Production design in video games

As production complexity grows with each game, the roles in the development team become even more specialized. For example, we now have a Lead Production Designer in Stuart MacDonald who hails from Scotland.

Stuart had a hand in a lot of what you see in Quantum Break, such as the Monarch characters and many of the enviroments. He is currently the Production Designer on P7, the game we are currently developing with 505 Games.

Stuart MacDonald, Lead Production Designer at Remedy. Rare picture of the man not wearing any Rockstar or Remedy swag!

You have been working in Finland and at Remedy for quite a while, but you originally hail from Scotland and worked on the Grand Theft Auto franchise for quite a while. How was the experience of going from a smaller team to a massive team back then? We had quite a lot of growth happening at Remedy when you joined to work on QB!

My experience of growing team size in Remedy actually reminds me of my time at Rockstar North. When I started at North just after the release of Grand Theft Auto Vice City, the team was around 60 or so. By the time I left midway through the development of Grand Theft Auto V, that number was at least three times larger and working remotely with artists at the other studios too. It’s an exciting and challenging time helping a team grow; bringing these talented people onto the project just opens up more potential to create something special, whilst at the same time meeting the challenge of trying to keep the team culture and focus.

How does living in Finland compare to Scotland? The weather surely can’t be worse here!

It hasn’t been as much of a culture shock as I initially expected. The Scots suffer cold, dark winters, porridge is a common breakfast, the people’s speech is usually incomprehensible to others, they can have a brutal sense of humour and enjoy a ‘dram’ (drink) or two. The Finns are the same, except for kilts and haggis, but they make up for that part with sauna.

What did you work on Quantum Break specifically?

My work was in guiding the production design and defining the initial art direction of the project, what you would term the world building for the project. By that I mean the visual design logic and world mythology. From the world layout and sense of place for the fictitious town of Riverport to the enemy design, architecture, technology philosophy, character costuming and the graphic and livery design for Monarch.

Now you are the Lead Production Designer, what does that role entail?

World building on P7 is the main focus currently. It’s a movie role term, with some of the Production Designer greats like Ken Adam defining not only the look of a movie but the design philosophy of a whole IP. For us it involves the creation of the game world (as we did for QB) with enough depth and variety to provide both a sense of place and immersion for the player and fertile ground for the game and level design to create interesting and memorable experiences. The world building isn’t just for the player though; it also helps to get the head of every team member in the studio into this imagined place so they grow some instinctive sense of what belongs and doesn’t when creating the game.

As well as that I look to how to improve the teams and processes for our future titles. We should always be looking how to tell our stories and create our worlds more efficiently and with better and better looking visuals.

Can you talk about what kind of tools/software you use on a daily basis here at Remedy?

Besides our own Northlight tools, I mostly use Photoshop and 3DSmax for concepting. Apart from that playing the game and giving feedback/paintovers.

We talk a lot about making smart decisions and building a lot of tools that enable us to work efficiently with a smaller team. How does one see this in your daily work at Remedy?

When I create a concept or a roughed-out model for a place or object in the world, the artists have the ability to quickly realize this design in-game, even in a simple, ‘whitebox’ way. This is proving especially valuable in our recent project where the physicality of the world and how you experience it is an important and integral part of the game design. Plus the lighting technology the team has developed has liberated us with what kinds of spaces we can design. You can see this in Quantum Break where the lighting and reflection technology allowed me to design very clean modern architectural spaces; something the previous generation wouldn’t have been able to represent realistically.