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DevBlog: It begins with art!

“That typical Anno feeling!” – A common comment from long time Anno players when they talk about the very special feel and look of an Anno game. But how do we actually go about designing that familiar Anno art style? It all starts with concept art and today, we want to give you an exclusive look into that work with our Senior Concept Artist André Kieschnik:

Hi, my name is André, and I have now worked as a concept artist on the Anno series for over seven years. From my first Anno steps (or lines) in the middle ages to exploring settings on a futuristic earth and now arriving in the industrial revolution, this journey was a chance for me to earn experience as an artist and to learn many things, some of them are valuable lessons for my craft and career. I want to share a part of said experience with the Anno Union and show you why concept art is important.

Three factors that make for good concept art
Gamers loves concept art, as it gives us a glimpse into the creative vision and direction of a game; but it is not only an eye-catcher, it is also an important part of the development process of a game. Concept art sets the tone for the art direction, helps to visualize concepts and works as reference piece for other departments. You can say that there are three important factors:

Visualization
We talked about the vision for our game in the past, and it is the concept artist’s responsibility to take all these creative ideas and to visualize them. That can be straightforward, like the first concept sketch of a new building, environmental concepts or a panorama visualizing how a whole cityscape could look like. But we also create mood slides, where we capture a certain atmosphere or feeling into a concept art piece, and work sometimes with abstract ideas to get them into form and shape. Visualizing ideas helps Game Designers (but also other disciplines) to get an idea on how game elements could look like, but also to figure out if and how they could function in the game.

Functionality
Functionality is another important factor. Sometimes, an idea sounds great in our mind but once we can see it visually presented in an artwork, we might realize that it is not working out as we hoped or that it needs at least some more thought and iterations to function properly. Imagine you have an idea for a new crazy factory building or a cool 19th century machine. A concept artist can help to figure out if that concept for a factory could work well together with the other buildings in the game or if the design of your machine feels plausible and convincing. Our credo here is “not 100% realistic but believable”. We take advantage of creative freedom when creating concept art but the right mixture between reality and fiction is what makes an asset believable.

Art Design
Finally yet equally importantly, concept art helps to set the visual tone for a game. Having a set art direction is crucial to create that beloved Anno feeling. So what exactly is the tonality and feeling that we are aiming for with the upcoming Anno 1800? The 19th century with its industrial revolution was, especially in large cities, often a dirty and sometimes gritty time. However, as with our Anno games set in the middle ages, the tone for Anno 1800 should reflect memorable aspects of that era without becoming too dark or dirty. For an Anno game, we all want that sense of satisfaction and wonder when observing our citizens bustling around a carefully crafted diorama of a city.

Which of course does not mean that Anno 1800 will not give you that soot-blackened feeling of the 19th century, as the depiction of the industrial revolution is an important part of immersing players in that that era.
At the end, artful architecture, rural buildings and industrial revolution should create a harmonious overall architectural impression. A good mixture allows us to represent everything, with vibrant cultural buildings or other eye-catchers compensating for your brick-stone factories covered in industrial smoke.

From first ideas to final concept art

Step one: Hitting the books
We always start with research. Anno is a city building game and therefore, architecture is the most important aspect we have to visualize. Our team usually starts to browse through various sources from that era, like old photos or paintings. Over time, we gather a good amount of reference material. However, it is not only the 19th century we take inspiration from.
When you do research about production buildings of that time, you quickly realize that many buildings were mostly made out of brick stones and all shared a similar architecture, which makes it hard to distinguish various types of buildings or their functions at a glance. We of course had to admit repetitive buildings made of red brick stones are not very interesting to look at, or not even what people expect when they think of the industrial revolution.

That is the point where creative freedom becomes important: we are also using modern references to include steel and iron, which most of us imagine when we think about the 19th century.

Step two: Time to scribble
The first visualization of a concept is usually a sketch. Let us stick to the factory for this example. We are done with our initial research and can now start to scribble down all the ideas we have in mind to create many variations in shape and form. At this point, while being rough, our scribbles should demonstrate various shapes that could fit in an Anno landscape but also show what is inside the building.

Here is something interesting to consider when creating buildings for Anno. When you take a birds-eye look on a real cityscape, it is hard to identify the various types of buildings. You might be able to spot houses, if it is some kind of cultural building or an industrial estate of sort. In Anno, we need you to be able to easily identify the type of building you are looking at. To immediately make you understand the type and function of a building, we make use of open walls or we even place elements that should be hidden inside the building (like big kettles or a smelter) outside to make it more readable.

