Saturday, 23 August 2014

#BoardGamersAsk Peter Wocken

We were lucky enough to have a world class board game graphic designer @PeterWocken answer questions for @BoardGamersAsk and here are his answers:

@BoardGamersAsk: You work with some top publishers and have worked on some awesome games. Could you give us an overview of what it is you really do?

@PeterWocken: I have had the pleasure of working with a variety of game companies over the years.
Primarily, my job is to create is a intuitive User Interface (UI) that allows player to quickly pick up the rules of a game. I don’t want to break the flow of a game with players needing to refer back to the rules to figure out what the heck something does, that takes them out of the game and the more immersion, the better.
Secondly, and just as importantly to me, it needs to mesh with the style(s) of art that are going into the game. In some games, the graphics and art are so dissimilar that it looks slapped together. It’s important to me to create a product that you can look at a component and know that it belongs to a certain game.

@the_FlyingSheep asked: How did you get your first break?

@PeterWocken: I was playing in a weekly RPG group and one of the guys happened to work at Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) on the Midnight Chronicles film. I was recruited to paint some of the background elements and that was my first visit to FFG.
Fast forward a few years, a few guys in my weekly gaming group were now working at FFG and I was looking for a new job. My wife @LisaWocken is a really great thought partner and career coach and she gave me some sage advice. I could jump right back into a new graphics job which might not be fulfilling, or be more intentional about what I pursued. I knew that it would be awesome to work in the games industry so I asked my friends who were working at FFG how I could get a job there. The answer was an internship on the Marketing Department, which I got after a portfolio sample and an interview. After that, it was a quick turnaround to getting hired full time on the Marketing team.

@BoardGamersAsk: is being a graphic designer in the board game industry much different for any other industry?

@PeterWocken: The term graphic designer is a bit of a misnomer. A lot of the people that are “Graphic Designers” are actually more of Graphic Artists. There’s a lot of creativity and passion that can be added to the various elements of a game such as card borders. A Graphic Designer might just create a simple frame and some text boxes but generally, in the game industry, we’re allowed to create many layers of details and textures that are more like a bunch of mini-illustrations. That’s one of the reasons I love what I do. It’s not just place X text in Y box and have it flow around Z image (although that does happen, it’s not generally a majority of my work). That’s also why my BGG credits show up under artist (essentially there’s not an official category).

@ByAmyReid asked: What has been your most challenging project to date? And why?

@PeterWocken: The most challenging project was BioShock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia by Plaid Hat Games. We were designing the game in tandem with Irrational Games, and we didn’t exactly know what assets we could use for the game. The only thing I could base anything off of visually was the trailers and gameplay videos that had been released online.
I ended up playing the trailers full screen and screen capping every three or four frames. From there, I was able to analyze the elements that made up the world of Columbia and make some educated guesses on what style of visuals would work with the setting and started to build from there. When we submitted the initial graphics, some of the feedback was along the lines of “Oh, we got rid of the stars on all the flags and just went with stripes,” or “The coin should actually be silver, here’s a large version of the graphic we used in the game.”
When the dust settled, I was super excited about how the game looked. John Ariosa’s (@ariosa) board map and token illustrations married up with Paul Guzenko’s (@GuzBoroda) cover art and unit illustrations. But once you start name dropping a few people that worked on a project, it’s like an awards ceremony acceptance speech. It really takes an entire team to pull together a good looking successful game and no one is their own island. There’s always a dialog back and forth with the Game Designer(s), Producers, Editors and even feedback from play testers.

@BoardGamersAsk: How much influence do you have over a game? Are you just given a brief and have to stick to it or can you give feedback?

@PeterWocken: It really depends on what the Game Designer and Producer want. Some times, they have a grand vision for the game and they already have some illustrations ready. In that case I know what visual style is going to go into a game, what level of detail I should use.
Other times, it’s “Here’s my idea and my prototype, but I’m not sure what visual style I want to go for.” For games like that, it’s a lot more thumbnail sketches and back-and-forth to try and tease out their vision for the game. I try not to just jump blindly into a game and say “Behold, this is what your graphics are going to look like.” I’m trying to help them birth a beautiful baby game and the more feedback I get, the more I can help them realize their dream project.
Yet again, most Game Designers that have been around for more than a handful of games know exactly what icons and text go where on each component and it’s my job to skin the game appropriately with graphics that match the art, theme, and type of game.

@Paulxthompson asked: How would you approach designing icons for cards to represent 'play only on your turn', 'interrupt', 'anytime' ?

