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Meromorph Games is a game company, and the creator of the card game Norsaga.

Meromorph Games Blog

Art and gameplay design diary as well as current news and updates.

Dev Diary: Outside the Box (2 of 3)

Meromorph Games

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3

Last time, we talked about the evolution of the boxart composition for Norsaga: Odds and Endings. However, there's more to the story. In fact, as you'll find out in part 3 of this series, we've told it in reverse.

So how did we design the central character for the boxart? We knew it needed to be:

  • A skald
  • A hybrid version of a new hero type
  • Not affiliated with a single color

In Odds and Endings, there's one new type of hero: the immortal. These are two-sided cards which can be unlocked and used to support your story. There are actually two versions of immortals:

  • Guardians are reusable versions of existing heroes.
  • Watchers grant extra embellishments.
Card art for the yellow/blue immortal guardian shaman, Ivander Graf.

Card art for the yellow/blue immortal guardian shaman, Ivander Graf.

Card art for the green immortal watcher, Karbrant Keyfingers.

Card art for the green immortal watcher, Karbrant Keyfingers.

Immediately, we focused on watchers, as more embellishments fits naturally with skalds. Each watcher has a few distinctive traits:

  • A crystal mask which mimics the mask of one of the 4 Norsaga gods.
  • Glowing hair and a "monstrous form" which they can turn into, demonstrating their half-god bloodlines.
  • An alignment with a single color of embellishment.

From here, we began work on our hybrid skald watcher, Donwen:

Original Donwen sketch, featuring candles, musical bells, and scrollwork origami.

Original Donwen sketch, featuring candles, musical bells, and scrollwork origami.

Most elements focus on her skald theme, featuring candles (a skald staple) as well as scrollwork pages folded into magical origami birds to demonstrate her magic. We also decided early on that while she is a storyteller, Donwen would focus more on music than spoken word, so we gave her bells as a unique signature instrument.

The mask's design will be discussed in the final part of this article series, so we won't dive into that yet, but it is important to talk about its impact on Donwen's story. Because we anticipated that we might want to make the mask into its own heirloom card, we knew it had to be cursed, and so we decided that it had "erased" Donwen's own face. This meant she wore bandages to cover her missing features, and also explained why she relied on instruments since she had no voice to sing with.

The story of Donwen finding the mask, becoming cursed, and eventually awakening as a "monster form" watcher was intended to play out over 4 pieces of art: the 2-sided heirloom and the 2-sided watcher. The boxart would present an alternate "rear view" of the watcher's front-side art:

Donwen character storyboard. Watcher "monster form" remains to-be-determined.

Donwen character storyboard. Watcher "monster form" remains to-be-determined.

In translating this character to the boxart, we ran into a bunch of unexpected issues:

  • The character is facing away from the camera, so we won't see much of her face. If her face is missing, it won't be obvious. Even if it is, viewers might wonder, "Why is her face missing? Is this a game about missing faces?"
  • We want to show off the mask, since heirlooms are another new feature of the expansion. This means it has to be on Donwen's back, or it won't be visible. But if she's already acquired the cursed mask and lost her face, why would she then take the mask off?
  • We knew she'd be wearing the mask in her watcher front-side art, which meant it no longer felt like a "camera flip" of the boxart where she's not wearing the mask.

Below you can see our first sketch at trying to juggle all these thoughts while creating a boxart scene:

Donwen boxart sketch, featuring additional lute instrument and pre-mask blindfold.

Donwen boxart sketch, featuring additional lute instrument and pre-mask blindfold.

It leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, because this is essentially a scene from the middle of Donwen's story, it raises a lot of questions that aren't appropriate for, say, a person who's just picked this box off the shelf in their local game store. That person needs to be sucked into Norsaga's story, not left with a bunch of puzzles.

Another issue cropped up around this point: Matthew and I disagreed on the overall character design. I thought it was too "ninja" and not sufficiently "Norse," whereas Matthew felt it was unique and appropriate given our fairly loose take on Norse myth.

