Meet the Ancients: Phelan Sykes
When you remember the enchanted lands of Might & Magic VI to VIII, there’s a good chance you are thinking about the work of Phelan Sykes, who was instrumental in creating the distinctive art style and iconic looks of the world of Enroth.
But who can tell that epic saga better than Phelan herself? :)
~ Meet the Ancients ~
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career?
I got into video gaming quite accidentally – In 1995 I was working as a lube tech at local Ford dealership to make ends meet, (times were tough then in rural Virginia, and my BFA didn't get me many offers!) After one particularly tough day doing oil changes and tire rotations, I answered an ad looking for a graphic artist. Two high school friends had gotten some seed money, wanted to make a video game and needed an artist. I got the job and we were successful enough in our prototype to land a publisher: New World Computing. Eventually NWC absorbed our little crew and moved all of us out to California to work on Heroes of Might and Magic and then, Might and Magic VI. Might and Magic VI was my first opportunity to learn 3D modelling and animation, which turned out to be the focus of my career. I had the unique pleasure (and challenge) of creating many of the pre-rendered cutscenes in the game as well as designing and rendering the interface.
Some of Phelan’s concept sketches for the GUI of Might & Magic VI.
I worked on virtually all of the Might and Magic games until the studio closed and its then owner 3DO went out of business. Since then I’ve worked at a variety of game companies in every conceivable capacity, most recently at Sony Online Entertainment and Midway. A few years back I made the jump to Casino gaming and am now currently designing and producing slot machine games.
2. When you think about your work on Might & Magic, what’s the first association that comes to your mind?
The years I spent at New World Computing were some of the best of my career – at the time, there was an enormous amount of opportunity to experiment and to contribute to the direction of a game, regardless of what your primary role on the team was. Team sizes were small and everyone worked together to create the best levels and the coolest art. Might and Magic VI was a unique game at the time in that it combined the variety and depth of real-time gameplay with the spectacular detail that pre-rendered worlds could illustrate. 3D rendering was a growing field and the software available on PC was making leaps and bounds with each release. Each mini cut-scene was an opportunity to experiment and discover new tools and techniques, and each animation was a new opportunity to create a more spectacular environment than the last. Illustrating the fantastic worlds of Might and Magic was both immensely challenging and rewarding.
3. What does Might & Magic mean to you today?
I certainly have some serious nostalgia towards Might and Magic and New World Computing. For me the franchise meant my very first opportunity to work on an established and very successful published title. Might and Magic was my foot in the door to a career, which I am grateful for on a daily basis. Many of my co-workers then are my friends to this day, and I even met my husband while we worked together on a Might and Magic title!
4. What inspired your work on Might & Magic?
When I started working on the Might and Magic series, there were relatively few well-known fantasy artists and still fewer published "art books" that one could collect or study. I remember admiring the work of Michael Whelan, Larry Elmore and in particular, the late Keith Parkinson, who I had the opportunity to work with briefly some years later at Sigil. I very much wanted to achieve the same immersive illustrated realism in the environments I created, and in particular to bring those environments to life with characters and visual effects. I felt like the fully-rendered environments I created were a reward to the players' efforts of crawling through miles of dungeons and battling hordes of orcs and spiders. We used to refer to these in-game cinematics as “eye candy”. The cinematic renderings offered the detail and complexity that the real-time engine could not deliver, filling out the story aspect that is so important to RPG genre games. Bringing a written concept to life with spectacular visuals was challenging, but also quite rewarding.
Indoor scene for one of the Temples of M&M6.
5. When developing a game in general, what do you aim for?
Game development to me is about engagement and connection. A game must connect with a player on his terms and involve him on a personal level. The activity could be as simple as pattern matching on a slot game or complex as full-blown immersive role playing game. Connecting with players on an emotional level is the primary focus in my current work, though instead of fantastic visuals I focus on psychology and orchestration. When designing for RPG’s, to me one of the most appealing concepts is “The Grand Adventure” – we all want to escape our day-to-day, create a new identity for ourselves and explore the great unknown. We all want comradeship, challenge, excitement, fame and glory. Tapping into and full-filling these universal human desires is one of the best ways to forge enduring connections with a player.
6. What are you currently playing, and how do you like it?
To be perfectly honest, I've recently resurrected my copy of Command & Conquer Generals from the garage and started playing that again. This was such a well-balanced game with great replay potential, and after a hard day at the office it's simply gratifying to blow some stuff up from a benign and safe distance. On the go I play a bit of Flow and Mah-jongg.
7. Would you rather be a human, elf, dwarf or orc, and why?
Lately I'm on a dwarf kick -- I've been watching The Hobbit every few weeks and am very much looking forward to the second instalment of the story. There's a lot of appeal in being simple, tough, loyal and brave as hell! I’m kind of a workaholic myself, and I guess I identify a bit with their industrious nature.
8. Apart from games, what fascinates you?
3D graphics still fascinates me -- I'm constantly taking classes, picking up new tools and techniques, learning new software packages and experimenting with visual effects both static and animated. I’m currently working on my MFA and dabbling in stone-carving and woodworking as well. There’s my industrious nature for you!
Inside an Enrothian tavern...
On the hobby side, I spend a ton of time practicing Kung Fu and Tai Chi. Like many others of my generation, I caught the martial arts bug from The Karate Kid movie in the early 80’s. I recently purchased my own wooden dummy and have been picking up some Wing Chun as well.
9. What’s your motto?
Be passionate in everything that you do!
10. Your message to the fans of Might & Magic?
I tend to think that as game developers we’re just ushers at a door. The “world” is really created by all the unique experiences of the players, their interactions within the environments and the relationships formed with the content and with each other that endure from game to game and beyond. The game forms a framework, but the “world” is fleshed out by the fans is only as limited as their imaginations. So I would say, “Keep the torch lit – the world of Might and Magic will continue to expand and evolve with your passions, contributions and experiences - there’s no limit!”
Many thanks to Phelan for kindly taking the time to answer our questions! :)