General: Mark Jones Interview
In 2011, UESP looked for questions to ask Mark Jones, one of the artists for Daggerfall, Battlespire, Redguard, Morrowind and several of the TES Travels games. Here are Mark's answers. It's a fascinating look at one of the most important parts of the Elder Scrolls series. See more of Mark's work at his website (archived link).
UESP: What is your background/education as an artist?
Mark Jones: 'A' level art was as far as I took it before being offered a job at Ocean Software. Back then there were no applicable courses dealing with computer art. Indeed, I was advised that no such thing existed and should do something else! I would recommend anyone now though to get as much education as possible and create, create create!
UESP: How did you get involved in the gaming industry back in the chaotic 80s?
MJ: Being an avid game player back then on my VIC 20 and later Amstrad CPC464 I was constantly frustrated at the quality of the graphics used in games. I basically redrew all the artwork in the games just to prove a point. With these samples and some original stuff I started sending out disks with samples of my work to all the gaming companies I could find. Ocean software offered me a job and at the tender age of 18 years old I was in! :)
UESP: Do you game yourself? What's your favorite?
MJ: After being an avid gamer I discovered that I actual get more enjoyment out of creating them than playing them. I now watch my kids play them. Oblivion being one of their favourites. I still see stuff that I think I could improve on in some games, but the overall quality today is great.
UESP: Which game art of yours is your favorite? (If that one isn't TES, what's your favorite TES art?)
MJ: Tricky question. I seldom like my own stuff for more than a day or two. I'm very critical of my own work and have been known to hand in stuff late, as I thought I needed to redo it all again as it wasn't good enough. :)
UESP: Which character that you created, from any project that you worked on, are you most proud of?
MJ: Perhaps proud of is not the right word, but I do have a soft spot for the Clannfear. I have one I'm working on in my spare time. All Normal mapped and high polygon. I think of it as my resume piece for Bethesda. :)
UESP: How has your work developed throughout the years?
MJ: Obviously the move to 3D was a big one, and looking back at the early stuff it's fairly embarrassing. I think expectations have increased so much now. Hopefully I've improved as an artist, and it's 'tighter' and not as loose and messy as it once was. More refined I guess.
UESP: Who is your favorite artist?
MJ: Ah LOTS! SO many. That's a hard question. If I could rephrase it slightly a how is the most influential artist, the one that actually got me into the business I could say it's Ray Harryhausen. He was the catalyst.
UESP: Do you have a preferred genre to work with? e.g. fantasy, sci-fi, modern..
MJ: Fantasy and Horror. Love to do a horror game.
UESP: Most of the images on your website are characters and creatures. Do you prefer doing those to textures and items?
MJ: I always wanted to create monsters/creatures since seeing the Ray Harryhausen movies as I kid. So yes, I really enjoy the creature work. :) I think he's a HUGE inspiration for many if not most of us.
UESP: What is your preferred art style? How do game limits affect it?
MJ: I tend towards the dark and scaly. Today we're not so limited. Time for creating of the artwork is probably the most limiting factor these days.
UESP: How did you get involved in The Elder Scrolls?
MJ: Ah, well up until my move to Bethesda I had been a pixel artist. No 3D whatsoever. I believe Julian Lefay saw my resumé and liked the fantasy style of 'Darkmere' and thought it would translate well for Daggerfall. At the time the intention was to create all the artwork using pixel style techniques. The first project I worked on when moving to Bethesda was to add some extras to Arena 'Gold'. Then I moved on the Daggerfall and remained with the series until leaving Bethesda at the end of Battlespire and Redguard. I freelanced with them for a few years after that, being lucky enough to work on Morrowind and the TES mobile games such as Shadowkey.
Elder Scrolls-Related Questions
UESP: Apart from the computer graphics getting better, meaning your art could be more detailed, what changed during your time working on TES games?
MJ: I think the move towards a art 'style' rather than wringing out the best art that you could with the limitation you were given. Improved hardware meant it was possible for artists to simply create what they wanted with a style. It turned into artwork rather than something functional.
UESP: It's often remarked upon how the music and images in later TES games work together. Do you know if the music and graphics helped inspire each other?
MJ: They help inspire me. Perhaps not with TES music as that's often written after the assets are complete, but I do like to listen to something that fits the mood and style in which I'm creating.
UESP: Did you ever produce any non-published art for other potential games - ones that never saw the light of day, such as the fabled Eye of Argonia follow-up to Redguard?
MJ: I never really worked on anything that never came out, but most artwork is changed at least once, so older versions never made it 'out of the gate'
UESP: You appear to have worked extensively on the Daedra, many of them being your own creations. What were your inspirations for the various otherworldly creatures? Do you have a favorite?
