A Life of Art with Cecil Kim- Episode 134
Cecil Kim is a living legend in the concept art world. After getting his start at Squaresoft working on the Parasite Eve and Final Fantasy 9, he found his way over to Sony Santa Monica to help develop God of War 1, 2 and 3. Both Brandon and Larry had a chance to work with him at the concept art studio that started up game development under Cecil’s art direction we had to get him to do an episode with us on the podcast. Over the year we had a great chance to get to know the man and the stories he lived through, some of which he was kind enough to share on our podcast.
Looking at where it all started, Cecil tells us about his beginnings at Squaresoft on his first project there, Parasite Eve. Notably he explains how they were able to pull off the stunning 3D environments on the early Playstation games that Squaresoft became famous for.
What about Parasite Eve?
“I was talking about Parasite eve with one of our designers, saying wow that combat design would be really great for mobile. It was like real time gameplay but soon as you go into combat it becomes turn based. But the transition between those two was so instant. I remember when I was playing the main girl character in a cocktail dress holding a pistol, running around in a tiny room but as soon as she sees the creature, you see the target sphere and you can choose your weapon instantly. I think man, it’s one of the most brilliant game design and I think now mobile technology can make that happen. Parasite Eve is also nostalgic game for developers such as myself. After P.E. Finished, some of us had to move to Hawaii to finish Final Fantasy IX, and I was asked to go there to finish the project.”
Designing pre rendered game environments and backgrounds for Parasite Eve
“Back then we used pre-rendered backgrounds, it’s fake 3D. It’s modeled and textured in 3D but in game it works as 2D backdrop plane and there are some atmospheric details we have to put in like snow and cracks… A lot of snow I had to paint. A big majority of maps I had to paint. It was set in wintertime and in Central Park the Museum of Natural history had over 100 maps that me and my boss had to paint snow on. Some of the maps actually had two versions, persistent version and one is a dinosaur came through and smashes everything. So after a while you come back to the same room and we had to create the destroyed version.”
After finishing up Parasite Eve, he was told what and where his next job would be… Cecil was to report to the Squaresoft studio in Hawaii working on Final Fantasy 9 at the time.
Working on Final Fantasy IX
”You wouldn't believe I didn’t really understand how big the final fantasy franchise was. I had no idea. That's when Playstation 1 became popular, during 95-96. First interview I walked in, the art director showed me the 3D, back then it was calle FMV we didn’t call it cinematics, on tv screen. It was a huge airship flying over a cute girl waving at it. The color palates and the 3D details are something equivalent to what we see on pixar movies you know? My jaw dropped. He said, this is the game. He said you never know you might be designing one of those ships! I said Nawwww no way (in disbelieve). Then he hired me for my first job doing storyboards then map design and background design and location design. I was lucky. I got on one of the best development teams in the world back then.”
Cecil’s career came to a crossroad after spending more than a decade developing Kratos’ epic tale of war and revenge against the gods and he felt the itch to do something different, something personal. As he explains it, there was a need to explore his own ideas. Getting into how he became Creative Director at Section later, let’s first look at some of the lessons learned coming out of AAA games that he applies when developing smaller games now.
Mobile Game Development strategies that you pulled from working on older AAA games
“Section studios, we’re not huge we’re a small team. We have to plan from the beginning how to make everything efficient. Like you know how important it is to lockdown the camera when designing the environment. Everything goes hand in hand. Without knowing what a character is doing in a scene you can't design the camera. ANd without having the right character design first, you don't know the size or range of movement… Now that I look back, I really appreciate that I worked with such talented artist like Brandon and Katon, because when I started working on Blood Tales which is the base for the Rival game, I was ready to show the coolest thing on mobile. So I was pushing everything as much as I can. Having cool matte paintings, and intricate nice architecture. But in the end clarity right? You know people who decide to play games on the mobile, it’s not like they’re going to sit down and invest 20 to 30 minutes to play a game right? It’s more like, let me take a break ok.. Mobile games is like, sometime you are stuck somewhere watching something with your girlfriend on netflix and you have to be there, so sometimes it feels like mobile games just needed to be a second focus.”
