(Metagame Archive) How To Make a Vs. System Expansion in Nine Easy Steps, Part 3

By Danny Mandel

This week’s entry into the Vs. System Design Bible is pretty short. The good news is, I’ve got more room to answer questions. Hurray!

Design Bible
Part Five: Art Requests 

In this part, the R&D and Creative Content teams generate art descriptions (we call them “art requests”), which are given to our art director, who then edits them and sends them out to various artists.

Questions on Art Requests
Which teams (and members of those teams) will generate the art requests?
How many pieces of art are we able to order?
What are the bare-bones concepts for which we should generate art requests?
What are the necessary components of an art request?
What (if any) specific details about costumes or other paraphernalia should we include?

Thoughts on Art Requests
As I mentioned in the overview, generating artwork for an expansion is actually the responsibility of three different departments: R&D, Creative Content, and Art. Members of the R&D team work with members of the Creative Content team (which is also the team that does much of the card naming and flavor text) to come up with the appropriate number of art requests. The requests are then sent to the Art Department, where our art director edits our descriptions and then sends them to various contracted artists, who create the finished pieces.
The first question to answer is who exactly is going to work on the art requests. Usually the creative content team writes the lion’s share of the descriptions, with the lead designer completing 25% to 40%. Regardless of how many requests the lead designer actually creates, he or she should take an active roll overseeing the process.
The next question is how many pieces of art are we able to order. For a 220-card set, we actually want to order at least 250 pieces of art. This is so we have a buffer in case we get some art back that we feel wouldn’t be appropriate for the set. Also, it allows us greater freedom to swap art around to get better flavor matches.
The next question involves the actual concepts behind each art request. The R&D lead should work with the creative content team to come up with concepts for each piece. These concepts are just intended to give instruction to the person writing the request and usually act as the placeholder name of an art piece up until it’s placed on an actual card (which happens much later in this whole process).
The bare bones descriptions we come up with should be based off of all the IP research we did in Part Three of the design bible. Over half of the pieces will probably be characters, so their bare bones descriptions would simply be the character’s name with the phrase “character image” in the description box. Locations and equipment are similar to characters. We just want a classic description of the place or thing. It’s plot twists where we get to have lots of fun, since they can be anything from a fight scene, to a super-power in use, to a montage of events. An example of a bare bones name of a plot twist would be “Hulk Punches Thing.” The person writing the art request knows exactly what the image needs to describe, but he or she can go nuts coming up with the actual description.
The next question is what exactly needs to go into an art request. This part is pretty subjective, based on the depth the art director is looking for in the descriptions. For example, for “Hulk Punches Thing,” either of the following descriptions might be acceptable depending on what the art director is looking for. Of course, he or she will also edit where appropriate.
“The green Hulk has just punched Thing in the face. Thing is flying backward through a wall that’s crumbling around him.”
“The green Hulk has just punched Thing in the face. Thing’s neck is snapped back, reeling from the blow. He is flying backward through a wall that’s crumbling around him. The wall should be made of light-colored brown bricks such that the fragments of the wall that are flying apart kind of make it look like pieces of the Thing are flying apart as well. The Hulk looks enraged; he’s bared his teeth and spittle drips from his mouth. He should not be wearing the silly purple pants. (Other pants are okay though.)”
It’s important to note that the purpose of these requests is to give the artists a concept to work with. The less descriptive the request is, the more freedom an artist has to go nuts. On the other hand, sometimes, when given too much freedom, an artist will take a piece in a direction that isn’t what the expansion requires. It’s a delicate balance, but fortunately the art director usually will know the best approach to take with each of his or her artists.
One last point about writing art requests is to see if there are places we can put in special details like references, jokes, or easter eggs. For example, in the Marvel Origins set, each member of the Fantastic Four had three versions. We tried to make it so that the smallest version of each character had old school artwork, the middle version looked like it was from the 80’s, and the big version looked more modern.