MJ: Yeah, loved the Daedra. I've mentioned earlier that I love Dark fantasy and creature design, so these were right up my alley. The Clannfear was a favourite as was the scamp. Yes the scamp. Why, because I had Ken Rolston next to me acting out the character, voice and all, so I always see the scamp as Ken.
UESP: Do you have any unused artwork from any of the TES games?
MJ: O yeah! To be honest, most of the work an artist does never makes the light of day. It's either improved and altered or just abandoned. Perhaps the most frustrating one that never saw the final game was the dragon in Daggerfall. 3D dragon. Built, textured and animated. Never got in. Month's work...Pop! gone :( Nice to see that dragons are back in Skyrim though!
UESP: What is your favorite piece of art you created for an ES game?
MJ: Hmmm. Theres so many. Even though I see some huge problems with the Battlespire box cover now, I think perhaps that's my favourite. It's not just that it's my own design, there's a lot of memories asscociated with it, from arguing for the Font and talking to Julian about boob size, ,marketing asking for more shadows in the appropriate areas. There's a lot more to it than being pleased with the end result. There's the warm (and not so) memories connected with it.
UESP: What kind of experiences did you have collaborating with other artists on games?
MJ: That's the bit I miss about freelancing everyday. The back and forth with other artists, critiquing and encouraging each other. Getting help when needed, and being inspired by others' artwork. On my desk as I write, I still have the model skeleton that has been a reference for me since the Atari ST and Amiga days, and it came with me to Bethesda as a reference there. Juan Sanchez would always be adding items of clothing to it. Hats and stuff. He created little eyeballs made from rolled up tissue and and dotted with ballpoint pen and stuck them in the sockets. One still remains to this day, always looking at me. :)
UESP: Which TES game was your favorite to work on?
MJ: Daggerfall I think. Baptism of fire that one. I made it all the way through, and mostly retained my sanity. Battlespire was a favourite too, but also a right pain. It was the last of the 2D/3D hybrids, and as such probably didn't fare well.
I would have loved to work on Skyrim though. Those dragons!!!
UESP: Which TES game was your least favorite to work on?
MJ: Well that would be Daggerfall too. LOL. Yes, it was a weird beast.
UESP: Are you a follower of the series yourself?
MJ: Yes, but through my kids. I watch them play. My youngest is an expert in TES lore, having read everything he could get his hands on!
UESP: How does Bethesda go about asking for particular pieces of art? Do they ask for specific things or do you draw pictures based on rough guidelines then hone them according to further instructions?
MJ: I haven't been fortunate enough to work with them for a while. Came close a few times in the last few years though. What we did for Morrowind though was to have sketches created and agreed on. These were created by in-house artists and then I would go in for consultations. I only live 30 minutes from their offices and it was no problem to go down there in person, to hash out any issues. Then I would create the models and texture and rig them. Most of the animating was done by Juan Sanchez, but I also handled some myself. For other titles I've designed the characters, which I do prefer, but working from a great design is a rewarding experience too.
UESP: What kind of background information on the games do you get, and how does that influence your work?
MJ: Depends on the game and how I'm involved. Many games I work on now I'm involved from the start and in those cases I'm part of creating the background information, but for others I'm brought in later and I'm given sketches or existing sample art from which to follow the style.
UESP: Did you ever have to rework a design after Bethesda didn't like it?
MJ: Yup! Always. :) That's part of the process for me. Refining refining refining. Most work is never seen, as it's been trashed. Hopefully the player only gets to see the polished cream.
UESP: Can you tell us why you didn't work on Oblivion?
MJ: They didn't want me :( (Boo Hoo, sniff). :) I would have loved to and almost got to work on a possible mobile version. I went down and met with Todd Howard and I got an early peek. I was blown away. It was a forest scene with shadows and grass waving in the wind, and some interior stuff with normal mapping. WOW. Yeah. I wish I had worked on it and would love to return to the series.
UESP: What things would you have done differently in Oblivion?
MJ: I would have had me as one of the artists! (sorry, couldn't resist!)
Well I wouldn't have fat elves. I always think they look a bit too chunky. I like my elves a bit emaciated!
UESP: You were one of only three art designers who "survived" creating Daggerfall from start to finish, with over 20 artists leaving the project during development. What was the biggest challenge during production and were there any obstacles in the production of such a majestic game?
MJ: 3? Good grief, never thought of that before. There were other artists that never got a mention too.
The main thing with Daggerfall was that it was an evolving game. It was the definition of feature creep. Things were in flux most of the time. and it was huge! The sheer amount of assets we were pumping out was crazy. I became very fast at creating stuff, using cheats wherever I could. Some of it was a bit rough around the edges. I think that drove a lot of artists crazy. We were more like artisans rather that artists. I think that in a way it was like creating a cathedral. It was just immense and we were all beavering away on a gargoyle here and a flying buttress there and Julian was this crazy architect and kept throwing ideas in. I think only a few saw what the whole thing could be. The rest of us kept creating and creating. It was a living organism.
