(Metagame Archive) Voices from the Field: The Other Design: X-Men, Part 2

By Ben Kalman

Preparing for the Art Requests


. . . And then came the art requests. For the record, there were five days between the end of the research period and the start of the art requests, with about a month to complete the team rosters, support cards (plot twists, equipment, and locations), and the art requests. For the X-Men set, I worked directly with Mike Hummel on all these projects at the same time. I sent him tentative team rosters based on his preferences and filling in missing characters; he looked them over and reorganized them; and there was much back-and-forthing over who should be added and who should be cut as Mike decided how the final set would look. The same went for the support cards. I’d send him a list of potential card names and ideas, and he would send me back a list with half of those names trimmed and a bunch of new ones inserted with explanations. I would then run with those and start their art requests.

Working team by team was a very interesting way to go about set creation because I had a chance to really focus on the teams and their themes individually. It meant that the art request process was different, as the requests became more focused in terms of mood and style; when designing images on a team-by-team basis, it is easier to retain more continuity between those cards. Thus, the Morlocks had a darker mood to their cards, as did the Brotherhood (though more aggressively so), etc.

There were also set and game themes to keep in mind while processing the requests and coming up with names. The X-Men have their healing theme, as well as a minor focus on flight and team attack. The Morlocks are sneaky and attack in groups, and they’re also rejected from mainstream society, forcing them underground. The Brotherhood are aggressive and—particularly in the case of the Acolytes—fanatically loyal, and they also have breakthrough and burn themes. Hellfire Club is all about manipulation and behind-the-scenes/from-the-shadows maneuvering, and its members’ cards have to scream “luxury” and “elite.” And all the while, retention of traits in the art requests must be kept in mind, especially while designing generic combat images; there needed to be a mix of physical, energy, and mental images.

In order to maintain the themes, moods, and traits of the teams, cards, and characters, it was really important to know details about the rosters—the names weren’t enough. So, when sending the finalized rosters to me, especially for the X-Men, Mike included a small chart of what “version” the characters would be—their predicted cost and their rough power levels. Dealing with the X-Men a second time, I needed to consider distinct moments in X-history (the Dark Phoenix Saga, the Morlock and Freedom Force era leading into the Mutant Massacre, the rise of the Acolytes, etc). I had to know if it was Jean Grey when she was Phoenix pre–Dark Phoenix Saga, post-DPS Phoenix . . . or maybe the 90s post-X-Factor, non-Phoenix Jean Grey. I had to make sure that each character’s costume and look matched an era in the set, matched the themes we were angling for, and wasn’t the same as the Marvel Origins or previous legacy versions. It’s a lot to keep track of, so keeping charts around is very useful. I always try to keep some notes around while doing art requests to ensure that my vision for the cards is aligned with how the lead designer envisions the team, and that means following his plans for the teams and characters as closely as possible in the set’s preliminary stages.

Some of my character preferences were cut from the set at this point. Amanda Sefton and Candy Southern went bye-bye, much to my chagrin. I have since learned that very few side characters like that will get made, because the focus of the game is combat, and there are only so many slots available for non-combat participants—especially those who aren’t key to the essence of the comics like Mary Jane and Aunt May are to Spider-Man’s. Lockheed was included, but no other “flavor character” was included in the final X-Men set.

Also, popularity is important when it comes to character decisions; characters who are popular, especially those who are called for by a lot of fans, will be given more consideration. It doesn’t guarantee inclusion, but UDE does listen, and very carefully, to its customers. Note the better Gambit and Marvel Knights Black Panther, both of which were created with extra care since many people were clamoring for them . . .

It was also decided right around the time that the art requests started that no New Mutants or Generation X characters would be included. So, Magik was out, Cannonball was out, and Chamber was in for awhile but then dropped. Cannonball would eventually return due to his X-Treme connection after several other characters were flirted with, including Banshee, Cable (whom, it was decided, would be best served if saved for another set), and a second Shadowcat. Mike decided that it was important to retain the Astonishing X-Men theme in this set, especially since cards like Ord, Benetech Laboratories, and “The Cure” weren’t being made.

