Finding Family in Dragon Age: Inquisition

Editors Note: Emma Osborne introduces the September topic for Dream Foundrys Official Media Exploration Club. Please stop by and say hello on the forum, and let us know what your thoughts are regarding our September discussion topic, Dragon Age: Inquisition. We look forward to seeing you there!

Video games provide a unique way of both telling stories and of exploring families and character dynamics. Games embed players in worlds filled with cities to explore, people to meet, quests to pursue. BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game rich with history, with culture, with politics, and of course, with many forms of families.

One of the beautiful things about games is that the player can make active choices in order to discover aspects of the world and the narrative. Story, within the game, can be short and impactful (for example, the Twine game queers in love at the end of the world by anna anthropy), or as is the case with many AAA games, it can span 70+ hours of play time. This provides a staggering amount of room for richness and detail. Dragon Age: Inquisition provides enormous scope for exploring the characters and mythology of Thedas in an active way. The player often learns by doing—by exploring, talking, completing side quests, or working through the main narrative quest. There are also personal quests for the major characters, with satisfying B plots and miniquests tying back into the main narrative.

Dragon Age: Inquisition was selected for discussion in large part because of the complexity of the relationship dynamics within the game. There are many races and classes, e.g. humans, the Qunari, elves, and dwarves, but even within the elvish and dwarven cultures there are nuanced and defined groups. For example, the elves are represented both by the nomadic Dalish elves, but also by servants seen in the Empress’s Winter Palace. We see elvish gods, elvish magic, and even elves who don’t adhere to any particular aspect of elvish culture. When it comes to dwarves, we see the somewhat outcast surface-dwellers versus dwarven traders, miners, and guilds.

Mages are also marginalized within the game, but we see various examples of their status—Dorian is noble and foreign. He hails from Tevinter, where mages are the ruling class. Solas is an elf and a non-Circle mage (a “rebel” mage) but also does not fit within what we know to be the standard elf experiences (not a city elf or a Dalish elf). Vivienne, the most powerful mage in the game, is rich, aristocratic, and part of the “accepted” Mage class (i.e. a Circle Mage) and carries strong political influence in both Thedas and Orlais.

The characters have many different experiences and histories but all work together to close the fade rifts and stop demons from attacking people. The characters learn from each other, argue and disagree in ways that families often do. Many of them have established relationships from earlier in the games’ history, e.g. Cassandra Pentaghast and Leliana are the former Left and Right Hands of the Divine—the lead warrior and chief spy of the game’s Pope character.

Aside from the main group, which is definitely a family, there are many smaller “families” within the game, such as Bull’s Chargers, a mercenary group who look out for each other and fight together. The Iron Bull, their leader (and a Qunari spy) saved Krem (a landmark transman character) in a tavern brawl and lost an eye for it. The Chargers are a diverse group made up of elves, dwarves, and humans.

The Seekers of Truth—an elite order of Templars—are another family within the game. Seeker Cassandra retains immense loyalty to the Seeker Knight Commander, when in her personal quest, she must root out corruption in the ranks. Dorian and Tevinter mage Alexius are a family of sorts, with Alexius mentoring Dorian in his mage studies. Sarcastic elf Sera has her crew of Red Jennies, who combine intelligence from the unnoticed workers of the world. They’re an informal group but are nevertheless united as many small cogs in a vast machine. Varric and Hawke have a family relationship that carries over from DA:2.

There is also an undeniable queer element to the families in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Many of the main characters are queer—Dorian is a gay man, Sera a lesbian. The Iron Bull is pansexual, and Leliana was able to be romanced by any gender in Dragon Age: Origins. In the real world, queer and trans folks have a way of finding each other, of seeking out people who become their family throughout their lives. The Dragon Age games reflect this beautifully, with the characters forming bonds out of a common goal, but also with genuine affection for each other, which can often be seen in the banter the characters engage in when out in the field.

I look forward to exploring the nuances of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and discussing the elements that resonate with folks on the forum!

Editors Note: Interested in commenting? Tell us your thoughts are regarding our September discussion topic, Dragon Age: Inquisition, on the forum. We look forward to seeing you there!

Interview About Magpie Games

To start with, what made you and Mark Truman decide to start up the studio back in 2011?

Mark and I met at a local gaming event in 2008 and much of our spare time was spent playing and running tabletop roleplaying games for friends. But the Southwest was a bit isolated from the happenings and going-ons of the indie games community, and many of the mainstream games we were playing didn’t feel like they were really about storytelling. We wanted to tell collaborative stories without putting an enormous burden on the players at our table, and we didn’t know of any games that did what we wanted to do. Our experience wasn’t unique: many gamers create amazing homebrews that do the job of opening those doors.

For the two of us, we knew that making a game for our homegroup wouldn’t be enough to satisfy our desire to create. We wanted to make products with the potential to expand the tabletop gaming library with quality gaming experiences that speak to a larger audience.

