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PDZ.com interview with Wil Overton

Original interview transcript from PerfectDarkZero.com.

Wil Overton likes to draw. He started out as a fan of manga-style art and became a self-taught professional artist who helped launch the UK's first serious anime magazine. Rare tapped him to develop key artistic concepts for Perfect Dark Zero, giving him the chance to see his work adapted to a 3D medium. Read about Wil's experiences designing the concept for Joanna Dark in our exclusive interview.

ID Confirmed: Begin Transmission

Operative: Overton, W.
Classification: Lead Concept Artist
Team: Rare
Mission: Perfect Dark Zero
Mission Parameters: Joanna Dark
Mission Hot Zone: United Kingdom

Wil Overton likes to draw. He started out as a fan of manga-style art and became a self-taught professional artist who helped launch the UK's first serious anime magazine. Rare tapped  him to develop key artistic concepts for Perfect Dark Zero, giving him the chance to see his work adapted to a 3D medium.

MGS Operative: Can you tell us about your education and background?

Wil Overton: I didn’t do any fancy formal art training, just a couple of years graphic design at a local college before being thrust out into the real world. I started out in advertising design which, after a few years, ended up with me helping launch the UK’s first Japanese animation magazine, Anime UK (it’s a long story). That lead to other job offers and the world of freelancing for a while until I eventually settled into illustrating and designing (and a bit of writing) for UK games magazines. It was around the time of the first Perfect Dark being released that I decided I wanted to try my hand at the games development biz, and Rare was good (or foolish) enough to take me on. Ha! I bet they regret that now!

MGS Operative: How did you approach the design of Joanna Dark?

Wil Overton: From every angle possible! At the beginning I really didn’t base her on the original N64 Joanna at all, apart from wanting to keep the core colors of red(ish) hair, and the black, blue and silver of the Carrington Institute costume. While I had to keep in mind the fact that whatever I did had to be translatable into the game, I didn’t bog myself down with thinking about the technical aspects of shading systems and the like. I knew that stuff would be changing all the time and it doesn’t fundamentally alter whether a character is good or not. As PDZ was a prequel and she wasn’t yet the ‘perfect’ agent we wanted her to be younger (obviously), and not as confident and sleek as she would become in Perfect Dark. The idea was that her experience and skill in the story would mirror the player’s as they went through the game, ending up in the signature Carrington Institute outfit and becoming the super agent.

MGS Operative: What were your overall design goals for Perfect Dark Zero, and in what ways did they differ from other games on which you’ve worked?

Wil Overton: Well, this is my first game, which is as frightening as it is exciting, so my goals were to just to try and make the designs as good as I could. I wanted Jo to be a bit more iconic as a character (hence little things like making the hair color a bit more extreme), and hopefully make the other lead characters memorable, too. Stylistically, I think we all wanted Perfect Dark Zero to be quite different from most FPS’ -- what’s the point in just copying everyone else? We opted for what I suppose you could call a ‘Rare’ version of realism. A ‘hyper’ real, if you like.

MGS Operative: In a game like this, where the story is set in a fictional future, are there any particular challenges or rewards in the art design process?

Wil Overton: For the concept artist the challenge is to design something that withstands being taken off the page, built as a 3D model, and animated as well as being used on the box and advertising (which in our case also meant a real live Joanna!) and still manages to survive the process. The reward is when you actually manage to do it. Initially, I was wrongly expecting exact 3D copies of what I’d drawn but you have to accept that the initial concepts are only the first stepping stone of the process. It’s a combination of that design and the 3D artist’s skills that make the final character, location, gadget or vehicle.

MGS Operative: The locations in the game are all places that exist today in our world. How did you approach creating the look for the future versions of these locations?

Wil Overton: We made a conscious decision early on to keep PDZ a lot more ‘real world.’ Because the setting is only a few years in the future, we couldn’t, and didn’t want to go too far ‘out there.’ I also knew there would still be a few locations where we could indulge any sci-fi yearnings we had. When we started, we looked specifically at anime like Ghost in the Shell, but there was no single fictitious source we took total inspiration from. If you want a real world location, look at the real world.

