Thursday, November 26, 2015

Interview with Alex Tornberg - painting Hyboria with a brush..

Please tell us a bit about yourself and the work you did for Funcom.

I’m a concept artist and art director from Sweden. I started out working in the games industry as a Concept Artist in 2005 and in 2006 I joined Funcom working on Age of Conan. I spent 5 years working there. When I started out I designed mostly characters, armors and weapons but after a while I started doing environments and architecture as well. I worked as the Assistant Art Director on the Rise of the Godslayer where I had a big part in setting the style and art direction of playfields like Pai Kang and Gateway to Khitai as well as overseeing the art production of other playfields and content. I also spent a couple of days creating all the tattoo textures for Rise of the godslayer and I did a lot of the tattoos in Hyborian Adventures as well.

After I left Funcom I worked as an Art Director for an Electronic Arts studio for a while. Nowadays I work as a freelancer mostly for movies and TV, but I’ve done some work on games as well like for example on Path of Exile.

Please do tell us how the concept artist participates in the development. For most of the gamers concept art are just pretty pictures that we drool over druing the long wait for the game's release.
What was your role exacly and how your typical day working for Funcom was looking like?

A concept artist is the person who visualizes the art directors vision through sketches and illustrations. Every asset and every building in a fantasy game needs to be designed, every location needs sketches that sets the mood of the area. So on a game like AoC there a lot of work for a concept artist. We had somewhere between 4-6 concept artist working the game during the time I was there, but nowadays big fantasy games like that would probably have around 10-15 concept artists working on them. A lot of the work isn’t the type of illustrations you drool over though, there’s a lot of rough sketches or painting over screenshots from the game to show the environment artists how it is supposed to look and so on.

A normal work day would probably be something like this. I come in around 9 and have a coffee with the guys. After that I would look through my task list and see what concepts where a priority to finish first and then start drawing and painting. As I was the Assistant Art Director and Lead of the Concept Art team I would get interrupted routinely during the day for regular meetings and reviews or just questions or requests from other departments, I would also have to prioritize the work for the rest of the concept art team for every milestone. Then I’d head home sometime after six in the evening, depending on the workload at the moment

How are you collaborating with other developers and writers? Is your art something that others create around (hence the words „concept art”) or is it more of a team effort where for example writer tells you about the main story line and you are trying to get the tone and the mood of that story into the concept art?

On RotGS we worked very closely with Joel Bylos who was the Lead Designer then. The Concept Art team was working on the expansion before anybody else than Joel was really working on it. So there was a lot of brainstorming and sketching without any real story connected to them, some made it in others didn’t. We had a really great Concept Art team on that expansion. Stian Dahlslett as the Art Director, we had Grant Regan and Torstein Norstrand who had been working on AoC for years already, some great new guys in Ville Kinnunen and Per Haagensen and I was the Lead Concept Artist, and then Didrik came back and helped out with the final touches of the game. Both Grant and Ville are Howard fanatics. It was really a joy to work with these guys and probably the best team I’ve worked with.

Joel was really great with using the Concept Art team to help out on RotGS, we usually worked very close with the World Builders and Level Designers. Sitting next to them at times when the playfields or levels were built giving advice directly to them or doing quick paintovers showing how we envisioned the look and feel, probably the best team work I’ve seen during my years in the industry.

What does your creative process look like? Are you flipping through Conan comics? Are you taking the inspiration from real world architecture?

Most of the inspirations comes from the real world, it’s really the only way to get a fantasy setting to feel believable even though you try to get some of that old comic stuff in at times. Then you just let your design sense take over and you do your own twist on it. Didrik had a really great vision for AoC and how to get inspired by history but not copy it and the Art Bible he set up for AoC was comprehensive, detailing out each culture and what fitted them and not. It’s quite complex really, creating a good fantasy setting. You can mix stuff from different timelines, but you have to be wary so you don’t make it feel unrealistic. Howard could be really crazy and mixing stuff from the 19th century in some stories with things from ancient Rome in others for example, his stories didn’t always make sense in a historic fashion. So you really had to think about what can we use in AoC and what would just feel out of place.

So when I was designing some building or artifact I would first make a design board with photos from different things I thought would work for that. Then I would get inspired by that and design something new from it.

Robert E.Howard wrote some very vivid descriptions of buildings in Hyboria, were you using those descriptions for inspiration?

Yeah, absolutely. Though we tried to bring some sanity into it. Howard could be really descriptive about certain details and didn’t really bother with the big picture at times. But it was always a pleasure trying create something from the inspiration of Howards writing, I always took a pleasure in trying to get the details in there. Like for example purple minarets in Paikang, though they turned into purple roofed pagodas.

