Ever since he was a kid on holiday with his parents, Bournemouth-based illustrator Gary Lucken (a.k.a. Army Of Trolls) has been in love with videogames. Little wonder really; his work oozes with game-related inspiration, whether it’s just subtly informed by isometric viewpoints and pixel aesthetics, or liberally sprinkled with iconic videogame characters stretching back through the ages. Alongside a self-confessed obsession with toys and Japanese culture, it’s this passion for his source material that prompts some big-name clients, such as BBC, Honda, Disney, Sony and Edge, to seek out Gary’s talents as an illustrator, and more recently, for game art assets too.
“Right from the first moment I saw an arcade machine, I have been fascinated with videogames,” he enthuses, “from the Space Invaders cabinet while on holiday with my parents in the USA, to the Donkey Kong sit-down machine on a school skiing trip. It’s hard to say which specific game started it off, but as a kid I really loved Crazy Climber, Rampage, Pacman, Asteroids – I think I played most of these on that holiday to the USA. My fave game of all time is Bubble Bobble; I’ve spent many a Christmas playing that for days on end with my brother. I don’t think we ever finished it, but the first 20 or so levels are ingrained in my mind.”
With early exposure to so many classic games, mixed with a talent for artistic endeavours, it was only a matter of time before videogame culture started to influence what Gary was drawing. It was in the sharing of his creations with like-minded videogame enthusiasts that Gary got his break, from which he’s never looked back.
“I had dabbled in pixel art on the Amiga and Atari ST. Apart from that, I’ve always drawn stuff ever since I was a kid, and have always been a compulsive doodler,” Gary explains. “So, many years ago when the Edge magazine forums started up, I was on there chatting about games and stuff and I’d make these little monsters and use them in my signature. I was working as a graphic designer back then and would make these characters in any downtime using Illustrator.
“These little Trolls – as they ended up being called – seemed to go down really well. I think I even sold a few prints to other forum-ites or swapped them for games. For some reason, I ended up doing a few in pixels. I think I wanted to animate them or use them at a really small size – I don’t remember exactly why I switched to pixels – but it really brought them to life. So, after a few weeks of posting pixel monsters all over the Edge forum, I got asked by Tony Mott the editor to do the front cover to the Edge Retro spin-off magazine and it all snowballed from there. A real case of right time, right place.”
Gary’s cover for Edge Retro (detail)
(Click on the image to open full work in new window)
Despite his work being primarily influenced by these sprite-based, 2D visuals of eras gone by, Gary’s love affair with videogames, like so many of his generation, has never dwindled. He also found himself as something of a videogame collector, a hobby that was curtailed somewhat by a move to Switzerland (where his wife hails from) for a few years, but which allowed Gary the space and time to focus on his burgeoning freelance career.
“I’ve sort of stopped collecting games now, although I’m always on the look-out for that rare gem that’s accidently made its way into the local charity shop,” he admits. “I used to be on Ebay all the time, hoovering up all the games I’d traded in years ago that had suddenly become collector’s items. When I moved to Switzerland I had to sell of a lot of them, which still makes me sad. Now I am back in the UK, it’s tempting to buy them all up again; I miss that copy of Final Fantasy III with mint condition box and map!
“I used to try and make sure I had every game Treasure put out. I’ve fallen behind on that now, but still have Radiant Silvergun, Rakugaki Showtime and Yu Yu Hakusho taking pride of place alongside stuff like Panzar Dragoon Saga, Ogre Battle 64 and the original Zelda games.”
Gary’s PC Format illustration (detail)
(Click on the image to open full work in new window)
With his work so heavily biased towards old-school aesthetics, I wonder if Gary is stuck firmly in the videogame past, but I couldn’t be further off the mark. He finds just as much inspiration in recent games as he does from nostalgic titles from yesteryear, as he quickly attests. “I don’t get to play old games as often as I would like,” he says. “There’s just way too many new games to play at the moment, but once or twice a year the Saturn will come out and a few hours of good old Guardian Heroes action will be enjoyed. I am totally influenced by everything I play, so they all inform my work in some way or another. Current-gen faves at the moment are the Tactics Ogre PSP update, and any of the Monster Hunter games… oh and a recently kicked addiction to World of Warcraft.”
Ah, Warcraft. An insidiously addictive MMO time sink and the ultimate scourge of productivity. It’s an affliction I know all too well myself, having been a guild master throughout Wrath Of The Lich King before finally managing to kick the habit. “Once you stop playing WoW, it totally dawns on you how much time you spent playing it,” Gary explains. “Yes, it was enjoyable, but that time could probably have been put to much better use.”
Judging by Gary’s online portfolio, it’s hard to believe him. There are dozens of astonishingly-detailed artworks, depicting an industrious nature that would seem to belie any notion of time wasted on other activities. “When I did the Edge Retro cover I took two weeks off work to get it done,” he explains, when questioned on how long his artworks typically take to create. “It was the first thing I had done on that scale, so it took ages! I don’t really have any tricks; I employ the help of Photoshop in all the usual ways, but mostly it’s pixel by pixel. Having a huge amount of stuff on file helps though; stuff like cars, trees, people can be reused and copy/pasted around the illustrations. But of course I had none of this when I started.
“Some of these illustrations can take a very long time. The Tron Legacy viral cityscape I did was three A1-size cities in the end, and was worked on over a period of around 2-3 months.”
With such lengthy lead times on his projects, it makes one wonder whether Gary’s clients are heavily involved in the genesis and progress of a piece, or whether they leave him to it. With much of his output bearing an unmistakeable signature style, do clients come to him with a very specific outcome in mind, or is he given free rein to develop a piece how he sees fit?
“It depends on how much time we have,” Gary answers. “Ideally every job would have a period at the start for knocking around ideas and coming up with different designs, but most of the time it’s a mad rush to get things done, so it helps if the client at least points me in the right direction and then lets me get on with it.”
With so many strong print-based works firmly tucked under his belt, recently Gary has been turning his hand to more digital output, including assets for upcoming PSN minis game, The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character. It’s a different challenge to what he has been used to, but one that he is looking forward to seeing realised in its final form. “Rotating Octopus Character is probably the first game I’ve done art for that’s not online/Facebook/iPhone/Mobile-based. So, it’s my first retail game, bar a few animations I did for a Nickleodeon game on that kid’s handheld, the Leapster, I think it’s called.
“Rhodri – the guy that made Rotating Octopus Character – is someone I have known via games forums for awhile. He asked me to help out with the graphics, which I did, and I ended up doing most of them. It was a mad rush, all done in about three to four weeks. One major headache was getting the game to run on anything but a development PSP kit, which meant I haven’t been able to see the graphics in action in anything other than videos or Skype sessions, but Rhodri did his best to keep me updated as it all came together. I can’t wait to see it running on my TV screen!”
Managing to combine his two major loves, illustration and videogames, into a comfortable living is enough to be a little envious of Gary’s chosen career path, but he offers encouragement for those that wish to emulate his successes. “Stick at it,” he suggests. “Make art for yourself because you enjoy doing it. Get your artwork out there – if nobody ever sees your artwork you may as well not do it. As for combining illustration with videogames, there’s load of programmers out there with a need for good artists, find one, make a game together, something simple that you can actually finish, and give it away for free. There’s nothing better than actually making a game to find out if it’s for you or not.”
With charming creations such as Rotating Octopus Character on the horizon, it’s clear that making games is definitely for Gary, and long may that continue.