Drawing Mass Effect 2: The World of The Collectors

by Ben Reeves on Feb 12, 2010 at 12:00 PM

Creating an alien species from scratch isn’t easy. Creating the world that species lives in – the ships, tools, and architecture – can take months of work. BioWare certainly had its work cut out for itself when it started designing a new nemesis for Mass Effect 2, The Collectors. We talked with BioWare’s art director Derek Watts about what it was like building a new civilization from scratch. As with everything about Mass Effect 2, we tried to keep this as spoiler-free as possible – but if you're sensitive to that sort of thing, you might want to wait to read this until you finish the game.

“We started with a fairly rough idea of the story at the beginning. Its fluid and it can change, but that doesn't stop us from concepting within these areas. For these concepts we were looking at what was beyond the Omega Four relay. I’ve been looking at a building in Japan – it's called the Port Authority building – that I tried to get into Mass Effect 1 and we were trying to get it in the Mass Effect 2. It's this incredible building that blurs the line between nature and building. It has all this vegetation on top, and these platforms underneath. [Concept artist Mikko Kinnunen], was trying to imagine what Omega Four would be like. Where did the ships go when they went through the Omega Four relay?”

“At this point we were imagining that the collectors had these ships that land on this giant spaceship that had all these trees and grass everywhere as they led the human in to get harvested. But you could see these reapers all over the place, surrounded by black holes. Mikko was just trying to imagine what the outside of this ship looked like.”

“We were kind of imagining this brushed metal that had an alien feel to it. If you look closely you can see some of the Reaper arms attaching to the roof. We weren’t really sure, but we had kind of an idea what the collectors would look like. We were kind of basing them off insects and crabs. They were very organic and boney. But at this point, we wanted to treat their world like it was full of very man-made materials with metal and steel, and a lot cables and wiring. The problem with the geometry of the level is that it didn’t work for cover. We tried to get one of our environmental artists to build this in-game, and it was sort of our first realization that this might not work because all the walls came in at a 45° angle and the level got too massive."

“We thought we were getting close, so we started to build the level. This level has a very brutal feel to it. It’s very stark with the harsh light coming and the clean void areas. But then we’d have these very organic creatures walking through the level. I think they were fighting too much against the clichés that aliens should have organic looking structures that look like them. We are trying to fight that but we had to go back and base this level off of what the Collector’s bodies actually look like. Clichés are there for a reason. You don't want to do them all the time, but sometimes you can avoid them. People always say, “it should look like the alien, if the alien is brown and organic than the level should be brown and organic.” It's like us humans going into houses that look like heads and arms and bodies. Our buildings and structures don't look anything like us, but when we do aliens we usually have to match the design; it sort of avoids the problem. So we had to throw all these out.”

“We have these phases, we tell the concept artist to give us just four or five quick ideas, then pick out one of those that we like, and try to refine that, and hopefully try to get a concept fleshed out in two or three phases. So what Mikko had done with this one is try an do a few more organic structures. He started to mess around with these large pillars, connecting things together, he thought maybe they were made out of mud or spit, maybe almost like a wasp nest or a termite hill.”

“Mikko painted in what we thought was going to be the final version of the collector. At this point, we thought he was going to be flying through the levels. We still didn’t know what the walls were made out of. When I came it to see this I was like, ‘what is this made out of?’ And he said, ‘what do you think it's made out of?’ I'd said, ‘I don’t know, bone? Mud?’ And he was like, ‘yeah bone that sounds good.” So we actually kind of like the feel of this one, but we had had to do another one because the level guys wouldn’t have been able to build this.”

“This is the one where we said, ‘yeah, this is the level.’ We were all happy with it. The environment artists could look at it and build it. What I think this one shows us is that you can see what the materials are. You see rock and mud, and above you can see those pods that are almost like beehives. The reason we had to get metal on the floor is that we knew we would have to have beds and doors and other mechanical stuff. So we wanted to get the metal into the style of this alien environment.”

“An important step for us is when we get the concepts we hand them off to an environment artist who actually builds them out. They get the concept and then they build a small room and texture it and light it so we can see if we can build an entire level out of it. This is a screen capture of the environment they built for us, and it took him about a week. But we immediately knew that this was going to be the level. So this was a great moment for us because we finally figured out collector ship was going to look like. The collector ship probably went through the most transitions of any level in Mass Effect 2.”