I first met Adam deGrandis at the 2014 Boston Festival of Indie Games, where he was showing off Notorious Inc. Adam and his wife Sarah are the two halves of Chickadee Games, a studio focused on (to simplify things) making and managing artwork assets for video games, with an impressive resume.
They’re also Maine natives, so I was excited to meet some indie game devs from my home state.
Adam is currently serving as the Art Director on Pocketwatch Games’ Tooth & Tail. His work on the game’s units, combined with the artwork of Jerome Jacinto, have created a fantastic universe of anthropomorphic political upheaval that we talked about (okay, fawned over) in our PAX Indie Spotlight on the game.
Though I had a chance to catch up with Adam at PAX East, I wanted to pick his brain further about his role on Tooth & Tail, and his life as an artist in the Indie Dev Community.
IndieHangover – Let’s start with some background; Briefly, what is your history as a artist in Indie Games, with Chickadee, and with Tooth & Tail?
Adam deGrandis – I’ve worked in the small games/indie games segment of the industry my entire career, save for a few bigger freelancing clients. I got my start as a contracted artist on Pocketwatch Games’ first title, Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa when I was still in college, and then landed an internship/employment at GarageGames right after I graduated. From there I bounced between being a freelancer and an in-house artist at various studios until 2014 when I started Chickadee with my wife Sarah. I’ve been on Tooth and Tail since early 2015.
IH – What’s the dynamic like Art Directing Tooth & Tail, while not being directly tied to the development team at Pocketwatch Games? Obviously, you’ve worked closely with them before, so there’s a history there, but I’m interested to know what that working relationship is like.
AdG –Tooth and Tail is now the fourth game I’ve worked on with Pocketwatch, so we have a pretty good understanding of how to work efficiently at this point. We use Slack and Skype to communicate, so while I do miss out on the one-off conversations that happen in the office, communication is still fairly immediate despite the distance. Earlier in the project, when there was still a lot of ground to cover and problems to solve, I’d create mockups and plans and schedules and then present them, and then the Pocketwatch guys would give feedback and we’d hammer out the final marching orders. At that point, we’d do a little 2 week sprint to produce the stuff we designed. We’re now through primary art production, but our process is still effectively the same. Someone has an idea, we talk about it and make sure it’s solid, then build it over 1-2 weeks, with feedback being given along the way. It’s all very collaborative.
IH – What’s your inspiration on the artwork you do for Tooth & Tail? What are your influences?
AdG – Before I came on the project, our awesome painter Jerome Jacinto was already working on it. Jerome pulls a lot of influence from stuff like Redwall and Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH) in his personal work, and I believe that’s what led Pocketwatch to him in the first place; his personal work lined up great with a game about an animal world in revolution. So those elements are really the first seeds of the aesthetic. Once I came onto the project, I brought my own sensibilities; I tend to like working with super rich colors and punchy graphic elements. And I’m an animation nut; I really wanted the character animation – and even the world itself – to feel lively and organic and layered. Our move to pixels was the final key piece, where we also brought in a bunch of visual elements we loved from games of the 90’s, strategy or otherwise.
IH – In your blog post discussing the process that goes into the visual creation of unit in Tooth & Tail, you mention the “big three rule we follow”: Form Follows Function, Reptiles are primitive, Mammals use complex tools, and Units should be modeled on real world WW1 combat roles. As discussed in your blog post, having these rules in place helps create a cohesive set of units that players can read quickly, but that ultimately they lead to cutting some ideas that simply didn’t work well in Tooth & Tail. What advice would you give to other artists trying to balance creative freedom with cohesive game design?
AdG – The best advice I have with regards to visual development in games is to just remember that NOTHING in a game exists in a vacuum. The art is woven with the interaction is woven with the sound, etc, etc. So, in my personal opinion, there is no point where you should ever say “X looks the way it does because I just want it to be that way”. The look of X should be such that it helps players understand more about the interaction, or the goal, or the world narrative. All visual decisions should be in service of experience you want players to walk away with.
IH – What’s a typical development day like for you working on Tooth & Tail, if there is such a thing as a typical day!
AdG – There’s a typical day in that my days follow a standard schedule, but in terms of what I work on, it’s all over the place. I usually get to the office around 730 these days and leave around 5-530, with lunch usually right around noon for about 20 minutes. But with regards to what I’m making during that time, it really comes down to whatever the biggest creative challenge is at a given time. When I first came onto the project, I was spending a lot of time doing mockups and creating pipelines for the rest of production. Then I went on to test those pipelines by creating a few pieces of each kind of art/asset in the game (a few different units, a commander, a handful of effects, some structures, environmental assets, etc). Then we just pushed ahead on production, which effectively wrapped up early this year. Since then I’ve been alternating between working on the trailer (which is pretty snazzy) and producing things we needed for GDC, PAX East, and other such events.
IH – What other games have you been playing other than ones you are working on?
AdG – I play games every night for a little big before I go to bed, but I’m not as voracious a consumer of games as I was when I was younger. I actually think making games is way more fun than playing. So when I play, I usually play comfort food type stuff. Burnout Paradise, the Command and Conquer series, Planetside 2, the Heroes of Might and Magic series. I occasionally make time for new games, though. Kingdom is one of my favorite newer games. I put a lot of time into Fallout 4, partially because parts of it reminded me of Half Life (another great comfort food game for me). I just picked up 8 Bit Armies a week ago and I’ve been having fun with that. Its more-than-a-passing resemblance to the original C&C helps a lot, I’m sure. Grim Dawn was super good and moody. I play a ton of Killing Floor 2 with my brother. And I’m a big fan of Nintendo, so most of their first party games are things I play.
IH – Could you suggest an artist that you think is doing really cool work for another Indie Game project? What makes them stand out to you as a fellow artist?
AdG – Heather Penn, artist on Finji’s Overland is killing it. The artwork in Overland is, by my analysis, really about emotional gesture than fine detail, and invites players to fill in the gaps. I try to do that in my own work, but she’s better at it than I am. Brooke Condolora of Brain&Brain (Burly Men at Sea) does that too, but it’s of a different quality than Penn’s. Condolora’s work is serene yet stunning at the same time, and fun throughout. Thomas van den Berg, (Kingdom) is amazing because he can do it all – design, art, and code, and he does them all well. The aforementioned Jerome Jacinto is just awesome. Jerome also worked on League of Geeks‘ Armello and he has an great web comic besides. He blows me away because he’s clearly a great painter but he’s also SUPER fast. He can paint in a couple hours what it would take me a day and a half or more to paint, and it’s going to look better by his hand than mine. Just awesome. And of course, my Chickadee co-founder and lovely wife Sarah is the best collaborator I’ve ever had. Most work I’ve done in my career that people really respond to has had at least one round of stern critique from Sarah. She’s an amazing colorist and knows how to make things that are inherently engaging. She makes stuff that people look at and say “oh… thats cool… can I buy that”. So, I find myself often trying to channel her when I’m doing my best work.
Our thanks to Adam for answering our questions and sharing some insight into the indie dev process! Follow him of Twitter, check out his Tumblr and see some more of his work at the Chickadee Games Website.