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CounterSpy: Designing the Propaganda of the Upcoming Espionage Thriller

Mark Holmes's Avatar + Posted by Mark Holmes on Aug 08, 2014 // Creative Director, Dynamighty

Greetings Counter Agents,

This is Mark Holmes, co-creative meddler here at Dynamighty and art director of our debut title, Counterspy. After 16 wonderful years at Pixar, working on most of the studios’ films as a character, environment, graphic artist, art director and production designer, I was excited to bring my experience and passion for visual storytelling to Dynamighty.

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Not only was I invited to help build a new and exciting game company from the ground up, I was given the opportunity to design a brand new game drawn from the cool world of 1960s cold war espionage! How could I say no?!

Having originally worked in games back in the early ‘90s, one of my earliest goals coming back was to help us find our own original voice for CounterSpy that would reflect the tone, themes and ideas we wanted to explore as a company, while at the same time would set us apart from the many other titles that have explored this rich genre. Building a relatively straight-forward action-stealth shooter, we wanted to make a game that was simple, fun, and playful… but with an edge. Being the sardonic, sarcastic, silly people that we are at Dynamighty, we also knew we wanted it to have a sense of humor and we didn’t want it to take itself too seriously, yet behind it, there needed to be some personal meaning for us in making it.

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We found early inspiration in the dry satire of Dr. Strangelove, where Stanley Kubrick so earnestly sets up the ridiculous premise of how easily one madman can flip the switch of the war machine to destroy the entire world. This began to inform our own point-of-view into the world, specifically around the inherent irony of the cold war arms race. Here were two global superpowers so fearful of the ideological threat they see each other posing to the world that they create an even greater threat by building a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the world many times over.

This became my design goal: to visually represent this ironic idea, rather than to make the game a literal portrayal or judgment about either side, or any of the events themselves. The focus would be on the machinery of war and the folly of the arms race, in our case twisted into a mad space race to destroy the moon. The world needed to be visually simple, fun, edgy, with a distinctly satiric attitude. One of the cornerstones was to portray both sides as abstracted representations of each other, with the irony being they were at once oppositional and the same. This then informed every design choice from shapes and colors to sets and characters.

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One design element that really helped crystallize this voice was the Propaganda. Here in particular I could draw on some of my Pixar experience to use graphics to economically and clearly portray our ideas in-game, adding visual richness and humor to the background without upstaging with the core gameplay experience. Posters, statuary, murals and signage could become a key instrument for illustrating the ironic relationship between these two war-mongering sides that through each other’s eyes became known as the Imperialist Threat and the Socialist Menace.

The design challenges were many: I wanted to evoke each historical side enough that it could be easily recognized, but I wanted them abstract enough that this was a clearly fictionalized world; To underscore the irony, I wanted them at once visually opposite and the same.

And in keeping with the tone, these designs needed to be stylistically simple, clear, playful and edgy. Starting with reference, I turned to historic propaganda posters, murals, statuary and signage to find the pre-established commonalities and contrasts.

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The first actual task I gave myself was to design the flags, from which I would derive the visual language for each side. I experimented with colors, patterns and shapes before finally settling on the design elements commonly associated with each flag: red, white and blue for the west; red and white for the east. As each nation historically employed the star, I also chose to use it as the central design element for both to stress their sameness, but inverted the values to show their opposition.

To abstract each side without deviating from their established design language I added an outer ring and inner circle to the western flag that evoked air force badging of WW2, and added a dark hexagonal frame to the eastern flag to evoke soviet badging. To relate them, I carried stripes across both flags, contrasting the simplified horizontal stripes of the west with radial stripes for the east, a little reminiscent of Japan’s imperialist flag during WW2.

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With a clear visual relationship between the two sides, I then began designing the propaganda posters keeping with a simple design language of similarity and contrast. The Imperialist imagery featured horizontal and vertical stripes and faced to the right, while Socialist imagery featured strong diagonal elements and faced left. The ubiquitous universal guard became a key symbol for each, differentiated only by the color of his costume and the direction he was facing. Visually I tried to keep every image relatively simple in detail and silhouette so they would clearly read in the background even on small mobile screens and would add just enough visual interest to the scene without overly distracting gameplay.

This was a really fun element of the game to work on and I hope the playful tone it creates contributes to your enjoyment of the game when it launches August 19th. Have fun picking out all the various posters and signs littered throughout the game and keep an eye out for more work coming from Dynamighty!

If you want to see some of the work I did at Pixar, you can view some selections of my work on my personal blog.

