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WarCry Interview With Ben Boos

WC: Could you please introduce yourself for the WarCry community?

Greetings! My name is Ben Boos. I’m an author and illustrator with a past in game development. I spent nearly 8 years in the trenches at Blizzard North during a fabulous time of that company’s history. Then I took the adventure a step further: I leaped and pursued a crazy dream.

For the last several years I’ve been pouring my heart into the crafting of a book that I hope gamers will like. It’s called SWORDS: An Artist’s Devotion, published by Candlewick Press. My crazy dream has now come true; thoughts have turned into things, and now the book has released! I can’t tell you what I’m going through. WooooHooo! It’s a very scary, exciting time. So hello everyone! Sorry I’m freaking out; it’s awesome to be here!

WC: How long have you been drawing “seriously,” so to speak?

I can remember drawing in high school while wishfully thinking about making a living as an artist. Hah. That lifestyle felt very unobtainable, frankly, but I was stubborn. I still wasn’t truly serious about my art until later into my college years. An art director for a local corporation offered me 50 bucks an hour to illustrate various mundane things. There was as much work as I could tackle too, and I remember losing lots of sleep during that time. Soon, I was doing so well at this new gig, I left school behind me, without a second thought. Yeah, I took drawing seriously then.

WC: When did you first get into the video game industry, and how did it happen?

Well, I was doing great with the freelance work, making money for the first time, but it was seriously BORING. UGH! It sucked away at my SOUL!!! So I dreamed and dreamed about a remedy. Ahah! I wanted to draw monsters, and weapons, and treasure! For a living!? But I had no idea how to do that! My answer: I defaulted to instinct, and painted like mad. I spent about a month putting together some fantasy artwork, with the intent that I was going to make games at any cost. Diablo had recently entered my radar, and had grabbed my attention. The music, the genre… Ah, that game fit with what I wanted to do. Thus, I knew what I had to do.

Move ahead in time, to a nervous moment at the 1997 Game Developer’s Convention, where I met Max Schaefer at the Blizzard North booth. I stumbled on my words, and shakily handed him my stack of prints to look at. Quiet pause, as he shuffles through my stack of work….. Ahah! He loved what he saw, and I lucked out. I was invited into the fold to become a member of the Blizzard North family.

WC: What games did you work on while in the industry, and in what role (or roles)?

I worked on Diablo 2, Diablo 2 Expansion (Lord of Destruction), and an early version of Diablo 3. During those years, I created quite a variety of work, and had the chance to go artistically wild. It was an absolute blast. I enjoyed sketching monsters; creating environments; designing weapons; painting user interface art or some box art… I wore several hats, and jumped here and there as needed.

WC: What were some of the reasons you left videogames, and do you have any plans to someday return?

I was accustomed to a struggle with pixels and technical limits, so when I started to think of making a book, it really appealed to me as a break from games. It seemed like an interesting way to express myself, where I could lose myself in my work without straining consciously against technical limits. Making a book was also refreshing, since I could work at home in my own studio, at my own pace, doing what I felt most inspired to do on that day (or night).

As for my returning to game development, yes, I expect to remain involved with the industry. I have a few ambitions in the hopper about such things. I actually feel like I never left the industry, because I found myself thinking in terms of game design the whole time I worked on the book. When you love games, it’s hard to stop your brain from “working” on them, I suppose.

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WC: Can you elaborate on the art design process? What sort of work goes into getting a weapon (or piece of armor, etc) from concept art into the actual game? How much input do other artists have (or how much input did you have on the other artists)? On average, how many revisions did you go through from first sketches to final design?

Naturally, the art path for a game will differ wildly team to team, or project to project. I can recall how our methods evolved over time. We had a variety of people who’d enthusiastically sketch stuff out, and then members of the team would usually take the sketch and model, texture, animate, import etc… We were a really tight-knit group, and I fondly recall lots of friendly group input and collaboration. Most of us tweaked our work based on this feedback, until things just felt right. A common revision that I remember being involved with was the effort to make stuff look aged and gritty. When art assets looked too clean and new, I’d often be called in to paint grime and grit on them, whether it was dungeon walls, or weapons.

WC: Many games have distinctive art styles – Diablo is certainly one of them. Is it more challenging to adapt your art to somebody else’s style?

Yes it can be tricky, but I think I had an advantage in this case. Blizzard North felt that my style was simpatico with their game world when they hired me. The first artwork I showed them had medieval overtones – scroll-work and ornament, and lots of gnarly weaponry and armor. I still remember them asking me to add that “flavor” to the game.

WC: On that note, how much freedom did you have as a game artist to blaze your own path? Were you given more specific directions, or was it more “Go for it, have fun, let’s see what you come up with?”

Artistically, I feel like I had a free hand. I always worked on things I was happy to work on, and I’ll always be grateful for how I was treated while at Blizzard North. They treated me like gold, and it was a lot of fun.

WC: What are some of your favorite weapon/armor designs you’ve done for a game that made it into the final cut?

Oh, I look at all my pixelated work from those older games and I cringe. 🙂
Someday, you’ll be able to zoom in and see some serious detail on your loot! That’s one of my dreams.

Okay, let me pick something though. After I left Blizzard North in 2004, before starting on the Swords book project, I spent a short time designing weapons for my friends at Flagship Studios. I particularly had fun while creating a huge sword called the “Holy Negotiator.”

WC: What are some other games that you’ve played (but haven’t worked on) with design work – particularly on weapons and equipment – that has impressed you, as an artist? Do you have any particular favorites?