At this point, we should have generated the proper number of art requests and handed them off to the art department. In the next entry, we’ll get into the thick of actual design when we talk about a set’s major mechanics and team dynamics.
Green Lantern Design Diary
Part Five: Art Requests
Three of us wrote most of the Green Lantern Corps expansion’s art requests. Matt Hyra and I represented R&D’s effort, while John Wick held up the Creative Content end. While I don’t talk about John too much in my articles, he’s a pretty cool guy once you get past the trophy band of severed wookie scalps he wears. I’m pretty sure Mike Hummel helped out, too, but I don’t like to give him too much credit because, as they say, “Never give a Mike Hummel too much credit.”
For Green Lantern, we ordered about 250 images, which gave us a reasonable amount of flexibility when choosing and juggling art. Rather than come up with the 250 bare bones concepts myself, I wanted all three of us to generate whatever images we felt demonstrated the color and flavor of the Green Lantern mythos. (Of course, this only worked because Matt and John had also done a fair bit of research on the subject.)
John wrote most of the character descriptions, which was great, because he tends to encourage the characters to be vibrant and alive as opposed to static and frozen. Matt and I wrote up most of the non-characters. Coming up with the constructs was by far the most fun for me, because we could essentially have the characters with power rings do whatever we could imagine.
Here’s where I eat a bit of humble pie. You see, I’m not the best art description writer in the world. I mean, it’s not that I’m bad at it. It’s just that Matt and John are way better than I am. That said, I will let you know what my three favorite descriptions that I came up with were.
Catcher’s Mitt (which was called Catcher’s Mitt from the beginning)
Kyle in his classic costume has made a giant catcher’s mitt construct to stop a car that was careening off of a bridge. There’s also a giant green baseball umpire construct off to the side signaling “out!” as though Kyle caught a fly ball.
The funny part is that in the final image, the umpire is signaling “safe!” which doesn’t actually make sense if Kyle caught a fly ball. However, it does make sense in that the people in the car are safe.
Ole! (which was called Ole! from the beginning)
Hal has created two bull constructs. Each one has rammed an empty car into Goldface. (He can’t directly attack Goldface.)
I’ve always liked the silly ways Green Lanterns need to overcome their vulnerability to yellow. This description seemed just absurd enough.
The Kent Farm (originally called Weird Dreams)
Kara Zor-El (the new Supergirl who’s just arrived on Earth) is sleeping. There is a thought bubble above her head picturing what she’s dreaming about. In the bubble are a cat, a horse, and monkey, possibly wearing capes, possibly looking like Streaky, Comet, and Beppo—the “other” super-animals.)
This art request is a great example of one aspect of the approvals process we go through dealing with DC and Marvel. My goal for this card was to show off all the silly super-animals from the Superman mythos. I figured there’d be no way DC would allow us to put the classic animals, who are pretty much out of current continuity, with the new Kara. To solve this problem, I tried to say that she was just having a strange dream that may or may not have included the super-animals.
Unfortunately, DC didn’t want any mixing Kara with the animals, even through the veil of a dream. Fortunately, they had a better idea. They suggested we just show the original Kara with the animals. Since the Vs. System exists “out of time” with regards to continuity, it’s fine for us to show a character that was phased out of continuity. DC didn’t care if we used out-of-continuity characters. They just didn’t want us to mix across continuities.
The updated art request we actually sent out:
Super-Animals (The name was later changed to The Kent Farm. I’m still bitter.)
Group Shot of the Original Kara (Supergirl) hanging out with Comet the Super-Horse, Streaky the Super-Cat, and Beppo the Super-Ape (monkey?). They can be having a picnic or some other silly 60’s style thing.
Overall, the process of writing the art requests took about a week. It was the first time I had worked with John, and I was really impressed. Not just with the quality of his work, but with his speed and efficiency—he handled over half of the total volume of requests. Matt, on the other hand, I’d worked with before, so I knew going in that he was terribly slow. Like molasses encased in cement stuck in traffic.
Okay, that’s all for art requests. I’ll be coming back to take a look at how we assigned the art and some of the problems we ran into later on in the design diary. Next week, I’ll dive into how we came up with the core mechanics and keywords of the set as well as how we decided what each team’s strengths would be.
