By Kimari Rennis
After my story about what Plants Vs. Zombies means to me, I was able to get in contact with Rich Werner, the game’s artist. In this interview, I asked questions about his road to success and heard stories and experiences about this original artist for the hit game. The reason we are doing this interview is because the Plants Vs. Zombies franchise has come a long way with new games, new fans, new characters, and new art. In addition to me being a huge fan of the franchise, I believe it’s time to look back and appreciate the start of this amazing series from the original and memorable game to its unique art style.
What kind of education did you get?
After High School I went to the Art Institute of Seattle and got my Associates degree in what ended up being called Graphic Design.
How did you get involved in doing artwork in general?
I have always had a really strong passion for art and drawing. As a kid living in California I would often sit and draw while in my room or even on my porch while other neighborhood kids were playing. I loved Disney and fantasy movies and those inspired me to want to become an animator at Disney. I had this idea in my head from the time I was probably 10 or 11. I was accepted into a Performing Arts Junior High so that I would have more time to focus on that part of my education. After Junior High, I was then accepted in a Performing Arts High School which allowed me to take art classes for two periods a day.
Once I moved to Seattle my sophomore year, I still was attending art classes at school and decided to go to the Art Institute after graduating High School, to focus on and better my skills as an Illustrator.
Once I finished Art School I had gone through many regular jobs and finally landed my first gig at a small startup studio called Interactive Imagination where I was thrown into the world of video games with no prior knowledge. I was working on backgrounds for a GameBoy Color game called Magi-Nation. Eventually I got to do illustrations for the collectable Card game of the same name. This allowed me to focus on Illustration work for a few years.
What and who was your inspiration?
As a kid I was always inspired by Disney animation. I just LOVED focusing on the fluid movements and character designs.
Other inspirations were movies like The Never Ending Story, The Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal. (There were shows like The Muppet Show, Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, people like Chuck Jones, Jim Henson, Tex Avery, Eyvind Earle, Brian Froud. And later in comics I loved Sam Keith and Jim Lee. The list could go on and on.
How did you end up working at PopCap?
I was working for McGraw Hill and I got a call from a good friend Matt Holmberg about this AMAZING place that he had just gotten hired at and that they were looking for artists and I should apply ASAP.
How did you get the position of becoming the artist of the original Plants Vs. Zombies?
At the time I was in between projects at PopCap and had heard that our smaller studio in San Francisco was working on a new game called “Lawn of the Dead” and they had not secured an artist yet.
I played the version of the game that was out at the time and thought it was super crazy and funny and asked if I could submit my version of what it could look like to the studio. After some back and forth George Fan ( the game designer for PVZ) decided to give me a shot at it. Once he saw what I had come up with and animated and what the programmer Tod Semple had come up to get it in game, it was a done deal and I have not worked for another game designer since that day.
What was it like in the early days of PopCap?
The early days of PopCap were the best times I have ever had in a work place. PopCap was not afraid of failure. They encouraged us to try new things and take ideas as far as possible. If it didn’t work out then it was totally OK to scrap it and start over with something else. It was a small studio of 20-something totally creative and skilled individuals.
What was it like to work at PopCap day to day?
It was a very creative and free thinking space to be in. There was no clock watching. It was more about what you produced rather than how long you sat in your cubicle throughout the day. It was more a family than a coworker type environment. I loved everything about it. They had a game room with every system and also some arcade game cabinets, a giant TV with couches and massive bean bags and lots of free food and drinks. And when they threw a party it was EPIC! One year we had a Christmas party and the company paid for every tux and even rooms for anyone who needed one at a hotel we were having the party at. I have never been part of anything like that in my whole working career. One year it was at the Seattle Aquarium after hours. I have some very fond memories of that place.
What was your career path like?
Well, my career path was a pretty long one. I didn’t just go to art school and then instantly start working in games.
During school and even some time after, I held many different jobs.
I worked at a movie theater, pet store, pizza place, burger joint, haircut salon, woman’s clothing store, telemarketing, wiring at a communication center job, woodshop, and a propane yard. I even got certified to do oil spill cleanup. All of this (happened) before getting my first art job.
What title would you give yourself based on your responsibilities and work?
I just call myself an Artist. I can do pretty much everything from UI to character development and concept to animation and backgrounds. I also Paint in real life and love to draw comics when I can. A jack of all trades really.
Were there any hard times in your entire career? What were they?
The hardest time in my artistic career was when I was laid off from my first art job. It was two weeks before my wife had our first baby. It was rough and I had a hard time finding another job in my field. I would scrape by doing freelance gigs here and there while my wife went back to work.
Other than art and animation skills, what else did you need to know for your career?
I needed to learn how to work a computer first off, haha. When I got my first job I didn’t even own one. Then it was a matter of learning the tools. At the time there was a program we used called D-Paint. It was a pixel-based program needed to create the art for the GameBoy Color game I was working on at the time. Later, I had to learn how to use Photoshop and how to use a Wacom tablet instead of a mouse. Most of the skills needed I had to learn on the job as I went.
What advice would you give to young people, such as myself, who want to become as successful as you?
I’m not sure how “successful” I am. I feel pretty lucky to be to doing what I love for a living and at the same time be able to support my family. I think if you are passionate about something then just never stop doing it. I just focused on art in general and knew that someday I would be able to do it for a living. Give yourself a goal and don’t stop trying to achieve it. Basically just don’t give up. If it doesn’t work out at first just keep trying and I think you can get anywhere you want. Maybe it won’t be a full-time gig or maybe not quite in the exact position you want at first. But all these paths are intertwined and eventually they will intersect and you will get what you want out of it.
What opportunities did you take advantage of to become who you are today?
Well, I never turned down a gig. Especially early on. Any opportunity I could get to land even the smallest art job I would take it on. It could be a logo for a friends band, some signage for a small business, caricatures of people, etc. Any little thing that seemed like it would better me as an artist – I would take it. I would do anything just to get it on my resume and to refine my skills at the same time.
What is it like working with George Fan now and back at PopCap? And is there any difference?
There is no difference. George is an AMAZING game designer and good friend. I don’t think I have ever worked with someone with more passion, wit and skill. I feel like the two of us work perfectly with one another.
What do you think or how do you feel about the direction of Plants Vs. Zombies today?
It is always strange, I think, to create something and then not have any involvement in its evolution. I have seen a ton of PVZ-related games and merchandise come out over the years and it is a bit surreal.
It is mind boggling to see things from sequels to AAA shooter versions to arcade games and slot machines. After the first PVZ came out our entire team did not work on anything PVZ-related aside from some consulting on PVZ2. I see stuff come out now the same as anyone else. It is pretty crazy how big the franchise has grown.
What is it like to work as the artist for Octogeddon? What’s the best thing about Octogeddon so far?
I LOVE working on Octogeddon. It is the first time that I have complete control over what I create and how I want to present it. It’s a dream come true, actually. Working with George again and not having to report to a boss or have other people tell me what to do as far as my art goes is pretty great. I’m basically putting it all out there and hoping it is successful. I love that I can be as ridiculous and wild with my designs and it still fits within the Octogeddon world that we created.
So things are looking good!
I predict that our little studio, “All Yes Good,” will be making many more games in the future.
Kimari Rennis is a New York Videogame Critics Circle intern, part of our ongoing partnership with the Bronx’s DreamYard Prep School.