Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Task 14: Planning and Concepting

Planning and concepting is a necessary process for any project, and is often just as important as the finished product. It is partly about generating ideas, but equally about analysing choices, making decisions and rejecting ideas that don’t work. The exact steps vary depending on what the final outcome is going to be – producing a 3d model has a different work flow than producing a 2d painting – but the ideas behind the steps are the same. Concepting is an iterative process – that is, each step builds on the last.

In terms of visual design, that means working out the overall composition of an image before starting on the details, and then using those different compositions to start looking at details. When making 3D game assets, this planning is even more important since there are so many different aspects that come together to make a scene, and unlike in a single 2D image, until everything is put in place the concept art is your only accurate idea of what the scene will look like as a whole.

Establishing a consistent method for working through the planning stages is important because it gives you an estimate of how much can be achieved in a certain timescale, as well as letting you set benchmarks for your progress throughout a project.

The concepting stage has been one of the hardest things to get my head around over the first year, and it’s still a bit of a stuggle at times. I’m a visual person, and when I start thinking about a new project I tend to rush ahead and start thinking in terms of the finished piece. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I really began to appreciate the value of planning, and to understand that concepting is not simply documenting your thought process – rather, that the exploration of ideas should be done on paper and not just in your head. I’m still guilty of getting attached to a certain idea, or getting fixated certain scene before I’ve even started doing thumbnails. I find it hard not so see something that seems impressive at the time and think ‘wow, that’s what I want to draw’.

However, I’m getting better at it. By forcing myself to slow down and try different things before I start narrowing down my idea I am starting to see the benefit, even if while I’m drawing the thumbnails it sometimes still feels like I’m just going through the motions. The more planning I do the more I’m finding myself thinking about what I’m drawing, making aesthetic decisions that I might not have thought about, and it’s now at the point where I feel the need to plan things on paper, whereas before I’d want jump headfirst into Photoshop or 3DS Max.

That said, it’s still the biggest area I need to work on. A large part of this is that everything I do is still at least fifty per cent trial and error, even if I thought I knew what I was doing. At this point I just have to accept than anything I do will take at least three times longer than I think it will.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Reflection on year one, and ambition for year two

Game production definitely took the most of my time last year; a lot of the things we learnt I’d never done before which meant that not only was everything trial and error, but the work itself was more interesting. Now that I’ve got a better grip on the basics of 3DS Max, I hope I can focus a bit more on my visual design skills, which to be honest I made minimal progress on.

 In some ways, I feel that I went backwards a bit, because I was scrambling around trying to use digital painting and neglecting my traditional art skills. It’s easy to want to use Photoshop for everything because it’s so quick to get started, but in practice I find that the actual process of using it to create an image is a lot less intuitive than when you’re physically putting something onto paper.

Digital Painting has the unfortunate tendency of turning me into a perfectionist, which means I never get anything done because I’m agonising over every pixel instead of looking at the image as a whole. I might try to make more of an effort to do some of the assignments in traditional media I or do preliminary paintings and then trying to replicate the techniques I used in a digital version.

I also want to make more of an effort to bring my visual design skills into my 3D work. Last year I ended up spending the majority of the time I’d allocated to game production just working on the mesh, and it shows. I need to give a lot more time over to concepting and texturing, in particular looking at better ways to produce normal maps. Thankfully the summer projects have helped my greatly in learning how to make more efficient meshes, as well as giving me a little more basis from which to plan how much detail certain assets need, and how to best make use of textures.

As with Visual Design, my blogging was a bit neglected last year. This year I’m going to make a real effort to post on my blog at least once a week, and to blog about my 3D and 2D work in addition to posting the Critical Studies assignments. By posting my work regularly, including scans of my rough work, I will hopefully be able to get more valuable feedback, both from the course tutors and from other students, as well as just demonstrating my creative and concepting processes.

