From FIFA Soccer to Mechwarrior, James Bond, and a variety of IPs and titles in-between, Daniel Dociu's artistic work in the field of game art spans decades. More recently, however, Daniel's artistic vision has helped imbue Guild Wars and its expansions with a style that is unique among MMORPGs since the very beginning.

As we learn more about Guild Wars 2, a project that is gargantuan in scope when compared to its predecessor, we've also been exposed to some incredible concept art from Daniel and his sizeable team. That art, the vision behind it, and the inner-workings of the ArenaNet art department - these topics are the subject of our latest exclusive Guild Wars 2 concept art Q&A with Daniel Dociu, Chief Art Director.

Ten Ton Hammer: Guild Wars 2, being a much more persistent online world with larger environments, content demands, assets, and pretty much larger everthing, is obviously a very different game than Guild Wars. How has it challenged you compared to other projects you've worked on in the past?

Daniel Dociu, Guild Wars 2 Art Director: It is different, but in many ways there are similarities. It is similar in the sense that we’re building on the foundation of core principles and aesthetic values established in Guild Wars. At the same time, it is different because the scope is significantly larger. We have benefitted from a pretty deep revamp of the engine and have a whole new arsenal of tools available to us, which also came with the challenge of learning and adapting to these tools. So [Guild Wars 2] is different in many ways, but also a continuation or an evolution of the IP.

Ten Ton Hammer: How many are on the art team, and how do you even begin to organize such a huge project?

Daniel: We’ve probably exceeded 70 artists by now. These are split among six teams: concept art, characters and creatures, environments and props, animation, technical art, and cinematics. As far as organizing the project, it is quite a challenge to keep everything under control and coordinate with design and engineering, the other major departments working on the project. For the first time in Guild Wars 2, we have a team of producers that facilitate the communication process. It is significantly more challenging, but we’re adapting to the challenges of developing a high budget game with a larger team and all the benefits and responsibilities that come with that.

Ten Ton Hammer: With the sheer size of the team, there’s little doubt that you’ve had to go outside ArenaNet and NCSoft to search for talent? How difficult has the search been to find the sort of artistic talent you need?

Daniel: Over time, we have build a development culture that is recognized within the industry as being very art-centric. Or, another way to put it is that our development culture that truly appreciates and respects the contribution of the art department to the development process. Because we’ve established a good reputation, we’re bombarded with applications and requests for jobs from all over the world.

Another reason we are pretty well-known is because our artists are extremely active in the game art community – there’s numerous forums and competitions that they enter, and that gives our studio a great deal of exposure and established our studio as a great workplace for artists. That and we have an on-staff full-time recruiter who’s constantly working with art schools all over the country and doing all the scouting work for us. So we are very active in identifying and selecting the top-shelf talent.

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Underwater areas and tiered environments vastly increase the playable area in Guild Wars 2.

Ten Ton Hammer: So you’ve got a large staff of very talented artists. Turning towards the game, I wonder if you can give us an idea of the scope of the world your creating in Guild Wars 2, maybe on the order of Guild Wars and its expansions?

Daniel: It is significantly bigger. The maps are anywhere from three to four times larger and there’s also just more maps. In addition to that, we have underwater maps which increases the real estate of the explorable portions of the map by another order of magnitude. It is also a true 3D game, as opposed to the first Guild Wars, so we have multiple tiered buildings and structures and this also adds to the total “square mileage” of playable area. I can’t give you a hard number as to how much bigger Guild Wars 2 is, but it’s a huge leap from Guild Wars.

Ten Ton Hammer: And we can’t wait to learn more about underwater exploration and the sunken city of Orr as Guild Wars 2 gets closer to release. But back to concept art, since that’s what this Q&A is all about, could you walk us through how an idea becomes concept art and then becomes part of the game?

Daniel: It is a very organic process, and we don’t have a predetermined work flow that we subject our ideas to. Ideas can originate in any of the departments; they could start as a paragraph that writers put together, or a game play idea from the design department, or quite frequently, they start from the art department, and so on. And, depending on where the idea starts from, the team that originates the idea develops the idea a little bit and then submits it to the other teams for evaluation.

