety in the illustration; how it’s sort of a mundane scene–she works on a car while eavesdropping on a conversation behind her–but there’s a lot of very strong detail in the illustration and depth to her character.
How do you feel about the project now that it’s finished?
Ross: I’m very satisfied with end results. It’s strange when you’re in the middle of doing something like this and you’re not really sure of the what the end results could be. Then you’re done with it and look back at all the work you did and it just kind of blows your mind. It already has impacted my own personal art for the better; Sam’s direction and my trying new techniques have made me more confident with my work. It’s also made me more willing to experiment outside of my comfort zone. I had never done anything like this before, so it’s definitely a huge feather in my cap, and I am hoping to carry some of this momentum forward to some of my personal projects. I’m incredibly excited to see SpyNet on the shelves. I’m probably going to buy a few copies in stores, just because I can. Not many people can walk into a retailer, point at something on a shelf, and say, “I did that.” I am one of the lucky ones!
Sam: SpyNet was a wild ride, and we had a lot of fun. I think the game is a blast to play, and I’m really excited to see it on the shelves! I hope that people have as good a time playing it as we did making it.