I’m looking forward to the group project as an opportunity to learn how to coordinate the skills I’ve learnt with the work of other people on the course. It will be the first time I’ve ever participated in a group art project, so I’m somewhat nervous about it, but I think that ultimately it will be fun. After all, the group work will be closer to what it would be like working in the game industry, and it will be good to get a better idea of what that will be like early on.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Personal Review of the First Year

I’ve enjoyed this year. Yes, there have been parts that were difficult, frustrating, or just plain tedious – mostly while I was getting to grips with 3DS Max - but those are all part of the experience and I’ve learned from them, too.

I do feel as though Game Production overshadowed the other two modules, simply because I put more time on it. It was mostly new and therefore more interesting, but being new also meant I was severely underestimating the time it would take me to do things. Next year I need to manage my time better and not let work from one module pile up. I definitely tried to do too much with each project, and then ended up not having enough time to finish what I was doing. Somehow modelling brings out my perfectionist tendencies. I need to aim lower so I can actually get things finished and leave myself time to tackle any unforeseen problems.

That said, I learned a lot of things and I can now plan for the problems better. Next year I really need to put more work into visual design, and focus on developing my confidence in digital painting.

Critical studies suffered most of all, since writing is not one of my strong points, nor is writing about things as I go along. I think I just need to accept that it’s difficult and push myself to write even when I don’t know what to say. With Critical Studies, it wasn’t a time issue exactly, but more that I’d not be able to think of what to write, decide to leave it for later and then forget about it. That said I’ve definitely spent more than four hours on each of the posts. Half of the time I’m not even sure if I’m writing the right things, if I’m being too critical of what I’m posting. I never know if I should just post what I’ve written as soon as it’s grammatically sound instead of sitting on each post for a week and then rewriting half of it, or if revising what I’ve written actually helps. I intended to post about projects on my blog, but ended up only using Facebook. Hopefully next year I’ll actually get around to doing that.

Facebook has been indispensable as a means of getting feedback on work, and even if I don’t get any comments, it still reassuring to have work uploaded, because presumably if I was doing everything completely wrong, somebody would have said something. The Dmuga Technical group in particular has helped me out a few times when 3DS Max has done something inexplicable.

I do feel like the start of the year could have been a bit more structured. I got into bad habits early on and then spent the rest of the year trying to catch up. Maybe a small group project might have helped? Either way, I’m now more aware of how the workload pans out across the year. Hopefully second year won’t be so different that I can’t learn from my mistakes this year.

Personal Gaming History

I’ve been playing computer games for as long as I can remember. Most of the games I’ve played tended to be a rather random mix of whatever was at hand, and it’s only recently I’ve started seeking out games relevant to my interests. I don’t know what the first game I ever played was, but if I had to guess I’d say it was a demo for either Age of Empires of roller coaster Tycoon. They’re certainly both games I’ve been playing for a very long time; I still play age of empires II occasionally

I know there were also some start Star Wars themed FPS lying around, but I doubt I played them much. I am not - and never have been - a big fan of first person shooters, so they were really more of a spectator sport for me.

After that there was a Frogger game I remembered playing excessively. It was a 3D platforming game, and it had an arcade mode where all the levels were listed with the number of coins collected and the best time. Obviously, that was taken as a challenge, and thanks to a bit of friendly competition between my brother and I we collected every single coin, and shaved down the playtime for each level to what was probably the shortest time physically possible.

The Prince of Persia series kept me occupied for quite some time. I might not have played them them as much as Age of Empires or Frogger, but then they don’t have as much replay value. The Prince of Persia were, however, what got me onto the Ubisoft forums, and from there I became interested in the first assassin’s Creed game, which was in production at the time. I started following the development blogs for the game, although it was a while after release that I actually got to play it.

Around the same time I got Oblivion as a birthday gift, and that quickly ate up all my free time. It was Oblivion, more that assassin’s creed that really got me interested in what went on behind the scenes. Unlike Assassin’s creed, I hadn’t followed it as it was being produced, since I didn’t even know about the Elder Scrolls series until I started playing Oblivion, but there was a lot of content on the web about the production, and I went and read or watched every scrap about it that I could find.

