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The ‘80s Strike Back: The Complete Story Behind Blood Dragon

Evans advises the art team to take cues from campy '80s slasher Nail Gun Massacre

Unleashing Dragons and Crafting Thrift-Store Thugs

Far Cry 3 touches on survival, torture, and the very real violence of pirates in developing nations. The Blood Dragon team had to shift from these gritty themes to making a game about ripping out cyborg hearts and fighting dragons. 

“The overall attitude, and I think I can pretty much speak for everyone on this project, was shock and awe in the most glorious fashion,” Evans says regarding the transition. “It’s not very often that you get to work on games like this, right? You look at a lot of big studios and there are not a lot of games of this tone and style. Everyone had a ton of fun.”

The team already had Power Glove’s soundtrack to set the mood, but Evans continued to force-feed the devs nostalgia. He shared ‘80s movie clips, blog links, and held weekly “Cyborg Nights,” where the team gathered to watch films like Robocop, Predator, and The Wraith. Blood Dragon is packed with references to such films.

The first conceptual poster for Blood Dragon

In the latter movie, Charlie Sheen plays a dark specter that kills gang members with his turbocharged sports car. Sheen’s found-object outfit in The Wraith is a stylistic example of the bullet fodder roaming Blood Dragon’s island. 

“The outfit that [Charlie Sheen] had – it’s so futuristic and he’s so alien, but it’s just black motorcycle leathers and a helmet with a few crappy cables wrapped around it,” Evans says. “That’s the kind of look and feel we wanted to go for. It kind of helps as well, from a modeling point of view, that we didn’t go absolutely too crazy on stuff and we tried to keep things so they can look like action figures. We’re using cheap objects and bolting them together like action figures. I think it paid off. The guys look pretty cool. It’s nice to say that one of your guys has a toaster as a face.”

The team saved time and resources by keeping the enemy design simple, but faced a larger challenge implementing the namesake blood dragons. Getting the tremendous, laser-shooting mutant komodos to gel with the environment proved difficult. The blood dragons are twice as big as everything else, which caused issues with how they interact with the game world. Ubisoft Montreal spent a lot of time combing over the entire island to make sure these imposing foes didn’t snag on geometry or cause other problems.

The dragons roam the island freely, sometimes obscured by an omnipresent fog. The mist creates a moody atmosphere while improving the large open world’s frame rate, but not without giving the team some trouble.

“The main problem we had from having fog was not being able to see enemies very clearly,” Evans says. “We tried a few different techniques, various different lighting setups on the enemies. But my art director and me were very adamant that the guys needed to be black. We really needed pinpoint light to distinguish them from everything. We were seeing what we could do with crazy lens flares and stuff, but again, we had six months. So all this stuff needs time to develop. But the tradeoff that we made was having the glow effect behind them. That’s like your classic hero shot. Like that front shot of Masters of the Universe, that shot of Dolph Lundgren on a poster where he has this big backlight with these huge rays behind him.”

Storyboard for an alternate ending to Blood Dragon

While the team found ways to make sure the dragons and fog worked, some ideas had to stay on the cutting room floor. Similar to the aforementioned scrapped boss fight with The Plague, players were originally destined to fight Colonel Sloan at the end of the game. Instead, Rex finishes off the power-drunk madman in a pixelated cutscene. In another scrapped conclusion, Rex eats Sloan’s heart, grows into a giant, and punches a Godzilla-sized Blood Dragon to death.

Ideas are commonly left on the cutting room floor throughout game development, but Evans blames the project’s lofty goals for some of those concessions.

“I think our biggest hurdle was our own fault, which was our own ambition,” Evans says. “We made all the wrong decisions throughout the whole process of this game. I’m not going to shy away from that at all. When you’re given the mandate to do an expansion or a DLC-type experience, you’ve got this [limited] amount of time; why the f--- would you choose to create new assets and a whole universe? It was just a really stupid thing to do. But whatever. You gotta roll the dice sometimes.”

Early poster concepts from Signalnoise's James White

On The Campaign Trail

In the games industry, marketing plans are often planned and executed by in-house or third-party PR agents. But for Blood Dragon, Ubisoft granted Evans an uncommon amount of agency to spread the word.  He learned the importance of powerful marketing at Rockstar, and he didn’t cut corners when it came to designing and orchestrating Blood Dragon’s marketing campaign.

Gamers got their first glimpse of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon early last March via a listing on the Brazilian Classification Board. Lightning, vector grids, chrome letters, and hot pink paint splatters were the only clues gamers had to go on, but it was unmistakably ‘80s

The talented graphic artist behind Blood Dragon’s logo and posters is James White, who runs the independent studio Signalnoise. White has worked with companies like Toyota and Google, but spends much of his time designing alternative poster art for classic films like War Games and The Thing. Evans got in contact with White through Eisener.

“[White] lives in my hometown [Dartmouth, Nova Scotia],” Eisener says. “He actually lives just down the street. I always thought he was this amazing designer. In fact, I think it was 2007 when we made our first Hobo With a Shotgun fake trailer [for the Grindhouse trailer competition]. I got him to do the font and then I got him to do all the other fonts for all my other shorts and all my other movies.”

Sketch work for Blood Dragon's character poster

White and Evans got in touch and immediately connected through their mutual adoration of the forgotten ‘80s style. 

“Dean called me out of the blue one day,” White says. “He started talking my ear off about uzis, ninjas, and all that other stuff. So I was like, ‘Yeah, man, let’s do this.’ 

“I’ve been doing graphic design for 15 years now, and this was the project that I really felt most at home with. Dean and I share so many different loves of this VHS culture from the ‘80s that it was easy to start firing around ideas. It was very little guess work on my end, because I knew what Dean was looking for: a modern, unique take on that aesthetic from, like, ‘86 or ‘87. So the collaborative process was unlike anything I’ve ever worked on before because I wasn’t working for a committee of dudes sitting in board rooms. I was on the phone with Dean at 11 at night, yelling at each other about ninjas and robots and lighting and all that kind of stuff. I knew really, really early what he was going for and luckily that’s the kind of aesthetic that I’ve been living in for years now.”

The two worked through several logo and poster variations, hammering out concepts even before they knew Michael Biehn would be on board.

“I started with the two [poster] mock-ups,” White says. “One [protagonist] has a motorcycle helmet on. One has a laser eye with the sun in the background. Those two I made up really early on because we knew we wanted that second poster to be character-based – the second poster being the one with Michael Biehn on it. So, I start marking those up not knowing they got the likeness rights to Michel Biehn at this point. So I sent over those, and then Dean called me up and he said, in that thick British accent of his, ‘You’re not gonna believe this! We’ve got Michael Biehn.’ I just freaked out because, man, that’s Reese from Terminator and that’s Hicks from Aliens. I was just geeking out about it, so I dumped those two concepts right away and jumped right into painting the likeness of Michael Beihn, this guy whose movies I’ve watched my entire life. It was a big geek-out moment to know that we could use his likeness legally and get away with it.”

Up next, an April Fool's Day surprise and a bright future

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