Interview: Bioware Environment Artist, NICK SADLER

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Nick Sadler has worked for the iconic Sony Liverpool, developer of Wipeout the space based racing game. Now he is environmental artist for Dragon Age 3, the second sequel to the epic fantasy video game RPG franchise. Starburst had the pleasure of speaking to him about where he started, his work and what he thinks about gaming in this generation...

Starburst: In the spirit of the magazine, what are your favourite pieces of sci-fi, fantasy and horror?

Nick Sadler: A nice broad opener, then? Sci-fi first... So I'm a bit of a Trekkie - but of the TNG crew onwards, so I like TNG, DS9 and Voyager. TNG's probably my pick of the 3. I wasn't around to catch the original series at the peak of its powers, and I didn't really have any time for Enterprise whatsoever. But I suppose Star Trek sits on the limp side of 'sci-fi', and I got hooked more on the design side of things, and do like the whole positive/utopian outlook that Gene Roddenberry was aiming at; I like the ethic.

It is optimistic, which is a nice thing to see...

It absolutely is! The more hardcore sci-fi stuff, I guess I only really scraped the surface of. I love the original Terminator and Judgement Day. Like everyone else who had youth, eyes and ears in the ‘80s, I grew up with Star Wars, so I have a fair amount of love for that. I'm a huge Robocop fan... But for the Verhoeven/Filmmaking angle: he wields political and social satire in a subtle, allegorical way. Anyhow; can you call Knight Rider, sci-fi? I hope so. Loved that.

Yeah suppose you can, although we’re more of an Airwolf fan.

HA! Airwolf. Loved that, too. TV in the ‘80s was so ripe with some great sci-fi shows: Automan, Knight Rider... The Stephen Cannell/Glen A Larson ‘80s. Wonderful. I wasn't terribly bookish. My mum’s theory is that I was bored out of reading when I started school at 4 or 5. I could apparently read pretty fluently before I started and reading exercises were tuned for the weakest readers, and I got disinterested. Fortunately TV and eventually videogames were there to stimulate my imagination/tame my boredom. I love Tron, too. I’m actually wearing my glow-in-the-dark Tron T-shirt as I type.

Yes! The sequel was amazing!

Legacy? Awesome. Great soundtrack, wonderful visuals...

It has an amazing soundtrack, and Jeff bridges going Jedi. What's not to like?

Hah! I never made the connection between old Flynn and Obi Wan. Old Flynn to 'The Dude' was an easier link for me but still, he played it as old Flynn. If you haven't already, you should check out the Nike adverts done by Tron Legacy's director, Jo Kosinski. They're stunning. It’s little wonder why they went after him!

We’d better get onto horror. I'm not a big horror fan, so my tastes/experiences might be on the flaccid side for your readers. They're also, probably a little on the sci-fi side, too. Alien/Aliens/Alien 3, The Terminator, The Thing... I guess they were sci-fi flicks with horror elements... And I loved them.

Not Resurrection?


Ha! We take your point

I think Alien 4 was on one hand, fan-service, because people had been crying to get another Alien film out. Also, they didn't enjoy the flawed masterpiece that was Alien 3.

Alien 3 is very underrated.

I think you’re right, but it maintains its lower profile for certain, very good reasons, and those that love it, have worked and wanted to love it. The Extended Cut which was release in the Quadrilogy is awesome, I think... Huge swathes of narrative (the trapping of the dragon), and some beautiful sets (the Art-Nouveau abattoir specifically) were left out of the theatrical cut completely. With Resurrection, I think Jean Pierre Jeunet perhaps saw an opportunity to expand into that area as a director and artist, and bring his chums with him. No bad thing for the man, and his expression.

Resurrection is written by Joss Whedon and there are moments that scream Firefly.

I never got into Firefly, or Serenity; must've been busy those years. The thing with Resurrection for me was that everything you need to look out for to make things enjoyable in a time-based media like film music or games, you need to have a lot of respect for. Things like exposition, scene-setting, character development, jeopardy, character growth, spin, twists, discordance and resolution, suspense, etc... You can be economical with explicit narrative, and let the audience’s imagination fill in any ambiguous gaps you leave – If a million people with an average age of 25 see a film, there’s 25 Million man-years of combined experience and imagination for the director to lean on. I think in Alien: Resurrection, far too much was revealed far too soon and far too obviously, in the name of "cool". So what you’re left with is something that your average teenager could watch and understand, yet had the gore and violence elements that prevented teens from seeing it at the cinema...

Yeah there is a problem now with blood being splattered across the screens. Look at the original Halloween, he kills 5 people and it's all build up. You watch wondering what he will do instead of just a slaughter fest.

There's a saying right, "Satisfaction is the death of anticipation." Regardless of the nature of the suspense the director’s trying to achieve, from horror to erotica: once you've come, that's it – the need to concentrate after the climax is severely diminished.

I think that's sci-fi and horror just about covered?

...and fantasy?