There are some other games I played during this time, including The Sims, SimCity, a couple of other Starwars games such as Jedi Academy and Knights of the old republic. There was also a stealth/platforming/puzzle game called Sheep, dog and Wolf, which sadly I never finished because I got stuck on a level and, what with the internet being a lot less comprehensive back at the time, I couldn’t find any way to complete it.

I played a small number of online games, and came to the conclusion that online gaming, specifically in the form of MMOs, is just not for me. I like the idea of huge communities playing together, but in practice I’ve found all the things that separate a multiplayer game from a singleplayer experience are things I’ve disliked. The only fun part of the game was exploring a new world, and that’s certainly not exclusive to multiplayer.

That’s probably why Minecraft is an exception to that: head onto any established multiplayer server, and there’s a whole new world to explore. Minecraft appeals to me for similar reasons as Age of empires and roller coaster tycoon; it’s a sandbox survival game with a focus on building and managing resources. However my stint of playing minecraft didn’t really last that long, maybe because it quickly stops being challenging. There’s still things to do, sure, but they’re all self-imposed challenges, whereas games like roller coaster tycoon and Age of empires are easy enough that you feel like you’re gaining some ground, but they keep you on your toes.

The main game I’m playing at the moment is Skyrim. I’ve also started playing Deus Ex, because it was on sale on Steam, and I’m playing Bioshock because it seems to be one of those games everyone has played. Morrowind is another game I’ve recently started because, as with Bioshock, everyone says great things about it. So far, I’m just finding the outdated graphics rather pleasantly nostalgic and getting frustrated with the lack of fast-travel, but it is interesting to see Oblivion and Skyrim in perspective.

There aren’t any games I’m looking forward to at the moment, but I’m rather glad of that, since I have plenty to play and to catch up with at the moment. I am trying to broaden the variety of the games I’ve played, and trying to replay older games from the perspective of a game artist.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Game Design: Environments

Environments make up the largest portion of the visual portion in any game, both on screen and in terms of the time and effort it takes a team to create them. Unfortunately, this sheer quantity means that where character models are scrutinised, a large proportion of the content that goes into the game world is taken for granted, even through the it’s this background content that has the largest impact on how the game looks. Character models are often continuous throughout the game, but areas are seldom visited more than once, meaning it would be impossible, not to mention impractical, to individually model every rock, tree or wall throughout an entire world. Luckily, by managing resources it’s possible to reuse assets, to create multiple environments on a larger scale, without multiplying the workload.

When designing the environments for a game, there’s two parts to keep in mind. On one hand, there’s how the environment actually looks – how it creates a believable backdrop for the game world, and how it sets the mood for whatever is happening. On the other hand, and equally important, is how the player will navigate through the level. These two aspects of game environments have to coexist: they’re both equally important, but sometimes run contradictory to each other, and often some compromises have to be made.

Buildings are generally not designed to be difficult to navigate – there are some rare exceptions, but there are only so many levels you can set in bank vaults or inside pyramids. Some levels will have to be set in places where logically, you should have no problem getting from A to B – or if you wanted, from A to C, D, or E. However, simply walking along a pavement to get to your next goal doesn’t make for a fun game, even if your character is getting shot at.

The simplest way to direct a player in the way you want them to go is to simply prevent them going anywhere else. Many linear games simply have one set path to follow, and the player progresses by solving puzzles or defeating enemies to move along that line. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if the design of the environment suggests that you should be able to go a different way but can’t, it breaks the immersion. For example, there may be walls that you should be able to climb, water that the characters spontaneously drowns in, or even an invisible barrier.

What you’ve created has to be functional within the game engine and the mechanics, which can be anything from puzzles to platforming to combat. The features of the environment which enable these have to fit into the aesthetics, but at the same time need to be obvious. Simply telling the player what to do or where to go - for example with an ingame map or a marker above an objective - is reliable, but breaks immersion. It’s much better to integrate directions into the world itself, with signs or simply objects which it is logical for the player to try to use. However, you then need to give interactive objects consistency; for instance, the player won’t think to kick down a door without prompting unless it’s already been shown that they can break certain objects. There also needs to be a visual clue that the door is one of those objects – this is where aesthetics and mechanics intersect.