Today’s first question comes from James. I’ve cut the opening paragraph because it’s mostly praise which might act like gamma rays to my ego’s Bruce Banner.
Your reasons for skipping Green Arrow make sense to me. It wouldn’t have done the set any service to drop unique characters like Olapet, Rot Lop Fan, and Jack T. Chance. But what happened to Arkkis Chummuck? He’s got some media visibility from his cameos in the Justice League cartoons on Cartoon Network (along with Galius-Zed and Larvox), and was on the art for the booster box, so somewhere down the line there must have been a plan for him, right? Why did he get cut? Thanks for your time, and keep up the excellent work.
Hi James,
There were actually a ton of awesome Green Lanterns that we had to cut to save space. There was no specific reason Arkkis didn’t make it in. Well, actually, he was in contention with two other Lanterns, but Kreon baked us a batch of chocolate chip cookies, and Brik took us to the movies, whereas all Arkkis did was buy the R&D team My Little Ponies. Against Humpherys’s cries of “But that’s my little pony!” we gave the nod to Kreon and Brik.
Seriously though, while it makes me sad that we couldn’t include them, you can expect so see more members of the team in future legacy content.
This next email is from Devin.
Ummm hi! Long time reader here, and I have a couple of comments/questions for you.
First, I’d like to say, great job on your articles. Yours always seem to be among the most entertaining, especially with your Humpherys banter. But I digress . . . I’ll get right to the point:
In your most recent article (Design Bible part 2), you say (and I quote):
“I mean, there’s been a lot of discussion about him warranting an entire team to himself—not exactly typical of an unaffiliated character.”
Now, does this mean that Apocalypse might not get his own team? He seems to be someone who would warrant his own “loner” version, but occasionally (and for the entire Age of Apocalypse series), he has a fully fleshed out team. Is there any hope for Apoc down the line?
Also, you mentioned using the Internet as an extra source of information for some of the obscure teams/affiliations. How do you know whether a site has reliable information or not? I’ve been to comic book character information sites and often gotten some conflicting stories, and some of them appear to be biased toward or against some characters. Do you take the info you get and run it by DC/Marvel to make sure it’s valid?
That’s all for now, keep up the good work!
Thank you for your time.
Hi Devin,
To answer your first question, I wasn’t entirely clear with what I meant with regards to an unaffiliated character not warranting an entire team. I was mostly thinking about Green Arrow specifically, and how he’s a member of the Justice League and could also possibly warrant an entire team built around him. Therefore it wasn’t pressing to give him an unaffiliated version.
As for Apocalypse, actually yeah, I could totally see him getting his own team sometime down the line. But in Marvel Origins we didn’t have room for the Horsemen, let alone the AoA characters.
To answer your second question, we always send an expansion’s file to the appropriate brand (DC or Marvel) to get everything approved. Sometimes this actually leads to changes, like a character losing or gaining flight or our having to alter a name or version or costume. So yeah, while we try to double up on our source and secondary material, we do have DC and Marvel to act as safety nets.
The last question is from Rui (and it’s actually just one of the many great questions he’s asked. Most of them have to do with card design or development, so I’m sure I’ll post more of them when appropriate in later design bible articles.)
On the team and roster selection, I wanted to ask you a question about the team selection. I can’t check right now, but I think DGL was the first set with an uneven split of “good” and “bad” teams. I’m guessing it’s because the whole set revolves around GL, and they don’t get to play with others, but I was wondering if that came into consideration or if you don’t care how many “good” and/or “bad” teams you do. Or maybe I’m missing something and this whole paragraph is stupid. If that’s the case, I’m sorry 🙂
Hi Rui,
Yes, the GL’s being the only good-guy team definitely came into consideration when we discussed who the teams would be. There was actually some debate as to whether it was okay to have a set dominated by bad guys. Ultimately, we decided the 3 to 1 breakdown was fine because it made sense thematically, and lots of players love to play the bad guys.
One point worth noting is that this decision put pressure on us to make the Green Lanterns feel mechanically like the “good guys,” hence their abundance of reinforcement, recovery, and endurance gain effects.
Okay, that’s all I got for today. Tune in next week for a look at how we design the high concept of new teams and how we choose core mechanics for an expansion.
Send questions or comments to dmandel@metagame.com.

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