So we started our company, Magpie Games, and in 2011 we began our journey of creativity and learning. Mark and I traveled around the United States to different conventions, met some folks in the indie publishing community, entered contests, and got to work!

What kinds of challenges did the studio face in early years?

We had never published anything before, we had no budget, and we decided to launch our first couple of projects just before moving to a new state—Mark was starting a grad program at the Harvard Kennedy School and I was finishing my undergrad at UMass Boston. We had a few hurdles to overcome, but our skills complemented each other well and that teamwork helped us get through some of the more traditional publishing pitfalls, like art costs and project budgeting. And for the skills we didn’t have in house, we found partners and hire experts in the industry who guided us, folks like fellow game designers Brennan Taylor, Daniel Solis, and Will Hindmarch.

One of the things we decided to take a chance on was Kickstarter. The website had just launched in 2011 and seemed like a great way to bring our first game to a broader audience. That decision helped us to reach our funding goal and became a foundational pillar of how we think about releases. We’ve only released a handful of titles since without using Kickstarter to market, promote, and fund them!

Are the challenges different eight years in?

Absolutely! The challenges are different today because the industry is different today. And while some of the issues of funding still remain, what is at stake has changed. Today Magpie Games employs eight part and full-time employees and many more freelance contributors. Failure carries a much heavier burden when so many people’s day-to-day relies on success and progress.

We do what we can to stay ahead of the curve, continuing to try new things and take risks, but even with thirty-five+ products under our belt, every day is a hustle. We’ve built something strong and unique—a minority-owned, award-winning roleplaying game studio—but we have to keep breaking boundaries to make it last.

I’ve personally had the experience of playing a game that, while marvelously intricate and fascinating, took so much time to set up and read through the starter guide that by the time we were done, my husband and friend and I decided we were too tired to actually play the blasted thing. How do you balance role-playing and in-depth story and mechanics in the creation of a game against the time commitment involved?

To make an experience that is as fun and rich as possible without requiring players to spend countless hours learning the rules, we focus on player experience at every step in the process. First, we know we need to catch their attention with the cover dress, then we have to reach them through our layout and writing, and we have to keep them coming back through our quality and design. Including making sure they actually can play the game the first time they sit down to try it!

The "how do you balance" question is dependent upon the exact game and what experience we expect it to deliver. Each game we design has a very different system because at some level, we believe different kinds of fiction require different systems. Some games require a larger investment of time; some games can be played in ten minutes!

Urban Shadows, for example, is a deep game that really sings after you play it for many sessions, while Bluebeard’s Bride is short, potent, and well suited to one-shot play. I would be doing Urban Shadows a disservice by trimming it down to something like Bluebeard’s Bride and vice versa.

Regardless of the ultimate goal of a game, we want to make products that are accessible. So while most of our games require our team to pour a lot of blood sweat and tears into the design and presentation, we hope that the players can focus on bringing their interesting perspectives and imaginations to the table.

Which of your currently-existing games is your favorite, and why?

My favorite Magpie Games tabletop roleplaying game to run is Urban Shadows, an urban fantasy roleplaying game set in a politically-driven city. As I mentioned earlier, it is a deep game that lends itself to a multitude of amazing stories and perspectives. Urban fantasy is a gateway drug for tabletop roleplaying games. You don’t have to know the physiology of an elf or the ancient history of some lost kingdom, instead all it asks is that you imagine your everyday life and then some. There are so many tropes that both me and my players can easily tap into and expand on.

Urban Shadows was also a formative text for many people who were looking for advice on how to create their own moves and homebrew designs in the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) genera of gaming. Specifically, the master of ceremonies (MC) support sections of the game gives players clear and concise advice for running and designing within the system.

Let’s talk about your newest game, Wizard Kittens, which was funded on Kickstarter in just one day. Can you tell us a little about the development process you go through in putting together this game?

From development to gameplay, card games are a very different animal than our typical tabletop RPG product. For example, we can put a tabletop roleplaying game up on Kickstarter and adjust how the product is structured based on the response and stretch goals, but a card game needs to be completed regardless of the initial response.

Initially, Wizard Kittens production was slotted for later in our schedule, but due to the delay of another project we bumped it up to early 2019. My team and I worked tirelessly to turn the idea of Wizard Kittens into a reality.

In our normal fashion, we designed, mocked it up, and playtested the game, and once we had something really strong, it was time to make it a reality. We worked with artists to solidify a style and a cover along with commissioning enough pieces for a demo version of the game. While we constructed the Kickstarter page and looked for marketing partners, the game was sent off for more playtesting and reviews.

Luckily, it was a huge hit! The Kickstarter went on to raise over $165k and we have been thrilled by the overall response to Wizard Kittens thus far. All that work paid off!

I love the idea of what you call “ashcan” games – games that are out in beta testing, but not quite ready for full consumption. Can you tell us a little about how you learn from these games?