The Pressures and Challenges of Working on the God of War Series
”God of War 1 was really long and a little dragging game development. It was unknown and the uncertainty. The three years of time for us to figure out what that game is right? It was towards the end where everything started plugging in together and I knew that game was going to be everyone's favorite. That was really later, it was really emotional and a lot of things going on in my life back then, kind of building a family right? And we launched the game and it was regarded as a high rating successful title and everyone loved it. So it was like winning a world cup, and those teams when going to the second competition it's like ‘lets do it again’ everything works like magic. So within that short period of time, on God of War 2 we were able to triple… That game really felt like an adventure as the player went from land, to Hades to going to the island then going to the forest. If you map out our journey its super long and very colorful. I think it was because the team is so motivated and we wanted to give fans what they wanted to have. We really sat down and understood what fans wanted to see more of and we took out what didn't work, we just wanted to make it better and better. God of war 2 a lot of people went through crunch but it went by super fast. Blink of the eye and it was done!”
God of War 2 was a fantastic follow up to 1, but it was positioned to be a huge risk as it’s development schedule was coming to a close and the launch of the new Playstation 3 was only months away. Would it be successful shipping this late? Should we somehow re purpose it and put it out on PS3, the timing was forcing the hand of Sony Santa Monica to make a major decision...
On Playstation 3 looming over the horizon
“We knew that playstation 3 is coming out and we have to make decisions that, if GOD of War 3 is coming out Playstation 2 or 3. So we had to rush it right? I think it was a little over 2 years we were able to do that. So from there to God of War 3… you know how graphics jump from 2 to three, because of normal maps introduced, and scripting and lighting and everything. A lot of work has to be redone and the tech side too, so we knew… God of War 2 was the first game dev experience that I had where people wanted it from day one.”
A hero’s journey illustrates the “refusal of the call”. After an initial fateful meeting with Justin Yun who attempted to recruit Cecil to work with the then company Blue Canvas, Cecil refused to join right away, claiming he needed 3 months to figure out his moves. He did eventually join BC which later became Section Studios, he illustrates exactly where he was leading into that moment before going full Indie and leaving AAA behind.
Jumping into your own company
“I always question myself, that what is it like to make something you want to make? I feel like, wow there’s so much out there. Teaching helped me have breathing room while working on God of War for 11 years, but one time I was teaching 3 classes and I was trying to balance myself out and I realized. It doesn’t have to be a big game it doesn’t have to be God of War but I want to make my own stuff. I was battling with that idea for a while. It’s really scary and then you have to quit your job. I thought about freelance but it didn’t make sense to me either. I wasn’t really trying to be someone out there to become popular or famous, I was so grounded into that long game dev team culture. I didn’t want to go to a different company either, because to me it was like changing your environment.. So thinking about it for a long time and what really got me going was I couldn’t see myself finishing God of War for another couple of years, technology got more sophisticated and dev time got longer. To me I was going into late 30’s early 40’s… So 5 years during that time is a LONG time. On mobile though, it’s becoming popular, people are realizing they can do more with the phone… It feels like everything happens at the same time. But then I met Justin Yun, and his company Blue Canvas, and we kept in touch. One time, Justin wanted to see me and I went to pick up magazines from him because I got featured and Justin asked me straight on. “Where do you go from here, what is your next goal?” He put me on the spot right? But I told him, you know what “I don’t know how but I want to start my own team and company, I don’t know how but that’s something I really want to do”. It was the right timing because Justin was looking for a way to spin off their business. So he offered me to be their partner and what I saw was his team had infrastructure, an awesome family. It was only like 10 people but everyone was so friendly and young and they all had their own area that they covered. When I saw Justin, I knew the quality of his personality being honest and genuine and he had a lot of respect for me too from artist to artist.”
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