The need to guide players through the game world applies to both linear gameplay and open world, with the latter being used more locally; the player chooses the order in which they follow the paths, but in the long run they still take the same route through individual sections of the game. Open world games generally include areas that are more realistic in the way they are laid out, such as in towns, as unlike the more linear sections, they aren’t supposed to be an obstacle course.

Often in game levels you are prevented from backtracking by a one-way obstacle – for example a ledge that you can’t climb back up, or a door that only opens from one side. Most often, this is used to trap you in an area with enemies, but is also sometimes used as a transition between different loading areas, in which case a cut-scene might be used to explain why you can’t go back.

The same technique can be used in reverse to improve pacing. In Skyrim, dungeons usually double back on themselves, putting the boss room near the exit, but with a one-way obstacle forcing you to take the long way around the first time. This means the player avoids having to run all the way back through the dungeon to get out again. Assassin’s creed uses this in yet another way; once you progress far enough in a platforming puzzle you unlock a new route up, so that if you fall down – and survive – you’re not forced to go through the entire puzzle again.

It’s essentially a save point; but built into the environment such as to be unobtrusive. It’s not that the player doesn’t know exactly why it’s there, but they don’t have to take themselves out of the environment by going to a load screen or even remembering to press a quicksave button. The more you can hide the fact that what you’re playing is a game, the easier it is to keep up the immersion.

Abrupt changes in scenery are often used to signify a change in objectives; for instance a transition between platforming and combat. Not that the environment itself can’t be the focus. Even if the majority of the game environment is simply a stage for something else, there’s nothing more inspiring than small moment where you turn a corner and emerge somewhere truly visually stunning. Players seek out those moments, and environment can tell a story just as well as the characters.

Sections of environment based on discovery also can provide useful breathing points. It’s all about pacing; if you want the main focus to be the environment, you have to time it so that those critical points of discovery coincide with a lull in combat. If the player is having to fight enemies, or is racing forward to complete the next part of a puzzle, they won’t notice what is around them.

There’s going to be players who take the straightforward route, who never see the game world from any perspective other than the path that leads most directly from A to B. There are also those players who are going to explore every corner of each level and scrutinise every texture. You can’t make the game environment perfect, there has to be a balance between quality and quantity.

Using assets that can be repeated and reused is the most logical method of creating a variety of areas efficiently. It’s also a way of keeping the design constant. That said, it’s important that different places are distinct enough, otherwise not only will the player notice it’s possible for them to get disorientated. It’s also best that there’s a large enough pool off assets to draw from that the player only notices them being reused if they’re looking for it. Going back to Skyrim as an example; it’s very obvious that all of the minor inns use exactly the same building, to the point where if it feels like you’re going back into the same building every time, and it detracts from the feeling of being in an immense and diverse world.

Even something as simple as lighting can greatly change the mood of the environment, and it doesn’t have to use more unique assets. Recolouring assets is also a way of adding variety, although it can be fairly obvious if not done sparingly.­

Environments are probably my favourite aspect of games, and I have a soft spot for contrasting organic and inorganic forms. That is, I love games that feature a lot of plant life, especially when it’s combined with architectural structure. The environments are often the part that endears me to a game, and it’s the part I spend the most time admiring as I play.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Game Design:Characters

Characters are the driving force behind almost any form of media, and there’s no reason that video games should be any different. The characters are the part of a game that we remember best after the game has ended, they are what advertisers use to attract new players, and are what brings us back to a franchise for sequels.

 The reasoning and thought process behind the character designs for a game are not all that different from –for example - those of a film, but at the same time designers have to take into account how those characters will be implemented within the game mechanics.  Most of the same character devices that work for film or even literature carry through well when converted into games, maybe because characters are an aspect of gaming that is more closely tied to storytelling than to game mechanics.

