I came away from my interview with Daniel Dociu enlightened and with a greater respect for the concept art he and his team produce at ArenaNet. Having discussed at length his opinions on the industry, the games he plays (or doesn’t play) and his role within Guild Wars 2, it’s apparent he has a unique approach to managing those around him. There’s an overriding sense that he’s a man of heart, feeling and gut instinct; that he trusts his intuition and that he has built upon his life experiences more than he has the expectations of others. This emotional method of creating concept art spills into his work with such abundance, it’s hard not to be drawn into the worlds he paints…
His influences from years as an industrial designer are evident, from hulking towers to delicate towns, but they all embrace a sense of calm irrespective of the subject matter or scale, something he admits to finding naturally. And yet amongst it all, there is a simplicity in his design- a textured, tactile approach that serves to encourage the viewer to step into the world. Coarse brush strokes and often a lack of definitive lines shows an artist willing to accept his feelings as opposed to enforcing certainty. An approach of shaking off rigidity and the constraints of his past career has, on appearance, allowed him to blossom within the games industry.
Employed soon after NCSofts acquisition of ArenaNet, he has had a profound effect on a company more aligned to software development than soft painterly effects. His impact however was instant, with the visuals of Guild Wars morphing into an delicate fusion of eastern styling. While some of his ideas may have been initially rebuked, it is impossible to avoid his influence within Guild Wars 2. Steered by greater credibility within the industry, ArenaNet — personally pursued by Daniel — have chartered a course away from the likes of Blizzard and their mammoth budgets or other companies focus on high end visuals. Instead, choosing to utilise their own strengths; dozens of leading concept artists, illustrators and digital painters waiting in the wings. This consistent high level approach to art direction and styling, has allowed Guild Wars 2 as a brand to cement itself in the minds of gamers. Freed from the shackles of the hub based, instanced Guild Wars, the sequel as a result of its focus on art direction has benefitted ten fold.
Embraced beyond all expectations, the styling of Guild Wars 2 and its use of a painterly interface and accompanying animated cutscenes has allowed ArenaNet to reach out to a wider audience; those often more used to CGI visuals that promote a story, rather than the personal hand painted visuals of Guild Wars 2. This side step has allowed ArenaNet to stand out in the crowd as a beacon to all development studios and aspiring artists. That strong concept art and embracing the talents of those around you not only serves to keep production costs restrained but also acknowledges that is it often the simplest of approaches that yields the strongest of results.
A keen advocate of helping game art, it’s not surprising to learn Daniel believes artists deserve greater recognition from an industry more used to pleasing the middle of the road gamer (for fear of alienating a core user) instead of taking a risk. And while Guild Wars 2 may not step entirely into the visual realms of uncertainty, to the point of Love, they have undoubtedly reached a delicate balance of commercial visuals extracted heavily from the stunning concept art. Treating art with greater importance has allowed ArenaNet to create some of the most stunning locations ever witnessed within an MMOG.
By encouraging an atmosphere of freedom and expression from his team (which has almost doubled since his seven years at ArenaNet) the iterative process that even the art department has adopted shows it true colours. Adding layers of experience between concept artist and 3D modeller; to look at concept art and devour it both critically and analytically- before forming an opinion, not only brings the concept art to a new level, but allows for greater satisfaction from all involved.
While he admits that creative liberties are for those who have earned their stripes (entirely dependant on their personal ability), by loosening the reins he is allowing for unrivalled expressionistic freedom, which is clearly reaping rewards. Never within an MMOG have races or a game world been so realized. They are an extension of those who created them; a moving picture of thought and emotion that resonates passion. To provide one member of his art team the opportunity to redesign an entire race, based on her own passion, whilst acknowledging that some of their art ages faster than others, shows a real sense of trust and that perhaps traditional barriers of master versus apprentice do not exist within ArenaNets culture.
Although it was personally disappointing to have not seen the redesigned sylvari, I respect that the Daniel and perhaps the PR team were caught off guard by my questions. Like everyone within the Guild Wars 2 community, I would have loved to have seen and revealed the sylvari to others, but I also understand the need for market timing. Should ArenaNet reveal too many mysteries too early, they may find themselves at the brunt of a different kind of complaint, from fans who have nothing else to be excited for. An invitation to view the sylvari at a time closer to their grand reveal is something I did not expect, and is something I am entirely grateful for.
Modest of his own achievements and seemingly reluctant to return to teaching, there is evidently a hunger that Daniel is attempting to nurture within his protégés. There is a sense that he is also continuing in his personal search of self discovery which began in his youth, when in pursuit of a distinctive style. The fact he still retains a steely ambition to better his last work, with a hint of self doubt in his self analysis, shows a true willingness to continue learning and evolving as an artist; himself almost akin to a piece of concept art, ready to be molded by those around him.
While his dismissal of the term ‘talent’ may raise eyebrows, it reaffirms his mantra that hard work and self honesty as an artist are key to becoming successful within a cutthroat industry. An industry that has become so heavily burdened by an unrealistic quantity of aspiring students that many will fall far short of a required standard. Admitting that he sees the next several years of his life as the most intensive, entirely by choice, yet still wishing to produce the best work he can, leads me to think he won’t be a pillar that supports ArenaNet’s art department forever. After all, he freely admits the young talent around him are eagerly biting at his heels; sponges of youth that are absorbing all he has to offer.
Whatever course Daniel may choose to take, there are two certainties in his future. The first is he has redefined ArenaNets approach to concept art, not only on a business scale but on a more personal level; unlocking doors of emotion, mood and splendor that were seemingly unknown before. The second is that the next company that he graces, if at all, will be a very fortunate one indeed.
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