MGS Operative: Joanna Dark is the central character in the game, but by no means the only character. How did the design for her father, Jack Dark, change throughout the game’s development?

Wil Overton: Jack had to be the easiest character in the whole game. PDZ’s storywriter had a pretty fixed idea of what he wanted Jo’s Dad to be like and, apart from a few costume tweaks, he stayed the same from when I first sketched him. It’s very easy to work at something too much. I find first ideas are very often the best. Most of the main characters, with the exception of Jo, stayed pretty true to the original concepts.

MGS Operative: What were the major challenges involved in actually implementing your artistic goals within the game? Did you experience any surprises—for example, did certain as things turn out to be harder or easier than expected?

Wil Overton: From a concept artist’s point of view, the hardest thing is actually translating that 2D image to a solid 3D model while still retaining the essence of what made the design good in the first place. You can get away with so much more in a drawing that you just know will come back and bite you on the butt once another artist actually starts trying to make a workable game model of it. The more outlandish you want to make things; the harder it is to make work properly in 3D. The hardest thing overall was keeping everything together and coherent, especially on a project where there are so many different locations and characters to keep track of.

MGS Operative: What's the process for creating a character, and how long does it usually take? How many team members are typically involved? What equipment and software do you use? Do you draw concepts on paper?

Wil Overton: Initially the character comes from a lot of talk. Sometimes the existing story will dictate the sort of thing you have to come up with. Other times you’ll just come up with a great idea and want to fit it in somewhere. Either way, it involves sitting around and chatting about it before I go away and face the horror of staring at a blank piece of paper and actually trying to make something worthwhile appear. Sometimes it will be just me and the storywriter, other times there might be more artists and designers involved. Like most things, too many cooks can spoil the mixture, and you probably get a better character if just a few people have a strong vision. It can take a day or a few years, you never can tell; it’s definitely not a precise science, and that’s what makes it fun.

Personally, I still like to draw on paper, and for a typical comic book-style picture I mostly follow the standard US comic way of working. Briefly, I sketch on paper, then tidy up, do the final line work and inking on some sort of board, and finally scan the image and color it in Photoshop.

The computer’s great, but it can’t rescue a basically flawed drawing, so as long as I get that right the rest is easy. Sometimes, I’ll just scan in a rough pencil sketch and quickly color it, but otherwise the process is pretty much the same. A pencil, pen and brush are my main tools. Once a drawing is digitized on the computer, a graphics tablet and Photoshop are my primary tools, but I’ll occasionally use other programs like Painter and Illustrator as well.

MGS Operative: What was the most challenging artistic element of the game to design? What went through the most visual changes?

Wil Overton: Character-wise, Jo went through the most changes at both the concept and modeling stage. Concept artists and character designers often go on about how important a character’s ‘silhouette’ is but if you take a standard proportioned normal person who isn’t wearing some ludicrous sized combat armor, creating something that is immediately recognizable with just their silhouette can be tricky. In the end I think it’s the tiny things like the flick of the hair at the sides that give it away but I never thought at one point I’d be sitting in front of a drawing pad surrounded by loads of women’s hairstyle magazines! Of course, she also had to be recognizable in a number of different costumes which made her head just about the only thing we could work with. Who’d have thought that would be most challenging artistic element in the game?!

MGS Operative: What element of the final art used in the game makes you feel the most proud?

Wil Overton: There is no one element. It’s a combination of everybody’s work in every department. Moving across different consoles and adapting to changing technology has sometimes been difficult, but the whole team’s worked incredibly hard and I think, art-wise, we’ve managed to cram in a massive amount of variety at a very high level for a launch title (which is always a tough gig). Of course, everyone’s now looking back and saying ‘ooh, we could have done this and this’ but that’s always going to be the case, and I think everyone can be rightly proud at what they’ve managed to achieve.

MGS Operative: What is the best thing about what you do?

Wil Overton: Do you really need to ask that? I get to draw super sexy spy girls for a living!