The most common format for both games to follow a single character as the protagonist, and usually the point of a game is to guide you through their experiences first hand, with the player adopting that character’s role in the game world. The game has to guide the player into making the actions that are necessary to progress, without making it feel too forced. This is where strong characterization can make a big impact to the overall enjoyment and immersion of a game, as it’s a characters’ responsibility to guide the player into their role, whether that  character is the protagonist,  a mentor, a villain, or even the main character’s romantic interest.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it the same formula that is used throughout films and literature. The important difference with games, is that you can’t just assume a passive role watching over the protagonist’s shoulder, you have to become them to some degree. It’s no coincidence that the most often seen  protagonist is young and male, since that also describes the demographic of the main target audience, and the similarities make it easier to relate to the main character.

It’s worth acknowledging that not all video games follow this format. There are plenty strategy games, such as Age of Empires  or rollercoaster tycoon, which don’t have characters in the typical sense, but that doesn’t mean lessons about character design don’t apply, since game devices are often personified.

If supporting characters don’t play a purpose, they can easily feel superfluous, although in stories where the player can make choices that affect the story there are sometimes several potential characters for each role, giving the illusion of choice without taking away necessary components to the story. That’s another difference between watching the main character and putting the audience in the man character’s shoes: in the former, the character’s personality in defined be their actions, whereas in games; at least ones where you have choices, the character’s personality (or at least the personality that the player projects into the character) defines their actions.

If the game forces you to take actions that don’t fit with how you interpret the character – actions which you would not choose given circumstances, were you in their shoes – it can be jarring if not handled convincingly enough. At the same time, to establish a character as being an individual they have to make some choices individual to the player, unless the game if giving you a blank slate, as often see in open world RPGs. Generally games stick rigidly to one or the other: either you are entirely free to mould your character, or you are playing as an established character with no real control over their choices except on the most basic gameplay level.

Although better development tools can help populate a world, and improvements in AI can make organic beings more convincing, actually giving those creations character remains a very organic process. After all, you can’t procedurally generate voce acting or stories – Bethesda may have has managed to produce randomly generated fetch quests that aren’t too intrusive, but they only make up a small proportion of Skyrim’s quests, and they don’t contribute anything to characterization that hasn’t already by predetermined my the game designers.

The other aspects of games, such as game mechanics or puzzles can, if used correctly, allow characters that would otherwise seem excessively stereotyped. A small cast of well developed characters are often enough to make players overlook one dimensional enemies and minor characters.

It should be fairly obvious that the technical capabilities of graphics have little to do with creating lovable, wee known characters; many of the long running characters we are familiar with predate even 3D graphics, and have their origins in low resolution sprites. In some ways this was an advantage, as the limitations forced them to design characters who were recognisable and readable at such a low resolution. Take Mario, for example the basic character design is the same whether it’s rendered as an 8-bit sprite of a fully 3D one, but the colourful, simple design works. Video games thrive on IP and memorable characters, and therefore it’s important that characters are distinctive and memorable. There’s a whole list of characters from games I’ve never played, who I would nonetheless recognise instantly.

Certainly some characters have evolved visually from their original appearance, but I suspect that in many cases the designers wanted the characters to be more detailed originally, but were limited by what the technology at the time allowed to be displayed on screen, and that changes are simply the original idea being fully realised.

That’s not to say realistic graphics don’t have their place. While the qualities of realtime graphics are not quite to the point of having characters who are indistinguishable for real people, we’re getting closer and closer. There’s a lot more than the character models themselves that go into making a character look real, and character animation, collision and physics engines are all things that help create a convincing imitation of life, but to reiterate: creating convincing characters is all about how these tools are used, they won’t be any help if game artist don’t make full use of the tools available. If games can include characters so realistic, we can effortlessly forget that they’re not real, imagine what that could do for immersion. 

