Earlier this week, Playtonic Games announced that veteran character artist Ed Bryan was joining the team behind Yooka-Laylee on a full-time basis. The ex-Rare man has been away from the games industry since leaving Rare eight years ago, but now reenters the fray as Playtonic enjoys the success of its recently released sequel, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair.
Since returning, Ed has already made a big splash at the company after his innocent use of a Microsoft-branded bag caused the internet to jump to all sort of conclusions that led to Playtonic issuing a statement to clarify that, no, the developer has not been enlisted to make Banjo-Threeie or in the midst of an acquisition from Microsoft.
We caught up with Ed to find out what he's been up to, what it's like to be back with the old team and exactly what a talented character artist gets up to when they're not sketching and doodling.
Nintendo Life: This is your return to the games industry, but you’ve been keeping yourself busy since leaving Rare in 2011. For those who haven’t been following your exploits on Twitter and elsewhere, what have you been up to?
Ed Bryan: You make it sound a far more exciting event than I think it is! Anyway, I left Rare at the beginning of 2011 to join a very small, new, children’s publishing house called Nosy Crow. Me and Will (my brother, programmer at Rare) formed what was their App development team. Later Andrew James (who’d had worked with us at Rare too) would join us.
We made a lot of apps based around stories and reading for children to enjoy. Things like Snow White, Goldilocks, Jack and the Beanstalk, that sort of thing. They were super projects to work on; small and focused and full of all the kind of work and problem solving I enjoy doing. Somedays you’d be designing things, the next day drawing, then animation and making sound effects. It was like the whole process of game/product development, but on a super small scale. Over 7 years we made and shipped 22 projects. Great fun!
We also spun out 4 of the stories that I’d illustrated for the apps as full blown picture books, which for me was something I’d wanted to do for ages and it’s lovely to see you work in book shops and in children’s hands. Over the last year or so I’ve been back to that and done the art for two more.
You contributed Dr Puzz to Yooka-Laylee as part of that game’s Kickstarter, but you weren’t a permanent fixture of the Playtonic team at that time. What’s changed now to get you back into games full-time?
Ha! Being unemployed and desperate for work!
I like to think I did my little bit at the beginning by letting Playtonic have the MingyJongo Twitter account after it blew up. At that point, I think they did try to lure me away, but I was very content doing what I was doing. It was very exciting seeing the Kickstarter do so well and this new studio ship their first game.
At the start of September, Gav tapped me up to see if I’d be interested going full-time at Playtonic. How could I resist him!
Up until the beginning of 2018 I was very happy at Nosy Crow, but unfortunately, like so many devs in that space, we just couldn’t make enough money to sustain us, so it was decided to close the apps side of the business. We made some great products that I’m very proud of, and I’ll be forever grateful for the chance to work in the world of children’s publishing and to have had such creative freedom.
I thought after that I’d take some time away from all of it and just be at home with the family and hope that I’d figure out what I wanted to do next.
At the start of September, Gav [Price, Playtonic Games co-founder] tapped me up to see if I’d be interested going full-time at Playtonic. How could I resist him!
Presumably you’ve kept in touch with members of the team over the years. What’s it like sharing an office with them again after all this time? How have things changed since you were last working together?
Honestly? For me, it’s like we’ve never been apart! For some of us, we’d worked together for years and even when we’ve gone our separate ways, we’ve still met up now and again. And of course there are lots of younger developers at the studio, so it’s nice to have that mix. It’s the one thing I missed working at home; the camaraderie you get within a dev team. I’ve only been in the office two full days so far, so it’s still very early, but there’s a good atmosphere there, so I think it’ll work well.
What’s changed? So far as I can tell, not a lot! There's, perhaps, a more relaxed approach to studio life with the team working core hours together, but with enough flexitime to allow people to chose the time of their commutes, childcare commitments and that sort of thing. You want to make sure the team is happy, can get on with the tasks at hand, and hopefully see Playtonic as somewhere to work long term.
The tools have advanced somewhat which makes everyone’s life easier, but the fundamental process of building games seems pretty much the same.
Could you describe a typical day at the office for a character artist and animator? We imagine the job changes quite a bit throughout the course of a project.
This next section comes with the caveat that I haven’t made a console game in 8 years so I’m going to learn a lot about this myself!
What exactly we’ll be doing on the next project, I’m not sure about. From my own experience and what I’ve seen so far being at the studio, I'd say there’s 3 main stages to the development; firstly the pre production stage, full production, and finally the testing-fixing-shipping stage.
Somewhere like Playtonic... the teams are small so someone like me finds themselves moving from job to job as things come along.
For pre production there’s a lot of focus on how things are going to look and how they’re going to move. We might be looking to introduce some new technology to the game, or there might be a design requirement that impacts on art production. Everyone is doing their best to figure everything out so by the time you’re ready to move to production, you’ve done your best to understand what you need to do. Things always evolve as the game is built, but you want to try and minimise wasted work and problems later on.
Once you’re in production, it's a matter of making assets. Those might be characters, backgrounds, props, UI, animation, etc. Ideally you’d get roughed out assets into the hands of designers so they can get gameplay up and running as quickly as possible; it’s a lot better to iterate gameplay on placeholder assets, than to keep changing finished art.
