Anthony Coffey & Jesse Labbe: Art in Board Games #34
Editors Note: This week I'm talking to not one, but two artists from indie publisher Certifiable Studios. Their names are Anthony Coffey and Jesse Labbe and after spotting their amazing work on the Kickstarter game 'Who Goes There?' I got in touch to find out more.
Hi Anthony/Jesse, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
Anthony: Hey Ross, I'm an 2D/3D artist and game designer. I moved here (Ridgeland, Mississippi), from Dallas, when I was brought on to Certifiable Studios. I work on anything from game mechanics, illustrations, and 3D modeling; to animation, rules, or graphic design layout. The team is small, so we all tend to wear a lot of hats around here. It sounds redundant, but free time is usually spent doing more drawing or working on concepts for future projects.
Jesse: Well I would wear as many hats as Anthony does but I have a funny shaped head, so I am pretty particular about what I put on it. It's mainly because of that I don't do any 3D molding or animation (again only because of my misshaped head not because I don't know how). But I do, however, do a lot of illustrations as well as game mechanics.
You work together at an indie publisher Certifiable Studios, so before we get to the games can you tell us more about how the studio was set up, what your goals are and how the team got together?
Anthony: I'll defer to Jesse since this one is more for him. haha
Jesse: Well at first, I wanted to make a hat company, but then Rick (also at Certifiable) reminded me about my deformed head...so I thought what else can we do? GAMES! Let's make some games! Actually, I have been into tabletop games since I could remember. Fireball Island was a pin in my childhood timeline. Soon after that, Hero Quest began to open my eyes to all the possibilities that you could create with a game; the worlds that could be designed and all the adventures to be had exploring them. With such a love for illustrations, games just felt like the natural next step.
I worked on a couple of games under the roof of other companies and learned a lot of Do's and Don'ts. I had an idea for a game called "Ash to Bone", but wasn't ready to hand it over to someone else. I partnered up with Rick More (the brains of the studio) and Tah-Dah...Certifiable was born. We wanted to start small before going into "Ash to Bone" because it was a larger project, so we came up with "Endangered Orphans". That was received on Kickstarter better than I would have ever imagined. Next came "Who Goes There?" followed by "Stuffed". Now we are finally back to where we started....about to start production on "Ash to Bone".
The studios first release Endangered Orphans of Condyle Cove was successfully Kickstarted back in 2016. What can you remember about that project and what lessons did you take away from it moving forwards?
Jesse: Wow, where to begin? If there was a checklist of all the things not to do, we would have checked "yes" to each thing on the list. We seemed to do everything wrong for that (our first) Kickstarter. We had nothing about the game on BGG (Board Game Geek). We did a cold launch having never mentioned anything about the game to anyone. We didn't have even one video showing a play through. We didn't have the rules posted. We had no stretch goals prepared and we were constantly telling everyone that this is an awful (as in mean theme) game! But, we were really lucky and had some amazing backers come aboard during that campaign. It was because of them we were able to do what we did with the success of that game. We had so much fun during that campaign. We even received a ton of gifts from the backers, which I have since learned was unusual. Dozens of bags of coffee, t-shirts, toys, whiskey, letters, hats, cookies, flowers, stuffed animals and a lot of pants (it's a long story). Wow, gotta love our backers!
Anthony: During this Kickstarter project, I was helping from Dallas. Jesse asked if I could sculpt the pawns for a game they had on Kickstarter which is how my part in "Endangered Orphans" started. By the time I came to work at the studio full time, "Endangered Orphans" was already in the final stages and being sent to the factory for production and I helped set up print files for the production assets for the game. I had learned a lot about the process from the short amount of time I was working with Panda (our production facility we used on EO). I have also had a small amount of experience working with factories in China from a previous job, so that helped me hit the ground running when I started here.
Who Goes There? was a massive success on Kickstarter last year, were you surprised and why do you think it did so well?
Anthony: I think we were all surprised with how well the campaign did. We all had high hopes, but I don't think any of them were that high. I think part of the success of Who Goes There? is definitely owed to the success of Endangered Orphans as well as the dedicated backers it brought. We also try to be very responsive and transparent when dealing with our backers and I think the level of communication and honesty adds to that. With Who Goes There? we knew where we wanted the game to end up in terms of quality, so we set our stretch goals accordingly. There are always things that come up during a campaign, but for the most part we tried to have the campaign and unlocks planned.
Jesse: I would have been ecstatic if we would have just done as well as we did for Orphans, but when we started shooting past it, I was definitely on cloud nine!
I think we were prepared for the stretch goals this time. We didn't want to just start throwing too many random things at the end of the campaign because we were hitting goals. We had the game the way we believed it should be, so once we hit all of the Stretch goals...it was time to just have some fun with the campaign.
When it came to the artwork for Who Goes There? what were your initial ideas and aims in terms of its look and feel?
Anthony: I don't think there was a master vision when we were trying to find the style. There were a few things we did like that we would try to gravitate towards. For example, we both love the style used in Disney's Atlantis. There was constant talk of trying to inject even a small amount of that into the characters. At the end of the day, our goal was to choose a direction and style that we both enjoy, and we both enjoy stylized characters vs. realistic renderings or photos. The final look for the game is definitely different but it is heavily based on the initial concepts.
