An Interview with Pixel Artist Extraordinaire Mark Ferrari

An Interview with Pixel Artist Extraordinaire Mark Ferrari - 2015-07-17 15:47:58

The world of videogames is, by necessity, driven by the technology used to create them. One can be an absolute expert and a highly sought after master of a certain tool, only to find one day that the industry has moved on to something new, and that for all their skill and expertise, they are no longer needed. However, despite the constantly evolving instruments used to create an imaginary world, at the end of the day, it takes an artistic and creative mind to realize these visions. Mark Ferrari is just this type of individual. Mark was the creative force behind many of the most popular adventure games that boomed in the late 80s and early 90s. Classics like Loom and Monkey Island are among a few of the games that Mark had a hand in crafting. His story is one of ups and downs in an industry famous for its undulating nature, and how in spite of its reliance on the newest and fastest processors, will always have a place for solid, original, and stunning artwork.
pixelinsert1Comics & Gaming Magazine: Hey Mark, so your first major gig in the gaming industry was working for Lucasfilm Games. How did this partnership come about?

Mark Ferrari: I put a portfolio of sci-fi and fantasy art together and someone told me about this convention, so I went. I then acquired the attention of a number of those prominent illustrators who wanted to know who I was and where I’d come from out of the blue. One of them was a very gracious fellow named Tom Kidd who was the artist guest of honour at the convention and he took me under his wing and, among other things, introduced me to the Art Director from Lucasfilm who had seen my work and was intrigued. That was Gary Winnick, with whom I’m working with again for the first time in many years on Thimbleweed Park. Gary said that they would be interested in having me come out and do a test to maybe do some art for computer games. I told them that I‘d love to but was a technophobe who had never touched a computer before. To which he replied that they preferred to find good artists and teach them to use a computer instead of teaching a programmer to make art. Those guys are geniuses but couldn’t art their way out of a wet paper bag. They took me out to Skywalker Ranch, and I passed their test.

CGM: You’re a pioneer in many respects, but one of them is the “dithering” technique. How did you come up with this?

The first game I worked on was Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, with Gary Winnick and Ron Gilbert, with whom I’m working with now on something that is very much like what I did back then. I was also working with Steve Purcell and Ken Macklin. Games then were much more low-res than they are now, and you only had 16 colours to work with. These weren’t 16 colours of your choosing, but 16 pre-selected colours that were THE colours used on all games, and these had been chosen by programmers who were not artists, by simply sliding the RGB number at even intervals up and down the scale. That made sense to those programmers because they were equal numeric intervals and they were horribly acid, unnatural colours that were virtually useless but that’s what we had to do whole games in. Knowing nothing at all the first thing I did with start checkerboard dithering them to come up with more useful colours, kind of like mixing paint. The CRT monitors in those days were blurry enough that the checkerboard dither blurred into a solid third colour. But I hadn’t been doing it for more than two hours before Ron and his programmers came flying in and told me with great angst that I could not use dither because it couldn’t compress. The day we wrapped the project I drew a picture of a twilight scene of a moonrise over ridges of live oak covered hills in 16 colour dithered art and just left it on my monitor as a kind of silent protest when I went to lunch. When I got back from lunch, Steve Arnold, the head of games division at that time and Ron Gilbert, of Programming, were in a heated discussion about why dither couldn’t be compressed…and within two months dither could be compressed. So we put out Loom with all dithered backgrounds and although it wasn’t a huge commercial success at the time, it was a huge critical success and dither became the new house style for Lucasfilm Games.
pixelinsert2Once the games division separated from Lucasfilm, the studio left Skywalker Ranch to set up shop in a cubicle-filled office building that shared space with an insurance company. This shift, and the hiring of cold and calculating bean counters as management caused Mark to seek greener pastures.

The bean counters began to make examples of creative people who did creative games that didn’t sell. Some very good directors were laid off, and other people were publicly humiliated and punished even though they got to keep their jobs. At that point I realized the golden days were over, and I had a great reputation as an artist and there were a lot of other companies that would be happy to work with me, so I stopped working there and went freelance. Operating on Skywalker Ranch meant working a lovely cluster of farm buildings and eating lunch in a big mansion every day with celebrities sitting across the room- working for Lucasfilm Games in the Allstate building meant sitting in a cube under pressure from bean counters who didn’t think that we were making enough money. I went off to work for a bunch of other people, but did very little that was as creative and important as what I was doing in Lucasfilm. I was making much more money to do projects that were costing and selling a lot more, but none of them are things we remember today.

In 1996, almost every studio in the industry switched from 2D to 3D CAD systems for game design. For a guy like Mark, at this time the most highly sought after 2D artists in the industry, this spelled doom.

When Gary found me for Lucasfilm, I was an emerging commercial artist, and pretty much the entire time I’d been in the gaming industry and at the height of my career in the 90s, I was one of the most sought after 2D artists in the industry. I was beating away employers with a stick. I was one of the only people in the world that could do some of the things I was doing with colour cycling, and for a little while that was relevant. But the advent of 3d CAD system made all of that instantly irrelevant, and with it, myself. My career ended in 1996 when the entire industry adopted the CAD system and it became affordable enough. In a single year it went to 3D rendered art. At that point, everyone who had begging me to work for them for years told me they were “delighted to hear from me” and that they were sure they had something for me and I’d be hearing from them soon. No work for five years, none at all, because the things I was famous for was 2D art and my style looked better than everybody else’s. CAD rendered art is all drawn by the same set of algorithms so that didn’t matter anymore.
pixelinsert3After working for a “junk-merchant” developer in Seattle, and becoming disillusioned with the low quality, marketing heavy and corporate controlled state of the industry, the mobile gaming boom and explosion of Indie studios brought Mark back to the forefront.

