Celestial Heavens: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Joe. Could you introduceyourself to the readers who might not have heard your name before?
Joe McGuffin: I art directed “Heroes of Might and Magic 4”, the “Shadow of Death” expansion, and all of the “Chronicles of Might and Magic” series for New World Computing/3DO.
CH: How did you get started in the gaming industry? When did you join New World exactly?
JM: I am an illustrator by training from the Art Center College of Design and I’ve been in the entertainment/games industry since 1992. I got my start in the business working for a CD-I and 3DO games developer called the Interactive Support Group. I was interviewed and hired by a producer there with a keen eye for talent…so I thought. Little did I know he was looking for someone very green and that would work for peanuts! The man who gave me my first break is none other than David Mullich. We’ve been friends ever since. After ISG we found employment at different companies, but always kept in touch. I went on to work on a variety of different projects ranging from television and film to mainstream video games for the PC and consoles. It was in October of 1999 that we got the opportunity to work together again. David hired me into NWC and my first project was the “Shadow of Death” expansion for H3.
CH: We spoke with your former colleague April Lee in the past. Did you, like herself,deal with various mediums (card games, comics, prints)?
JM: April and I were both Illustration majors at Art Center where you’re taught to be versatile in a variety of mediums. I have not worked on card games, comics and prints as April, but pursued work in multimedia, film, television, and game projects. The great thing about being an illustrator is that you can design and draw for any medium!
CH: How would you describe your art style?
JM: My work is representational as well as stylized, with a heavy dose of perspective… I can render realism, create cartoon styled characters, and thoroughly enjoy illustrating structures and environments using perspective. I’ve been influenced by many artists old and new – too many to list.
CH: Now, how would you describe the Heroes series' art style, going from Heroes I to Heroes IV?
JM: I feel that the Heroes “style” has remained the same in certain respects, but also has matured from Heroes 1 to 4. Obviously, one of the greatest contributing factors has been the increase in computing power from what Heroes 1 was running on to Heroes 4. With that additional computing power, we were able to increase the amount of art work and animation as well as the quality and the sophistication. Heroes 1 and 2 have a very whimsical style to them, some may say “simple”, but colorful and positive. Heroes 3 got a bit darker and more refined but still kept some of the whimsy. For Heroes 4 we wanted to update the look and feel and the managing members of the team which included JVC, Gus Smedstad, the lead programmer and designer, Jennifer Bullard, the lead level designer and I felt that Heroes should maintain its positive look and feel, be colorful like Heroes 2, and much more animated than the others in the series.
CH: With the Heroes series dealing with very different branches of mythology, how did you inspire yourself and your team?
JM: How to inspire artists...hmmm...that’s tough, but always the most rewarding part of being an art director. I had a great team of artists working with me on Heroes 4, some were Heroes veterans, and others were brand new to the series. Working with the designers, Gus and Jennifer, the head writer, Terry Ray, and David, I was able to assimilate all the different mythological ideas that make up Heroes and translate that to the artists.
CH: How do you deal with mental block?
JM: Building a game is a very collaborative effort. There are many creative and talented individuals involved. So, there are plenty of people to throw ideas around with. This process is very helpful in getting over blocks.
CH: You were the Art Director for NWC. What exactly does that title mean? Are you the top dog in charge of graphics there?
JM: The title of Art Director brought with it the responsibility to take charge of the art production and development of Heroes 4. I had to manage the team, coordinate their efforts, lead the visual design of the art assets, handle the reviews and interviews of the artists, and assist David in tracking the schedule of the art production. The “top dog” in charge of art, as well as design at NWC was and is JVC. JVC had the final say-so on art direction.
CH: Working on the art for a computer game is a collaborative effort. It must be difficult to work with people with different background and styles.
JM: Artists are a different breed. They bring to bear a wide variety of experiences, talents, styles, attitudes, and each has a unique way of being creative. In the production of a game, it is imperative that the artists work together and that the art they generate is cohesive and unified.
CH: Please describe how this process works. Also, which tools do you use?
JM: In the production of Heroes 4, Fernando Castillo, my technical art lead, and I set up a few processes that helped to unify the look and feel of the art assets. These tools maintained the proper perspective, lighting, and scale of the art generated. Because all of the artists were using 3D Studio Max to generate the 3D art, Fernando was able to write scripts that everyone could utilize to process the files within Max. For 2D work, like textures, interface elements, and splash screens, we used Photoshop.
CH: How long does it usually take to complete a creature or a hero for the game?
JM: On average, from design to animation, a character or hero was taking about a week.
CH: According to you, what was missing from Heroes IV to make it a trulymemorable game? Anything you would do different if you could start over?
JM: Artistically speaking, I’d like to have been able to better develop the siege screen artwork. Due to time constraints, we were limited in how much we were able to put into the development and design of the siege screen. We had much more time to create the terrain, terrain structures, and character assets and I feel it shows. I would put more priority in creating the siege screen assets if I could start over.
CH: Heroes IV had only a few cinematics compared to the previous game of the series. How do you explain that?
JM: For Heroes 3, most of the cinematics were done by an outside contractor. For Heroes 4 we used an internal cinematics team that was created by NWC/3DO and they handled ALL the cinematics for every game in development. This team was very burdened by heavy loads of work, and thus prevented us from creating numerous cinematics seen in previous versions of the game.
CH: Portraying demonic creatures or undead in games has typically been a touchy issue. How did you guys handled that?
JM: This actually wasn’t too big an issue during development, but there were a few things that came up. I remember the mantra – “NO blood. Period.” I had to be very diligent in making sure no blood appeared anywhere in the game…the blood pool in front of the vampire generator almost slipped through the cracks! This is also why the vampire sucks the “life force” out of his victims instead of blood. Also, to gain an “E” rating from the ESRB panel, we had to change the death animation of the Venom Spawn. What you see in the game is very toned down. The first death animation for the venom spawn had it exploding in mess of green goo! Even with those changes and concerns, my favorite creatures are in the Death class and I had fun designing the Venom Spawn and the Devil.
CH: What is your favorite artwork in the Heroes series?
JM: I’m especially happy with the Main menu art of Heroes 4, which is also seen on the back of the box. It truly captures the essence of Heroes. George Almond, the illustrator who painted most of the splash screens and menu screens seen in Heroes 3 and 4, and I worked very hard to create that piece. Overall, I’m very proud of the artwork created for Heroes 4.
CH: With the strategy game genre being midway between 2D and 3D, which style do you prefer and what are your thoughts on what's going to be the standard in a near future?
JM: I like the level of detail that prerendered art affords, but like the amount of animation that a full 3D game offers. In the near future, games will appear prerendered but will be 3D. I’ve already seen a strategy game with such an engine.
CH: Are you a gamer yourself? What have you been playing lately?
JM: I’m an avid gamer. I play first person shooters like “Medal of Honor”, and “Unreal Tournament”, role-playing games like “Dungeon Siege” and “Neverwinter Nights”, and of course, strategy games like “Heroes 4”! I do prefer PC games over console games, but own a PS2 and a Gameboy Advance, as well. I’m currently playing “GTA Vice City”, “Mafia”, and “Medal of Honor” on the PC, “John Madden 2003” and “Dynasty Warriors 3” for the PS2, and “Monkeyball” and “Extreme Pinball” for the Game Boy Advance.
CH: Anything you'd like to add?
JM: The time I spent at NWC was some of the best in my career. I thoroughly enjoyed the environment and the team I worked with. I still keep in touch with many people and look forward to any future opportunities to work with them again.