It’s a very collaborative effort, and we go back and forth between all the departments involved, and I want to make sure that I don’t leave out engineering, which has a great contribution to making these ideas work. And, we just pass this early prototype back and forth between the different departments and have them all contribute their area of expertise to it until it grows organically into what looks like a promising game experience. The process can take anywhere from a few days to, at times, weeks , depending on the complexity of the idea, and how many iterations it goes through until we implement it in the actual game and subject it to testing by the entire company. That usually results in a lot of feedback, and we go for yet another round of iterations to incorporate that feedback, and so on as far as time and resources allow.

Ten Ton Hammer: We’ve seen the concept art come to life in the trailers. Are we seeing actual bits of the cut scenes or game play in the course of the trailers, or is that just something you’ve used for promotional purposes?

Daniel: While the footage you have seen in the trailer may not be actual cuts from in-game cinematics, it is most definitely very indicative of the way that we will be telling our story from a cinematics endpoint. So, as far as the techniques and visual vocabulary that we employed in these trailers, it is in full alignment with the way we will be handling cinematics in the actual game.

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Ebonhawke is the last remaining bastion of humankind in Old Ascalon, where the Charr have held sway for 250 years in Guild Wars 2.

Ten Ton Hammer: Are you in control of the cinematography team, the folks designing the cut scenes for the game as well?

Daniel: Oh sure, yes. Very much so, as a matter of fact. My son is the head of the cinematics team, so yes, it’s one of the teams that I probably collaborate with as much as any other team. Another reason that we have chosen to go down this path - as far as the visual style of the cinematics - is because we figured out after the first Guild Wars that we were left with a gigantic body of concept art that hardly got the exposure that it deserved—the artbooks that we printed. We felt that it was kind of a missed opportunity, and decided this time around to give the concept art a lot more exposure and to incorporate it more, integrating it more organically in the game. The way we are doing our cinematics is pretty much aimed at achieving this goal of making the game look like concept art coming to life.

Ten Ton Hammer: About the cinematography team’s work, the music and sound that we hear in the trailers, is that culled directly from the game? Could you tell us about the link between the music, sound effects, and the art that you’re designing?

Daniel: Yes—the music that you heard in the cinematics is written for Guild Wars 2, and of course, has been edited to match the duration of the different shots and so on has been synced up with the visuals so it took a little bit of massaging up the raw materials that were used—the original score for Guild Wars 2. The sound effects also have been pretty much written from or recorded and processed from scratch.

And, it’s a new team that we’re working with, very talented sound designers and engineers, and a completely revamped process on the sound front as well. We work very closely with the sound guys every time we have an interesting location prototyped, they are amongst the first to see it, and we just bring them over and say, hey, just so you can get a bit of foreshadowing of what is to come, take a look at this, and soak it in and think about what kind of sound effects would it take to bring this world to life. We like to give them time to soak it in; for them to familiarize themselves with the mood and the feel of the different locations and then go out and record and process sounds specifically or these locations.

I personally believe that sound is an absolutely crucial layer to making these worlds credible and rich and vivid. When I conceive of an environment myself or when I think about new locations, I always think in terms of sound—what kind of ambient sounds can I picture filling the air?

Ten Ton Hammer: Do you feel the same for the characters that you design? When you draw a character for the first time, can you kind of hear how you would like them to sound? Is that something that you take to the sound team and work with them on as well?

Daniel: Yes, very much so. The sound team is consulted on all these topics, and whether it is the actual sound that the characters or creatures would make, or if it is the ambient sound of their natural habitat, we definitely involve them early on and work with them, and at times even go back and revisit the concept to make slight course corrections in order to accommodate certain sound requirements.

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Destruction in Guild Wars 2 isn't just expressed in shades of gray, as this concept of the sunken city of Orr shows.

