Visualize, pre-visualize: fostering the card arts in Realm of Duels as a designer

Blue Gold Tower, from Ream of Duels

My last title, Ream of Duels, has been available to the players for a few months. In the game, we created more than 450 unique cards, each with beautiful arts. The card illustration budget alone looked astronomical to me, landing in somewhere above $2,000,000.

Our team was not — to be honest — how to utilize this resource to our best advantage. But we were determined that we will deliver the best illustration in the world. The design process for card art evolved rapidly within three months time.

From Magic to NetEase

It took us the first two months to figure out the right workflow of designing cards and reach out to illustrators.

We started with something like this:

Show a stained-glass window depicting a white-haired angel. . .

Just as Jenna Helland once mentioned in her Magic design column.

But we found out solely using documents to communicate with artists — a lot of them scatters in every country of the world — might end up in chaos. Many of the visual elements couldn’t be conveyed with text and charts. This is even more true with the translation process between Chinese and English: How would you explain to a Russian artist the term “empty-spirited,” while it carries the notion of flexibility, unpredictability, naturalness and unrestrainedness?

From the simple sentence, we developed a whole spreadsheet that specifies every aspect of a card art. The chart eventually grew huge that it might look like a data sheet for skills. One of those you usually see in typical NetEase MMORPGS. An example looks like this:

Yes, the empty spaces are for texts. We needed that much.

I even came up with a style guide for my narrative team of three on how to write translation-friendly, so that our in-house translator wouldn’t have to ask about words and their meanings all the time.

But… as you may imagine, this does not solve the problem. The longer those documents get, the more unwilling the artist are to read them. Internal artists asked for more face-to-face explanations. And international artists are struggling understanding the needs.

From Doodle to Vision

I proposed to the lead designer and producer that we need people in the team who is capable of telling visual stories. We discussed for a while, and he came up with a wonderful idea. There are people inside the company who are masters of visual storytelling that we can turn to.

That’s when we brought in directors from the company’s video production team. Later they will be working with us on the opening CG, why not include them in an early stage? Then formed the “pre-visualization” team.

The game designers would do a sketch, a doodle or description, and then the directors can position their cameras to capture moments in the game world. These more detailed sketches are discussed back and forth before going out to illustrators. The pre-visualization sit with us and ate with us. The narrative design team was so attached to them that we were talking every day.

A pre-visualization sketch.
Illya, The Dragon Whisperer.

We ran focus tests on players, asking them to choose their favorite card among random cards. After around 40 on-site playtests, the cards that involved pre-visualization process are two times more likely to be chosen as “favorite”, although they may be done by the same artist. The coherence with the theme that this process brought is invaluable.

Doodle of a floating, intelligent, magical creature, with tentacles
Pre-visualization of card art: Attendant Summoned

The result is immensely well. The card art by far is the most praised part of the game, according to the survey to nearly 3,000 beta test players.

Bottom-line

Visual storytelling technique is critical. Especially so in a game where all the narrative element is nothing but a picture, and the name on it. When the designers themselves does not possess the ability, find somebody who can, and make them part of the team.