UESP: Battlespire was developed and created by a small team of 8 people. Tell us about your experiences creating a game this big with a team so small.
MJ: Yeah good old Battlespire :)
Last of the breed that one. The 3D/2D hybrid stuff. I created a lot of high polygon work for that. Lot of detail, lots of fluid animating (Well I thought it was fluid!) and then we had to chop it down to make it fit. Turns out sprites take up a lot of memory when they are large and have lots and lots of animation. The final version didn't quite match what I wanted. Still, being a small project we had a lot of input into the game. And it was quick too, after coming off of Daggerfall. I got to work with Ken Rolston and Gary [Noonan] a lot on that one. I drank a lot of tea and ate a lot of toast and altoids. I was never the same!
Elder Scrolls Travels
UESP: For Dawnstar and Stormhold, it was decided to maintain the 1st person 3D perspective from previous titles. Cell phones anno 2003 were not exactly powerful; what problems and solutions did you have to take into consideration in order to stay true to the ES universe? And do you think the games succeeded?
MJ: I always thought one of the defining features of an TES title was the impression of being there. Seeing through the characters eyes onto the world that the team had created for them. So it was important to carry that through to the mobile devices. I thought so anyway.
Did that succeed. Hmm. Not sure. It was true to the the TES vision though. Perhaps a bit before its time?
UESP: When comparing Dawnstar and Stormhold, Stormhold has slightly more detailed graphics and seems to use better resolution and more pixels. Why is that?
MJ: Not sure now. It was a long time ago. Perhaps because we were allowed more space. I worked on Aralon for the iPhone and it was remarkable how close we could get to a TES style game with that. That was a good long while after the Travels series though. I'm still a big believer in a 'TES in your pocket' idea though
UESP: According the the now-defunct Travels section on Elderscrolls.com, both Dawnstar and Stormhold were developed in several different versions to run on all the different handsets available in 2003. Can you take a guess of how many versions we are talking about, for DS and SH respectively? And did it affect your art design in any way?
MJ: Umm. Again, it's been a while. Having multiple versions is a pain, and in most cases the base version is the most-played version, the best looking versions were on the higher end handsets and therefore more expensive and sold less. So glad the iPhone came along...
UESP: Do you have any kind of behind-the-scenes background story for the Elder Scrolls Travels games you worked on?
MJ: Heee. Yeah but I can't share 'em. I'd like to work again. LOL
I remember the designer barely slept for months.
UESP: You got your name onto Shadowkey's Key poster in daedric text. Are there any other little easter eggs lying hidden? Within Shadowkey?
MJ: I can't remember to be honest. I do always try to though. The poster was a pain, as we were always bouncing around with the look of it. One thing I did learn was that the customer is always right. AS an artist you tend to think that your vison is the 'right' one. But as a freelancer you are offering your services to the customer (Bethesda in this case). I think I thought I was still a paid employee arguing for my vision in a team meeting rather than giving Todd what he wanted. Sorry Todd!
UESP: A lot of the weapons and armor in Morrowind has daedric lettering on it. It seems to be random - but is it?
MJ: Ah well a lot of stuff I initially did had meaning but I think other artists took the look and ran with it, and created some superb stuff. I can't know what they stuck in, but I do remember sticking stuff on my textures at the time. :)
UESP: In Morrowind each model required a full, 360-degree view at all possible angles. Did you have to draw images for all the views?
MJ: No, just the usual front, back and side stuff. Perhaps a portrait/character sketch. I think there has to be some wiggle room in translating 2D ideas into 3D.
UESP: The level of detail in Morrowind is much higher than earlier games. Did you have to produce larger, more detailed images as a result?
MJ: Yes, and it took a while to get used to that,. Earlier games you could be a bit looser with the style and get away with it. Morrowind was the first game that I realised that I couldn't rely so much on 'cheating'. Today I create textures at least as large as 2048x2048 where I can still be loose in painting them and then reduce down to 1024x1024.
I think the first textures I did for a 3D model were around 32x32!
UESP: How much longer did a piece of art for Morrowind take than for the earlier games? Was Tribunal even more complex?
MJ: Yes, and that's why I think you now see more specialisation with the gaming world. Creating a higher resolution model takes time, then creating textures, (with various mapping options) and rigging takes some more time. It's hard for one artist to do all that, and get something completed within time constraints. For the mobile stuff I do now for iPad and such I still get to do all the work on many of the characters. I enjoy that. They are smaller game however. Not a mega epic like Skyrim, years in the making.
UESP: Do you think the fabricants and Dwemer robots you created for Tribunal suit the Elder Scrolls world?
MJ: I've heard complaints and I have to say that I thought the ideas were odd at the time, but I did enjoy creating them :) As a personal preference I like my fantasy dark and classic.
No robots. :)
UESP: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Mark!