An Interview with Production Designer Silvio Aebsicher

Earlier this week, I was able to sit down with concept artist and production designer Silvio Aebischer and talk about some of his work.

Born in Switzerland, he studied Industrial and Automotive Design at Art Center Europe before moving to the United States. He worked on car designs first, but eventually found his way to California to work on video games. Since then, he’s worked on many projects, most notably as a production designer for two Oddworld games (Stranger’s Wrath and Muche’s Oddysee) and as a concept artist for SEGA on Iron Man 2.

As a kid, Aebischer was fascinated with how the world worked. He created things, building with his hands to understand how they worked and drawing out new ideas on paper. When it was time for him to attend college, he heard about a school that taught industrial design.

“I didn’t even know what it was,” he said. “I visited, and suddenly I realized that everything we touch, everything we have… everything you see that we own in our house, somebody had to draw it up. And they’re not all engineers, either.”

From there, he was hooked.

He started off by designing products for a toy company, before moving to the Michigan to design concept cars and work on seats for Johnson Controls. He jokes that he was hired because he was European, and understood European design.

During his time in Michigan, he was contacted by Oddworld Inhabitants, a independent game studio originally based in San Luis Obispo. One of the first things he did when he was contacted, he said, was to go out, buy a Playstation 1, and play the game Oddworld had already produced: Abe’s Oddysee.

He was intrigued by the story and message found in the Oddworld games, discussing topics such as the consumerism and environmental preservation.

“It was deeper than just smashing things around and shooting stuff up, ” he said. “Back then, it was just really driving games, sports games, and shoot-em-ups. So, story-driven stuff was very rare.”

He was also interested in working for Oddworld because of its European-comic inspired art. Rather than Marvel or DC, Aebsicher grew up with bande dessiné, or Franco-Belgian comics, some of the most popular examples including the Adventures of Tintin, Asterix, and Lucky Luke.

For Oddworld Inhabitants, Aebsicher worked on as a production designer for both Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath — both well-received games, with Munch’s Oddysee given a 7.4 and Stranger’s Wrath an 8.8 from IGN. In Stranger’s Wrath specifically, IGN compliments the graphics, saying:

“…Stranger is probably one of the prettiest, and most refined games on the Xbox, period. The jungles and forests are lush, the cutscenes are incredibly polished, smooth and attractive, and the high framerate keeps everything quick.”

During the course of production, Aebischer worked closely with the team to develop the tone and general feel of each of the games.  His favorite part of the process, he explained, was being in the middle of all these conflicting story directions, and making them all work together.  He worked on and developed many of the environmental, industrial, and character designs for both Oddworld games.

After Oddworld, Aebsicher worked with SEGA out of San Francsico from his home in San Luis Obispo. He worked on many of the mechanical designs found in Iron Man 2, the video game produced in conjunction with the film of the same name. He said he even got the chance to work in Los Angeles for a bit, getting a taste of some of secrets of Hollywood life.

Currently, Aebischer works for as a Designer for Rocket Communications and as a self-employed concept artist for PixelPencil out of his home in San Luis Obispo.

 

 

 

Indie developers making award-winning games in the AAA market

With the annual D.I.C.E. Summit only a month away, the recently released award nominations has been on the mind. Leading the way in nominations is Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, developed by Sony subsidiary Naughty Dog, with 10 nominations. Right behind them, with 9 nominations, is INSIDE, developed and published by independent game studio Playdead.

Seeing an indie game stand nearly toe-to-toe with a AAA just goes to show how indie games have been carving out their own niche in the game market.

(you can check out the full list of D.I.C.E. nominations here)

Indie developers

Back in 2011, Laura Parker wrote a piece on the Rise of the Indie Developer for Gamespot. It talks about a lot of fear people had, and still have, about the sudden interest in indie development. Games like Minecraft, Journey and Super Meat Boy  all started off in small indie studios, sometimes even with just one person—and became critical successes. Surely, this trend can’t continue for much longer.

Yet, it is still growing. In their first State of the Industry survey back in 2013, the Game Developers Conference polled 2,500 North American game developers and discovered that, at the time, 51% of the developers identified themselves as Indie developers. Among the respondents, 46% said that they were working in companies with less than 10 employees.

With digital distribution sites such as Steam, GOG, the App Store, Google Play, and so on becoming increasingly popular, its no wonder we’re seeing entrepreneurs making their way into the video game market. Many games can self-publish digital media without wasting profits on creating physical copies, something that would’ve been impossible just a few years ago. Beyond just creating shovelware, what makes the rise in indie development great is the fact that these small companies are releasing award-winning, potentially industry-changing content.

Award-winners

For Playdead, INSIDE is their second success. The game serves as spiritual successor to their debut title LIMBO, and expands on many of the original puzzle and platform mechanics found in LIMBO. At the Game Awards 2016, INSIDE was also recognized for Best Art Direction and Best Indie Game.

inside

INSIDE uses light and music to give the game a haunting atmosphere. (INSIDE, Playdead)

 

Also honored this year at the Game Awards was That Dragon, Cancer, recognized for its Impact. That Dragon, Cancer started as a small project by Ryan Green to celebrate the life of his son Joel, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 1 and died in March, 2014. Green’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Game Awards was heartfelt and emotional, thanking the audience for allowing him to tell Joel’s story:

“You let us tell the story of my son Joel. And in the end, it was not the story that we wanted to tell. But you chose to love us through our grief, by being willing to stop, and to listen, and to not turn away. To let my son Joel’s life change you because you chose to see him, and to experience how we loved him.”

that-dragon-cancer

Ryan Green and his son Joel in That Dragon, Cancer. (That Dragon, Cancer, Numinous Games)

 

Releases set for the coming year show that the trend for innovative indie game development is still going strong. Right now, the best way we can support the growing indie market is staying aware of what’s being released. Previews for Cuphead, Night in the Woods, and Rime already show that there will always be a new way to make games.

[edited for readability; January 24, 2017]