For animation there’s coming up with endless walk/run cycles and other animation for use in game. There are cutscenes that might use existing animations and also require custom animations. Gary T [Talbot, Playtonic animator] is responsible for much of this as well as rigging the characters. The character modeller/designer need to understand what the characters are required to do so they can be built in a suitable way. Across the whole art department there's an interplay of design-modelling-rigging-animation to make sure everything looks and works as we want.
Somewhere like Playtonic or Nosy Crow, the teams are small so someone like me finds themselves moving from job to job as things come along. In the past I’ve found myself building a tree one day (Viva Piñata) to making particle effects the next, to fixing a broken cutscene the day after. It’s this kind of thing that I really like. I think these kinds of projects offer the chance to be creative in an artistic sense and a technical sense.
From experience, the production stage can go on for a long time. It’s great when you’re coming into work knowing you're going to spend all week modelling a characters and colouring it in. It’s not so great when you’ve got all this work being done and you’re waiting to see the game finally turn into something that looks like it might get finished. Viva Piñata was a bit like that.
Finally you get to the testing-fixing-shipping stage. This is fun too! Usually there’s things that might need optimising for performance or revisiting assets made early in the project lifecycle. Last minute additions of effects and making promotional artwork to support the release. Games I’ve worked on in the past have had things like not fitting on the cartridge, not fitting in memory, choosing which bugs you’ll not allow artists to fix and producing 100+ VP camera cards in a rush whilst on paternity leave. They say that 80% of the work is in the last 20% of the project, which always sounds about right to me.
You designed some cherished, classic characters during your tenure at Rare. Are there any that you’re particularly proud of which don’t get the love that Mumbo or the Jinjos do?
*Stands up to look at old Banjo-Tooie signed picture on the wall*….
Klungo gets a mention every now and again. What about the little alien guys from Tooie? And the little pigs from that game too? Thing is I’ve got such fond memories of making all that stuff, it’s hard to pick any one! Zombie Jinjo too, he’s another. And lets not forget the poor old rabbit…..
The old Rare seemed to keep things lively with a healthy dose of friendly rivalry between the dev teams. Is there any character that someone else designed which you wish you’d come up with?
This one is tricky. Can I get away with saying the Piñata universe? We were so fortunate to have Ryan [Stevenson, art director at Rare] on that team. To this day, I’m in awe of his artistic output and drive. His approach to the creative process is still something I draw on and try to emulate (badly). The range of shapes, pattern and use of colour to create the entire look and visual language of the game is amazing.
As we understand it, you were responsible for the lovely promotional and box art on the N64 Banjo games and others. We’re quite partial to a bit of box art – what do you think makes a really cracking cover? Will box and promo art fall under your purview at Playtonic?
Let’s answer the 2nd bit of the question first. I’ve no idea at this stage. There are already awesome artists at Playtonic, so I’m just happy to put my hand to what ever needs doing and take it from there. I’m sure as I settle into my new role, it’ll sort itself out! I imagine I’ll get the chance to work on some promo material; when the studio is the size Playtonic is, it’s important that you’re able to use your skills across a broad range of jobs.
[Seeing my characters in Smash Bros.] was amazing. Seeing the response online to some characters from a game made 20-odd years ago was exciting and humbling
For the 1st part of the question…hmmmm. Having the characters and title really pop off the box or page is important. I think with the boxes I was involved with, we always tried to tell a bit of a story on the front. Not so much with the Tooie box, but on that one we were asked to keep it to just the three characters.
As for promo art, the biggest thing I’ve learnt is to remember what the art is going to be used for; someone will probably be wanting to add lots of text, or crop it, so don’t fill the entire image with stuff as it’ll be in the way. Actually Apple are quite good at that; you have to provide promo art that has massive uncluttered space around key art, so they can crop and add text if they choose to put you on the front of the App Store.
Obviously, Banjo and Kazooie joined the Smash Bros. Ultimate lineup recently and some of your characters also featured prominently. How did it feel to see Mumbo and the Jinjos sharing the stage with Mario, Sonic and the rest of video gaming royalty? And on the subject of royalties, on what did you spend the vast sums we assume their appearance netted you?
That was amazing. Seeing the response online to some characters from a game made 20-odd years ago was exciting and humbling; to think that these characters and the game are even remembered, let alone cherished the way they are is great and weird at the same time.
As for all that money, well I’m assuming someone is looking after it until it’s worth sending over?
Finally, following the successful launch of Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, you’re no doubt hard at work on some juicy under-wraps Playtonic project. Can you give us any cryptic clues as to what you’re working on?
Oh man, I’ve seen so much already, things you wouldn’t believe! I’m settling in and over the last couple of days I’ve been sketching and doodling; trying to visualise the designers ideas so we can crack on with this next thing. It’s very exciting! As for cryptic clues, if I want to last more than 2 weeks here I’d better keep quiet….
Many thanks to Ed and the Playtonic team. We're very much looking forward to whatever they're cooking up next.