Jesse: As Anthony said, we are both fans of the look Mike Mignola's contributed to Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I am not a huge fan of typical comic style art (your basic realistic looking characters) so I thought that Mignola captured the perfect combination of realism and fun with his characters...I wanted that! I think Anthony did a fantastic job of taking what we loved about that and still making it our own.
You've mentioned this long cycle to bring us to the upcoming game 'Ash and Bone', so could you paint a picture of this world for us? What is it and what will it look like?
Jesse: "Ash to Bone" is a long time coming. A lot of ideas come and go depending on their ability to hold a level of excitement. If I'm excited about a game for the first week and come week two I'm no longer excited about it...it's hard to keep pushing through with the project. But the ideas that continue to hold that little spark are the ones that get the most love and attention. Ash to Bone is one of those projects.
It is still in the works, and as with all projects, nothing is really locked down until it is off to the manufacturers. So it's hard to really say too much about the world or game itself because that could all change, but where it started (and where it is currently) is a two player co-op game where players defend the town of Ash from being overrun by an army of undead bone soldiers. Each of the two heroines has their own special abilities and fighting style, but when they work together, their attacks become more devastating against the enemy.
Could you talk us through the process of creating a piece of art for your games?
Anthony: Hmmm...this one is tough to answer. It varies for each different piece. Sometimes a random sketch will inspire an entire story and sometimes certain pieces are created to fill parts that were already figured out. Normally, we are sketching all the time, because it's just something we enjoy doing. If we happen to find a character we like, then we will develop that character a little more each time we sit down to sketch. Some pieces reach the finish line quicker than others. I think it just comes down to how clear the vision is in your head. Sometimes you may have to search a little more for it.There are usually specific stages to our pieces depending on what medium we are using (traditional vs. digital). Typically they all start with a thumbnail or rough sketch. Once the piece is sketched out then it will be cleaned up/inked. Lastly, it will go through the coloring stage. This process will vary slightly on each piece. It just depends on the mood we are in that day. haha. Designing a character can take anywhere from a couple hours or as long as a week. There are numerous factors that can impact the time it takes. Usually, you try to go into it with a game plan, but it's a flexible process.
Jesse: Well it seems Anthony pretty much nailed it. The process is a simple one. If we need a picture of a knife for a card, we sketch out a design for the knife. We clean up the sketch, color it and then place it on the card. It's pretty hard to pinpoint a time for character creation. It depends on the character for how much time it will take to complete it. Larger and more detailed characters will obviously take more time than the simpler ones. It's all about baby steps! haha
What would you say is your favorite part of illustration and has this changed the longer you've been an artist?
Anthony: I definitely enjoy each part of the process for different reasons, but if I had to choose, I guess I would say my favorite part is inking. It's usually the more relaxing part of the process for me. Almost all the tougher design decisions regarding the composition and drawing have already been made in the rough stages. Now I just turn on some music and start refining the drawing while I ink. Like most things, it can change from drawing to drawing.
Usually, there isn't any one element that drives the creative process. There are a lot of things that can spark an idea: a really cool drawing from an artist you follow, something in a movie, or a scene from a book. It's difficult to try and put it into words. Sometimes it just comes out of nowhere and you get that creative itch.
Jesse: Well, I guess it depends on the illustration compared to what else is on the to-do list. Some illustrations are more enjoyable than others, while some parts of working on a game are more enjoyable than others. When I'm working on character design and world creation I really enjoy the illustration aspect because I am most comfortable with that part but sometimes working on the actual mechanics of the game is enjoyable as well. The problem-solving part can be very satisfying.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work as an artist?
Anthony: It's like any other job. You have to practice and study to keep growing. Practice the fundamentals and study other artists that inspire you. Put your artwork out there through social media or a personal website. Build a portfolio or a body of work that employers can see and then go apply for jobs you want. There isn't really a magic solution. If you put in the time and effort to ensure you learn and grow as an artist, then it will pay off at some point. But you can't just draw one night a week. If you really want it, then you need to dedicate yourself to it. Most importantly, just be patient. This stuff doesn't happen overnight.
Jesse: If you can’t be better than the other guy...be more motivated. Draw every single day. Do the things that aren't necessarily fun but will make you better. Take the time to learn your trade, don't just go through the motions. And did I mention to draw every day?
What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Anthony: I like to find a lot of inspiration from other artists on Instagram. Looking at artists I admire is always a great way to get the creative juices flowing. Some of my favorite artist to follow are Derek Laufman, Skottie Young, Sean Galloway, Eric Canete, and Jon Sommariva. Those are just a few. The list goes on and on. I like to watch movies for inspiration. A good movie (no matter how many times I've seen it) will always help inspire ideas or just put me in the mood to draw.
Jesse: My number one go-to has to be the artistic watering hole I like to call Instagram. I have a great bookmarked selection of eye candy by other illustrators that will immediately get my pencil to the paper. The list is the same as Coffey's as far as artists go, so let's talk about tunes! My music list changes weekly depending on my mood and what I am working on. My playlist includes the classics, lots of composers, and when I am feeling up and on the move with my characters, I turn to some French tunes... Sexion D'Assaut, ZAZ and Ariane Moffatt.
Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
Jesse: We're always working on something. We take breaks from working on what we need to and work on what we want to. A lot of times, they are one in the same. A couple of flowing ideas we have on paper include: Ash to Bone, D6, Distasternauts, Booty Snatchers and Cops and Robbers.
Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
Anthony: Instagram and Facebook are the best places to follow us.
(All images supplied by Anthony and Jesse, 2018)