Nemin interviews Sammi McEwan

© Sammi McEwan, used with permission

With Abe’s Origins released Oddworld finally received a new map, designed by freelance artist Sammi McEwan, who was also kind enough to take part in an interview with me about the creation of the map, which can be read below.

Background

Nemin: So, to kick things off, I would like to ask you to say a few words about yourself. What kind of art you do for a living?

Sammi McEwan: Okay! I’m a concept artist by trade. I worked at Creative Assembly for 2 years working mainly on character concept art. I left this year to go freelance. So I’m in the development side of the industry but I also enjoy doing illustration on the side.

Nemin: That’s great, which games did you make concepts for?

Sammi McEwan: I worked on Total War:Arena, which has now been cancelled (RIP) and then I was on the Warhammer team. My work is under an NDA so I can’t talk about that stuff :)

Nemin: Well, that’s a pretty strong background! What made you choose this job? Was art something that interested you since the beginning or were you originally interested in something else only to change your mind later?

Sammi McEwan: Being a concept artist has always been my dream job, ever since I was 10 or 11! I’ve always liked making up my own characters. I didn’t seriously pursue it until after university though, because everyone told me that it would be too competitive to get a job. And there wasn’t any “game art” courses when I went to uni. I’ve always loved drawing and designing so it is my dream job.

Playing video games growing up really inspired me to make more art and so being able to work in game development is something I feel that I’ve always wanted. Apart from when I was 6, I wanted to be a vet, haha.

Nemin: Haha, that’s sweet. This actually fits really well into the next question: How does Oddworld fit into the picture? Was the series something that inspired you? Or did you learn about it later when you were already pursuing this career?

Sammi McEwan: Well Abe’s Oddysee is one of the games that inspired me! Me, my twin sister and my Mum used to play the PS1 a lot together when I was growing up. The main two games we played were Crash Bandicoot and Abe’s Oddysee. It could be a nostalgia thing, but it’s one of those games that I never seem to get bored of. I still have a PS2 and I do replay it from time to time.

Nemin: I see! And is Oddysee also your favorite of the series?

Sammi McEwan: I would say Oddysee. But I do love New ‘n’ Tasty as well. I think Exoddus has better puzzles and a darker story but Oddysee has a special place in my heart

Nemin: Haha, I feel very similar, through I personally can’t really choose between Oddysee and Exoddus.

Sammi McEwan: They feel as though they’re one game really :)

The Map

© Sammi McEwan, used with permission
The new canon map replacing the old one seen in The Art of Oddworld Inhabitants. For a higher quality version along with previous iterations click here

Nemin: I would like to continue with the main topic, the new map drawn by you and featured in Abe’s Origins. Firstly, I would like to ask about who was the initiator in this partnership? Did you apply to OWI or did they contact you?

Sammi McEwan: Pete reached out to me. I’d met him at EGX the previous year and I guess he just had me in mind! He asked if I wanted to do it and I jumped at the chance. My portfolio was then sent to OWI for approval and they gave the green light.

Nemin: I see, it’s not a chance you get many times in life :) About when was this map created? Last year or this one?

Sammi McEwan: Oh definitely! I cried when I got the job, haha. I started on the map at the end of last year, but there was a few delays so the final thing was sent off in May.

Nemin: Delays as in it took time until your draft was looked at or you were just busy?

Sammi McEwan: It’s just the nature of the beast sometimes. Oddworld are very busy so sometimes feedback could take a while, but it wasn’t a problem.

Nemin: Okay, thanks for the clarification. About the look of the map, was it’s general appearance influenced by anything or did you design it without any outside help so to speak? I found that the way you drew the mountains and trees resembled the map of Middle Earth a little, but it could easily be a coincidence.

Sammi McEwan: So initially Pete sent me the original Oddworld map from the 90s as a starting point. He was happy for me to do my own thing so I drafted up a mood board and some first pass thumbnails. Then I sent it back to him. So the whole process was a collaboration really. I send a pass, I got feedback (change this, add this, etc) and then I’d add the changes and get more feedback.

For the style of the map I was influenced by old world maps and cartography. They’re very beautiful and fairly timeless so I thought it would be a nice fit for Oddworld. The Strangers Wrath map does this a little, but it looks too similar to the middle earth map for my tastes. I would say that minimal mountains and trees on a map will always evoke a comparison to the middle earth map but it wasn’t something I personally looked at for reference.

Nemin: Ah, I just brought that map up, because it’s something I’m familiar with. I see the map changed a whole lot throughout the iterations. There are multiple things that piqued my interest. Firstly, was it OWI’s idea to only include that small part of the world onto the map? Or was it more a necessity to fit nicely in the book? In the original (and in your first few iterations) quite a lot can be seen from planet Oddworld.

Sammi McEwan: So the original iterations were from me pulling the linework from the original map and re colouring it (in concept art it’s all about working quickly so you do what you gotta do to get an idea across). The portrait map was chosen from those. There wasn’t a decision to include less of the world, it’s just how it turned out! I didn’t have any reference for the rest of Mudos and I didn’t want to go and make something up either so I played it safe.