Bringing in well-known actors to voice characters in games is often used to pull in buyers in the same way of casting for films. I’ve never actually recognised a character’s voice actor while playing, but I suspect it could break the immersion a bit. That said, quality of voice acting is another one of those key things that you seldom notice unless it’s done badly, but when it is done badly it can undermine any other depth a character has because an annoying voice is hard to ignore. Bringing in people who know what they’re doing can only be a step in the right direction.

As with any media there is compromise. Apart from the technical limitations of real time there are also practicalities. A character who is being stealthy would logically be wearing something that lets them blend into the environment, but having a character that can’t be seen doesn’t make good gameplay. The compromise is to give them some sort of tell – a distinctive silhouette maybe, or perhaps conspicuously reflective goggles.

As the quality of visuals starts to reach its peak, and graphical fidelity ceases to be the main selling point behind new titles, hopefully in the next few years we will see other aspects of game design come into the spotlight. I personally hope to see a larger emphasis on quality of animation, and interaction between characters and the environment. Seeing characters sliding around or hovering off the edge of steps is, at the moment, the biggest immersion breaker to me after bugs. Maybe better tools for character/environment interaction will come be built into game engines, so that more can be done in the time allocated. We’re starting to see a larger variety of character animations for gesturing and idling, but there’s still a long way to go.
It would also be nice to see even more depth in terms of dialogue, but that’s something that is very much dependant on time. However, if characterisation becomes a larger part of what makes games sell, maybe there’ll be more focus on it in future. Is it is, improvement is only a matter of polishing what’s already there: there have already been many great characters in games. Hopefully there will be many more, but only time will tell.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Let me take you to the candy shop - pt.1

Picking just two summer projects from the list seemed like a pretty daunting task when I first saw the variety we had to choose from. There’s a very wide range of themes there and all of them have the potential to be pretty awesome, but at the same time none of them jumped out at me at first. However, I’ve wanted to model some kind of old fashioned shop for a while, and making a sweet shop seemed a good way to get that out of my system. 

I started with an idea of what I wanted, but pinning that mental image down into a workable concept has proved a challenge. Ideally what I’ve been looking for is a shop that is a perfect match to the one I have in my head, so I can just draw details directly from real life but it hasn’t been that easy. Looking around Leicester city centre has provided my with some reference material, but there’s only one sweet shop I can find and it’s quite far from fitting the bill of what I want my final product to look like. A large proportion of my research so far has therefore been through Google images, which if nothing else lets me quickly skim through different styles of shops, although it’s frustrating finding an image of a shop I like but not being able to see the details.

So while I still haven’t found a shop that’s exactly what I want, I have been able to pick out lots of images with individual elements that I like, and to create a mood board that overall shows a good representation of my” ideal” sweet shop.

I want to try to keep within the given specifications for the project, more as a personal challenge than anything – but also because budgeting my projects in terms of tris is one of the many areas I’ve struggled with. During this year’s projects, I’ve wavered between barely using half of the tri budget, to seriously struggling to finish the model within the limit, as was my biggest problem with the architectural project.

I’d say this was mostly down to still being pretty new at modelling – I had no idea what a given number of tris looked like as anything but a number, and each time I was attempting something completely new. There’s still undoubtedly going to be some trial and error involved, as this is significantly larger than any of the coursework projects, but at least I’m now prepared. 

To try and make it more manageable, I’ve split the project into three main chunks, and given them their own polygon budget: the shop exterior, including two sides of the building, the roof and part of the street, I’m giving 2k-3k tris; the interior and furniture I’m allowing 1k, and the remaining 6k to 7k tris are going towards all the various items to fill the shop with, mostly the jars.

These sections are also somewhat separate design-wise, with the idea that I can just switch between them if I get bored of one. So far that hasn’t exactly been successful; I’ve had to settle on the general plan of the outside of the building first before I can start designing the inside, because the layout of the inside of the shop is heavily dependent on the overall floor plan.