//Add Your Own

30 Comments   10 Replies

1

+ Sharingan_itachi on August 8th, 2014 at 10:13 am said:

should i be amazed or something


2

+ Sum-Mischief on August 8th, 2014 at 10:14 am said:

Very excited for this game..


3

+ BrianMcGuinness on August 8th, 2014 at 10:20 am said:

@1 – what’s the point of your comment, seriously?


4

+ FearMonkey on August 8th, 2014 at 10:22 am said:

I pre-ordered Counterspy and am looking forward to playing it. :)

But looking through your Pixar work, I saw the stuff from Newt and it made me sad once again that that project was canceled. :(


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    + David Nottingham on August 8th, 2014 at 6:06 pm said:

    +FearMonkey sadly promising projects get cancelled in movies as well as with videogames, even at places as amazing as Pixar :(

    Many of us on the team have had to deal with such disappointments before, which is why we were so compelled to start Dynamighty together.

    So we are celebrating that we not only dreamed of making CounterSpy but went and made it as well! :)


5

+ KidGreengene on August 8th, 2014 at 10:38 am said:

Everything I see on this game is just craving my money. Looks gorgeous. I see a spy version of Shadow Complex which I can’t throw money at fast enough. Would it not be a good comparison or a comparison that you wouldn’t like?


6

+ Mercenary09 on August 8th, 2014 at 10:44 am said:

@3 Don’t waste your time asking Itachi things like that. He is known to post useless and rude comments all over these blog posts. Guess he has nothing better to do with his time.

Dynamighty I just want to say the game looks great and I’m going to be placing my pre order for it this weekend. Thanks for making the awesome game for us! Can’t wait to play it. If you can say, does the game have a Platinum trophy?


7

+ DanteMerfi on August 8th, 2014 at 11:09 am said:

I think this game looks brilliant. I hope gameplay also delivers.


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    + David Nottingham on August 8th, 2014 at 5:53 pm said:

    If you like Side-Scrolling action that is retro inspired but with a modern touch, with stealth gameplay, we think you will be happy! :)


8

+ TomHoang on August 8th, 2014 at 11:20 am said:

This game looks great. I really love the setting and look of the game. I will pre-order this for sure!


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    + David Nottingham on August 8th, 2014 at 5:53 pm said:

    Thank you TomHoang! It’s our first game and a labor of love. We are so excited to be so close to launch now :)


9

+ italodancemp3 on August 8th, 2014 at 11:37 am said:

Sorry to say this,since it’s coming to mobile platforms,it made the game worthless.


10

+ SeanStrange on August 8th, 2014 at 11:55 am said:

Looks alright I guess. The art is nice to look at but I’ll wait for some reviews before I buy.


11

+ saab01 on August 8th, 2014 at 12:07 pm said:

Looks cool but I would of liked a demo to try it out to see if I liked it before adding it to my pre order list. I guess I will have to wait for a demo or see reviews before I make a decision.


12

+ CrusaderForever on August 8th, 2014 at 12:50 pm said:

I like the art style. In regards to CounterSpy you and your team have come a long way. I have this preordered through Play 2014 and I am really excited to play it. Well done!


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    + David Nottingham on August 8th, 2014 at 5:54 pm said:

    Thank you CrusaderForever.

    Yes it’s crazy for us to look back even at some of our earlier screenshots. Even the first trailer for CounterSpy from 2013 compared to today!

    The gameplay also got a lot of work from us as we kept honing the combat mechanics. We are really happy with how it turned out!


13

+ FJ1100_rider on August 8th, 2014 at 1:02 pm said:

any way we can get wallpapers of those propaganda posters ? I]d love these on my ps3 as wallpapers or as a theme where it changes posters regularly
I pre ordered this game as soon as the play 2014 event started and every time I see more on it get more excited to play it


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    + David Nottingham on August 8th, 2014 at 5:56 pm said:

    That’s an EXCELLENT idea FJ1100_rider! We haven’t done any yet but I’ll make sure it goes on our to do list.

    If we don’t post them here, you can also find artwork on our tumblr
    http://dynamighty.tumblr.com/

    Keep an eye there also in case we create some and post in the future.

    Thanks for the preorder! :)


14

+ PanTheMan16 on August 8th, 2014 at 1:52 pm said:

I’m really starting to look forward to CounterSpy, and I really appreciate the amount of thought and passion you have put into this project. I also think it’s nice that you may have finally helped people understand what the word “irony” means. lol


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    + David Nottingham on August 8th, 2014 at 5:59 pm said:

    Irony is a secret weapon of all C.O.U.N.T.E.R agents. Your application has been accepted and will be processed in due course….


