Drawing Mass Effect 2: The Creation of Thane
How much time goes into creating a new character for a game? A lot. For every good idea a team will often have to sort through dozens of bad or misguided ones. But after months of tireless iteration a fully fleshed out character begins to emerge. BioWare’s art director Derek Watts walks us through the process of creating one of Mass Effect 2’s more original teammates, Thane.
“A lot of the time we will do the head first and then work on the body. I chose Thane because he was the toughest character for us to get. We had a written description of him to start with; we usually get about a paragraph of text to start, and that's all we really need. For us the key words were “career assassin”. The problem was, he was going to be the female love interest. Now that doesn't sound like much if you think about it, but it got us all mixed up a bunch of times, because women were going to have to find this guy attractive. So we asked all the women in the office what they liked in their aliens, and that kind of got us going off a lot of weird directions in the beginning and made it harder than it should have been. As far as men go – like with the Asari – you make her blue and give her the perfect body and you’re good to go. Women are more sophisticated than that.
This first set of drawings is by [concept artist Ben Huen]. This is his phase 1. We had talked to a few different girls around office, and I know Jude Law had come up a couple times. If you look at the guy on the left, the guy with the back paint on his eyes, he looks slightly like Jude Law. But we were also looking at some birds of paradise, and you can see some version of Thane were he had decorative feathers; we were thinking maybe he could've been very proud of the way he looked.”
“This is done by artist Matt Rhodes. He’s been around for a while. He did a lot of the characters from Mass Effect 1 – probably 95% of them. So at this stage we were actually talking to [Mass Effect producer Casey Hudson], and we were thinking maybe Thane was like the perfect man. Maybe he had like this mannequin head, but he had this slight fuzz of hair, almost like a baby – with number one you can see it on his forehead. We kept messing around with this red mark that we thought might be his key feature. What we usually do is get feedback from some people at this point, and the women looked at these and went, ‘I'm not sure about that guy. He's got a giant red mark on his face and he’s creepy.’ And we were like, ‘what he looks cool.’ So we went back to the drawing board."
“We almost started right from scratch again. We were trying to reference more reptiles and marine life. Then the women around the office found out about this, and they were like, ‘you guys get hot blue aliens, and we get a guy with a fish head.’ They were getting upset already, so we knew he had to be handsome. He had to have that assassin vibe. We had to be able to look into his eyes and get that feel from him. We also looked at Abe Sapien from Hellboy because his character is pretty interesting. We thought that might be a good reference for us to work towards.
The concept artist had an idea where maybe Thane could be a shape shifter. The problem is we would still have had to come up with one form that was his iconic appearance. If he shape shifts all the time you won't be able to recognize what he looks like. You wouldn’t really be able to advertise him on posters and whatnot. If you look at the bottom row, third one over, you see that's the one where we started to hone in on the final concept.”
“Once we got to this stage we were very happy with the way his nose looked. We liked how his eyes were very big, and the reptilian ridges on his head. We almost went with more of a snake-like patterning for his skin. You can see these three metal earrings on the side of his head, we never actually put that in the final model. We forgot. I noticed it a while after we finished the model, and I was like ‘where are those earrings?’ But it was too late and we said, ‘screw it.’"
“The body wasn't as exhausting as the head. This is Matt Rhodes' attempt. You see, we still have some of the old heads on there, but Matt was trying to explore what would happen if we had more flesh showing. That didn't go over well. We weren't very comfortable with the amount of skin. We thought he looked like he was from a boy band.”
“This is pretty much the phase where we got it. We decided to cover the body more. You can actually see the progression. We thought maybe he’d have camouflage because he’s an assassin. Then we thought maybe he's a bit flashier, and you can see the cape. The second one from the right – that's the one we ended up going with. It’s got this incredible feeling to it. We liked the open shirt and the cape. He just looks like he has this confidence. All in all, it's a pretty great costume that shows off his body and his confidence as an assassin.”
“We got Matt to try a few color variations to get some more contrast just in case. Sometimes we’ll actually hit on the character fairly early and keep concepting just to see if there are more ideas to discover. At this stage we were very worried about the jacket, and we were playing around with the idea of removing the jacket, but we tried it and it looked terrible. He looked like a dude in a jumpsuit. You don’t know how important that little piece of fabric is on the back. Without the jacket, it destroyed the character.”
“This is pretty well the final concept we did. We always do a front and back, so the character artist can get the amount of information they need to start building an in-game model. Overall, we are very happy with Thane. He took a lot of work, but the great thing was we went to show him to a lot of the women in the office, and they actually really started to feel intrigued by this guy. The thing that makes them come to life, of course, is the animation, and the writing, but after they did the acting and added that light filtering to his voice I think he turned out to be a great character in the game.”