This week, the winning costume design from Polygon and Insomniac Games' Be a Designer on Sunset Overdrive Contest will come to the Xbox One game.
In November, Nichol visited Insomniac for a one-day apprenticeship to see how his winning design was being developed for the game — a game he actually hadn't played yet because, well, he's an art student and didn't own an Xbox One at that point.
Nichol, 25, studies entertainment design at the Art Center College for Design in Pasadena, not far from Insomniac Games' headquarters. He's a longtime Insomniac fan, it turns out. One of the first games he ever played was Spyro the Dragon on PlayStation, and Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank series helped encouraged him to pursue visual art. He cites CreatureBox, the firm who helped create characters and creatures for the Ratchet franchise, as an early influence.
Nichol says he's only been drawing and painting for the past six years. Before getting into visual art, he was a breakdancer and had visions of joining Cirque du Soleil. His interest in fashion, urban culture and games inspired him to study concept art.
The Chase skin, as Nichol's hip-hop samurai design is called, won the popular vote on Polygon. Studio art director Jacinda Chew said she was rooting for it to win. The design, which has a "Wu-Tang/Ghost Dog look" influenced by Japanese cinema, nailed the formula Insomniac used to design Sunset Overdrive's other costumes.
"Sunset Overdrive fashion has three components," Chew said, "the mainstream fashion, the stuff anyone would wear; street clothing; and costumes, clothing that's inspired by a culture or event. How you mix and match those is really key to getting the Sunset Overdrive fashion. I think the one thing Chase did really well was he used street fashion really well. It was cool, it was relevant and it was hip. It's something that you'd want to wear now. That fashion aspect of the design is something that not everybody got.
"I felt like [he] really nailed the urban edginess of it," she said, "the mash up of street clothes and costumes... it looks current, relevant, edgy and cool."
Chew said it was difficult for Insomniac to find concept artists for Sunset Overdrive, because it's rare for designers to pay much attention to fashion.
Nichol said he actually paid close attention to Chew's comments in interviews about how the game's clothing and accessories were designed. Her direction was factored into his illustration, which he said he considered and researched for a full day before drawing anything.
"The best concept artist does that," Chew said. "[They] take a day to think about it. If you just go straight into it, pen to paper, your designs going to go off the rails."
Chew had some criticisms for Nichol, notably that he used a forced perspective in his character design, something that will make the finished in-game product look very different from the concept. Nichol said that was intentionally done, mainly to make his hip-hop samurai look cool to people who were voting on designs.
Nichol's design is a little different in practice than in concept. The drop crotch pants were a no-go due to some modeling constraints — Sunset Overdrive's clothing is gender neutral and has to fit a variety of body types — and there are little tweaks here and there, like the camouflage pattern in the Chase skin vest.
Insomniac's Leroy Chen, senior character artist, and Erik Eidukas, senior character technical director, walked Nichol through the process of turning his concept into a playable character. Chen showed Nichol his detailed samurai model, composed of millions of polygons and crafted in ZBrush, which was then reduced to a less detailed in-game model, then "unwrapped" to a flat surface for painting. That process, Chen said, is "the opposite of fun."
"The fun part is sculpting," he said. "I'm gonna be honest, not every part of video game-making is fun."
Eidukus showed off the Chase skin's rigging, the digital bones and joints that construct the 3D model's skeleton, which include animated dreadlocks and the beads of his character's necklace. The skin's various parts — Chase pants, Chase shoes, etc. — are broken down into their different pieces and tested for compatibility with the game's character models.
Sunset Overdrive players will get access to that Chase gear soon, and Nichol said seeing his design adapted for the game offered a rare opportunity to share his work with such a large audience.
"When you go to school, you put your heart and soul into all this stuff and it's never going to get made," Nichol said. When he's done with a project, he said, "I'll, like, put it on my blog. Actually finally getting to see [my work in the game], I think, 'I didn't waste hours and hours of my life.'"