Ten Ton Hammer: Guild Wars 2 takes place hundreds of years after the original Guild Wars. Players have a conception of what things will be like in the future of the world. Has it been challenging dealing with these preconceptions? ? You’ve done plenty of both, so do you find it invigorating to work from that basis that players already have, or is it easier to work from scratch where you’re designing the world for the first time?

Daniel: Sure. Indeed, on one hand, we need to keep or account for the players’ expectations as far as their having preconceived ideas on how this world might have evolve. That’s something that we want to take seriously because we wouldn’t want to disappoint or underdeliver or alienate our fans by straying away too radically from the world that they know.

But, on the other hand, it is indeed invigorating and a fresh experience for us to be able to depart a little bit from the visuals and the clichés of high fantasy we’ve established. We’re the first ones, so of course, it’s a little bit of a time travel experience, and it opens opportunities for pushing the world, pushing creatively in a direction which is both compatible with the legacy of the IP, but also, surprising and unique and fresh for the player.

Ten Ton Hammer: I know that you talked earlier about the core principles that go into the design of Guild Wars 2 art and Guild Wars art in general. Guild Wars certainly has its own style, but I like how you said that it’s getting away from the high fantasy clichés. Could you describe in your own words what the Guild Wars style is?

Daniel: Sure—the one sentence description is that it is a highly stylized world with emphasis on handcrafted, painterly, or illustrated quality. That would be kind of the short elevator pitch, but I’d like to elaborate a little and kind of justify our stylistic position. Of course, one of the first things you do when you start pre-production is to figure out where you want to situate yourself stylistically, and there’s numerous criteria to consider. Some of them are of a technical nature, some of them are marketing considerations—or course, there is the pure artistic vision we want to put our mark on the game. There is a little bit of a negotiating act and trying to find a sweet spot between the different directions that all these considerations are pulling.

Of course, it is our conviction that style ages better than realism. What that means is that with the rapid advancement of technology, it is frequently the case that what last year’s looked—a very, very impressive feat of photorealistic graphic achievement may a year later look obsolete and completely outdated. While, style, in our opinion, if it truly elevates itself to the level of true quality art has the ability to withstand the test of time a lot better. So, MMORPGs, traditionally being products with a long life expectancy, it is important that our game can survive stylistically for five or six years without looking too dated.

That being said, you don’t want to push style towards a level of abstraction that is too high because that in fact negatively impacts the broadness of your audience. The higher the level of abstraction that we impose upon the style, the more likely you are to narrow your audience significantly. It’s again a process of negotiating and finding the sweet spot that meets all the requirements and grants us the best positioning in the market. Realism is also a very crowded space as far as developers consistently insisting on trying to accomplish utmost closeness to the world that we see, and in terms of taking advantage of the latest and greatest on the technology front. It’s just a crowded space to be in. We’d rather move in a different direction and allow ourselves a bit more creative elbow room, if you will, to maneuver around and experiment.

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The Guild Wars 2 art team continues to find new ways to present familiar objects, such as ships, in new ways.

Ten Ton Hammer: I can see how players would, not going too abstract, players can still relate to what they are seeing. Leather is still leather, plate is still plate, but introducing a new and different sense of style graphics to the game. That sounds particularly challenging.

Daniel: We really believe that it is important for the world to be familiar, to allow the player to bring their baggage of life experience to the game, for them to be able to anticipate or expect how to interact with this world. If everything in the world is magical or fantastical or alien and nothing really follows the laws of physics or validates their life experience, then you’re not getting anywhere.

I think the elements of fantasy need to be sprinkled throughout the game, but really interspersed with breathers where the world looks more familiar and more real and more in line with the player’s life experience. That really allows those memorable moments when you encounter something that is out of the ordinary to become memorable and epic and just have the impact that we’re looking for.

Our sincerest thanks to Daniel Dociu and the NCsoft North America team for their time!
For more info, be sure to check out the Guild Wars 2 concept art gallery
and our recent Guild Wars 2 lore interview with Jeff Grubb.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Guild Wars 2 Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016