The Darling Diaries: The role of art in games

The Darling Diaries: The role of art in games

By David Darling

July 23rd 2012 at 3:35PM

Kwalee CEO and Codemasters co-founder David Darling kicks off his new monthly Develop blog looking at the best practices in integrating art into development

Most people outside the games industry don't realise that our industry consumes huge amounts of art and employs enormous numbers of professional artists to make games.

Our development methodology is still very crudely labour-intensive so most dots gamers see on a screen have been created by an individual human being.

Right from the beginning there has been an arms race for artistic quality, something that journalists and industry marketers have emphasised.

From a development perspective, there have been regular debates within the industry about where artists should be located: whether art creation in a company should be organised on a development team by team basis or as a resource for the whole company that various teams can dip into accordingly.

Back in the early 8-bit home computer days we were very lucky that one of our school friends, James Wilson, was a naturally gifted video game artist. He was very quick and had very effective working practices with programmers.

His efficiency meant he was able to do the art for a lot of games. He set the style for the early Codemasters games, helping to set us apart from the competition and build the company as a coherent brand.

Later at Codemasters, as the team size grew to create ever more complex console games, art was moved into each individual development team. This really was a case of swings and roundabouts.

The artists within each team were obviously able to contribute to the games at many levels, but this had a cost in lower productivity as the demand for art is not constant throughout the development process.

In console game production, artists' workloads tend to peak dramatically towards the end of a project, or during the creation of a polished press demo for E3 and similar events.

Of course the Western nations do not have a monopoly on artistic skills. Eastern nations, especially, have long artistic traditions and often command far lower salaries. This was noticed many years ago by the film animation industry that is just as labour intensive as the games industry.

Some say as much as 90 per cent of Hollywood's animations are now created in the East. All that needs doing in the West is the storyboard, the characters, the set and key frames.

The long graft of converting this into a finished film is done in the Philippines, India, Vietnam and other places with low labour costs. The Simpsons, for instance, is largely created in South Korea.

At Codemasters, we started along this route about 12 years ago by subcontracting much of the TOCA Race Driver art to an Indian subcontractor, Dhruva Interactive. This worked so well that we set up our own art studio in Malaysia that produces some of what you see on the screen in Codemasters games.

It is not just the dramatically lower costs that this achieves; there is also an upside in working practice. The development team in the UK can do a day’s work, then whilst they slept, the Eastern artists are creating new art as requested. This is one of those rare instances where global time differences are a major advantage.

This brings us up to the here and now of smartphone development. There are just so many games on the various app stores that graphics have become a genuine commercial differentiator. Just look at how good they are on the big hit games like Angry Birds, Tiny Wings and Asphalt 7.

With free to play, this has become very important as customers download a batch of games and give each one a scant few seconds of attention before discarding the majority. Look and feel is intensely important in this market.

At Kwalee, we started off with a single development team with art staff included. But as soon as our company matured, we expanded to two development teams and split art off to be a resource within its own team. This has given us a number of advantages.

•       Art resources can be allocated according to demand, making the work of the artists much more efficient.

•       It became possible to employ a highly experienced artist, James Horn, to lead the art team, bringing the best professional standards and practices to the company and our games. James has worked on the DiRT series at Codies and DJ Hero 1 & 2 at FreeStyleGames.

•       We can create coherent cross-company tools and libraries to make game development more efficient and the games look better.

•       Micro Machines designer Andrew Graham can now utilise the art department to define the visuals for his own gameplay ideas and his numerous prototypes.

•       Our marketing department can now easily use art resources across our website, social networks and press.

•       It sets us up to more easily outsource, so we can concentrate on our core competences.

Of course what works for us just now will not work for other developers with different situations and may not work for us in the future.

Studios need to think about the complete role of art in the games development process and the optimum way of implementing it, taking the company’s structure and culture into consideration, before making the final decision.