For those who are not familiar, the term “ashcan” came from the comic book industry where a preview version of the comic would be released without color. At Magpie Games, we use the term ashcan very similarly! It is a softcover preview release of a game that has everything needed to play. You can pick up a copy, try out the game, spread the hype, and even give design feedback before the final version is released.

Feedback from these preview releases is a wonderful way to engage audiences and gauge what excites them about our new designs. We also use these ashcans to help and guide new designers through the process of publishing a game with all the support and funding of our experienced staff. Through the ashcan program we are able to team up with enthusiastic designers who are still finding their voice in the industry. We strive to support their work with the hope that after they go through the process of publishing with our direct support they will be better equipped to move forward with their own games, publishing companies, and careers.

What are some lessons in game-creation that you’d like to share with newcomers to the field?

Know what you want. There is a lot of reward from designing something for your home group and calling it good. But if what you want is to start your own publishing company, then do it and do it hard. To succeed you are going to need to keep pushing forward, even when it is painful, heartbreaking, and no fun. But the day in and day out of creative work alongside a badass team is invaluable.

If you’ve got the passion and the team, you’re on your way. Game design is about giving people the tools to tell stories but like all product design, the devil is in the details. Be ready to kill your darlings and keep working on your game long after you are tired of it. It’s a hard and rewarding process.

But also be thoughtful about whether you even want to own a publishing company. Many people we meet just want to make a game. Don’t create a whole business just to make your one game; seek our partners who can help you make it a reality and leave the shipping, marketing, and publishing to folks who know what they are doing.

What do you wish you’d known when you started out?

Time will fly. You’ll bleed for this, but take the time to stop and smell the roses before they die. Be grateful for your successes; they will always seem fleeting.

Inside the News

Industry News, June 2019

Jason Sanford's publishing news will return in July, but for now we hope you'll enjoy this shortened edition of the news from around the speculative arts community.

Video Game News

FromSoftware Announces New Game in Partnership with George R. R. Martin

As reported in The Verge, the makers of Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware announced at E3 that they have teamed up with George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series , in making a new game titled Elden Ring, which will be published by Bandai Namco and available on Xbox One and PC. No release date has been announced at this time, but a teaser trailer from E3 is available, and has been raising a lot of speculation.

You Can't Catch Them All

NintendoLife reports that, based on information revealed by a game developer during a recent Nintendo livestream, it will not be possible for players to acquire a full set of all available Pokémon in their new game, Pokémon Sword And Shield. The game will feature a completely new set of Pokémon as well as some old fan favorites, but only monsters from the Galar Pokédex can be ported over into the new game via the new cloud service that will allow transfer of monsters from previous games.

Video Game Fashion

Kitfox Games' Victoria Tran discussed fashion in video games -- and how it could be improved -- in a 2019 Game Developers Conference talk now available on Gamasutra.

New and Upcoming

Continuing the long-running Zelda series, Gamasutra reports that Nintendo is working on a direct sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The trailer revealed a darker direction and more open world that should be an interesting departure from what fans have come to expect from the series.

Meanwhile, according to io9, a Dark Crystal video game will be coming to Nintendo Switch, intended to tie-in with the upcoming Netflix TV series that will release on August 30. The title of the game, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics, reveals that rather than being an open-world concept, this title will be borrowing heavily from the style of Final Fantasy Tactics.

TV & Movie News

An Animated Pratchett Possibility, and a Petition Faux Pas

Following on the success of Amazon's Good Omens miniseries, showrun by Pratchett's coauthor Neil Gaiman, Variety reports that The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is now set to be the first of Terry Pratchett's novels to become an animated feature film.

In other Pratchett-related news, apparently a number of conservative Christians were upset by Good Omens. So upset, in fact, that, according to The Guardian, they addressed a petition to cancel the series to Netflix, which had nothing to do with its production or distribution. This author can only think that such a mix-up would have delighted Terry Pratchett just as it has visibly amused Neil Gaiman on Twitter.

More Nostalgia Fear is on the Way

You might have thought that the upcoming third season of Stranger Things was the most terrifying bit of nostalgia headed your way, but there's more where that came from! Per Deadline, Nickelodeon has announced the cast for their upcoming limited series reboot of Are You Afraid of the Dark? which scared the pants off many 90s kids back during its first iteration. This time, the stories that torment the Midnight Society will be coming to life in their world over three episodes, so we anticipate even more terror than before.

Dune: Sisterhood is Coming to TV, and Dune Back to Theaters

According to Hollywood Reporter, Denis Villeneuve will direct the pilot for an upcoming female-focused take on the Dune universe, based on Frank Herbert's novel, as well as writing and producing the new take on the main novel that is slated to premiere 2020. The TV series will be released on WarnerMedia's upcoming but as-yet-unnamed streaming service, and will follow the machinations of the Bene Gesserit through the complicated politics of the Imperium.