@PeterWocken: Something to think about is who is your target market and how many unique icons do you have in your game? I love icons, but sometimes there’s an over saturation of them and you need to constantly refer back to a reference sheet or rulebook. I know that some companies do that so they can print a game in multiple languages for cheaper (discount by volume). Icons need to be intuitive and placed in such a way that it’s easy to scan a card and know what it does.
How I approach icons is initially doing a bunch of drawings in my sketch book. I’ll add a number next to the icons that I think are more successful, snap a photo, and send it to my client to get feedback on what they like. Sometimes it’s “I like this element from one and this from three” or “Let’s go with number two.” From there, I’ll generally take the sketch and trace it in Adobe Illustrator. Depending on what the final icon should look like, some times I’ll bring them into Adobe Photoshop and start adding layers of effects, layers and drawing to make sure it fits with the other elements of the game.
Oh, and it should be not so detailed that when it’s dropped into a font that it just looks like a blob, it should have a unique silhouette.

@BoardGamersAsk: How much involvement do you have with artist and artwork?

@PeterWocken: I’m not trying to be an art director (that can easily be a full-time job), so normally I just ask what artist(s) are being used on a project. Depending on the artist’s style, I’ll make sure that the graphics are appropriate for the level of detail and wether it should be cartoony, gritty, detailed, or clean.

@Rorschach_Ink asked: What's the best book to read when you're just getting into board/card game design?

@PeterWocken: I have my BFA in Illustration from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), and Illustration was part of the design department. I honestly don’t remember what books I read, I learn best by doing. I know that Daniel Solis (@DanielSolis) did some video tutorials on the subject. I’m actually planning on attending some UX (user experience) conventions over the next year, because that’s essentially what I’m doing. As far as levels of detail or what works and what doesn’t, that’s just something I’ve learned over time.

@BoardGamersAsk: What tips do you have for someone prototyping a game when it comes to graphic design?

@PeterWocken: Make it simple. If you’re designing the game, make sure that it it’s fun and that all the mechanics work together and have been well play tested, that’s your job. A lot of the Game Designers I know start with simply doing a basic non-cool looking prototype in InDesign. Some times they get fancy and make the text boxes different colors or pull in a couple pieces of clip art for icons.
After the game is fully tested, it’s a matter of knowing what you’re going to do with the game. Are you selling it to a publisher? If so, don’t stick your money into making it look really pretty, that’s their job and they might want to put your game in a specific setting (IP) or have a preferred artist or designer. If you’re planning on publishing yourself, do a lot of research and figure out if you know what you’re getting into. From there, you hire a Graphic Designer, Artist(s), Editors, and make sure that whatever you’re KickStarting looks professional and polished by the time you’re ready to launch, ‘cause you’re a board game company!

@Grand_DM asked: What colors inspire people to reach for a game again?

@PeterWocken: I don’t have a good answer for that. Normally, it’s whatever their preferred player color is. If there’s a red player color, that’s mine!

@BoardGamersAsk: What advice would you give someone who wanted to get better a graphic design?

@PeterWocken: Know your budget, and you (generally) get what you pay for. Graphics are easy to get to the 90% level very quickly. From there, every 1% of polish kind of bell curves up and takes longer and costs more… but you’ll end up with something that looks more professional.

@the_FlyingSheep asked: How do you get most of your work now? Do you approach publishers, or do they (or art directors) contact you?

@PeterWocken: I’ve been blessed to work with a fair number of high profile companies and IPs, which means that more often than not, I’m being approached to work on games. It also opens a lot of doors. That doesn’t mean that I’m not out there pounding the pavement (normally at conventions) trying to score additional projects. The trick, which I’m still trying to figure out, is how many projects to have on my plate at the same time. Some games I work on are ready to go and I can get them out the door in two or three weeks. Others take a lot longer.
A recent example is my work on Nautilus Industries by Lamp Light Games (@Lamp_Light_), which is currently on KickStarter. Mike, the owner, was familiar with my work, primarily with Plaid Hat Games. He already had John Ariosa of Mice and Mystics fame on board and he had his prototype all play tested and ready for graphics. He pitched me the setting for the game (post Captain Nemo’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and a stock market) and I said something along the lines of heck yeah, that sounds awesome! A few weeks later I had designed all the basic elements for the game so he could send prototypes out to reviewers so they would have enough time to play and film a review. A project is never really finished until the press ready files are sent to the printer and the hard proofs are signed off on.

@PeterWocken: Thanks to everyone for all of your questions. Thanks also to Nate for setting up this whole thing, keep up the great work!
If you have any additional questions, please feel free to ping me on Twitter (@PeterWocken) or email me, which you can find on my website ( Have a fun day!

@BoardGamersAsk: Thanks to Peter for taking part, I am a big fan of his work and am very grateful for him taking the time to do this!

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Thanks for adding to the conversation on Ministry of Board Games ;-)