This is the exterior I’ve decided to use. When I was sketching up ideas, I knew it was going to have bay window, but I also really liked the look of the corner window. I couldn’t find any examples of shops that had both, but I think what I came up with is a plausible design that incorporates both. Now I’ve got the overall shape down, I can start looking at the details. I need to find a design for the edges of the windows and door that is consistent, and will work to neatly fill in the gap betweent he different windows and the brickwork.

I’m also trying (and somewhat failing) to resist the urge to start modelling the various small assets – for instance jars of sweets - without any prior preparation such as, well, working out whether I’ll actually need then in the scene. Making meshes is one of the parts I find the most fun, since at that point everything is simple you can quickly see the object taking shape, and with smaller assetsyou spend less time hunting for stray vertexes that have somehow eluded the weld tool.  At least, having given in and modelled a few different shaped jars, I can now estimate just how many jars I’ll be able to having in total, and can adjust the design of the shelving, etc., to make sure the shop doesn’t look too empty.

Partly, I aim to use this project to solidify what I’ve learnt over the year. There’s a few skills and techniques I want to get a better grip on before the start of next year, including quite basic thing like lighting, and rigging, which I ended up flailing around with a bit when they became necessary and I had no idea what I was doing. Baking object is another get think I want to get the hang of, or at the very least have tried. I actually wasn’t aware until recently that using a highpoly model to create a normal map for a lowpoly one was something you could do in Max. I guess I thought it was a ZBrush thing? I don’t think I really thought about at all, but it’s reassuring to know that there are easier ways to produce normal than using hand-painted height maps.

The final, big important thing I want  to work on is keeping my written work up to date. While I’ve mostly kept up with the game production and visual design parts of the course, critical studies, the third side of triangle, has been badly neglected. I find writing difficult, or at least I find writing concisely and meaningfully difficult. It’s something which – as much as I put it off – I know will only improve if I practice, and for that reason, I’m going to make a real effort to blog about this project as it moves along.

Monday, 19 March 2012

game design: art direction

Creating a good game isn’t just a case of having the right people. Large production teams mean you can get out more content, but the more people you have working on the same thing, the harder it is to coordinate. Many game series rely on an easily recognisable style to sell copies, and so there needs to tight quality control to make sure that work produced by different individuals fits into the larger picture. An art director has to has to set the style for a game, and throughout the production process, they’re responsible for making sure the work produced will come together in the final product.

In some ways, games are a much more unforgiving medium than film. You can’t hide things with careful camera angles or cropping; everything in the virtual environment you’re creating is laid bare for the player to scrutinize. In film you can direct the viewers’ attention to a certain subject, and if they miss something, once the camera moves on it’s gone. Games have to anticipate the player moving at their own pace, and there’s no knowing or controlling what a particular person will choose to look at; at most you can try to draw their attention with visual clues.

Somewhere you have to compromise between quality and quantity, between artistic realism and practicality. There’s a limit to what can realistically be achieved within a given timeframe, and not having a clear stylistic aim once the actually work begins is a sure way to waste valuable time. This is where concept art plays a valuable role, but even that is usually produced by people, who will all have their own visual style and ideas, and will all have a different take on the same subject. 

Luckily, there are tools that can be used to maintain artistic consistency. Reference libraries are invaluable for sharing ideas and quickly establishing a theme. These will probably include photographs, textures, colour palettes, a variety of artwork and even screenshots of previous games if the project is trying to emulate a pre-existing style. Modelling a few test assets prior to starting production allows a more accurate estimate of production time, and also can be used as reference for further assets.
A clearly defined pipeline for modelling assets means inconsistencies can be addressed before they become excessively costly to correct. Checklists for stylisation and overall quality can help to make sure all assessts meet the same standard.

For efficiency, it’s likely that many assets, such as textures and meshes, will be reused. Working out where and how these assets will be used requires planning in advance. 

Ultimately, the role of an Art Director is a creative one. Even if they don’t directly contribute to any individual detail, their influence is seen thought the final product, in the visual style of the game as a whole. An art director will need to be able to make informed artistic choices, and therefore it is essential that they have a solid knowledge of the basics of art, such as composition and colour  theory.