More Streaming Horror Strangeness

In a new quirk on streaming, Variety reports that Stephen Spielberg is writing a horror series for Quibi that viewers will only be able to watch when their phone detects that it's dark outside. "A clock will appear on phones, ticking down until sun sets in wherever that user is, until it’s completely gone. Then the clock starts ticking again to when the sun comes back up — and the show will disappear until the next night." Spielberg has reportedly written five or six of the "chapters," as Quibi refers to its shorter episodes, so far.

We Just Can't Have Nice Things

As reported in io9 and on producer Ben Edlund's Twitter, the comedic superhero adventures of The Tick are once again without a home or hope for immediate continuation. As Edlund said on June 14, "We will look for other opportunities to continue this story with this cast, but the current series must I'm afraid come to its end."

We want to hear from you! Let us know what you think about the news of the month on the forum post for this blog entry.

Creating Realistic Non-Humans

If I don’t like a piece of science fiction media, I often
find myself saying that it was too focused on the humans. I get enough of that
in real life. Give me the aliens.

Obviously this a little bit of a joke… but not entirely. For whatever reason, throughout a long life of sci-fi and fantasy fandom, I’ve been drawn to the outsiders and the non-humans. I got a degree in anthropology in part because of my obsession with learning about other cultures, and in sci-fi and fantasy I get to indulge that love in reverse: I get to create them from the ground up, with none of the rules of history and specificity that Earth cultures have. But I’m often disappointed in editing or watching or reading other media by cultures that are cliché, shallowly developed in ways that often don’t make sense. So I’m here to help you with that.

Start With the Basics

You probably have some concept of what story niche you need a
creature to fill. Are they a mindless devourer, a haughty warrior adversary, or
noble-but-distant ally for your heroes to cautiously rely on? How many of them
are we going to meet in the course of the game or story or script? Are they
potentially playable or POV characters, or only enemies, set-dressing or NPCs?
The more time your story spends with these people, the more detailed you’re
going to want to get about who they are, and the more you’ll need to embrace
the fact that these people are individuals with their own attitudes, ideas,
talents, and personalities. Which brings me to…

Avoiding the Planet of Hats Trope

The Planet of Hats
is a world where every single inhabitant shares a certain trait. They’re all obsessed
with gangsters, or effete artistic types, or hardened warriors. I won’t point
fingers, because just about every sci-fi franchise and most fantasy series has
this going on. It’s attractive shorthand – and didn’t I just say you needed to
start out with what story niche you need these people to fill? This makes it
easy! All of these people are noble-but-distant allies or haughty warriors or
whatever. But… it also makes them feel very samey and unrealistic. If everybody
in this society is a scientist, who’s making dinner? Who’s cleaning up the lab
at night? If they’re all warriors, how is the laundry getting done? Even the Spartans
had traders, and pillaging was more of a seasonal job for the Vikings than anything
else – they went home and were farmers or traders and so on the rest of the
year. No society can function on just one kind of work. They may try, but they’ll
inevitably become unbalanced, which usually leads to revolution of some kind.
If you want to show a culture teetering on the edge of that kind of upheaval,
by all means go for it! But be aware that otherwise, someone needs to be growing
food and washing the floor and changing diapers while everyone else is talking
about art or philosophy.  

Examine Your Assumptions, and Think About Subverting Them

If that last section sounded like I might be talking about
gendered jobs, consider who you automatically assumed would be doing the lower-status,
domestic work… and consider whether or not maybe some or all of those assumptions
might be different in this strange new world you’re creating.

Get Down to Biology

Don’t be scared – you don’t have to have a doctorate in biochem
to do the kind of biological work that I’m talking about. You just need to have
a little curiosity, some mental flexibility, and an internet connection. Let’s
say you want to have a reptilian society like I suggested above, and you want them
to hatch out of eggs. Great! (I hope you’re not thinking of giving your female
reptilians breasts, though, because if they don’t nurse, there’s no reason for
them to have mammary glands. Please don’t do this.)

Since these people are reptilian, let’s also assume that
they have some of the other
traits we would expect from non-avian reptiles on Earth
– let’s say they’re
cold-blooded and have what is scientifically called a “horny epidermis” (scales,
for us lay people). They’re going to need to shed their skin as they grow, then,
and not be active in cold temperatures due to a lower metabolism that’s reliant
on heat. I’m guessing their cities aren’t big on nightlife, given that second
fact, and, given the first, they probably have to take time off from whatever
they’re doing (work, making war, etc.) when the time to shed comes on them. Or,
at the very least, they’re going to be itchy, irritable, and distracted during
those times. How could the daily and yearly patterns of their culture and their
lives be set up to accommodate  those traits?

