The Artistic Process: An Interview with John Enricco


As part of writing about the art in games, and games as art, I had the pleasure to speak at length with Pandemic’s John Enricco. John has been a game artist for a number of years, previously at Volition, where he got his start.

I spoke with John about art and games, but the most interesting aspect of our conversation (which, alas, did not fit within the scope of my feature article on the subject) was about his artistic process.

I’ve excerpted below our conversation about what goes into making art for games and how the work he does, as an artist, fits into the overall process. It’s a fascinating look behind the veil, and a good example of how it’s not always as simple as one might think to make a great game.


The Escapist: How did you get into art?

John Enricco: It was actually in a pretty roundabout way. When I was young my parents gave me for Christmas one year a Commodore 64 and a Koala Pad. It was a Wacom-like basic tablet that you could draw on (in 16 colors!!) and create different fills, shapes and line work. I loved what was back then called generically “computer graphics” but by high school I really started to get into music and sort of let my love of digital art and gaming go by the side. I never took any art classes since I only focused on music throughout high school and college but later on, as I was starting a master’s degree program, I realized all of the exciting things happening in art and games. These developments rekindled my love of digital art and I felt I wanted to go down that route from now on. I decided to drop the degree and instead enroll in a computer animation/multimedia program in Pittsburgh, created a demo reel, graduated, and was lucky enough to land a position in the games industry.

TE: Describe a typical day in your life.

JE: I wake up and check email and my favorite digital art and gaming sites like the Escapist, CG talk, Gamasutra, to see what’s new with the industry and the latest news. I get to work around 9:30 and touch base with the art director and other leads to see what the tasks are for that day. For our recent milestones I’ve been responsible for the world building/asset placement in on our main focus area so I start up our editor and coordinate what assets are to be added and placed besides creating some that are needed. I also talk with some of the designers who are also working on that area and make sure that art and design is in sync with our goals.

Since I’m using the latest version of the editor, I also usually talk to some of the programmers on the team to squash editor or export bugs. With the technical lead, we write up some suggestions on improvements so it can be easier and more efficient for the rest of the art team when they get up to speed later down the road.

Around lunch usually an old friend of mine from Volition days who also works here and I go out to one of the restaurants in the area and commiserate on what’s been going on the company and the industry and/or about pop culture.

When I get back its back to more level tweaks, asset creation, and bug squashing with usually some mini-meetings on what the status is of the build. In between exporting the latest level (which could take a while) or for a break I usually go on the net to see what what’s up on some of my favorite sites during the day or chat with some co-workers.

I head home around 6:30 unless it’s an important milestone crunch, then I’m usually here late until about 10-11 or so. The company is cool enough in that if there’s a team crunch they supply dinner and sometime snacks.

At home, I unwind, get some dinner, watch some TiVo, maybe play some games (currently it’s Okami which is amazing) and/or I work on some of my personal projects and improving my art skillset.

TE: How does your work dovetail into the rest of the development process?

JE: While I create and place the environment assets my section of the world as some of the other artists are, the design team is concurrently adding AI path finding, nodes, triggers, etc in our editor. We make daily (or hourly builds sometimes) to check out the game world and see if there are any bugs that need fixing

If all goes well, we’ll be able to run the level in the game engine and keep adding and refining the game world area until it’s “done” and we move onto a new area.

TE: Do you find yourself pushing the envelope of what’s possible with the technology or is it the other way around; do you find yourself pushed by the demands of the technology?

JE: Honestly, I don’t think we really know what’s truly possible with the technology at this early stage in the console cycle. I look at current-gen games like Shadow of the Colossus or God of War and see how far a great development team can push that technology and I’m really looking forward to seeing what we and other studios can do with the newer consoles. I think you’re going to see some truly mind blowing stuff coming out in a few years when everyone gets there footing.

So, to answer your question, no, I don’t think we’re really pushing the envelope and it’s currently the other way around. I do feel that I’m being challenged by the demands of the technology since we have to be more flexible, efficient, and faster in creating more complex art assets since next-gen games have such voracious appetites for huge amounts of art content. I have to keep up to date and be much more knowledgeable on next-gen art techniques like ambient occlusion, advanced shaders such as parallax/normal mapping and complex lighting such as HDR imaging. Comparing this with current gen which we really only needed to know good color mapping and modeling skills and it’s a big difference. I do think that it’s exciting in that it keeps you more on your toes since there is such potential there.

I think Ted Price from Insomniac said in an interview somewhere that middleware is going to be the key in this and future console cycles and I couldn’t agree more. The better the tools that artists and designers have to create world spaces and game play, the better the game is going to be because of the faster iteration and feedback those provide. A great tools programmer is going to be worth his weight in gold. 

TE: Can you tell me a little bit more about how your work fits into the overall development scheme? How often, for example, do you create something off an inspiration of your own vs. creating assets based off of cues from another member of the team? And what form does direction of that kind usually take?

JE: The art assets that I create for my current project are guided by a couple of factors: a environment lead’s 3D mock up which shows the technical limits and art direction that is needed, conceptual sketches of a piece that a concept artist has iterated and fleshed out with the help of the Art Director and Lead Designer, or if it’s a very realistic piece, some reference photos given as a guideline.

These constraints work pretty well for the genre and style of the game that we are currently making and there isn’t too much play in what I can create from scratch. Mostly the asset lists are already fleshed out ahead of time for an area and there is not too much deviation except of some how some detail is created. An example would be a sailing boat that had a carved wooden mermaid on the bow. I could have more artistic freedom with the mermaid prop but I would still need to create the other 90% the ship to spec.

It really all comes down to the company’s art pipeline and what kind of project that I am working on. In a past project I was a world builder for an entire fantasy-style level while also having the sole responsibility of creating the entire “look” of it too with an art director’s input since we had almost no concept artists at that time. This is a different kind of challenge since it is more “what-do-I-do-with-this-blank-page-staring-at-me” kind of creative problem solving versus trying to nail down a more sprawling kind of world space that has much more realistic constraints and is the workload is shared by many more artists. I feel I switch back and forth between trying to be an artist versus being more of an artisan; both have different challenges and artistic rewards.

TE: What’s been your favorite project so far? What’s been your favorite part of that project?

JE: Maybe it’s because of nostalgia but I think my favorite project so far was my first project I worked on which was Freespace 2.

I would have to say though my favorite piece of art I created so far would be one of the assets on an unannounced title that I am working on now for Pandemic. Since the project is next-gen it can be extremely detailed with the poly count, have advanced shaders like environment mapping and normal mapping, and the game engine can create great lighting. I love seeing something I made like that in the engine and looking so realistic.

(For more of this interview, and to read what Enricco, Mike “Gabe” Krahulik and developer Joseph Hatcher think about videogames as an art form, please read “The Definition of an Art Form” in Issue 67 of The Escapist.)

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