Mike was at the stage where he had to make sure drops didn’t repeat for a character (on the same team, at least), and he was also clearing up continuity issues—making sure characters we had on the roster were actual team members and that they fit in thematically. This meant a little more research on my part, but mostly I was now knee deep in the art requests. I had to cut down from about 260 to approximately 230 images, leaving a few extras in case of last-minute changes. The X-Men locations were substantially reduced, with a bunch of cards (like Angel’s Aerie) becoming extraneous. And besides, Mike wanted to include the malt shop that the X-Men used to hang out in back in the early days of the original five—a place that has popped up again and again throughout X-history. It took me a lot of digging, but I did come up with the name: Harry’s Hideaway. After I found the name, Mike told me, “I don’t know what disturbs me more—the fact that you found it or that I knew it existed in the first place . . .” It left me wondering why Harry kept rebuilding a seemingly hot spot for architectural devastation. I mean, that place was razed more often than my five o’clock shadow. But, I digress . . .
Ideas, Ideas, Everywhere!

Mike made the request process a unique and interesting one. As I was plowing through the requests with the deadline looming, I would send him updated files, and he would pore over them and critique the ones that he felt needed to be tweaked or changed altogether. Sabretooth, Savage Killer, for example, originally was feasting on a fresh carcass he had hunted in his frenzy; Mike felt it was too heavy, and so that got dropped from the art file. When one has such a monumental task as to create 250-plus image ideas (some of which will be cut before the file is even turned over), there will be several conflicts on various levels. Here’s a look at some of the ways an image can shift throughout the process.

The Image Inducer image went through some changes. It originally had Nightcrawler reflected in Storm’s eyes:

“Over-the-shoulder shot of Nightcrawler looking into Storm’s eyes. Her eyes reflect a gorgeous, dark-haired, goateed man. The Image Inducer is prominently shown in Nightcrawler’s hand.”

Mike felt that it would be too difficult to show that much detail reflected in her eyes, so I shifted it to:

“Over-the-shoulder shot of Nightcrawler looking into Storm’s eyes. He is in mid-shift, his bottom half showing the holographic image of a buff hunk in a swank suit, while his upper half is still Nightcrawler, in costume. The Image Inducer is prominently shown in Nightcrawler’s hand.”

I thought it was important to show the purpose of the Inducer: to allow Nightcrawler a sense of normalcy so that he could socialize and function in public without having to hide himself. In the end, Mike felt that the focus should be on the Inducer and its process, veering away from the theme behind my vision with an edited art request:

“Image of Nightcrawler using the image inducer to transform himself into a normal-looking man. NC is holding the device in his hand and has just activated it. From his feet to his torso, he looks like a normal man, and there are energy effects showing that the transformation will continue going up.”

Very similar, but edited to drop Storm, thereby reducing the themes beyond the function of the Inducer.

Some ideas need editing for other reasons. Turnabout, originally titled “Predator Becomes Prey,” had a solid image idea but was simply too busy for a single card image:

“Callisto crouches in a darkened tunnel, waiting to ambush Storm, who walks unknowingly toward her from around the corner. Behind Callisto is a rising Wolverine, claws extended across his chest, about to pounce the waiting Callisto. We should see Storm approaching from the left side, Callisto waiting—and only the shadow/shape of Wolverine and the gleam of his claws and eyes in the faint light.”

This admittedly had to be changed; too much was happening to fit on a single card image. Therefore, Storm was dropped from the image altogether; Callisto’s purpose can be easily gleaned from the card without Storm. The net result was this request, which became one of the best images in the set:

“Callisto crouches in a darkened tunnel, waiting in ambush, her knife at the ready. Behind Callisto is a rising Wolverine, claws extended across his chest, about to pounce the waiting Callisto. We should see Callisto clearly in the center of the frame, and only the shadow/shape of Wolverine and the gleam of his claws and eyes in the faint light.”

My rewrite was pretty much the same idea as the original, but more focused on the “turnabout” than the original “ambush.” Sometimes, concessions have to be made to edit an idea to fit everybody’s vision. Turnabout did just that and turned (ab)out great, and so did Special Delivery.

