Daniel DociuChief Art Director of ArenaNet
From a toy designer to one of the greatest artists in video game industry — Here's Daniel Dociu's story.
It all starts in Transylvania, a small town in the central Romania, and home of Dracula, the fictional vampire. On July 11, 1957, Daniel Dociu was born, in this place that “everything was history, and everything was old.” Like other kids, Daniel always enjoys drawing and expressing himself through drawing and painting. He didn't take art seriously until 14, he had turbulent life in his early years, and he made some difficult choices those changed his whole life. From Romania to the US; from a toy designer to one of the greatest artists in video game industry — Here's Daniel Dociu's story.
Most admire artists: Auguste Rodin
Awards: Spectrum, The Best In Contemporary Fantastic Art, Lurzer's Archive, Into The Pixel, EXPOSE and Ballistic Annual
We didn't Choose America, America Chose us
Daniel does not quite miss his school time in Romania. "I rolled in the high school that focused on the art and the architecture design", he told us. "The education system was extremely structured and rigid and very intense, you know. So it wasn’t anything like American education system where you can try a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It was that you have to decide young if you want to be an artist or mathematician or ballerina." After high school, he studied industry design and got master degree in the university. From then, Daniel went on to work as a product designer for about 5 years. And he took a job in the university as an assistant professor, and he did that till 1989 when he left his country.
But he saw his art study experience in Romania as a fortune. It was the very structured and disciplined education system that forced him, as a young kid, not to be afraid of hard work. "A tradition art education was very solid, so it was a very good foundation, a very good background for me to have that, and allow me to adapt easily to the means and the specific of the requirement of modern digital art."
By then Romania was a dictatorship and you know, it wasn’t the climate conducive to creativity and to free artistic expression. We left in 1989 right before the changes of the Berlin wall, you know, the collapse of the iron curtain.
Left Romania, Daniel and his family (his parents and siblings stayed in Romania) applied for Australia, Canada, Sweden, and US and waited for whoever would take them. "We didn't know where we'll end up, we wanted to just out of Romania," he said.
Entered the Game Industry by a "Pure Chance"
Daniel was kind of opposed to video games at the beginning and considered it a disruption to his children's education. "I didn’t agree to them engaging in playing video games, and I did not want to buy them a Nintendo system. I tried to keep them away from games because I wanted them to study hard, and do their homework."
However, he changed after an accidental meet with a young artist, a pioneer of game art at that time. "Extremely talent young artist and you know, I saw his works and he saw my works and he said 'what are you doing here? Why are you wasting your time in the toy industry? Why don’t you draw and find a place in games.' and I said I didn’t know anything about the games. Why would I want to go into games?" That [the video game]'s where the money would be, the young artist told Daniel, who was struggling at that time — it was difficult for him and his family, the newcomers, to make a good living in United States.
So as soon as he mentioned money, it triggered my interest. So you know, right away I said "okay, from now on, the kids are allowed to play video games."
He bought his kids a Nintendo system and started looking for a job. Daniel's first job in game industry was in Square in Seattle, and he worked there from 1993 to 1995. We felt improper to ask about Daniel's salary for his first job in 1993, and he kindly told us it was 40,000 US dollars per year, and it's before tax (he laughed).
Speaking of the change of his attitude towards video game, Daniel felt he was quite a hypocritical person who put the principles aside because of the prospect of finally being able to make a good living. "I throw away all my old principles and decided over night literally to adopt new principles and new values. You know, I feel a little guilty about it. He never regretted what he chose, and he told us he's really happy he did it. As a matter of fact, Daniel's kids are also in the video game industry. His son is working as Art Director in Humongous Entertainment (which is called Sucker Punch now), and ironically, Daniel said, it's exactly the same company and the very same position that the artist who brought him to game industry worked in. His son has been in the industry for 14 years, and his daughter worked in ArenaNet for 4 years and now is working as recruiter in Sucker Punch.
- 1992 - 1994 Shadow Madness
- 1992 - 1994 Secret of Evermore
- 1996 - 2000 Recoil
- 1996 - 2000 MechWarrior Pirates Moon
- 1996 - 2000 MechWarrior III
- 1996 - 2000 Crimson Skies
- 2000 - 2003 SSX Tricky
- 2000 - 2003 James Bond 007: NightFire
- 2000 - 2003 James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing
- 2000 - 2003 Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2
Educates the Children
"I tried to kind of find a balance. Because I didn’t feel good imposing the same kind of discipline on my kids. Thinking back at high school, it was the most miserable time of my life, honestly. I mean for American kids, high school is the best time of their life — It’s all about parties, you know, chasing girls and it is like a big vacation. For us, high school was like boot camp.
"You know, very hard training to be accepted in a university. You have to pass a really severe and strict exam to get into the university. So for 5 years in high school, you just study, study, study to get into your university. Once you are in, it is still hard work. But the biggest, most crucial point in your career in your development is getting admitted to the university.
"So I didn’t want my kids to go through the same. You know, to traumatize them by subjecting them the same rigorous discipline. So I figured out, I melted down a little bit and find a more a reasonable balance. But I still try to instil in them respect for hard work and taking their profession seriously."
I didn’t want my kids to go through the same. You know, to traumatize them by subjecting them the same rigorous discipline.
