The artists of the next generation

The artists of the next generation

By Chris Doran

August 30th 2011 at 9:59AM

Geomerics' Chris Doran explores the evolving role of next gen artists

[INDEX - DEVELOP'S VISUAL ARTS SPECIAL]

Games tools and content pipelines have become increasingly complex and idiosyncratic on this console cycle, making the life of the artist unnecessarily difficult.

In this article we take stock of where we have arrived, and look at future directions.

At Geomerics we work with many top developers, and one thing that has become clear is the degree of diversity in content pipelines throughout the world.

In games development we are still many years away from achieving the levels of standardisation enjoyed in the film industry. It is still common to hear leading developers claim that using standard technology leads to similar looking games. This attitude is hurting the industry.

To understand the value of shared technology and standards we need look no further than the film FX industry. Live action films rely heavily on post-processing effects for much of the final image.

For many films this stage is more important than anything the actors do. But despite the enormous complexity of the post-processing stage, the time and resources required are totally predictable.

Compositing techniques are understood, and standard tools are used. It is straightforward for CG artists and technicians to move from one title to another without having to re-learn the toolchain. The result is an efficient workflow that allows artists to ensure films are delivered on time.

This standardisation is good for all, but it is most beneficial to the artist. They only have to keep up with developments in a small set of tools and their skills remain transferable.

MAINTAINING A STANDARD

The games industry does not match up well against this standard. The only studios with similar development pipelines are those that have standardised around one of the main engines.

Among developers that have their own engine we see a range of behaviours. At one extreme there are developers who still use in-house 3D modelling tools. At the other are developers who buy many of the standard tools and let artists drive content.

Many developers attempt to develop their toolchain, engine, game and content simultaneously. For those without the time this approach is disasterous.

The biggest losers in this approach to development are the artists. They cannot be productive as the toolchain keeps changing.

Studios behave like this as many believe their technology is what differentiates them from the competition. But this can only be true to a point.

If you have a genuinely differentiating piece of tech in-house then great. If all you have in-house are a suite of technologies that solve problems that other people already have solutions to, you are no further on.

Your value lies not in your technology, but in your creative team. The technology is only there to serve them. What drives the customers of a game is what appears on the screen.

A CIRCLE IN A SPIRAL

We have to break the cycle of believing that each game requires new technology. Uniqueness is driven by artists, not software.

Underpinning this problem is every programmer’s guilty secret: coders believe that all problems have software solutions. But there are many problems that software handles badly.

One of these is human perception. Just try showing a photograph to a computer and asking it to explain what is going on. This problem is exacerbated when considering light and colour, two key disciplines for artists.

Human perception is not well modelled by physics. Our perceptions of brightness and colour are context driven, and often that context is based on experience.

We perceive colour before detail, and shading provides important visual cues in a scene. Artists understand all of these issues. Programmers rarely do, and less so the software they write.

Ultimately, we must all work to minimise disruption to the toolchain mid-project. If part of the game design involves solving new problems in physics, lighting, or animation, then get this out of the way first.

We should all look hard at the artist’s workflow and build tools to remove the repetitive tasks, not the creative ones. Finally, we should remember what it is that artists are best at. They are not coders, and generally don’t appreciate complex software solutions with a plethora of strange parameters.

They prefer more predictable controls that enable them to quickly exercise their creative talents. If artists hold us all to account to meet these goals then they will have a happier, more productive time developing content for the next generation of games.

Coders share a guilty secret: they believe that all problems have software solutions.