I think what’s happening now, part of the reason for this nostalgia movement is simply that the online options for bringing developers straight to their audience without the gatekeepers preventing you from getting into the store or getting distribution, there’s too many ways for too many people to find out what’s happening outside the corporate environment. Now that people know there’s something else out there, the mediocre cookie cutter stuff is doomed. Everybody is turning elsewhere now because elsewhere is finally visible. Interestingly enough, the first place people are turning is the last era where games were “fun”. Part of the reason for the nostalgia movement is now that people are aware there are alternatives they’re looking back on their own experiences and remembering that golden era of adventure games.

Mark is still doing art, and still writing, and is currently working with his old comrades Gary Winnick and Ron Gilbert on a new game, Thimbleweed Park, that aims to recapture the fun of the point-and-click adventure games they worked on in the early days of the gaming industry.

For more information on Mark’s Art, check out his website www.markferrari.com

Are Adventure Games Making a Comeback?

Are Adventure Games Making a Comeback? - 2014-08-21 13:01:48

I suppose I should start by pointing out the fact adventure games never really left in the first place but there’s no denying that after their early popularity in the late 80s and early 90s that they went through a bit of a slow phase. In recent years, they’ve been brought to the forefront yet again with Telltale Games leading the charge. Telltale has long been involved in the adventure game business with Sam and Max, Jurassic Park and Back to the Future all getting the interactive story treatment. They really started to get things rolling with The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, both of which were very well received both critically and in sales. On the horizon that very same studio has Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones titles heading to market. Finally, at Gamescom, the gaming public found out that the masters of adventure games, Sierra Entertainment, is back on the map with a revived King’s Quest. Does all this activity point to the return of adventure games as one of the premier genres in the business? While that may be a stretch it certainly looks as if a resurgence of the once dominating genre is well in motion.

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When Sierra Entertainment hit its stride back in the mid-80s it was responsible for many of the most loved games of its time. The list of beloved titles from Sierra is a long one with the aforementioned King’s Quest as well as Space Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Quest for Glory and a personal childhood favourite The Adventures of Willy Beamish (criminally underrated I say, criminally!). Perhaps their most well-known and critically acclaimed title was Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father which itself is seeing a remake by Pinkerton Road Studios. You’d be hard pressed to find a gamer in the 30 plus range that didn’t play at least a couple of these games. If you’re a bit younger there’s a great chance you fell in love with Lucas Arts favorite The Secret of Monkey Island. Perhaps the nostalgia of it all is what’s leading the way for this new generation of adventure titles?[pullquote align=”right” class=”blue”]”In an era where story sometimes takes a backseat to shooting another player in the face it could be argued that the gaming market is starting to feel deprived of intriguing and well thought out storylines.”[/pullquote]

In an era where story sometimes takes a backseat to shooting another player in the face it could be argued that the gaming market is starting to feel deprived of intriguing and well thought out storylines. You can argue until your blue in the face but I will never be convinced the latest Battlefield 4 plot is anything but contrived and force fed. Luckily games like The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite and the Mass Effect series have helped fill the void but they still have that primary focus of first or third person shooting. A classic adventure game keeps the story and puts the focus on puzzle and problem solving. Sure it slows things down a bit but it can be a welcome reprieve from the high action of those other games. The point, however, is that when you look at a number of the highest praised games in recent years a good number of them feature amazing stories with characters you care about. No matter how much action you throw into a game it puts one thing in perspective; story matters.

Looking deeper into recent releases, it truly indicates that adventure games are in fact making a comeback. The games might have been there all this time but they’re once again starting to receive top tier recognition from fans. Even some AAA publishers are jumping on board. Although it wasn’t as well received as many might have hoped Square Enix’s Murdered: Soul Suspect had many classic adventure game elements. Double Fine’s Stacking includes many of those elements as well. Daedalic Entertainment sets a high bar with their Deponia series and on the horizon we’re even seeing 1987’s Shadowgate get the modern treatment. I could keep going for a while yet… Heavy Rain, The Whispered World, Dreamfall Chapters… It’s quite clear the genre is alive and kicking.

The appeal of the adventure game is hard to resist and with history as proof, a tried and true videogame success. With companies like Telltale adding modern twists on to classic elements the newest adventure games are better than ever before and poised to claim a spot among the most popular games of our time. In the new era of Kickstarter funded games and independent developers getting a chance to show gamers what they’ve got it’s only going to get better. Consider the fact that Telltale’s The Walking Dead garnered its own fair share of GotY awards from various outlets and on a much smaller budget than an average AAA title.  Take that same budget via Kickstarter and put it in the hands of innovative young developers and watch the magic happen. Machinarium is another example of an imaginative adventure game on a tiny, near non-existent budget!

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Further to the point that story is one of the most important pieces of a great game you could make a strong case that even if Naughty Dog’s masterpiece The Last of Us had been made on a beer budget that it’s story-telling elements would have shone through like a diamond in the rough. It would have been a success either way; the graphics are just the icing on an already delicious cake. What’s the cost of a good story? Well depending on who’s telling it, it doesn’t have to be much.

Ultimately it’s clear that on a small budget, with a great story and time tested gameplay mechanics that amazing adventure games can be made. People are taking notice and the resurgence is marching on at a strong pace. What games are you looking forward to? Better yet, which classic games would you like to see brought back to life? You never know, it just might happen.

InnerSPACE host Ajay Fry talks best videogame characters

InnerSPACE host Ajay Fry talks best video game characters - 2013-01-24 17:27:04

Arguments amongst fans over greatest characters in gaming will always rage on. Tomorrrow InnerSPACE, an entertainment talk show on the SPACE channel, will throw their opinons into the mix. Recently we spoke to InnerSPACE host Ajay Fry about their upcoming Top 25 Video Game Characters special. Here’s what he had to say.

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