What else? They might have infrared (heat-sensitive) vision
like some snakes, which could be interesting. Think about how different the
world would look to you if you could see the visible color spectrum and also
heat. Now think about how useful that could be in certain professions. An engineer
with that kind of vision could find leaks in engine construction at a glance,
and I bet a blacksmith with that kind of skill would be in high demand –
particular if she’s highly adapted to hot temperatures. Maybe they can see when
the human characters are sweating or have a fever.

How does being an egg-layer change their society from what
we mammals would think is normal? They might be significantly less attached to
their young, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re heartless – it just
means they’re different from us. (If you’re interested in this idea, take a
look at what Becky Chambers does with the Aandrisks and their social structure
in The
Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Consider Working Against Type

In general, if a piece of media presents us with insectoid
or reptilian creatures, they’re going to be evil, while if the creatures are
fuzzy, big-eyed, mammalian, or all of the above, they’re almost certainly going
to be good guys. There’ve been a few counter-examples over the years (District 9 being an obvious
one), but if you’re interested in doing something unusual with your creatures, working
against audience expectations in this way can be a great way to break out of
the mold and do something that will surprise, and therefore interest, your

Worried about alienating your audience with creatures who
don’t look like what they expect? This can be trickier in visual media than in
written media where you as the author have more control over what adjectives a
reader associates with your creatures, but if you don’t believe me that it can
still work, look at what Mass Effect
did with some of their species. The horny-toad looking Krogan are rough and
tumble, for sure, but they’re not baddies, nor are the Turians (who are a lot
harder to classify but are definitely not fluffy), and they are generally (but
not in all cases, because individuals!) allies and friends.

Of course, you don’t have to stay within the classic bounds
of insectoid, reptilian, cat-people, and so on. Stretch yourself! Combine
traits from different classes of Earth animal, or use more obscure creatures.
Make sentient species based on sea stars or jellyfish, anemones, or slime
molds. What about an intelligent culture whose people go through something like
the chrysalis process that moths and butterflies do, or who carry their homes/defenses
around with them like hermit crabs? What would that kind of culture look like
by the time it developed cities or became spacefaring?

The universe is your petri dish, my friends. Go out and
design interesting nonhumans to fill your worlds.

What do you think? Share your tips and tricks for writing realistic non-humans on our forum!

Learning How to Make Your Own Video Games

If you want to get into game development or design, it might
feel like you need to go back to school or take an expensive online course. The
reality, however, is that there are a ton of resources on the web for free (and
a few more that you would have to pay for) that you can take advantage of to
learn how to make your own games.

Disclaimer: The author of this post is not a game designer. She is, however, married to a software engineer and game developer, and it's impossible not to pick up a few things over more than a decade with someone. Many thanks to @ninjascript for years of love, support, and giving me some pretty good ideas of how all this awesome stuff works.


  1. Ask Reddit. No, seriously—r/gamedev created
    a fabulous wiki on how to get started in game development
    , and it’s
    a great place to start if you’re new.
  2. Get an overview and some tips, from idea to
    marketing, from the Free Code Camp by Medium’s article “From
    Zero to Game Designer
  3. Watch some of the “Free” section of videos from the Game
    Developer Conference
    (or if you prefer, the archive on
    their YouTube channel
  4. Check out Khan Academy’s classes on computer
    and computer
  5. Learn about writing
    for games
    , game
    , monetization,
    and more from Extra Credits.
  6. Take part in a game jam like Ludum Dare, and
    make sure to review other developers’ games and see what feedback your game
    gets from the community.
  7. Take advantage of Ctrlpaint’s free videos on
    digital art or browse through the Technical Art: Game Art Tricks
    in-depth analyses of the digital tricks used by existing games.
  8. Brush
    up on your mythology
    with PBS’s Crash Course series to learn about
    the classic stories that millions of game developers before you (not to mention
    authors, screenwriters, and others) have based their storylines around.
  9. Learn while you commute by adding some of’s
    10 favorite podcasts about game design
    to your rotation.
  10. Find more resources on Medium’s
    list of top online tutorials to learn game development using Unity

Available for Money:

  1. Take courses from Udemy like Unreal
    Engine 4
    , 2D
    Game Graphic Design in Photoshop
    , Android
    Game Development for Beginners
    , and more, or Coursera courses like Principles
    of Game Design
    or Game
    Development for Modern Platforms
  2. Get specific with courses like Learn
    to Code Trading Card Game Battle System with Unity 3D
    or Learn
    to Code by Making a 2D Platformer in Unity
  3. Read up! Check out’s
    list of the 10 best game design books to find a place to start.
    list includes everything from theory to programming and a book of practical
    challenges to help you improve with every project you work on.
  4. Interested in how artificial intelligence is
    used in game development? Go deep with O’Reilly’s AI
    for Game Developers

Do you have any other resource suggestions we should include here? Want to share with our community about your new game, or seek out collaborators to share the process with? Join the conversation on our forum!