We usually draw several sketches to create a variety of concepts for a building. In previous Anno games, the first sketches were usually black and white line-arts. However, our team got more experienced and with that, much faster over the years. That means that today, most of our scribbles already have some coloration to give a better idea how things could look like in the final game.

Step three: Decisions
Once we have a variety of concepts, it is time to pick the most fitting sketch of the building. Our team decides which sketch would work best as a concept for a building, with feedback from our Art and Creative Directors and Senior Artists. There might be a case where we have a hard time deciding on one sketch, which can lead to picking two variants or even mashing them together to create a new concept. Once we have picked the best concept, a 3D Artist will create a low-poly 3D Mockup of the factory. That allows us to compare it to already created Anno buildings and helps to identify if size and proportions are working or if we have to alter the concept a bit. After we have checked various scenarios with our 3D dummy and decided that we can go ahead with the concept, it is time to go back to the drawing board.


Step four: Let’s finish this
In the last phase, we take our first sketch and start to work on the final concept art. That means a lot of detailed work: we create a high definition file, work out all the missing pieces such as props, small details (which can be as minute as a poster on a wall) and define all the materials used in that building. It needs to be clearly visible what is made out of bricks, wood, metal and even if it is in a pristine or worn down form, especially for the later work with shader effects. Having all the details and the correct proportions is incredibly important as a reference for our 3D artists who work with that concept later on.

When the final piece is ready, it is time for the last approval check. If we get the okay from the Creative Director and Senior Artist, it’s time to move on to another piece. If the concept art needs to be changed after the revision, we usually go back to the beginning of step four.

I hope you found this behind the scenes look into the world of Anno’s concept art interesting. In a future Devblog, one of my fellow artists from the 3D side will take over to show you how our factory continues its journey into the finished game. Before I leave you, I would love to hear what some of your favorite Anno concept arts from the previous games were, so hit the comments. You might have even a few questions to our team regarding our work on the concept art for Anno 1800?

Best,

André

22 Comments

  1. Swimming-Paul

    What a beautiful update!!! The concept art featured in this article is drop-dead gorgeaus, and I´m very happy to see that the Anno feel is going to be completely preserved in this new game!

    One thing I would like to highlight from most buildings in Anno games and a very clever aspect of its design is how irregular and asymmetrical they are. This gives the illusion of having 4 different buildings in one, because depending on how you orientate the buildings they really look different from each other, and it makes the cities look more diverse, heterogeneous and realistic.

    My favourite concept arts from previous Anno games are from Anno 1404, the pearl fisher´s hut, the large noria or the sugar mill. I´ve spent hours hypnotized looking at these buldings and imagining the life around them.

  2. Mendahor

    In Anno 2070, my favourite concept arts were all of the fields (on islands and under water) that come with the factories (not the factories themselves) : I spend hours only looking at the cycle of culture growing and robotic arms spreading water on them. The fact the animation cycle was long is kind of fascinating. I think that water takes an immense part of my Anno feeling, be it around the islands or used for cultures. I’m not sure if it’s part of a concept art you are talking about, but I give a special mention to the transition when you go/get out of under water world : this transition feels really good.

    In Anno 2205, my heart goes to the structures designed with depth (with “holes” under the ground level, or with multiples levels) : Methane extractor, robotic factory, and all of the tempered and lunar mines. I think that this “3D” conception of the buildings really adds something, like a feeling of magnitude (but I didn’t really like the highness of the last level houses : since many of them are near together, it complexifies the clearness visibility of the town when you want to take a closer look). A special thought for the wine factory fields : this rounded pyramid with the water arm turning aroung calls one word into my mind : it’s a symbol of “perfection”.

    In Anno 1404, the best concept arts for me, and the main reasons I still sometimes go back to this (old but maybe the better after considering all of the pros/cons) game, is not the cathedral. It’s first the (tempered zone) houses. They are so “realistic” than they really create a feeling like “this is MY town”, I really can project myself to live in this town if I were born in this era. And projection helps really well to immersion. And second, the luminosity of this world : hot colours show me a really beautiful world. In 2070 you have to work hard with Eco’s to get a warm world. In 2205 you have to deal with artic and lunar zones, that can’t be warm by nature. In 1404, be it the north or the south zone, the entire world feels welcoming. And I love it.

    I don’t remember others Anno’s (many many years I haven’t played them, and in my mind 1404 is the last evolution of the previous Anno’s, before the rupture of taking place into the future)

    • Mendahor

      Sorry, I forgot to mention (and I don’t know how to edit my post) the most important thing : from the few I already saw of Anno 1800, you are in the right direction for me 🙂

  3. Arkenophas

    So nice 😮 I’m jealous about your draws, I want to do the same !!