The map was designed for the book and the book follows Abe’s journey so far, so the map reflects that, rather than being a full map of Oddworld

© Sammi McEwan, used with permission
The second iteration of the map, with a compass bearing OWI’s logo in the bottom right corner, which was sadly cut in the final version.

Nemin: Why did the compass disappear? Did you find it not fitting enough or were you asked to remove it?

Sammi McEwan: With the compass, I was asked to remove it. It’s just part of the process. You can’t be precious about any details or take any feedback to heart.

Nemin: Too bad, I really liked that detail! Was there anything on the map you would have liked to include? You said you can’t be attached to stuff, but there is surely something you’re a bit sad to see gone / decided against.

Sammi McEwan: To be honest, I would have liked to have kept the border and the compass, just to make it more like an old timey map. I think that would work better as a poster, than in the book. So I can see why the decision was made. But I did like that compass, haha

Nemin: This I can agree with, that compass looked amazing and the border was nice too.

Next question: I see that on early iterations you used the actual buildings as markers for the locations while on the final map they are replaced by logos. Were you asked to replace them or did you find them more fitting? I found it surprising after seeing the older versions.

Sammi McEwan: Ohhh thank you so much :)

With the landmarks, it was just an option we tried. We all agreed that it didn’t blend very well with the map itself so a simplistic design was the best way to go.

Nemin: Yeah I see what you mean. Do you know anything about all the train lines going off the map?

Sammi McEwan: I do not. I was given a diagram of the locations and how they join but no more info than that.

Nemin: Ah figures. This is also something I wanted to ask. Could you please describe how the project went in a nutshell? You explained above that the first step was drawing over the original map, did this diagram follow after that and then you spent the rest of the time iterating and refining the map? Also, who were working with most of the time? I imagine Mr. Lanning also took part in influencing the map.

Sammi McEwan: So I used the original map as my starting point, to make sure I got the coastline correct, and I was given the locations but the rest was up to me. Once we had done two passes and I knew what everyone wanted, I started on the actual painting and drawing of the final map. I started with the line art and then painted the ground and mountains in afterwards. It took ages! The map was sent to Lorne at key points so that he could give his opinion, but mostly I worked with Pete as he was coordinating everyone’s efforts.

It was a fun project and definitely out of my comfort zone. I was given a lot of trust. I was very worried about the map not fitting with the style of Oddworld but it got approved by LL himself so I shouldn’t have worried so much.

Most of the time went on painting the final map. The reason I am keen to do rounds of feedback first is so that no time is wasted once the painting is done. I enjoyed working with Oddworld and I would love to do it again.

Nemin: Haha, this is actually my last question to the book part: Is it possible that OWI will use your services again?

Sammi McEwan: To be honest I have no idea! They aren’t hiring concept artists at the moment (I have checked) but if they ever want to hit me up again I’m available. :D

Nemin: That’s the spririt :)

Comparing the two books and a question about Soulstorm

Nemin: Now, for my penultimate question: Which book do you like more? I know the new one’s only been out for a little while, but I’m interested in first impressions too. Or if you can’t decide which one you like better, what’s something you think the old book did better than the new and vice-versa.

Sammi McEwan: Well to be honest with you, I’ve only flicked through the original once. A friend at work brought in a copy for me to look at. So I don’t feel as though I can make a fair choice. I would say that the original paperback did feel flimsy and some of the pages were coming loose, whereas the new book is a full on tome of Oddworld artwork. It’s so beautifully made, it’s a pleasure to flick through. I haven’t had the chance to sit down and properly read through it yet but I am looking forward to pouring over it over Christmas.

Which one is your favourite? :D

Nemin: Ah, I haven’t received the new one yet, so I can only judge by the few photos you and some others posted. It looks pretty good and as I’ve heard there is plenty of story in it, which is a welcome sight. However, I do own the old one and I love that book. It expands the world very well and it’s the sole source of some very interesting lore that we wouldn’t otherwise see or hear about.

Sammi McEwan: I am very envious. I really want the older book, but it’s just so expensive!

Nemin: Yeah, it’s a shame there isn’t a cheaper digital version… But oh well.

Okay and now the final question, a staple one: Now that Soulstorm seems to be around the corner, I would like to know what you think of it. Do you like the new direction the game took? Is there something story-wise you’re really looking forward to? Or perhaps seeing a teased location? Being the map maker, I imagine you thought a lot about the places that were placed on it.

Sammi McEwan: My fiancé is a QA at Fat Kraken so I have had the chance to play bits of Soulstorm. I’m not allowed to say much but I think the game is very ambitious and I really hope that it does well when it comes out. So much love and hard work are being poured into that game.

Personally I like the new direction, it’s definitely grittier than New ‘n’ Tasty. I just can’t wait to sit down and play the full thing.

I also think that the art is really beautiful. There are some issues with the teased gameplay, for instance it can difficult to spot where Abe is, but I do think that Oddworld will address those minor niggles. So I’m trying not to make any judgements until I see the final thing.

Nemin: I see, sounds like a far assessment.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, I learned much from this and hopefully others will find it just as exciting! I hope my questions weren’t too boring either :)

Sammi McEwan: Nooo they weren’t boring at all! Thank you for asking me :D