Luanaheim by Johanna Taylor

Interview with Illustrator Johanna Taylor

Dream Foundry Content Manager Jen Grogan sat down with Johanna over email recently to chat with her about illustration, story boarding and composition, and crows.

You can see more of Johanna’s work at

How did you start out as an illustrator?

I actually have
video games and RPGs to thank for that. I played a lot of Nintendo as a kid,
and I loved creating my own characters to fit into worlds like Hyrule, Kanto,
and Tellius. I also played a bit of Dungeons & Dragons in high school and
throughout college. I drew in the margins of my homework for many years, but I
never realized it was something I could realistically do for a living until
halfway through college, when indie games and 3D animated films started
becoming popular. I originally set out to be a graphic designer, but I fell
deeply in love with animation and the way art can tell a story, and I knew that
I wanted to be involved in that process, so I worked at getting better every
day and got accepted to the BYU
Animation program
. I was one of those students who wanted to learn and
master everything, and took classes for digital painting, character design,
storyboarding, 3D modeling, and animation.

After I graduated
from the program, I applied for a job with an independent video game studio
called Apocalyptic Games. I
became the creative director on a game, and was in charge of designing the
characters, props, environments, and even helped with the level design and
learned lighting and composition in Unity. Since then, I've been a freelance
illustrator and have contributed artwork for several indie games, children's
books, and comics publishers.

Dark Dicey by Johanna Taylor
Dark & Dicey by Johanna Taylor

What’s something you didn’t know about the field before you got into

Freelancing is just as valid in this field as a full-time job at a major studio. As a student, it's easy to feel like being a freelance artist should only be a last resort if you can't find a "real" job in the industry, and it was discouraging when I applied for studios only to be turned down and feel like there was no other way for me to make a living doing what I love. A lot of studios and publishers reach out to freelance artists for projects if they have a style that matches their need, and I've been privileged to work with a few of them. I've also discovered that art is a marathon, not a race: there is no time- or age-limit for when you need to hit your big break in order to be considered successful or a "winner," or if you even need to hit a big break at all. A successful art career is a series of small breaks over a long period of time that build on each other. Like a marathon, which path you take, and how long it takes you to get there, aren't as important as staying in the race, making as much forward progress as you can.

What’s your favorite kind of job to work on, and why?

I really enjoy
character design, environments, and prop design, but my favorite has to be
fantasy illustration or character design with an epic, high-fantasy vibe. That
genre has always spoken to me, and I'm so happy to see it making a resurgence
in popular culture.

Two concept sketches by Johanna Taylor
Two concept sketches by Johanna Taylor

What’s your least favorite?

It's hard to work
on projects where the objective isn't clear, or the expectations aren't
communicated well. Communication is hugely important to me, and if contract
clients aren't timely with their feedback, or change their minds on major
design points too late into the project, it's frustrating to have to scramble
to satisfy their needs.

Tell me a little about your process—how do you decide what moment to
portray when you’re planning an illustration piece or a comic panel?

I think a lot about
what makes an interesting composition: what moves my eye through a piece, and
trying to answer the question, "What does this person's life look like and
how do I show that?" I also think about the character as though I've just
passed them by on the street and had about a minute to figure out who they are
as a person. What they're wearing, what they're doing, what they're thinking
about, where they're going; I treat the illustration like my elevator pitch for
that character's story, communicating as much detail about them as possible in
the simplest, most relatable ways. A lot of story can be gleaned from looking
at a character's posture, their clothes, their expression, and the way they
treat the environment around them.

Is the process of finding the dramatic moment to show similar to
planning out a storyboard, or is that totally different?

I think it's pretty
similar, actually. Composition is hugely important in storyboarding, because
you have to make sure all of your character's actions are clear enough to
communicate what they're doing and what they want, otherwise the audience will
be confused. But where storyboarding or comics have several panels to tell a
story, an illustration only has one. To me, the most interesting illustrations
are the ones where the staging is clear and dynamic as though someone took a
storyboard panel and painted it, but are comprehensive enough to tell a
complete story by themselves.

Peter Pan by Johanna Taylor

What do you think would surprise people about your day-to-day routine
as an artist?

A huge chunk of my
job is self-promotion and financial preparation for conventions. I do draw
primarily for clients, and even get time to draw just for myself sometimes, but
I have to spend a lot of time networking on social media, creating and keeping
up with a personal production schedule, checking out which conventions have
open applications, and planning how much money to spend on printing, display
setups, and merchandise for those conventions. Freelance artists have to deal
with a surprising amount of math, accounting, and economics!

What’s one piece of advice that you would give to younger artists who
want to get a start in the industry?

If you have fun
drawing it, people will have fun looking at it. Drawing as a job is great and
should be fun by default, but a LOT of art jobs and freelancing will be spent
drawing other people's characters, worlds, and props. If you're asked to design
ten different chairs for a robot pirate, even if you absolutely hate drawing
chairs and robots and pirates, find a way to make the chairs fun for you to
draw. What kind of details can you add that make them the most interesting
robot pirate chairs you can possibly design? People can tell the difference
between art someone had fun making and art they hated every minute of making.

