We’re continuing our Inspirational Creator Series of interviews this week, checking in with Stephen Gibson – artist, writer, game designer, and creator of the Grimslingers line of tabletop games. He’s had some exciting personal developments since we last spoke in 2020, and remains one of the most popular interviews we’ve hosted here on Grailrunner. Click here to read that original interview.
He had been Art Director at Arcane Wonders at the time, designing a supporting app for Grimslingers and trying to find time to catch some sleep. His art has popped up recently on book covers, and he’s even been featured in the art magazine, ImagineFX. In 2022, he made a big switch to Sumo Digital in Newcastle in England and added another member to his growing family!
Fascinating dude, great guy, and incredibly talented. What else could a Grailrunner ask for in finding inspiration?!
Stephen, apart from the occasional “wassup”, we last chatted in October of 2020, before zombie movies came to life with a global pandemic. You were one of the first interviews in a series we did on inspirational creators, and yours in particular remains the most popular of all that we did. Apparently, Henrietta the magic hen is quite the ambassador for you!
It has been a lifetime! I’m flattered at the reception and find it hilarious (but not all that surprising) that Henrietta has stolen the hearts of your readers. She’s also one of the illustrations I spent the least amount of time on. I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere…
At the time, you were deep in playtesting on Grimslingers 2, and had featured a detailed map and some app screenshots in various places on social media. Then I suspect life happened and you needed to focus on your work as Art Director at Arcane Wonders among other things. Were you or your family impacted seriously by COVID? I hope everyone is well.
Life indeed happened, as it does to us all. I had my third child, among other big life changes and yeah, COVID!!! I spent most of Covid gaining weight and wishing I had the energy to work on Grimslingers 2.
To prepare for this chat, I dug back through your (sparse) posts, and you seemed super passionate about an Arcane Wonders release called Freedom Five. It sounded like a tremendous amount of work – how was that experience?
Art wise, Freedom Five was a lot of fun because I was able to work with some extraordinarily talented artists. I’m particularly proud of the comic book panel style card art we had for ability cards. Each ability card really sold the story of the ability on it.
The campaign was a whirlwind that seemed doomed a little ways in but we were able to turn it around and I’m immensely proud of my hand in that (which meant a few sleepless nights re-working the entire campaign page).
It was a tremendous amount of work (and still is, it still hasn’t shipped to backers). We were very ambitious, but the project also got hit hard by the pandemic. We funded right before poop hit the fan and the world plummeted into chaos, and that meant all of our numbers, estimates and expectations for producing this game got thrown out the window.
I was incredibly jealous of the cover image you did for Cold As Hell, the book by Rhett Bruno and Jaime Castle. I saw your mysterious post about it around May of 2021, then stumbled randomly across it on the Barnes & Noble shelf this past summer. Looks amazing. (Offer stands for you to do a piece for Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic setting any time you like.)
“Shot dead in a gunfight many years ago, now he’s stuck in purgatory, serving the whims of the White Throne to avoid falling to Hell. Not quite undead, though not alive either, the best he can hope for is to work off his penance and fade away.” – that’s from the Amazon description. I see why you were attracted to the project.
The author approached me to see if he could use some of my Grimslinger art for his cover (Pocket Watch Will to be exact). That was a first for me, haha. Instead we worked out producing a new piece of art and I think that was for the best! I’m quite fond of that cover, it certainly evokes a mood!
You’ve described your workflow as being heavy on photobashing and digital painting in Photoshop. Describe your desk setup – an old post showed a Wacom tablet among other things. How do you set up for work?
My “Grimslingers” style is photobashing, but I’m just as comfortable doing cartoons or comic-esque stuff. Right now I actually don’t have a desk or even a computer, I sold it on to move to the UK and start a new job! HOWEVER, I used to have a Wacom Cintiq 24HD Pro, an ultra-wide primary monitor and a beefy PC to boot. I also use a Logi Ergo M575 trackball mouse. It allows me to use the mouse without needing a ton of space to move it around, that way I can switch between pen, keyboard and mouse without too much movement (why do much movement when little movement good?).
You mentioned on Artstation you’d used Unreal Engine 5 for the first time in kitbashing some Victorian environmental pieces for TacticStudios. What did you think?
I think every artist should had some 3D software in their repertoire. Unreal is fantastic for kitbashing and I wish I had more time to spend with it! It’s one of my main goals as an artist, to develop my 3D bashing and sculpting skills more. For me, that’s the next step in my evolution.
