MechWarrior Online Interviews: Dennis de Koning

Our MechWarrior Online interview series has come to its conclusion with Art Director Dennis de Koning!

In this five-part miniseries, we sat down with the developers behind the highly anticipated MechWarrior Online to talk about everything you want to know about this upcoming action title. Be sure to check out our previous interviews in the series:

And we've arrived at the conclusion to our MechWarrior Online interview series! For our final candidate, we've spoken to Piranha Games' Art Director, Dennis de Koning to speak about all of the artistic challenges of creating an explosive 'Mech-based game like MWO, as well as how he plans to bring MechWarrior to the modern masses. So without further delay, let's get on with the interview!

ZAM: And we're finally capping off the last of our MechWarrior Online interviews with Piranha Games' Art Director Dennis de Koning! Thank you for speaking to us, Dennis!

Dennis deKoning: You're very welcome, it's my pleasure.

ZAM: First, can you tell us a little about what your role entails as Art Director? What's it like to spend a day in your shoes?

Dennis: My main focus is maintaining the quality and consistency of the art, style & atmosphere of anything to do with the game. I develop the look & feel of worlds and communicate ideas through the creation of visual targets and concept art. I work closely and provide feedback to the 'Mech concept artist & modelers as well as the cockpit modeler. Working for a boutique studio, it's typical to wear more than one hat and because I have a film & broadcast background, I am responsible for storyboarding, directing & composing cinematics as well as creating various media related art.

My day can range from easy, when everything and everyone is on cruise control (but usually that gets broken when last minute emergencies pop up or something breaks); to me wishing there were more than 24 hours in a day or something to throw a rope over. For the most part though, each day is very rewarding and having a motivated crew to rely on is my saving grace.

ZAM: Artistic consistency is always an important factor in any creative project; what sort of core theme are you pursuing with MechWarrior Online's art direction?

Dennis: At the core, reality is the theme. MechWarrior is not only an FPS (First Person Shooter) but a simulator (to a degree), and I believe the success of a simulator is how closely it emulates what it's simulating. The sense of immersion must be as visceral as possible. I believe that, although the design is in the details, the truth is in the candor; like anything of substance, without a solid foundation, it won't stand on its own. The worlds are built holistically, never systematically; they must exist as a whole rather than the sum of their parts, and the 'Mechs must exist in them seamlessly. This is not to say there isn't a certain style involved; it's just that it leans in the direction of realism.

ZAM: You've mentioned before that you're trying to focus on functional mech design while avoiding superficial "style for the sake of style" elements; what sort of choices have you made to reflect that?

Dennis: One example that comes to mind is the wedges protruding from beneath the missile boxes on the Stalker; it bothered me that they had no obvious function so I figured they might be used as bay doors, similar to the ones on the Catapult, only inverted. Other examples, albeit generic ones, include redesigning any limb that's indicative of the rubber-hose style (no Bender arms!), architectural design that reflects real-world engineering such as rotator mounts, crane chassis turn-tables and other heavy-duty equipment parts as well as keeping the design of weapon types and calibers consistent across platforms. Weapons of war are utilitarian by design and therefore redundancies are usually restricted to failsafes as opposed to decoration.

ZAM: What were the greatest challenges you faced working with an existing franchise with an established look? How do you stay faithful to the original while still retaining your own creativity?

Dennis: The biggest challenge without a doubt is living up to what is expected from the long awaiting, die-hard fan-base. Every one of them has an idea of how, what, why etc. every detail should be laid out; I prefer to attack this conundrum axiomatically. Extracting what makes sense in the cannon from the fluff and pomp; and injecting enough of the cool factor without coming across as a pound if icing on an ounce of cake can be a bit of a balancing act. First and foremost, every 'Mech must be recognizable without the aid of a label. Divining what element(s) represent(s) the soul of each 'Mech and carrying it/them over to its rebirth comes with knowing the 'Mech well; I rely heavily on Alex (concept artist) for this, as he has a strong familiarity with most of them.

ZAM: It's easy to go overboard with battlefield effects, especially with a mech game. Lasers, rockets, chaff and flares can get fairly overwhelming, not to mention dealing with an intricate UI that communicates well. How do you get the balance right so that combat looks awesome and remains informative without turning into a disco?

Dennis: I have a background in visual effects and have experimented with a wide variety of styles and techniques. I find that if we keep the effects as real as possible and lean away from movie-style effects, the disco-ness can be kept out of the equation. To clarify, movie-style effects are ones that have gasoline fire-balls intermixed with fireworks explosions. They work great in movies because the reality of the environment in which they are used is not questioned, even if it's CG, so a balance can be retained. Within a video game environment, it's much more difficult to suspend the viewer's belief and therefore, in my opinion, everything, including the VFX must be as realistic as possible. The most convincing lie is the one laced with truth. Compare war footage with war movie footage and you'll notice that explosions aren't so much the effect of the bomb alone but the consequence of the bomb exploding on impact or proximity; by this I mean the debris of whatever it hit being ejected into the air, be it soil, rock, ice or bits of (in our case) 'Mech.

ZAM: Mechs are enormous machines of destruction, but conjuring that feeling of weight is difficult without a frame of reference. Outside of placing little cars all over the countryside for comparison, what sort of art cues do you use to communicate that feeling?

Dennis: This has got to be the most difficult challenge to overcome. I don't believe the way to convey the scale of the 'Mechs is to surround it by shorter structures and small things; this is a cop out and makes any map feel like a suburb or orchard. A 'Mech can feel big and heavy next to a larger structure if subtle scaling cues are present. On the 'Mechs, these include ancillary architecture such as access ladders, hand/footholds, hatches, markings/insignia, tie-down cleats, vents & louvers, ranging/targeting arrays etc. Buildings and structures would have similar items including railings & antennae etc. Natural environments are a bit more difficult, but including detritus, and natural hanging elements such as icicles or tree moss helps. One other thing is the movement of the 'Mech, it must feel as if there is inertial resistance to overcome and the conservation and transfer of momentum. There are scenarios though where the 'Mech is meant feel (relatively) small, one such example is in the Frozen City map, where the glacial walls were designed to feel epic.

ZAM: We'll wind our interview down here with something lighter. What is your favorite mech, design-wise, that you've worked on so far? Any reasons why?

Dennis: Yikes, this is a tough one. The first one that comes to mind is the Jenner for the simple reason that I thought we'd never pull it out of the fire. It was the first and one of toughest ones to bring into a realistic light and make cool, and the fact that we did still amazes me. I tend to play with the Catapult K2 the most but am looking forward to the Cataphract as I just love the look.

ZAM: And that's all for now! Thanks for the chat, Dennis!

Dennis: It was entirely my pleasure and if there's anything anyone still wants to know, I'll see you on the forums.

Christopher "Pwyff" Tom, Editor-in-Chief


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