Tell us a bit about creating the art for Khitai expansion in general. There are hardly any descriptions of Khitai in REH books and very few Conan comics so Funcom had to create whole country from scratch.

Doing Khitai was a business decision. We had heard rumors from management that the next expansion was going east. We all hoped to be doing Turan, Shem or something like that, maybe basing the work on the Tower of the elephant. It felt like the most logical thing to do. But upper management wanted to break into the asian market. Around the time we started the work on Khitai our Art Director, Didrik Tollefsen, got the chance to work as a consultant on the Conan movie that was in the works at the time, that ended up being the horrible one with Karl Drogo as Conan, and left for that. Just after that the subscription numbers on AoC was starting to drop really  fast due to the lack of  quality content on later levels, so our director Gaute resigned from Funcom. Craig Morrison took over the management of AoC and Stian Dahlslett came in as Art Director, both of them had been working on Anarchy Online prior to that and I was promoted to Assistant Art Director and Lead Concept Artist. So the production of Rise of the Godslayer or Road to Khitai as it was called back then got off to a really rocky start. But it ended up being one of the smoothes productions in the history of Funcom.

That being said, Khitai is easily my least favourite region we designed for AoC. Our Khitai is very much based on ancient China, if you travel to the Forbidden City in Beijing and walk around there you will feel like you’re walking around in some city in Khitai, and a lot of the temple ruins were based on Khmer ruins. The clothing and armor designs have a much more modern feeling than that we had done earlier, and we have things like wolf mounts and tiger mounts which belongs in the high fantasy type of setting we tried to avoid with AoC. The quality of the art is a lot better in RotGS though, but all in all when we did Khitai it never really felt like we we’re doing a setting in the Hyborian Age. But I think it did turn out looking really good anyway and Joel managed to get a nice twist to the story which felt very in line with Howards writing.

House of Crom is  the most unique area in Age of Conan when it comes to the visuals. Tell us more about your ideas and inspirations that went into HOC.

Directly after the concept art team had finished work on Hyborian Adventures we started working on dungeons for upcoming patches, this was around March-April 2008. The first one we did was an Acheronian Dungeon in Thunder River, which was later named Xibaluku. When that was finished we moved over to a dungeon that had been in the works ever since the project had started back in 2004-2005, House of Crom. This was a mammoth of a dungeon, the size of it was like a whole playfield of it’s own. There was a lot of old design documents to build upon and I think the dungeon was supposed to be released around the same time as Ymir’s Pass, so it was sort of tied into that.

We had hinted a lot of atlantean designs throughout the Cimmerian playfields but House of Crom was where we really got the chance to explore that. The Atlantean design was an expansion of what Ron Cobb, the production designer of the film Conan the Barbrian (1982), had developed for the movie. Mixing historic designs from both the Mayan and Norse cultures it made for a really compelling and unique look. We really took off with that and visualized an enormous underground city that had been frozen for centuries. It had lots of secret rooms and interesting puzzles for the players to solve. We we’re going for an Indiana Jones sort of feeling with a lot of adventure and booby traps. We also used the connection between Howard and Lovecraft for this dungeon and had a giant squid like creature designed to be the final boss.

Last but not least: the Dark Cathedral. It was supposed to be a map for PVP minigames and even after 7 years of games release people are still asking about it (more info: Could you possibly tell us what was that map all about?

I think this was supposed to be a Capture the flag type of map. This was done during the end of the production of Hyborian Adventures. There was a lot of dungeons that just was created without any proper art direction then, it was sort of like the wild west. The concept art team got these handed to us to try and salvage them. Me and another concept artist, Fred Rambaud, got the job of trying and fix these. I was handed Dark Cathedral and 2 or 3 more dungeons to work on. Dark Catherdral was supposed to be something Aquilionian, but the geometry the level designer had used for it wasn’t really close to how  the Art Bible said Aquilonian architecture should look, he had just made up his own stuff. It had lots of rounded arches for example, which was a big no no. It couldn’t really be salvaged without too much rework but I tried my best. I think most us was quite happy that these never was released.

All images are property of Funcom.
photo of Alex Tornberg by Shashank Uchil (


Anonymous said...

Another great interview from the main man !
Thanks a lot Slith

Anonymous said...

I know there is not many things left to write about, but I'd like to make a small request:

Could you please white a new post (or maybe here at comments), and put links for all the up-to-date post you wrote in the past?

Me and other sin noobs would really appreciate that...

Slith said...


This list is still up to date

Anonymous said...

thank you!

Duffy said...

Hey Alex thanks for the great intreview! As a AoC player I always appreciated the outstanding art design in the game. It was one of the strongest assets the game had and added greatly to my enjoyment of the game.

Unknown said...

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