Speaking in an Austin GDC panel on the art of upcoming Sony Online Entertainment MMO DC Universe Online, noted DC comic artist artist Jim Lee shares some insights on translating 2D characters and designs from comic books to fit an online 3D game's style and needs.
The DC Universe sponsored talk began with a "moderator" showing a couple of videos, and then opening the floor to questions. After a brief awkward silence during which attendees realized they would be running the panel themselves, a number of interesting topics came to light. Here, we'll focus on Jim Lee's collaboration with SOE.
Lee began by discussing the difficulties of translating 2D characters into a 3D space. "You tend to draw these female characters with really long legs," he said by way of example.
"They look better on the page, but when you animate them they look less graceful, kind of clumsy. So the big thing is figuring out what looks good in 2D, and how that translates to 3D. Really figuring out the length of something like Batman's cape, which in comics is really variable, in games it's not nearly as variable as I'd like it to be."
"A lot of what works in comic books works because you can choose the angle," he posed. "In the MMO space, players are really choosing the angles. But we have a lot of cool things too, like sound, and movement, so it's all about figuring out what works."
The game will feature character customization, all based on hero archetypes as a template. But there are some logistical considerations, in order to fit a given character into the world.
"What I think is interesting is that the DC universe doesn't have a lot of oversized characters," said Lee. "There are gaming issues that come up when players create large characters, because they can't get through doors and things like that."
An audience member asked if Lee's style has changed after seeing it in 3D. "A little bit," he admitted. "When you sit down at a table, you don't really think about that. When you're trying to translate your style and internalize it into these character models, you realize how much of what you're doing is internalized, and it's hard to explain it."
"It made me more aware of what I was doing," he added. "I just learned things. (For example) the ankle bone is not symmetrical. I always draw mine reversed, and one of the SOE artists told me I was drawing it wrong, and I was like 'what are you talking about.' But I checked my own ankle and he was right! But I said 'well, I'm not going to change it because it got me this far.'"
On the particulars of the universe, Lee realized that there was a lot to reconcile, with all the different versions of these stories that have been told, from cartoons to movies. "The Daily Planet was one of the first environments we put together," he said. "Everyone has an iconic idea of what that environment is, but very different ideas, from the comics, to the movies, to the cartoons."
"We had to decide what sort of architectural types we wanted to highlight, like the art deco, the impressive height of it," he continued. "We sent it to them, and they said there weren't enough ledges for people to jump around on, so we sent it back with some more edges in the silhouette. There was a lot of back and forth like that."
"There's not a lot of documentation," he added. "In the comics, the artists pretty much change the universe to fit their needs. If I need something I'll just draw it in there, and not worry about it. A lot of decisions have to be made in games which never have to be made in comics."
In terms of Lee's interaction with the development side, he joked that "This is the first time I've actually seen these people! I come down here every 3-4 months, sometimes more. We see each other quite a bit. Jason and I, he loves working late, I work late, so a lot of the final tweaks on characters are done at 1, 3, 4 in the morning, so we're working on different jpegs, different layers on Photoshop getting sent back and forth."
And what makes his world unique from that of other comics? "The DC universe is very unique in that it's got some very silly stories from the 60s," says Lee. "I don't think Marvel has that."
"Batman has a giant robot in his Batcave, and a giant penny, why does he have that? If you take that approach, everything can be made cool. There's a wide range of storylines you can do, and a wide range of characters you can use."