WIHILA Dragon’s Crown – Designing with Visuals

Dragon’s Crown is Vanillaware’s latest masterpiece, and I plan to lose myself in it for many hours. It is an Action Beat ‘em-up style game, self-described as ‘Swords, Dungeons, Sorcery, Dragons’ with ‘gamemaster-style storytelling’. From Vanillaware’s past work (Odin Sphere, Grim Grimoire, Muramasa) I know to expect a beautiful, solidly-designed game.

With my own venture just starting up, I have had to continuously assess my team’s strengths and constantly ask ‘What can we do really well with our unique assets?’. This is, of course, a really standard consideration – Supergiant Games, for example, asked themselves the same question before famously designing Bastion to maximise the impact of access to an excellent voice actor and cheap, continuously available recording conditions. Applying this to Dragon’s Crown, the people at Vanillaware know they can rock the art (the president describes the team as ‘Basically, 100 percent’ artists), so what I hope I like about this game is the way the visuals inform or are informed by the design of the game.

Designing To Your Strengths

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: I’m no artist. I can tell you when I find the visuals of a piece of artwork, game or some other media aesthetically pleasing (or displeasing), I can even start to guess why analytically, but I’m in no position to analyse the methods Vanillaware have used to impress, evoke emotion in and otherwise visually wow their audience.

However, being experts means more than just doing the visuals ‘well’: it means they can do and redo the visuals quickly and often, while sticking to a time and money budget, all without sacrificing quality. To return to my comparison with Supergiant Games, Bastion and its narration were so well received not just because they generically had ‘a great voice actor and recording studio’ (they in fact had a relative unknown and a soundproof closet). Instead, they were in a position to record and re-record at a professional standard at will, so they made design decisions around that: a game which does not stop the action to convey story, narrated bites that react to the player’s actions, and a world that appears around you as if it sprung forth for the first time straight from the narrative description.

Simply put, iteration improves quality. If, upon testing Dragon’s Crown, the designers found that the feeling of a level was off or an attack was unintuitive, they are not limited to fiddling with code and numbers to fix that. They can go back to the literal drawing board and figure out how modifying the art could make a difference, adding a visual touch here or animating differently there. This is certainly true to some extent for most studios, but the art is where this studio excels, and they can design the game to match this.

How? I’m glad I rhetorically asked.

When Art Is More Than Pretty Pictures (Always)

If you think that the only thing the visuals of a game can do is appeal to a player’s senses (eye-candy), then I need to have words with you. The visual design of a character or creature can communicate volumes about them, all the way from gender, body type and clothing to posture, expressions and the way he, she or it moves. Likewise, the backdrops of a stage can convey its history, allowing the player to explore exotic or simply novel locations just by taking in the scenery. All of this can be accomplished without interrupting the player’s action with a single word.

As I alluded to above, even mechanics can be made to work or not work on the back of the right visual representation. An animated tail on a creature may telegraph an attack, while an old scar conveys a target without breaking out of the fantasy with some kind of absurdly bright colouring. Hard-looking scales or armour intuitively convey defensive toughness to a player, a flame-licked creature obviously resists fiery assault, and the animation of the backswing of a player’s attack conveys both the ability to hit enemies on all sides and the dangerous moments of vulnerability between one swing and the next.

All games aim to take advantage of these ideas on some level, but a team with a strong art background integrated into the design and development of the game can test things out, discover what works and what doesn’t, and then revise as necessary. Taking this a step further, they can aim to make a game that other studios might not be able to.

For example, how much variety would you expect in the bosses or locations of a beat ‘em-up game? Proabably a couple of interesting gimmicks and then a few escalations or colour shifts, perhaps some repeating backdrops – enough to support a few hours of engaging gameplay. To plan to do much more might be overly ambitious if a studio is light on art talent. What happens when these battles are playtested and changed, revamped or scrapped but the art budget has been all but spent? What happens when the artist is toiling away at levels 5-8, when your programmer and designer are just waiting for art assets in order to test?

Vanillaware, however, can reach into their seemingly infinite visual imaginations and pull out one fantastical creature or location after another, each with its own personality, quirks, features, strengths and weaknesses, then design around it or modify according to the needs of the game. They can provide variety in places where others could not, and I think that’s where Dragon’s Crown will shine.

The Finishing Touches

In designing any game, it’s important to recognise and play to your individual or your studio’s strengths. In a sea of creative and talented indie developers and large studios with vast resources, not considering your strengths and weaknesses as part of the design often leads to meh games. Unless you are specifically trying to challenge your limits, it makes sense to, from the very beginning, choose to design a game that you might be able to pull off in stupendous fashion. Often this means figuring out which elements of the design you can test and iterate over and over, because that’s one of the surest ways to produce something excellent. For Vanillaware, that is the artwork. Personally, I’m currently designing around having a dedicated writer available throughout development.

When it comes to leveraging artwork, recognising what you communicate about characters, locations and mechanics through nothing more than visual elements is key. Moreover, delivering planned variety in areas where other games might have to essentially copy-paste or resort to procedural trickery is a great way for any game design to take advantage of the dev team’s strengths (whether it’s art, writing, programming, voice acting or whatever else goes into the game).

So what are you looking forward to in Dragon’s Crown, or what have you already enjoyed? What are the strengths and weaknesses in your own design resources (whether as an individual or in a team), and how do you design around them? Can you think of other games that you think have shined by using great visuals for more than just spectacle? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading.

-Dustin

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