15

+ tusunami on August 8th, 2014 at 2:00 pm said:

Now this is another game that I can’t wait to play because this has my interest indeed.


16

+ Rezolution77 on August 8th, 2014 at 2:13 pm said:

Already preordered.
Not because I want to throw my monet at you, but because I have high hopes for this game.

Cross Buy is a bonus, and other Indie platformers could learn a thing or two.


17

+ xClayMeow on August 8th, 2014 at 2:41 pm said:

Post #1 is why the PS Blog needs a reporting feature.

Anywho, I’ve been looking forward to this since it was first announced! I would love to know how many levels there are though before I pre-order.


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    + David Nottingham on August 8th, 2014 at 6:03 pm said:

    xClayMeow The game uses procedural content to stitch levels together so its different each time, which makes that a hard question to answer.

    We have an unusual progress system for the game. Your progress is not amount of levels to complete, but collecting all the Launch Plans to unlock the final mission.

    The goal has been to make the game highly replayable. So even when you finish it you can come back for more (unlock weapons by completing your blueprint collection, playing on harder difficulties, defeating your friend’s scores)


18

+ yowzagabowza on August 8th, 2014 at 6:01 pm said:

Id like a demo first. Oh, but then i wouldn’t have to buy it to see if i even like it. And by the time a demo IS available, if ever, the pre-order discount wont be there. Thats ok, ill just pre-order and cancel if i decide against buying it. Oh, wait, you cant do that? Well, screw the whole thing then.

Hey “indy” developers, stop being so damn greedy with your pricing. Put demos out. Dont think im just guna buy your games at inflated prices so i can be part of some dumb club.


19

+ DirjelJunshin on August 8th, 2014 at 6:12 pm said:

This was actually a really great read. Looking at these posters after reading your post, I think this is actually pretty brilliant.

If the rest of the game is as good as the propaganda design, we’re all in for a treat!


20

+ yowzagabowza on August 8th, 2014 at 6:12 pm said:

Ah jeez, procedurally generated levels, too? To me, that just means you guys cpuldnt make compelling enough levels to have me play it multiple times. Forget it. Good luck anyway.


21

+ xClayMeow on August 8th, 2014 at 8:07 pm said:

Procedural content and high replayability?! Why don’t I recall reading that in any of your Blog Posts?

That’s information that should be front and center and will certainly get people excited. That’s why I was always worried about content, because I never saw any mention of length/size. Sweet! Thanks for the reply :)


22

+ AlemanGC on August 9th, 2014 at 3:47 am said:

This sounds amazing with so many great people behind it, I really love the idea and setting too. And the high replay-ability is really nice I already enjoyed this in the excellent Rogue Warrior. I hope you will also allow the custom soundtrack feature on ps3, I am sure the game has excellent music but for many replays its just nice if you can have an own track or even a language learning tape or something like that while playing thru the surround sound setup. Thanks:)


23

+ AlemanGC on August 9th, 2014 at 3:48 am said:

*rogue legacy sorry , anyway its pre-ordered and ready to play, hurry up please:)


24

+ Heartlessomen on August 9th, 2014 at 8:36 am said:

love the art style but I still don’t really know what this game is….i’d love to see more of it before release so i can actually know if i want to pre-order it or not


25

+ Series5Ranger on August 9th, 2014 at 8:44 am said:

Too bad Cate Archer can’t make a cameo …..


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    + David Nottingham on August 13th, 2014 at 10:03 am said:

    We are huge fans of NOLF!


26

+ lifeat30fps on August 9th, 2014 at 10:23 am said:

My wife is from Crimea and spent several years teaching Russian noticed some problems with your cases in the posters. I told her she should help you guys sort them out before release. :D


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    + David Nottingham on August 13th, 2014 at 10:03 am said:

    Thanks for the heads up! :( TBH sometimes our artists spelling is poor in English as well! It’s too late for CounterSpy but something we will definitely look at for the future.


27

+ fsavoie on August 9th, 2014 at 12:51 pm said:

I would love it to be in stereo 3d.


28

+ Rainwater on August 10th, 2014 at 4:33 am said:

Love the look of this game and really looking forward to playing it. Thanks for the insightful post.


29

+ madness3030 on August 10th, 2014 at 5:28 pm said:

Will the soundtrack be available for purchase?


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30

+ David Nottingham on August 13th, 2014 at 10:01 am said:

No current plans but you can here some of the music on our soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/dynamighty


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