There was a card tentatively titled “OW! OW! OW! OW! OW! OW!,” an allusion to Juggernaut sending Rogue flying through a church steeple in Uncanny X-Men #218. The card name, which sadly was dropped, was Rogue’s dialogue as she plowed through in a straight arc. I thought it would make great art for an X-Men card—with Juggy smashing some random Brotherhood member instead. Mike had decided to put Juggy on the X-Men team, and this was a great physical combat image. His “victim” was tagged to be Super Sabre as a human cannonball, but Mike decided to change that to ensure continuity; we wanted a villain whom Juggy would have faced in combat as an X-Man. I started throwing out names, and the first one I thought of was Avalanche, from Chuck Austen’s “memorable” run on Uncanny X-Men. But Mike had a great idea: why not use Blob, and show the sheer forces at work by having the ground still attached to his feet? This was a great idea that later became Special Delivery, and I only wish I’d thought of it first. I wrote it up like this:

“In the center of a town square, Juggernaut, in his X-Men uniform, has just sent Blob flying, literally, through a church steeple. Blob, part of the street still attached to his feet, is flying toward us, Juggernaut clearly visible in the background with a crater in front of him from where Blob was standing. We should also see a trail from Juggernaut’s fist to where Blob currently soars. (See Uncanny X-Men #218 for reference.)”

I got quite a few ideas from Mike. One thing that I like about working directly with the lead designer on a set is the collaborative effort. It’s really nice to work together, to share ideas, and to draw from one another.

The other process of art requests is to ensure that certain elements are incorporated into the art: stackers, sliders, and “Easter eggs.” Stackers (and sliders) are multiple card images that are connected together—like Colossus, Organic Steel and Wolverine, The Best at What He Does, which are connected through Colossus launching Wolvie into a Fastball Special. Incorporating these elements is a process which I had trouble getting my head around at first, but one which I believe I am getting better at over time. It’s certainly not easy to keep Easter eggs in the back of your mind all the time and come up with neat and original ideas for them.

The Easter eggs are the hard part. Mike wanted an Artie Easter egg in the thought bubbles. He suggested, “It’s gotta be something like the Vs. logo followed by a smiley face.” Mike was my muse once again, inspiring my final image, which I wrote as this:

“Character Image. A smiling Artie is giving us a double–thumbs up, a thought bubble above his head showing one of his ‘verbal pictographs.’ It’s a Savage Beatdown card crossed out, with an Artie card next to it surrounded by dollar signs.”

The final image is one of my all-time favorites (up there with Midnight Cravings in the comedy department). Gene Ha drew the image to perfection!

Other Easter eggs include a signature Sewer System and one that seems to have gone unnoticed in The Beautiful Dreamer; can you find it?

For X-Corp: Amsterdam, I wanted to pop in a Pro Circuit reference (we did the requests just after PC: Amsterdam):

“The X-Corp Amsterdam building, near the canal, the X-Corp insignia clearly and proudly displayed. The Dutch flag is on the flagpole, and there are tulips all over the front lawn. There should be a banner over the front door that says, ‘X-CORP WELCOMES ADAM HORVATH.’”

Mike thought it was a good idea, but he changed it slightly to:

“The X-Corp Amsterdam building, near the canal, the X-Corp insignia clearly and proudly displayed. The Dutch flag is on the flagpole, and there are tulips all over the front lawn. A banner (or sign) is located on/near the front of the building that reads, ‘X-Corp Welcomes the PC Games.’”

In the end, it just didn’t happen. Perhaps the set was too late after the PC; I can’t say for sure.

And then, it was done. After a couple more back-and-forths, the file was finished on my side. Mike polished it up, changed a few images, and turned the file over, sending me a copy for reference. I now had five whole days of rest before the X-Men starters fell in my lap. Sigh . . . the work is just never done around here!

Also known by his screen name Kergillian, Ben Kalman has been involved in the Vs. community since day one. He started the first major online community, the Vs. Listserv, through Yahoo! Groups, and it now boasts well over 1,900 members! For more on the Yahoo! group, go to http://web.archive.org/web/20061213151610/http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Marvel_DC_TCG.


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