Fantasy, I didn't get into the swords and dragons type of fantasy much when I was younger, ironic, given what I’m working on now. I enjoyed Conan the Barbarian, loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy. When I was a kid I thought Labyrinth was great, as was Willow. And Star Wars traverses the sci-fi/fantasy border I think.

Have you always been the artistic type? When did you know it's what you liked doing?

I liked the idea of drawing when I was very young, but didn’t have faith in my ability. Plus, my parents were looking toward a musical outlet for any creativity. I'd guess I was about 13 or 14 before I could actually make a pencil make the marks I wanted it to make. But from then on, I de-prioritised pretty much every other subject so I could do well in art. I de-prioritised everything else down to a C-grade. So my GCSEs were like an A and 8 Cs or something.

Not bad at all.

The A-levels I took were Art/Design, Biology and Physics, but again, I didn't have any other interests outside of art.

Did studying those sciences help with your art?

That's a great question. Probably not at the time, they were just the distraction when all I wanted to do was paint, draw and sculpt. I actually dropped Physics after the first year. I had to work too hard to cruise through physics. Biology I could cruise through, while I focussed on the visual arts side of things. I suppose I treated the diagrams I had to draw in those subjects as practice...? It was the bit I looked forward to. But in terms of one subject informing the other, not really... Not at that point.

I would imagine, Biology being what it is, it would help with drawing nature and people.

There are techniques that make your drawings better, and they can be taught and learned. I mean, a Biology teacher generally can't teach you the nuances of how to draw a human life-model, any better than an Art teacher can explain the nuances in the metabolic pathways of cell organelles. If I had the sensibilities I have now, regarding research and using contextual sources of influence, I would have used Biology to inform artwork much more. It certainly would have helped nurture the eye for visual detail, but would it have helped for the art? That has to depend on how you define art, I’d imagine.

How would you define it?

I'm wrestling with my definition of art right now. It’s an itch that I imagine I’ll always have to scratch. I'd like to crack it in a ‘unified theory’ kind of way. But right now – I define it as a way of achieving an emotional response through a fantasy that the audience imagines, while experiencing a demonstration or performance, based around their particular technical proficiency. Rather than responding emotionally to the work, directly, they respond to the fantasy or day-dream that the work inspires and it can be anything; painting, dancing, music, poetry, videogames, literature. I'm working on it as a definition, though. I’ll freely admit that such academic pondering is 90% bullshit and 99% useless: but the term ‘Art’ is so often used in casual conjunction with visual beauty, and I think that this common-sense understanding doesn’t do art forms’ progress any favours. As I say – it’s an itch that I feel I have to scratch.

That's an interesting way to look at it and it sounds very liberating in terms of creativity.

Compared to the myriad ‘grey’ professions, solving problems with visual arts is a very liberating way of being 'productive’, but I don’t think that any definition is going to make being creative any easier: you still have to solve problems in unique ways, and that’s tough.

When did you know you could be an artist as a career and what was your first job?

Well as part of my school's syllabus, we had to do a work-experience placement, and I did mine at a graphic design studio. I still visit one of the main guys there when I'm in the UK. The career option was always in my mind, even though it wasn't encouraged. I was actually told to pursue robotics and prosthetics in a career-advice interview. That's where the A-level physics bit came from but I didn't want to actually do robotics. If anything, I wanted to do special effects.

After your education and the work placement, what work did you do up to working with BioWare?

I went from A-levels to college to get a B-Tec Art Foundation, then onto Liverpool Art School. I got my BA in Digital Art in 2001, and my MA in Video Games Art and Design Theory, graduating from that course in August 2003. I started working for Sony Studio Liverpool / Psygnosis in October 2003. I did bits of freelance graphic design and illustration while I was in university, but Sony was my first real job. We invited the then AD from Sony Liverpool to our end-of-year exhibition, and he headhunted 3 of us.

You must have been surprised to say the least!

My relief at being offered a job overwhelmed the surprise.

What was your work at that studio and what games did you work on?

So I started on a project called "Combat Games." I was a concept artist on that project until it was canned 4 months later. Then I was moved onto Formula 1 '04, where I worked on the promotional art and cover-art, still a trainee at that time. Then in July 2004, I was moved over to F1 ‘05 preproduction as an environment artist. In July 2005, I was moved onto F1: Championship Edition, and we got it out in time for the Japanese PS3 launch in November 2006. After that, I worked on Wipeout HD, and Fury. I also worked on Motorstorm Pacific Rift and Motorstorm RC, as an environment artist, and Motorstorm Apocalypse as a lead artist.

How did you find the move from PS2 to PS3?

My experience so far has been that such transitions are pretty transparent. You're using all the same tools - Maya/Photoshop. The bit about getting it into the game is handled by coders; they have to write the exporters. We get offered a larger texture or geometry budget, and the work instantly looks better than PS2, so we're happy. They were truly golden days at Studio Liverpool. We were so experienced with F1 games, that it felt like the project developed itself. Wonderful. Good project, great people... Golden days.

It must have been strange/disheartening to find out about its closure.