    About my favorite ANNO concepts art, in ANNO 1404, it was the modular palace, the mosque, the big noria and the cathedral. For ANNO 2070, I liked the Oxygen tank, the tycoon monument and some of the Techs and Ecos decorations (principally the little modular ones). And for 2205, all the buildings was pretty beautiful (but Ibarely remember, a long time I didn’t play ^^’)

    Wich software do ou use for this render ? Photoshop ? In the little animation, there is a 3D mock-up you talked about, no ? Is it not to hard to imagine a building only with photos ? I mean, I suppose we can’t see everything of a building with photos, so, do you need to imagine the unseen part, as you have less than three bricks on a photo ^^ ? Wich software do you use for 3D ?
    I think it’s all I wanted to ask :p

    • Arkenophas

      And yes, I forgot something ^^ How do you begin your work ? I suppose, when I know the theme, you don’t think “C’mon, let’s find 19th century building !”. You separate in a lot of parts (industry, research, houses,…).How can you be sure to have all you could seen in 19th century ? And how many people are needed to do this titan work ? ^^
      (I thinks it’s all this time, I’ll wait the 3D devblog for my questions about it ^^)

    • BB_CR

      Concept artists tend to work with photoshop, yes. Commonly used tools on the 3d side of game development are ZBrush, Maya or 3ds Max.

  4. BlueBreath

    Sails factory looks awesome. I find it nice that it seems we are going to have classic ships mixed with the new steam ones.

  5. Dope-47

    awesome! I hope it’s gonna be so good as the old anno 1404

  6. Lioti_67

    This might take some of you back in the old days: in Anno 1602, I quite like the Cannon Foundry, the Gunsmith and the Large Shipyard; they mean that you can finally build those big trading vessels (with 10 cannons on board, what a treat !) and start preparations to invade the AI.

    In anno 1701, it has to be the Senate and the Royal Residence.

    In Anno 1404 (aside from the unlockable ornemental buildings): the two monuments, the Rose Nursery, the Perfumery, the Monastery Brewery, the Vineyard and the Manorial Palace, along with the Noble and Envoy houses.

    In Anno 2070: the three monuments, the Financial Center, the Arsenal, the Champagne Cellar, the Manganese Excavator and almost every energy-production buildings (and the ornementals ! )

    Lastly, In Anno 2205, I’d say everything really, because, thanks to those building modules, you can really customize every production site, and make it unique (I really hope you’ll retain this mechanic in Anno 1800). But if I had to pick one, then it must be the Metro Station and all the mines, fueling the industrial production chains !

    Can’t wait to see all the concept art for each building ! I agree with Nox_29, and it’d be great to have a digital (or hard copy) book of some sort gathering all the art for the upcoming Anno, plus maybe concept arts from the previous games, all compiled into one copy. I know I would buy it with hesitation ! ^^

  7. Olinater

    Another nice blog. Really nice to see how the process of creating somthing in the game follows such a lenghty path. It gives me a good impression in how much you guys care about detail 🙂
    Now looking at the factories that came by in this good looking artwork I couldn’t help but wonder how factories will be implemented in the game. Will we be able to expand our factories into huge industrial complexes like the Krupp factories in the Ruhr Area? I would really love to see this hapening.

  8. diddle783

    I love the style. two of my favorite buildings from the previous anno game’s are the cathedral and also i love the canon foundry

    • BB_CR

      I think everyone who played 1404 loves the cathedral, as it was so central to the campaign 🙂

  9. Nox_29

    One of my favorite art pieces of the previous Anno games has to be the cathedral art from 1404.
    And a question: Will fans have a way to get the concept art (physically or digitally)? I’ve always wanted to put some up on my wall!

  10. Underp4ntz

    Looks Great! What I DO like even more if we get 2 ~ 3 variants of the same production building in-game so it looks more unique. No factory look all the same in real life. I know it’s a game but Variation in buildings is always great just like the settler buildings.

    Maybe worth considering?

    • palemale53

      One way would be to have several different textures for the different surfaces, like the walls, roofs and ground and randomly mix them when the factory is built.

    • CorsairUplay

      Yeah this is a good idea. Especially for buildings like Fisheries which come in large chains across the coast and get too repetitive

      • Soulridder

        One could also go the way of having some small changes made into the building itself. Like moving a tower from point A to point B of the building, making it a bit higher or a bit lower or moving light sources around the building or placing stillages around. There are a lot of ways to achieve variants of building without even changing the texture, thought with changed texture it would look better.
        I guess this is the way house variants are made?

  11. CorsairUplay

    I really enjoy looking through the concept art of anno 2070. Hope we can get that as aditional content for 1800 too

    • Anno Community Team

      Great idea, we will discuss that internally.

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