Meet the Speaker: Kekai Kotaki

Meet the Speaker: Kekai Kotaki
December 13, 2018 CG Futures


Kekai Kotaki is one of the industry’s best fantasy concept illustrators, well known for his ability to communicate design, composition, and mood quickly and seemingly effortlessly. Kekai is a multi-award-winning concept artist and illustrator and has worked for some of the biggest gaming companies including Bungie, ArenaNet, and Monolith on titles like Destiny, Guild Wars, and Mordor Shadow of War. He is also known for his illustrations on Magic: The Gathering cards and book covers and is described by his peers as a fantastic artist who can take concept departments by storm, with a very professional approach to his craft.

Q: What is it like shifting between print illustration and games? What do you enjoy about the print medium?

A: Some things are similar, and some are different. The actual process of creating is similar, but the turnaround time on concept art is quicker than a book cover. Most of the time in games, I am working in a pipeline where the art I am doing is just a step to the final product, versus working on a book cover, the art I am doing is actually going on that cover. I like working on something that you can hold onto after it is complete- whether it is a card or book, it is something I can put on the shelf. I am maybe a little old fashioned like that, but I am happy that I get to do it.

Q: Were you a Magic: The Gathering fan growing up? What was it like to design for them? Any favorites?

A: Yes! I first got into them in the early 90’s. I believe I was in the seventh grade, about 12. I remember Revised and Forth Edition, The Dark and Fallen Empires were there too. I pretty much collected and played the game all the way through the Tempest Block. I remember that in high school, my good friend and I would play games between my Black/Red and his Blue/White decks, and it really boiled down to how much damage I could throw at him and how much he could block, counter, or heal with his. I have really fond memories of the game, and it was a total joy to get to do art for them. Getting the MTG art bible in the mail to look through and getting to explore the setting and characters they had created during the concept push was always awesome. Though some things were set, for example, sphinxes would have a particular look that you followed for the setting, there were always room to play. One of my personal favorites was doing the art for Lorthos the Tidemaker. I believe the addition of Lorthos was the second time an octopus appeared in the game’s history.

Q: You worked on Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2. Were there any creative challenges in working on a sequel? What was different about working on the projects?  

A: One thing that was different, was that on the first Guild Wars I was a texture artist and I worked my way up in various jobs on different expansions. With Guild Wars 2, I had moved up to a Lead position, so there were much more managerial tasks to do. Also, the length of time that I spent on the projects was very different. I did not join the first Guild Wars until it was well into production, but with Guild Wars 2, I was there from almost the beginning. I spent about five years developing the title, and there were a lot of good times, and then times where it definitely felt like five years.

Since it was a sequel, one thing we enjoyed was getting a second chance at designing the world of Guild Wars again. We were free to change the look of most of the world and its inhabitants, with a loose adherence to what came before. A Charr had to resemble a Charr, but we were able to make female versions that did not exist before. Another challenge was the amount of content needed for the game, everything seemed to need a variant. Most races needed at least five different designs to fill in the different classes, but a lot of the time, it was much more than five. The same applied for the architecture of each culture in the world- it was quite the undertaking. A great benefit of this was that few designs were unused. If it was possible to get it into the game, then it was getting in there.

Q: You shift between staff and freelance, does being a more permanent part of the team impact your creativity in any way.

A: There is definitely something to being on a team and working towards a singular goal or project. Being in-house is a great opportunity to learn from various disciplines, coworkers are there to inspire you every day, and honestly, it is really nice interacting with people. There is a balance though for sure, not enough input and feedback can put you in a static position, but too much information can hinder your ability to make decisions and move forward with confidence. I do appreciate that I was able to switch back and forth for the past few years. It helps to connect with people in person, and to work with a variety of people in different environments.

Q: What do you regularly look to for inspiration?

A: Most of the time I am looking at something online- Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Artstation, there are many sites. However, sometimes it’s a discussion at work that leads me to something new. It does not even have to be visual, it can be new music, an article in the news, or a book off the shelf. I try to keep my mind open to inspiration.

Q: Are there any tools for artists and creatives you would recommend?   

A: I think there is something in having a small sketchbook to draw in, something analog can help keep your mechanics in good shape. A nice office chair is also good, and some sort of drawing stand to get a good drawing angle. While this may not be a tool, finding some sort of stretching routine would be good to incorporate into your workflow. Using my iPad has been fun, it’s very mobile and quick, but I do not really use it to finish work. I mainly use my iPad to sketch ideas out and push them further in the process without having to lug around my computer. I think of the iPad as an in-between point from my sketchbook to computer.