While it wasn't an easy argument, we eventually found common ground by toning down some of the more abstract elements (like the wrist bells) in favor of clearer signs that this is a wandering musician (the lute). Adding a mantle over the ninja jumpsuit also helped the character remain mysterious while feeling less out-of-place.

Updated Donwen sketch, featuring mantle and new lute instrument; bells and origami have been removed.

Updated Donwen sketch, featuring mantle and new lute instrument; bells and origami have been removed.

I continued to push for adding a fur mantle to tie this design into the viking aesthetic of the base game. Matthew compromised by exploring a direction that isn't heavily used elsewhere on Norsaga heroes: feathers instead of fur.

Final Donwen sketch, featuring feather mantle and redesigned lute.

Final Donwen sketch, featuring feather mantle and redesigned lute.

Success! For those who've never watched Matthew's and my collaborative process in person, there can be a lot of... heated arguments. Conceding a point feels a lot like losing, and we usually have strong opinions on why a detail is wrong or right. But seeing the end result and acknowledging how all of the changes have lead to a stronger overall creation is immensely gratifying.

Here's Donwen's final character design, as seen in the boxart:

Boxart featuring final Donwen design, pre-mask and pre-blindfold.

Boxart featuring final Donwen design, pre-mask and pre-blindfold.

If you've been paying attention, you'll notice a change from the storyboard earlier. The mask and blindfold are nowhere to be found! In creating the scene, we finally realized that we had placed the boxart in the wrong spot within the storyboard. It should rightfully be first, depicting Donwen's search for the mask.

Revised Donwen storyboard. Watcher "monster form" is still to-be-determined.

Revised Donwen storyboard. Watcher "monster form" is still to-be-determined.

This affected our plans to make the boxart and watcher front-side art be mirrors of each other, but this sacrifice enabled us to better serve the needs of each individual piece of art.

Now all that was left was to finish Donwen's story by crafting her promo card.

From our time spent creating her character design for the boxart, we pretty much knew what Donwen's watcher front looked like. That meant we still had to create a "monster form" that she transformed into on the back. The visual language of other watchers' "monsters" is that they remain human, but one or two elements of their body morph into supernatural variants. We'd already used things like extra arms, antler wings, and spiraling torsos, so we were left exploring new territory.

Donwen "monster form" concept explorations.

Donwen "monster form" concept explorations.

Some of my early scratch concepts involved doubling down on "wings" by using them as a sort of kilt or cloak. Another option involved hyperextended arms.

My final concept, seen above, was one I lobbied for extensively. This played up the idea that Donwen's mask was consuming her, by replacing her entire head and neck with a "crater" from which a glowing waterfall poured constantly. Alas, Matthew felt this direction wasn't worth exploring, so we never got proper concept art of it. I'll always be a tad disappointed, but it just means this idea gets filed away for exploration in another project some day.

In the meantime, Matthew was focused on a different concept: using shadow as a material from which to construct elements of Donwen's monster. He explored the idea of a shadow twin:

Donwen "shadow twin" monster form exploration.

Donwen "shadow twin" monster form exploration.

...which had its own pros and cons, as we each interpreted this art very differently. Matthew continued exploring this shadow territory, and eventually found a version that retained Donwen's human body while twisting it into a suitably supernatural arrangement. Rather than describe it, we'll just show you the lineart for what will eventually form the back-side art of Donwen's promo card:

Final Donwen "shadow beast" monster form lineart.

Final Donwen "shadow beast" monster form lineart.

And thus, her journey was complete! From an immortal travelling musician in search of a fabled artifact, to a demigod shadow-beast protecting her lineage, Donwen serves as one of the richer characters in the Norsaga mythos. But wait -- there was something we never showed you, wasn't there?

Ah, yes: the final, colored, stunning front-side art for Unsung Donwen's promo card, now a stretch goal for Norsaga: Odds and Endings:

Final front-side art for Donwen's promo card.

Final front-side art for Donwen's promo card.

In the next and final article in this series, we'll show you how this entire story started with a simple question: whose mask is Donwen wearing?