Congratulations on being featured in the December 2022 issue of ImagineFX. Best quote ever, regarding your approach to art: “…splicing in new images to fill out the character until I can’t stand to look at it anymore.”
You also said something near and dear to the mission of Grailrunner Publishing: “The world needs more passion projects and less corporate-controlled products.” Tell me what you mean by that and why it’s important.
Getting featured along other incredibly talented artists in ImagineFX was a big moment for me as an artist! Certainly a highlight of my journey thus far! My quote partly had to do with my frustration with truly unique and visionary ideas being disregarded because their considered more of a gamble – which they are! I totally get why business entities take the approach that they do in train to “paint by numbers” games and play things safe. But playing it safe doesn’t move our industry forward. It’s the risk takers that got us where we are now, and it’s the risk takers that will push us forward.
In my opinion, a game like Grimslingers wouldn’t have ever happened if I had to pitch it to publishers, it’s just far too wild and to weird a mix of genres and styles. There are some visionary and forward thinking publishers out there (more in the board game world compared to the video game world) and I truly do appreciate them. Cheers to the risk-takers! It’s a difficult and dangerous task, but the soul of our industry lives with them
One more question before we get to Grimslingers – you’ve settled in now at Sumo Digital in Newcastle. Tell us why this move, what’s exciting about it, and what sorts of things you’ll be working on.
Covid shook my confidence in the board game industry, and life rocked my personal finances (to the extent that I wasn’t able to keep up with my bills). As a father of three, I’m not at a point in my life anymore where I’m willing to ride out risky situations for too long. After college I had signed up for a job alert service to which I never unsubscribed. One day, I got a job alert for a position at Digital Extremes (a studio in my town that happens to make the ultra-successful looter shooter, Warframe!) The job description fit me perfectly and was the push I needed to help me feel like I could exist in the video game industry. I updated my resume, my portfolio, I started learning new software (like UE5). I interviewed with several studios (and yes, I did get the interview with Digital Extremes!).
I lacked experience in the video games industry so I knew (or I thought I knew) that I’d never find a job as an Art Director, so I was applying to concept artist positions. I interviewed with Ubisoft for the Splinter Cell remake, TacticStudios for an unannounced project, Digital Extremes for Warframe and Atomhawk for Character Concept Artist. They were all very promising and I had a few interviews with each, but Atomhawk seemed the most exciting to me, and they seemed the most excited about me. Unfortunately the job fell through because of some changes to their projects. What I didn’t know at the time was that Atomhawk is part of a larger group, Sumo Digital, and one of their recruiters reached out to me, apologized the opportunity fell through but if I was interested in relocating to the UK, there might be something for me. I thought it was a joke but turns out it wasn’t! Not only that, it was for an Art Director role – a job listing I had seen but didn’t apply to because it was asking for far more experience than I had (let that be a lesson to you all!).
There’s more to the story but the heart of it is this: Changing your life is difficult and scary, but it can be done. Work hard, play nice with others, put yourself out there, it’ll work out. Good things are waiting for those who put in the effort to achieve them.
Speaking of Grimslingers, what can you tell us about what’s coming up (and generally when we can expect to see it)?
Unfortunately, I don’t have any Grimslingers news at this time…but one day, echoing through the winds, you’ll begin to hear the faint whispers of news from far away lands, tickling your ear tubes with the promise of more Grimslingers!
What is it about the stories of the Forgotten West, magic-toting grimslingers, Icarus and his mysterious missions, that inspires you? Why so much passion into this setting?
The answer is simple I think: it’s me. It’s all just an expression and wild re-interpretation of my personality and life experiences. A collection of things I love and adore and a world in which I make no compromises and have no limits.
And if you could launch some grimslingers out into the world on your own missions, what would you have them do exactly?
Definitely go get me some pizza, this covid weight isn’t going to maintain itself!!!
Stephen, anything else you’d care to let us know or places you’d like folks to keep an eye on for your doings?
In a few years’ time, games I’ll have art directed at Sumo Digital hitting the market. I hope you all love what you see and will be able to spot my unique flare to approaching art!
Special request – if there’s an illustration of Red, the salty panda pirate out there, I think we need to see that.
Thanks very much, Stephen. And best of luck in the new company and new continent!
Thank YOU for the opportunity 🙂 and kind words!
Till next time, guys.