(Words by Franz Pantaleon; Illustration by Denice Salvacion)
Creating art for video games is a tedious process—and a huge responsibility. A video game’s art is the first thing you’d see while browsing through shelves or websites; not the synopsis or mechanics. Good aesthetics sells games—and sometimes, even saves companies.
Such was the case for Introversion Software when they called in artist Ryan Sumo to work on the art for their BAFTA-winning management simulator, Prison Architect. Ryan had done art for a game called SpaceChem, a puzzler that dealt with mixing and selling chemicals in space. The game’s intricate and well-executed 2D visuals caught the eye of Prison Architect creator, Chris Delay who, in an email to Ryan with the subject “Interested in working with Introversion Software?”, admitted to liking the visual style. And just like that, Ryan was in Prison.
Developing Prison Architect was a labor of love for both Ryan and Introversion Software—neither of whom had any idea it would become the game it is today. What was supposedly a short-term project ended taking everyone for the long haul. “Our original agreement was I would work with them for four months. It turned out to be four or five years instead,” shares Ryan.
People are usually just handed the final product. Select groups get to see the beta, fewer still the alpha, while little to none, other than developers, the concept art. Prison Architect wasn’t always morbidly cute. Working with dynamic elements and animation as opposed to static traditional art, it boiled down to designing based on efficiency since Ryan was the only artist on board. Quite a task, but he pulled it off by coming up with simple yet interesting visuals he could work on with ease.
It took years and a lot of back-and-forths conceptualizing, experimenting, and collaborating between Ryan and Introversion Software before they settled on visuals they were happy with. And guess what? The wait was well worth it. Like Geri the repairman from Toy Story 2 said, “You can’t rush art.”
Game developers dream of seeing their creations go from scribbled notes and sketches taped to a wall to fully functioning software on consoles and mobile devices; but the reality is, it isn’t that simple. Developing games takes time, talent, and funding. Most developer dreams fail to take off the ground for lack of the third. In lieu of this, gaming companies outsource their talents to foreign publishers.
Running a gaming company comes with a number of challenges. “You need to be a specific kind of person to want to run a company. You have to be someone who’s very willing to live with unpredictability,” says Ryan. This is all risk and reward—seizing opportunities that come knocking and hoping things work out in the end.
With Prison Architect laying down the law and bagging the Persistent Game award at the 2016 BAFTA Awards, Ryan has since continued working on projects with his gaming company, Squeaky Wheel, which aims to put out allegorical games. Just this month, he and his team showcased their game Political Animals at the PAX West Convention in Seattle. “We want to make games out of the Philippine context, but not something that’s super obvious,” he shares.