Oh, I suppose that I enjoy collecting the weapons and equipment in any game that’s designed well. As a gamer, I’m probably most concerned with the game design and the “game-play engine,” rather than the graphics engine. We always knew that the graphics were a small part of the Diablo experience, for instance.

I’ll also admit, I haven’t tried too many of the latest crop of games. I’m looking forward to getting some free time to try some, so I can see what loot they offer.

WC: Any plans or thoughts on getting back with the old Flagship crew (now Runic Games)? Are there any other developers you’d like to work with if you got back into gaming?

When I parted with my friends at Blizzard North and Flagship, I was lucky to leave on very amicable terms. I’ll always think of those people fondly, and I keep in touch here and there. I expect I’ll be busy for a few years, so I wouldn’t predict any near-term collaboration. But then again, I’ve learned to keep an open mind about the future. I have friends all over the industry, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I collaborated with some of them again.

It’s exciting to see the Schaefer brothers at it again, starting Runic. I wish them the best. I think there will also be some other exciting news soon about Phil Shenk, my old buddy from the Diablo 2 days. I’d give you the scoop, but I can’t say anything yet! Watch for Phil, though, I think he’s up to something cool.

WC: What made you decide to do Swords?

This goes back to that crazy dream again. I desperately wanted to create an illustrated book, and I was convinced that I should try — enough that I quit my job. In retrospect, it might have been wiser to pick an idea, and then maybe write a little of the book first, before quitting. In any case, I quit, and then PANICKED while I searched for what to do.

An artist named Michio Okamura (he created the original character design for Diablo) gave me a sword when I left Blizzard North. It was a beautiful sword, and was one I knew that he treasured… This gift really got to me, since I was pretty sad about leaving my friends. Well, in the months that followed, Michio’s Sword helped me to lock onto my theme. I would make a book about SWORDS! It was a perfect for me, because I could draw Knights, Ninja, Samurai… so many cool things that inspired me, all which would fit under the umbrella of the Swords theme. I already loved swords, and had a lifelong interest in them. It felt like the right idea for the right time.

So, I built a pitch-packet about my idea (over several months), and then sent it off to a literary agent. She loved the idea, and arranged a call with Candlewick Press. Once I talked to the senior editor, we hit it off, and a project was born!

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WC: How long did the book take to complete, and what were some of the biggest hurdles in getting it done? How much research did you have to do?

Swords took two years to write and illustrate after I signed with Candlewick Press. I faced some crazy personal hurdles along the way, but stubbornness pays off! Perhaps the biggest hurdle was getting over self-doubt. If you let your confidence slip, it can freeze the creative mind in its tracks. I had to trick myself in various ways to loosen up and paint.

I did a little research here and there, but I mostly relied on my memory. Fortunately, I had filled my head with lots of sword-related imagery and information over the years. When I started to think too much about conveying a detailed history of the sword, it would bog me down like I was working on a text book, rather than a “fun” book. So I hewed to a more whimsical approach, and let my pen go wild. I scribbled down notes about what was on my mind as I went, and the captions were then derived from those original notes. This system kept me inspired throughout the project, and I hope it will add a quirky, fun quality to the book.

WC: The art of Swords is really, strikingly beautiful and extremely detailed … how long does it take to finish a page (or two-page spread, in some cases)? How often did you have to re-draw something?

Thank you! An average spread would usually take two or three weeks. But, I am also prone to strange bursts of activity, where I can finish a huge chunk of a page in a sitting. I had to rework a few areas here and there until I was happy, but I tried to keep a steady momentum, so the work would continue to flow along. I was terrified of running out of time, and it was close at the end. My habit of working vampire’s hours came in very handy.

WC: I have to ask – what is your favorite sword?

My favorite type of sword? Ah, if I were to pick based on today’s mood, I think I’ll take a samurai sword. But my mood changes! I’ve always loved medieval European swords, too.

WC: How many swords do you yourself own?

Not as many as I’d like! Someday, I’ll collect them in earnest, but for now, I have around nine or ten.

WC: How do you think your work in gaming has influenced your art, or contributed to your passion for the sword?

My work in game development taught me to think with a hard-core attitude about my projects. You must keep a mind-set that IT WILL GET DONE, come hell or high water. Blizzard also imparted a real sense of quality over quantity. They really try for “all killer and no filler.” That has influenced me in a very positive way.

Also, I worked with a bunch of Sword nuts, just like myself, so we talked about swords all the time. We had tons of real swords around the office, and Blizzard North even gave swords out as gifts (they once gave me a beautiful Scottish Claymore). Swords and gaming marry nicely. 

WC: What about the other way around – how did your passion for swords find its way into your game art?

The very pictures that got me hired at Blizzard North had swords in them. And then, suddenly, I was being paid to paint the things that I had been doodling for ages! It was a dream come true, and I had a wild time.

WC: After Swords … what’s next on your plate? Another book?

Yes! I’m busily working on a second book! In fact, I’m about halfway through and I’m having more fun than ever. This next one’s going to be a neat one – the same size as the last book, 96 pages, chock-full of illustration. Think monsters, heroes, weapons, and adventure. 🙂

WC: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? Something you’ve never been asked in an interview before, maybe! Or anything at all?

I’d just like to thank my fellow gamers out there. I’ve raised a family and pursued a true passion, and I credit my patrons (all the game and now, book buyers) for this blessing. Thank you! Oh yeah, and a big hello and best-wishes to all my friends out there who are hard at work making us more games to play!

WC: Thanks for your time, Ben!

It has been a pleasure and an honor!

Be well.

Keep checking WarCry for an upcoming in-depth review of Swords: An Artist’s Devotion!

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