Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The key components to succesful video game art: Team, Process, and Vision.

In the coming weeks I am going to be posting a number of things on art process. But I think it's important to take a step back momentarily, and contextualize all this within the framework of the big picture.

This piece is written from an art director's perspective, with larger teams in mind. But I believe much of it is applicable to smaller projects.

An important part of Art Process is process management. Sure, an art director needs to be able to make art, but it's equally important to create the conditions for successful art production.

There are three critical aspects that go into making the art in a video game successful. 

I. A strong, motivated team
II. A proven process for making high quality art content
III. A compelling vision for what the game will ultimately look like

In the end, it all boils down to this list.

Successful game art captures the emotion required to support the narrative, provides a suitable level of fidelity in support of both the visual style & game design, and executes at the edge of available performance budgets on the target hardware.

In plain English... it feels good, looks good, and runs good.

I. Strong, Motivated Team
"Simple is Good" - Jim Henson

Building an effective, collaborative environment for the creative process to succeed is one of the most important goals for an Art Director. It may sound obvious, but the key to this goal is to provide a structure where people know their roles & responsibilities, and have the authority to perform them.

Sooo simple, right? Yet ultimately, the lack of this kind of structure is the source of most frustration individuals feel on long, stressful projects.

Structure is a core system; people crave it, and the leadership implied within. The skeleton of structure is communication. Once roles are defined, sensible and track-able goals should be set in a collaborative process. Each team member leaves with the knowledge of what they need to do, and how to resolve questions or concerns.

What can break structure? Project changes. The liquid medium of games assures some degree of chaos. The weapon against chaos of change is real, honest & diligent pre-production. If performed correctly, project pre-production will provide the data to validate most arguments against random ideas or unnecessary detours.

One cannot completely forgo change in the game development process, but a well-developed structure will absorb and focus change positively.

A good Art Director will provide the backbone of team structure, and will test the conviction of those who wish to experiment with or derail proven process.

Back when I was at Microsoft, I once composed a graphic describing the qualities of an effective A/D. Some of the terminology is specific to that company, but most should be self-evident.

Art Director Sphere of Influence
Starts with Art Staff and radiates outward.

II. A Proven Process

"Not a half dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads." - F.Scott Fitzgerald (1940)

Process is one of those subtly powerful words. Canning marmalade is a process. But canning incredibly delicious marmalade inexpensively is a refined process that has value to anyone in the jam & jelly industries.

Art process for games can be defined as a "combining mature art production methods known to achieve optimal visual results, with tools & technology that have similarly been refined through the experience and knowledge of users."

Art process is documented, transparent to the team, shared across projects, and passed on as staff migrates. It represents the technical culture, the accumulated value of thousands of trials and lessons learned within a studio.

To ignore it, to render it disposable, to not value the people who contribute to it, or to not provide sufficient infrastructure for process documentation to flourish is to squander resources foolishly.

III. The Vision For The Game

"Looking up gives light, although at first it makes you dizzy." - Mevlana Rumi

Vision is one of those loaded words that often comes up during game projects. What's the vision? Who's the vision holder? Does everyone understand the vision?

Artistic vision takes many forms. Rarely does one person just stroll in one day with "the vision", spilling it out on the conference table as artists eagerly lap it up. Vision starts with words, and those words are broken down into images. It's a process of separating the wheat from the chaff, refining and forming a collective understanding.

The most effective way to develop the Art Vision for a game is during a thorough pre-production period. This includes a collaboration with the designers & programmers to ensure the right art style works with the design & technical features. The end product from pre-pro is a collective expression of how the game could look & play with a proper production run.

The risk of not allowing this early vetting & diligent testing of ideas is lost time. The time you will spend in production trying to solve for unforeseen design issues, or defending late choices while the team waits to commit and move forward. The time spent creating concept art for assets that should have already been in production. You will always pay for pre-production somewhere along the way, why not do it first when it's efficient and schedule-able?

The role of the Art Director is to champion the vision, to gain buy-in from everyone on the team first-hand throughout the project, in a very visible, credible way.

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