I noticed you list some of your hobbies as cross-country skiing and feeding crows—how did the crow-feeding start? Do they recognize you now?

Crows have always been my favorite animal. They're intelligent, family-oriented, and bursting with personality. I started out feeding seagulls regularly with my family (Utah gets a lot of seagulls), but over time more and more crows started cropping up. There was a murder of crows that hung around my college campus and I fed them any time I encountered them. They did start to recognize me after a while and would even bring me twigs in exchange for the nuts and granola I gave them. There was also a murder as large as 100 crows in the north where my mom lived, and feeding them was absolute madness! I used to keep track of where they migrated to, but they moved around so often that I no longer get to feed them as regularly as I'd like. I do keep a little granola in my bag just in case I run into some, though!

Setting Creative Goals... and Keeping Them

No matter what your art is (writing,
illustration, game design), you’ll often hear that you should work at it every
day. If you don’t do this, some people say, you’re failing as a creator.

Now, that might work for some people, but I’ve
tried writing every day on several occasions and it just doesn’t work for me.
It makes the whole thing a chore that I start to hate very quickly. Instead, I’ve
found that three scheduled sessions of at least a couple of hours keeps my
juices flowing, my motivation up, and my productivity on track.

The most important thing for me is that I have
a plan. Every time I sit down for a creative session, I plan out ahead of time
exactly what I want to achieve that day. And at the end of every session, I figure
out when my next one is booked for. That stops one or two days off from slipping
into more.

Another thing that works for me is to always
have deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed, and to make sure that I’m accountable
to someone else for those deadlines. If the only person I have to answer to is myself,
I will inevitably let things slip. What I would recommend is having a partner
in creation, someone else who also wants to achieve things and may need a nudge
every now and then. If you can arrange to meet up physically and keep each
other focused, then great! If not, maybe keep a chat window or video call open
during creative sessions and check in every half hour or so, to make sure
you’re both still on topic. And, if all else fails, just email each other your
schedule and your plan, and then report back after the session to celebrate
your victories. If you’re a writer who is more motivated by spreadsheets,
streaks, or games than by a creative partner, consider using something like,,
to encourage you to meet those writing goals. Artists might get practice ideas
or the challenges, timed practices, and random poses on
And no matter what your art, if you respond to gamification, something like
might be just the thing to get you making the most of your creative time and
give you a sense of accomplishment as you make progress toward your goals.

That last point is important—make it easy to
celebrate your successes. If you have a big project, then just looking at the
whole thing may make it seem insurmountable. But if you break it down into
small tasks with sensible deadlines, you can have the satisfaction of ticking
off tons of little victories that you should absolutely congratulate yourself
on. If rewards help you (like “I can have a chocolate after I finish this
chapter” or “I can watch an episode of my favorite show once I’ve filled a page
with sketches”), then don’t hesitate to use that.

Most crucial of all is to find a system that works for you and just go for it.

What works for me is a rolling spreadsheet of upcoming submission opportunities (theme, word count, hard deadline, and possible publication all right there), sessions scheduled outside my flat with an accountability partner, and a list of very specific targets for each session. But the thought of all that organization might make you want to curl up and die. So try things out to see what fits, and once something works, don’t ever let anyone tell you it doesn’t make sense. The only person it has to makes sense to is you. And if it keeps you creating, then it’s doing its job and you should stick with it no matter what.

Interview with Concept Artist Becca Hallstedt

Dream Foundry Content Manager Jen Grogan sat down with Becca over email recently to chat with them about art, the gaming industry, and pickled vegetables. 

You can see more of Becca's work at

How did you start out as a concept artist?

I've been drawing since I was very young, and I discovered concept art in high school through Tumblr, Youtube, and Blogspot sites. I actually originally went to an industrial design school because that's what all my favorite artists studied — folks like Feng Zhu, Daniel Dociu, and others —but I got bored of drawing hairdryers and shoes, so I transferred up to a game college program after three semesters.

My first job in games was as a paid 2D art intern at a local studio. I cold-emailed them asking if they would consider hiring a junior concept artist, and they got back to me less than a day later because they happened to need a Photoshop guru to help with GDC (Game Developers Conference) marketing materials. It was total happenstance. They slowly gave me more responsibility and I got some experience with UI art and visual development. My experience there led to my first true concept art job at Netherrealm.

Lucky Kirin by Becca Hallstedt
Lucky Kirin by Becca Hallstedt

What’s your favorite kind of work in the industry, and why?

I love creature design. I genuinely enjoy doing a variety of tasks like environment and prop design or character development, but creatures are the most fun for me. I think they always will be.

What’s your least favorite?

