Successfully funded on Kickstarter in 2016, Saurian is a game fuelled by a wonderfully imaginative concept: players become dinosaurs. Currently available through Early Access on Steam, it’s a survival-simulator from the perspective of hatchling dinosaurs trying to live long enough to grow up. Urvogel Games consulted with paleontologists to recreate their dinosaurs and the Hell Creek ecosystem they once called home. 

Saurian is a dinosaur sim game.

Improving Dinosaur Art

“It’s basically like a masterclass on drawing dinosaurs properly,” RJ Palmer tells Cliqist when talking about his work on Saurian during LightBox Expo. The realistic dinosaur aesthetic has long been important to him. Palmer’s applied it to the more dinosaur-like subjects in his realistic Pokémon series. It ended up in his concept art for Detective Pikachu, especially when the focus was on the likes of Charizard and a cut concept with a fossil exhibit of Pokémon. 

RJ Palmer's concept art for Dakotaraptor in Saurian.
RJ Palmer’s design for the growth cycle of a Dakotaraptor, one of the playable dinosaurs in Saurian.

“I love anything with scales and big teeth,” Palmer remarked to an attendee at LightBox. Compared to drawing humans, creature drawing allows him to be “more loose and creative.” 

Palmer has also worked on dinosaur art for another game, The Isle. On that project, scientific accuracy was less of a priority for the development team, but Palmer wrote on his DeviantArt that “doing an intentionally incorrect monster dinosaur was a really fun exercise.”  

Promo art for The Isle by RJ Palmer.
Illustration for The Isle by RJ Palmer.

“I still try to approach it from a science-based idea,” he tells Cliqist when discussing the art he made for The Isle. “[I] take real raptor anatomy, but trade out feathers for scales.”

Palmer adds that he also drew inspiration from monitor lizards—which are like komodo dragons—for The Isle illustration.

“I got to play with some of my favorite lizard traits and make something that I felt was a good twist on the classic Jurassic Park aesthetic,” Palmer wrote on his DeviantArt.

Bringing Dinosaurs Back to Life

While having creative license is enjoyable, he said he still prefers depicting dinosaurs based on the latest scientific research. Other jobs tend to find him, but Palmer says that Saurian is the only project he’s approached for work. He said working with the paleontologists was valuable to his goal of becoming a good, accurate dinosaur artist.

Saurian illustration featuring an Acheroraptor by RJ Palmer.

Estimating Leaping Raptors

For instance, Palmer talked about learning how high a raptor can jump from biomechanics expert Dr. Michael Habib. Also a paleontologist and professor at USC, Habib and creature designer Terryl Whitlatch (Star Wars, Brother Bear) held a talk called “Flying Monsters: Illustrating Flying Vertebrates” and a live demo at LightBox.

Habib tells Cliqist that biomechanics is the “combination of physics and anatomy.” He says that he probably consults on 1-3 television shows per year, but Saurian is his first game collaboration. 

Dr. Michael Habib and concept artist RJ Palmer at creature designer Terryl Whitlatch’s demo during LightBox Expo. (Image Source: Expedition Art.)

Habib shares that he created rough estimates for the jumping and running ability of dinosaurs in the game. He also did some estimates for flight ability, but that doesn’t feature heavily in Saurian

“I’m able to work at any scale they give me,” Habib says. He explains that he can estimate for any size of dinosaur—big or small—based on “fundamental math that applies to everything.”

He also reviewed the walking and trotting animation of an armored dinosaur in the game. But his favorite part on Saurian so far has revolved around working with the raptors, or what he also called Dromaeosaurids.

“That’s been really fun,” Palmer says. “Those are just cool animals.”

Dr. Michael Habib and creature designer Terryl Whitlatch during their LightBox Expo talk, “Flying Monsters: Illustrating Flying Vertebrates.”

Coloring Digital Dinosaurs

Besides research on the physical anatomy of dinosaurs, Saurian’s team also looked into dinosaur coloration and behavior.

“We’ve read all the papers about dinosaur behavioral ecology,” Palmer says. 

He also shares that information on the colors of dinosaurs can be determined through the shapes of “little fossilized cells.” (According to the Atlantic, these are melanosomes, “organelles that manufacture the pigment melanin within a cell.”)

Life stages of a young T. rex designed by RJ Palmer for Saurian.

But according to Palmer, this sort of fossilization rarely happens. Typically without direct proof of their colors, he says that the development team normally uses colors similar to relatives of dinosaurs in Saurian.

For example, Palmer wrote on his ArtStation that colors for the life stages of a young Tyrannosaurus rex in Saurian “were inspired by baby komodo dragons and baby ratites, which have different coloration than their adults to help them camouflage.”

The final roster of playable dinosaurs in the full release of Saurian will include Tyrannosaurus, Dakotaraptor, Ankylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, Anzu, and Triceratops. More information can be found through the game’s website.

Alyssa Wejebe
Alyssa Wejebe writes about games, reads about games, and plays them too. RPG, hack-and-slash, and fighting games are some of her favorite genres. She loves nonhuman characters. One of her earliest gaming memories center around battling her grandmother and younger brothers in “Super Bomberman 2” on the SNES.
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