3-year-old Daniel Dociu in 1960
The Prototype of Half-Life2's Father Grigori
Half-Life2's Father Grigori
If you played Valve's Half-Life 2, you must remember Father Grigori, a bold guy with a shotgun in Ravenholme. The story is, when Valve was developing Half-Life 2, they were looking for a man, an Eastern European man as Father Grigori's prototype. Daniel wasn't the only candidate for this character, actually, Valve contacted several people, but they finally chosen Daniel because he charged less than the others. Daniel got $200 for that, he told us.
Daniel wasn't the only candidate for this character, but he charged less than the others.
Style is Overated
Style is over rated. It’s something I always take the time to make the statement. I don’t believe much in style.
The style of Daniel's art in Guild Wars series is different to his previous titles such as MechWarrior and James Bond games.
It's just because of different opportunities, different company culture, and different marketing expectations, according to Daniel. "Style, I think is just a kind of the wrapper, the package. But under style, there is under the tiny surface which is style, there is a lot of substance." It's a universal thing, and it's not that challenging to move from one project to another, he stated. " I think regardless of the nature of the project, if you decide to take it seriously, you know. You will find the opportunities to innovate creatively."
For the last 9 years Daniel has been working on fantasy games but he doesn't consider himself necessarily a fantasy artist. "It’s where life took me," he said. "I consider myself an artist but I don’t want to be boxed in as a fantasy artist. Maybe in a few years, I’ll move on and do something else…Sci-fi, maybe, God knows what."
“I never tried to create a style. I can never think about a style. It has to be honest and come from a deeper desire to express feelings or emotions or thoughts.” Daniel told us that style without solid substance was like a piece of beautiful wrapping paper with nothing in it. It is a lot more important to put thought into content, and for the content to drive style. The style should be just a natural development, a natural organic. It should grow organically or happen organically from the center outwards, from the core outwards, from the content outwards. "So I never engaged in just gratuitous stylistic exercises and tried to figure out 'oh I found myself a nice style, what can I use it for?' it’s the other way around, where I have an idea that hopefully has some substance to it and it is meaningful.
"And then I think about it and develop it, and then I when I wrote it on paper, I tried to keep it really honest and spontaneous. And let things happen whatever form it takes on. People call it style. It’s not a fabricated artificial. It’s just the result of open, honest, direct, intuitive expression. The style is just the skin, and the core content is the bone of human beings. So there’s bone, there’s flesh, there’s muscles there’s fat, the style is just the skin."
Potala Palace in Tibet
Traveling has a great influence on Daniel's creation. "I think travel is one of the mind influences in my art", as he said. He tries to absorb as much as he can from the various cultures that he experiences in his journeys. "That’s indeed where I draw the most inspirations. And it’s not just one culture, never one culture in particular or one art style from history. I find extremely interesting elements in a variety of sources. For me it’s not a good idea to narrow your interests."
The construct above is based on the Potala Palace in Tibet. But Daniel has never been there.
Talking about Potala Palace, Daniel said he didn’t even know about it initially. “I’ve never been there. But it’s a dream of mine of seeing it someday." He found information from Internet and he did a lot of searching. "The idea of this whole iceberg floating (image below), basically, sailing across the ocean or whatever, but at the same time, it’s kind of a world within a world. It’s kind of contained and isolated and almost like, blocking everything." The simple, clean, and almost primitive shapes, the detail of all the windows, and stuff like that are things that interested Daniel. He's read about Buddhism, although he didn't actually study it. "I’ve read enough about a variety of religions to where I can appreciate it, various aspects from all these thinking systems."
Commercial Success is a Must
“If the games I work on are beautiful but don't sell, they will kick me out of there,” Daniel pointed out straightly. He’s an artist, and he’s also making a product. “I think the US studios are also profit-driven (compared with Chinese studios). I don't think they are any less profit-driven. Don't think for a second that I'd be where I am if the games I work on weren't successful.”
In Daniel’s opinion, beautiful art and commercial success are not mutually exclusive, “it doesn't mean that if you're result-driven, you have to compromise your standards and accept garbage,” he added, “maintain your standards and fight for your standards and for quality is important, but not at the expense of commercial success. Commercial success is a must, without commercial success, you are finished.”
When we talked about some screenshots, he saw things beneath the textures, light effects, and water effects, etc. He was talking about things that we can’t see from a screenshot. “Are you (the screenshot) making a statement?” He emphasized. “What's the statement? What were you trying to say? Why you create that?”
Motorcycle as Part of the Life
Every day Daniel rides a BMW motorcycle to work. “I've been riding motorcycles all my life,” he told us. He follows the motorcycle races and it’s a big hobby for him. “Every weekend when there's a motorcycle race on TV, my wife and the kids come over and we barbecue and it's like a big celebration watching these races and the screaming. I love motorcycles.”
I've been riding motorcycles all my life.
Message from Daniel Dociu
Without commercial success, you are finished.
You know, if the games I work on are beautiful but don't sell, they will kick me out of there, so it's not that different. I think being result-driven is okay and it's fine. They are not mutually exclusive. It doesn't mean that if you're result-driven, you have to compromise your standards and accept garbage, so that's the whole thing. You know, maintain your standards and fight for your standards and for quality is important, but not at the expense of commercial success. Commercial success is a must, without commercial success, you are finished. They will beat you out in a second. There's nobody there just like here will put the money for something just for the sake of art. It has to sell, it has to be commercially viable.