I don't have a specific task that comes to mind, but it can be very frustrating to work with folks that struggle to give honest or clear critique. The way that peers provide constructive feedback can make or break a job to me. I'd much rather work a job with less interesting tasks around people who communicate well than take on a gig with exciting assignments that involves consistently frustrating or confusing critique.

Wesley Fox by Becca Hallstedt
Wesley Fox by Becca Hallstedt

What’s something you didn’t know about the field before you got into it?

Everyone knows each other, so don't burn bridges if you can help it. This starts day one in game development, whether that's in college or in a job. Soft skills and being self-aware are super, super important, and those things tend to be heavily underemphasized in general. Learning how to be empathetic, generous, and proactive will always do you more good than being stingy and paranoid. When applying to a job, I send that same opening to friends that need work all the time. Either of us getting it is a win. Working together and being benevolent does surprising, wonderful things in this industry.

What do you think would surprise people about your day-to-day routine as an artist?

I only actually work about twenty-five billable hours each week as a freelance artist, but I still manage to be busy all the time. Same goes for all my freelance friends locally. I think people assume that every freelancer works about forty hours/week, but so much work has to go into administrative stuff that you don't get paid for. Things like keeping up asocial media presence (all my work comes from Twitter,) emailing future clients, networking, keeping my portfolio updated, creating personal work so I have new pieces to show, and so forth take up a LOT of hours.

Courier's Beast by Becca Hallstedt
Courier's Beast by Becca Hallstedt

When you’re designing a new creature or other element, how do you start out? What kind of direction are you given from the client, and how do you go from there?

The specificity of the prompt varies heavily by task and client. Sometimes they know exactly what they want and, even if I as the designer don't think the idea is strong, it's my job to make the design look awesome. Other times, I'm handed really vague prompts with a lot of creative freedom. I like having a mix. Having heavy constraints and having a vague task each have their own unique challenges that are fun to tackle.

I can't overemphasize how much time goes into research and rough sketching when starting something new. Sometimes the sketch or lineart of the final design will only take fifteen to thirty minutes, but the prep work that goes into that drawing can take hours or days. The biggest lesson I've learned in the last year was to slow down and give those early stages a lot of time rather than trying to rush through them. Clients always prefer a badass final design that took an extra day over a quick, uninformed, unfinished idea.

How much backstory do you have in mind when you’re doing creature or character design, whether for yourself or for a client?

I think in context rather than about story. I like to imagine the circumstance of the creature while I'm painting rather than setting it all in stone before starting because I think that results in some very organic, interesting elements in the design. If I try to put all the pieces together before I even start sketching, I get frustrated and feel too restrained.

When I say context rather than story, I mean that I focus more on the personality, surrounding environment, and interactions this creature has on a regular basis instead of their life story. Sometimes once I have that context nailed down, I naturally work backwards and a more specific backstory comes from it.

Ebony by Becca Hallstedt
Ebony by Becca Hallstedt

What kinds of questions or thoughts lead your worldbuilding process? For instance, do you think about where a creature fits in an ecological niche, or more about what role they’ll play in a game or story?

I really try to ground my ideas in believability. I've historically struggled with storytelling, which results in a confusing design that viewers don't know how to place in the world. I have found over time that it's better to latch onto a few "cliché" aspects for a design and execute it elegantly rather than rejecting the obvious solutions entirely and making something the observer can't understand. Embrace some of the obvious!Just make sure you insert your own unique voice into it.

What one piece of advice would you give to younger artists who want to get a start in the industry?

Take yourself seriously. No one else will treat you like a professional until you do it first. People treated me like a pro my junior year of college because I did my best to speak and behave as one, and that got me jobs. Don't be an aspiring artist or a student artist. Just be a damn artist.

Snakeoil Potionmaster by Becca Hallstedt
Snakeoil Potionmaster by Becca Hallstedt

I saw on your website that you like to pickle vegetables — what’s your favorite? Do you have any tips or a recipe that you could share with us?

My two favorites are beets as well as sweet and spicy peppers. Use organic ingredients because the quality difference is HUGE. I usually wing it instead of going off a written recipe but here's my basic approach...

Becca's Good-As-Hell Beets:

Primary ingredients:

  • 3 beets, skinned and boiled (you cannot over boil beets, so be patient until they're easy to go through with a fork)
  • 2 sprigs of fresh organic rosemary (do not use dried, it sucks)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 thinly sliced organic Vidalia onion
  •  3 cloves of smashed garlic


  • 1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup cup water
  • 2 teaspoon salt

Put primary ingredients in large glass jar like this one, distributed evenly. They should come to the top and fill the jar entirely. Bring brine just to a rolling boil and pour into the jar over the contents up to the very rim and refrigerate. Wait two or more days before eating. Great on crackers with sour cream and dill. Good for up to two weeks in the fridge. Save the leftover brine to reuse or for pickled hard-boiled eggs.

Best of luck out there, y’all.