Art is important to Blizzard. The offices of the World of Warcraft developer, currently working on RTS sequel StarCraft II, are plastered with it. Vivid, colourful and extravagant concept art is hung everywhere. The offices even have a curator, part of whose job description is to ensure that huge floor-to-ceiling pieces are displayed around the campus. One such piece is in the canteen - a jolly painting of drinking dwarves by Samwise Didier.
Didier is art director at Blizzard, and a veteran of the company's early days. His bold, humorous style has set the tone for much of the studio's output, not least the look and feel of the planet's most popular virtual world. He also draws cover art for the World of Warcraft comic and the albums of Swedish power metal band Hammerfall, and sings (or rather, bellows) in Blizzard's terrifying in-house band, Level 70 Elite Tauren Chieftain. (L70ETC's imposing body of work includes Rogues Do It From Behind and the mighty metal anthem I Am Murloc.) You can see examples of his work in a gallery at the Blizzard art site, Sons of the Storm.
On our recent visit to Blizzard HQ to play StarCraft II, we sat down with Didier to discuss what makes Blizzard games look like Blizzard games.
Eurogamer: When did you join Blizzard?
Samwise Didier: I started with Blizzard in 1991, when we were still under the name Silicon & Synapse.
Eurogamer: So you're old school...
Samwise Didier: Yes. Old.
Eurogamer: What was the first game you worked on?
Samwise Didier: An iteration of the Lost Vikings. In the final game there were three Vikings, in the one I worked on there were about twenty. It was very much like Lemmings. And then I went on to work on Rock N' Roll Racing and Blackthorne, and then really started hitting a lot of the PC games, when Warcraft came out.
Eurogamer: What are your personal influences? What was it that got you drawing when you were a kid?
Samwise Didier: It would definitely be Conan comic books that got me started. The Conan books with Frank Frazetta and John Buscema artwork. Mostly Marvel stuff, I mean I liked DC as well, but Marvel comics specifically just had that look that really started getting me into comics. And then the Hobbit movies, the old animated ones that were done back in the 70s, those were instrumental to me. I still think a lot of my dwarves look like the dwarves from those movies, just because that's where I learned to start drawing fantasy back then.
Eurogamer: The Warcraft and StarCraft worlds have a lot of archetypes in them... Orcs and elves, space marines and mutants. How can you make sure they look distinctive in your games, rather than generic?
Samwise Didier: Well, take our Orcs for example in Warcraft. Orcs are bad guys, but in our game they're not really bad guys. They were at one time, but we really push their whole kit to be, you know, bringing back the old ways of their shamanistic roots. They're no longer these demon-infused battle-crazy guys, they're more working with nature and becoming one with the elements.
Same with our Terran marines. Everyone's seen space marines, right? Well, we've tried to push ours to have a sort of - I always call it a biker/cowboy mentality, you know they're kinda gritty, they're kinda Old West in their sayings and the way they talk, some of them have Southern accents, sort of hillbilly-ish. We really tried to make our marines distinct that way. I don't think a lot of people have that - they're super good guys. We kinda have ours be a little bit shady. Their basic background is that they were all prisoners.
Eurogamer: So in both those cases, it's about something that runs contrary to expectations...
Samwise Didier: Yeah. We don't want to do something like have our Orcs be super good guys and paladins, that totally goes against what people think Orcs are. We just want to push it a little bit in our own direction so it has our own feel and flavour to it.
Eurogamer: In StarCraft II and Blizzard's other RTS games, you've got some tension in the art between having a really clear zoomed-out display, and a distinctive character to the designs - how do you balance that?
Samwise Didier: All the art in Starcraft II is going to be viewed in the top-down, three-quarter view, so we really put a lot of focus into the silhouettes of the units from that angle, so they're very distinct and iconic. Then we try to keep the detail level a little bit lower - bigger shapes, not as much little dots, nuts and bolts and all that on the metal. That's partly why a lot of our characters are a little bit bigger and over-proportioned, because when you look at it back from how we play, it needs that little bit extra.
Eurogamer: It must have been quite a challenge then to move to World of Warcraft - bringing the view right down, putting the player on the ground in the same world.
Samwise Didier: A lot of the guys really loved it because they could start doing the detail. But we still tried to keep a lot of the basic philosophies the same. Not too much detail, rely on nice big shapes or big swatches of colour, because when you're playing in WOW and characters are far away it's still nice to see that silhouette that you recognise: "Oh, that's a warrior or a druid." Especially in the later part of the game where you have the distinct armour sets that people are wearing.
Eurogamer: Another unusual thing about the games you work on here - whether you're talking an MMO like WOW, or a probable eSports hit like StarCraft II- is that they're going to be played for a really long time. Certainly it's the case with the first StarCraft - it's still going after ten years.
Samwise Didier: Yeah, that's amazing to me.
Eurogamer: So how do you ensure that stuff still looks good years years down the line? Is it fair to say it's because Blizzard places more emphasis on art than technology?
Samwise Didier: We push the technology enough so we don't look like we're behind the curve, but we don't want to make it so advanced that there are people who can't play it.
Another thing that helps out is the art style - it's sort of like if you look at an old Disney movie. It still looks good to watch because it's not a realistic movie, it's a cartoon, it's something drawn. A lot of the big 3D animated movies that come out now still aren't as cool as when Disney was still doing hand-animated things. There's something about a cartoony kind of style that never loses its look, it's always going to look cool.
I think ours doesn't really have a distinctive time style, it's just the Blizzard style. I think that's helped us hold up. I'll look at Warcraft III and go, eugh, that's low-polygon, but it still has a good feel to it.