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Kalvin Lyle



Guest interviewer, Nick Halme, brings us an interview with Kalvin Lyle, Art Director, Game Designer, Character Artist and all around extraordinary guy. Read on for some insight in to the craft we know and love from an artist who's been around the block more than once.


Nick Halme: First, a little bit of background.  As I understand it you co-founded Next Level in Vancouver after working at Bioware -- would you consider yourself a character artist, or is that too strict?

Kalvin Lyle: Actually I moved from Bioware in 2000 to Black Box where I worked primarily on character models for Sega Soccer Slam. The textures were done by the very talented Scott Lubker and Emmanuel Soupidis. From there I moved to Next Level and worked through a number of positions, setting up pipelines and training other artists to replace me. The last things I worked on at NLG were Mario Strikers Charged and Punch Out! as Art Director. Eddie Visser took the reins on Punch Out! after pre-production when I decided to leave Next Level. After that I went to Endrant in the UK to Art Direct the multiplayer for Wolfenstein. Now I'm at Relentless in Brighton working on Buzz! for the PS3 as Lead Artist. My plan is to stay in the UK for four more years and get citizenship...or marry a Swedish girl and move there. Sweden is awesome.

Hmm character artist, no I'm all over the place. My first credit was as an environment artist and additional programmer on MDK 2. While I was at NLG I did a lot of game design and pitch work.  I've designed and scripted a couple user interfaces for games now as well. That's why I like smaller companies, there's more room to try different things. Basically when I started in the industry there weren't really level designers. That's probably where my career should have gone. Now that I'm leading art teams I've got my eye on Creative/Game Direction positions. Really though I don't care what I do on a game as long as it's a fun project.  Did I mention how awesome Sweden is? [ed- referring to a reportedly epic week-long medieval festival on Gotland Island]


NH: What got you interested in moving from gamer to game developer? Did you have another career path planned before you got involved in game development?

KL: I always knew I wanted to be an artist. Mostly graphic design work and illustration. I played pen and paper RPG's and board games a lot when I was younger so video games was a natural fit.

I think the move from gamer to game master is an important one. If you'd rather play D&D than run a game, you probably shouldn't be designing games. I should be careful saying that. A lot of DM's are DM's because they like the power and control. DM's who like making stories for other people and giving them an experience should try to get into games.

When I started at Bioware it was because I had friends who worked there and I was just hanging out after my regular job. I wanted to learn 3D and started helping them out on a demo for what became MDK 2. One day Ray and Greg pulled me into their office and offered me a job. I'd been there eight hours a day for a couple months. It was fun so I didn't even think it was work.


NH: You've worked on a lot of games that would give a lot of gamers serious nerdboners; Baldur's Gate, MDK 2, Neverwinter Nights and The Suffering. So you've been around for a while, and you've seen game art evolve. What's it like working on a game like Wolfenstein compared to Baldur's Gate?

KL: Well to be honest the art hasn't changed at all, the limits have. The same techniques we used on MDK 2 and Sega Soccer Slam are still important now. The addition of normal maps and shaders has changed the way we UV map, but that's very dependent on the tech of the studio. Higher bone limits and animation sizes has changed the way we rig and model characters. The biggest difference from project to project by far are the teams and their dynamics. Now when I look for new companies to work at I completely ignore what projects they are working on and what tech they have. I want to work with great creative teams. I prefer smaller companies that aren't averse to risk.


NH: What's your stance on outsourcing? As games get bigger there's been a demand for art houses, and for independent contractors. Why do you think it's become so common to outsource art and not the products of other disciplines like design or programming? Is there a sentiment that art doesn't need to be there from the start?

KL: Outsourcing...right, well there is this problem that during production the art team swells in size to create the content (designers and programmers usually aren't responsible for content generation, they make tools and write documents). If that swollen team sticks around you risk burning all your profit for a project having them sit around with nothing to do. That's the problem. Outsourcing is one solution. Temporary hires is another, that's what they do in film. If you're very clever and the stars are aligned sometimes the swelling on one art team can be reduced by moving them to another project, but I've only seen that work a few times. There are usually extra artists. Personally, I like the idea of a more flexible art team; be that outsourcing to a known partner who you work with on every project or a set of seats you keep for contract employees.

NH: I met you through Dungeons & Dragons and you seem, to me, to be a pen and paper guy first and an artist second -- do you think having such an interest in game mechanics and narrative is integral for a game artist? Has it helped you in any particular situations in your career thus far?

KL: If I went back and started my career over I think I would have been an industrial designer. Function is an important part of everything I do artistically. As a game artist the design and narrative provide an important frame for your art. It's important to me that the experience of playing the game stirs the same emotions as the art in the game.


NH: You're at the point in your career, or have been for quite a while, where you're senior talent. It seems like a pretty big responsibility to be the person everyone goes to for guidance; was that a tough role to get used to?

KL: I don't really see it as a responsibility, so much as just another job. My role is to ensure the team succeeds. I look ahead and try to point out potential problems and try to build momentum. I spend time making sure the game design is stable, getting buy-in and framing art outcomes with the publisher, so that we don't have to redo work. Sometimes I have to remind artists where they should be putting their effort, or telling them to stop working on something and move on. It's easy to over work art and lose perspective on what the players will see when they play the game.


NH: What has it been like living in London? What are some of the key differences you've noticed when comparing your time overseas with Canada?

KL: Canada and the UK are pretty similar, generally. Obviously the initial shock of moving to a new country is significant. For example, you don't know what the grocery stores are called so you can't find them, even if they are just down the street. You get over those kinds of problems within a few weeks.
Then comes the language barrier. The British accents for the most part aren't very strong here in the South, but it took me about six months to be able to watch TV and understand what was going on. All the Monty Python in the world will not prepare you for this. I have no idea why. My friend Ben lent me Blacks Books to watch when I first arrived.  I had no idea what was being said. Six months later I watched it again and laughed my arse off.


The meaningful differences are pretty subtle. The government doesn't trust the people.  You can see it in how they set up their pension schemes and the health and safety laws. There isn't a great deal of trust generally. There is also a lot more racism than I expected. Not towards me personally, but some of my Spanish friends have experienced it (once while I was there, shocking!). The pub culture is very different. Basically the British treat their pub like their living room.
Another thing that happens after being here about a year is that you start to count the value of things under $50 in pints of beer. You think about buying a sweater, $20, wait that's like seven pints...hmm.  Would I rather have that sweater or seven pints of beer. Really puts things in perspective!


NH: If you could say just one thing to an aspiring game artist, what would it be?

KL: My message to aspiring game artists: Being an artist is about taking risks, never forget that. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there.



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