Absolutely. I'd been out here in Edmonton for about 5 months when they closed. It was a big shock. It was also right after the AD of Wipeout HD had passed away. It was a very horrible time for the people of the studio.

When did you start at BioWare?

My first day at BioWare was the 7th March this year. The AD I worked under on F1 at Liverpool became the art/animation director here at BioWare in March 2011 and he'd been trying to convince me to come since then. He'd wanted me to follow him since he left Sony and I'd always been able to say that I was still comfortable and enjoying the work. In July 2011, that changed, and I started putting my portfolio together. I applied at the end of November 2011, was on a plane for my interview 2 weeks after that, and then had the offer a few days after I returned to the UK.

That's amazing! How was it at first knowing the pedigree of BioWare? Were you intimidated by the work BioWare had previously done or did you enjoy the challenge?

I wasn’t a big follower of their games, but I was fully aware of the pedigree, as you say. I’m pretty career-minded, and I like the problem-solving aspect of games development. As far as work goes, I'm not on a mission to produce a Gestalt assembly of pieces of other games; you don't make progress that way. Granted, you have to keep things relevant to your audience – and familiarity with the establishment is the easiest way, but I think if you're not at least attempting to give them something new, or push the medium forward, it's a bit of a cheat. Self-reference is a big cheat, but (unfortunately for the blue-sky notion of progress) money can be made that way: hence sequels. I was given a great task on Dragon Age 3 - and it's a good opportunity to separate the feature/backdrop that I’m responsible for not only from Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, but also from other games in the same genre.

The art direction and style of Dragon Age: Origins (DAO) and Dragon Age 2 (DA2) were very different. Is there a similar contrast in style with Dragon Age 3 or can you not say?

There's obviously very little I can say but I'll say that the visuals of DAO and DA2 were somewhat hampered by the engine they had to run in; but as you're probably aware, Dragon Age 3 will be based in the Frostbite 2 engine, and to the contrary, it's opening up a lot of properly cool opportunities for the visuals.

It will be interesting to see that in a 3rd person fantasy setting instead of a FPS military shooter.

It's looking beautiful. I can't wait until we can release some material.

Going back to when you first joined BioWare, as you were relatively new to the studio what was your reaction to the negative feedback regarding Mass Effect 3?

Professional obligations aside, I couldn’t, in good conscience, say anything with a full appreciation of what went on: I've only been with BioWare for 8 months. I'll say this much though: to get a security warning about a protest outside the studio is one thing, but for only one guy to then turn up was pretty hilarious.

Yep that pretty much sums up the situation as a whole…

Yeah, it reminds me a lot of some games I’ve worked on – the public outcry for some games are huge, then only 4 people turn up to actually buy. Not ideal.

So what games are you enjoying at the moment? What games stand out for you this year?

I'm pretty old-school in the games I like. I prefer quick-fix, technique-based arcadey stuff such as Street Fighter 2 / Street Fighter 4, Super Stardust HD, Dead Nation, Unreal Tournament. I also have a penchant for retro gaming; I collect old consoles and their games. I'm waiting patiently for Half Life 3 as everyone else is but nothing ‘big’ has really caught my eye this year. Borderlands 2 is reassuringly eccentric-looking. Stuff like Skyrim, Diablo 3, Dragon's Dogma, might exist in the same market-space as DA3, and while their successes confirm that the market for this kind of game is strong and vibrant, they just don’t do much for me as an individual consumer/gamer. It seems that the creative risks are being taken in the PSN/XBLA space, and on the indie side of things – that’s where my interest as a gamer is. The benchmark for visual quality is so high now, that you almost expect a £40 game to have very high production quality, so that quality has to be equalled by uniqueness of visual style. And that's the way it should be, I think!

Did you play Journey? That is one of highlights of the year.

Ah yes - Loved Journey, but I loved Flow and Flower, too.

What do you think of this generation overall, is it time for the next generation or do the Xbox 360/PS3 still have lots of potential?

Well I think that the current-gen machines of course have loads of potential. I mean, the next generation of consoles will come because it's profitable for them. High quality visuals sell hardware – this is why the top consoles have just been HotRods: fast, stripped out graphics cards with token sound-processors – and more recently they have storage and operating systems. But with gameplay, and the bare bones of what makes a game a game, I doubt that there is a fun PS3 game that couldn’t be fun on the PS2 – and it makes the platform exclusivity thing really tough to achieve. Nintendo are wise to this, I think, and that’s why they’ve focussed on controllers and input-methods rather than visuals as a way to influence the game experiences. It allows you to keep the platform-holder's mandate pretty easily: "make a game that you couldn't make for the other consoles." Something else we have that’s coming up over the last few years is the mobile games market. iPhones and Androids have a fraction of the power of current-gen consoles and cost more per unit I think. An iPhone is more expensive than a PS3, yet the app store is flourishing. So if simple compelling games are viable on the iPhone, why not on a home console? It's a whole other conversation.

Haha! Indeed it is but for now we'll leave it there.

Thanks man!


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