Iron Tower Studio is an independent RPG developer, that simultaneously serves as a contact hub for indie titles to share resources and developers, including titles such as The Age of Decadence and Dead State. A small staff is behind the studio, with each individual handling highly specialized functions while simultaneously wearing many hats in day-to-day development. To get a better idea of how it all works, we talked to the studio's art director, Oscar Velzi, about the two titles he is working on (The Age of Decadence and Dead State) and his general thoughts on art in independent titles.
GB: Tell us a bit about yourself. What led you into the world of indie RPGs?
Oscar: I’ve always wanted to make games, but I never knew about the indie scene. I’ve tried studying programming, but I suck at math and moved on. Years later, I graduated with a master degree in human resources and forgot about making games. One day I stumbled upon RPG Codex and Vince's Oblivion review. I browsed the site and noticed the AoD forum. "What a cool game", I thought, "I want to play it! What can I do to help?" And then I saw a thread complaining about the old interface. I decided to try my hand at it. I had done some texturing work for Oscuro's Oblivion Overhaul, or OOO, so I had some "experience" (basically, I knew about photoshop layers). I started working with ITS in the interface, while at the same time I was working as a modder for Rome: Total War and part of the Beta Test of Civilization IV: Beyond The Sword. I ended up doing some of the unit textures that shipped with Civ: BTS. After getting that experience, I offered to work on the game textures for Vince, and I became a permanent part of ITS. And well, the rest is history.
GB: There's two different projects you are heavily involved with coming from Iron Tower Studios: Age of Decadence and Dead State. Give us a quick rundown on both from your perspective as art director.
Oscar: From a technical standpoint, they are quite similar. Both use the custom Torque engine we made for AoD. They are tile based 3D isometric RPGs, and the way to design levels for both games is very similar.
But from an artistic view, they are quite different. First, AoD is set in a Romanesque fantasy world, while Dead State is set in a “real” world with modern environments (plus the zombies). Apart from the setting, when I started working on AoD many of the models and general art style was already set. Combined with all the tasks I had to do plus learning the tools and techniques of the trade, I wasn’t able to create a distinctive art style from the beginning. Since in Dead State I’m focusing more on the art side, I will be able to create an art style from the beginning and apply all the experience I got from AoD.
GB: Despite the art direction being so different, were you able to reuse assets from Age of Decadence for Dead State, or did you have to go from scratch art asset wise?
Oscar: I couldn’t reuse many of the assets. Some items here and there, mostly models, since the texturing technique I’m using now is different to the one I used back then. In my early AoD work I rarely custom tailored the props’ textures. I usually just dropped a corresponding material (for example, a wood texture on a table), did some UVM mapping and called it a day. Now I’m adding more details to the textures, so if I use a model from AoD I re-do the texture. What we are going to do is re-use is some of AoD animations.
GB: What are your tasks as art director?
Oscar: Despite what the name implies, I’m practically the whole art department, except for animations and character models.
In AoD, I have quite a few tasks on my back: creating concepts for the locations, modeling, texturing and level design. This last item includes everything from the overall level design, placement of models in the scene, lighting, sounds, terrain to quest scripting and placing NPCs. Furthermore, I work on the GUI and all the icons in the game. I also help Vince with the design of the combat system and quests, and I’m the main tester of the game for Nick. I’m in charge of the item and character databases as well. Strictly speaking about art, I take care of the whole mood the world conveys, through visual and sound means.
In Dead State I’m focusing mostly on the purely art stuff, doing the whole pipeline for it, although Brian participates as a level designer as well. Also, we are getting help from some contributors doing some props and weapons, and a character artist who is working on the human and zombie models. In their case, I work closely with them and give them guidelines on the art style and technical specifications.
As you can see, as an indie dev I have to wear many hats. I would say that ultimately my task is to get the game done.
GB: Vince is the lead and public face of Age of Decadence and as you mentioned, this was an ongoing project when you joined. How much of the art direction was set at that point? Can you give us an idea of the core art direction concepts that you're working with?
Oscar: By the time I joined, many of the models for the game were already done, setting much of the style. The textures were made by Nick, our programmer, and some occasional freelance artists. So my first task was to unify the look of the game, giving it a color scheme, a consistent texture quality, etc. But I also try to focus in “creative direction”, tying the visuals to the level design, internal consistency of the setting and situations, sounds, music, trying to convey a certain mood through all these items. When working on them, I try to convey a feeling of desolation, faded glory, hopelessness, a ruined world. The world of AoD is a bleak one, and I try to convey that through all the means at my disposition.
GB: You're also working on Dead State. Can you give us an idea of the core art direction concepts that you're working with for that title?
Oscar: Sure. Unlike AoD, I’ve been with with Dead State since the beginning. This gives me both freedom and a big responsibility. While I’m still playing around with the art style a little, the goal is to give players a sense of familiarity with the environment, showing them everyday places in a new light. There would be areas that would be completely looted, in disarray, and others that will be just… empty of life, as if the humans just disappeared leaving their life behind. We want to tell little stories with the props and areas in the game, that will allow you to see what was happening there some time ago, or when the apocalypse hit. And as a counterweight, we have the shelter, which is an island of order in a sea of chaos. There things are quite different to the outside world. It’s a place with life, a reminder of how things were before. That’s what I’m aiming to capture. I’m still working on the actual art style for the game, but those are the goals I have.