Generally speaking, the technical artist should be able to design and develop all art pipelines necessary for the game. In this sense, part of the technical artist's role is to be a pipeline and systems architect. At Volition, this works on a few different levels.
Depending on the system, we work with the programming and art departments to determine what works best for both parties and try to reach common ground. At this level, you could say that we act as negotiators between the technical- and content-oriented disciplines.
However, designing critical game systems requires technical artists who have intimate knowledge of both the game engine and development hardware, such as the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. The degree of knowledge necessary is such that if the technical artist isn't experienced enough or hasn't made due diligence a priority, pipelines can quickly take a turn for the worse. More often than not, early mistakes are felt in the middle of production, or even later in the development cycle.
Not only do technical artists design and spec-out these systems (in coordination with other disciplines), they are the ones driving and championing the changes. Because of their intimacy with such systems, it makes them the primary source of information when it comes to how things work and fixing bugs in tools written to support the pipeline.
It is important to note that at Volition our technical artists do not design code structure for the programmers. This level of granularity is neither our job nor our area of expertise. In contrast, we work with them at a higher level to develop the best way to get requested features from Point A (content creation) to Point B (the game) and everything in between.
The technical artist is the driving force behind setting budgets and developing technical guidelines for creating art content. It's important for the technical artist to remember that while these requirements help to serve game performance, they must also be balanced such that they allow for a high degree of visual quality.
Art should be authored in a way that doesn't hinder performance of the game. Instead, it should be created to take advantage of the game engine and hardware strengths. To meet these goals, the technical artist works closely with the team's rendering programmers.
A technical artist should be flexible enough that she or he can develop tools for the art pipeline without any assistance. Typically, programmers do not wish to write these tools and this is where a technical artist can fill that void.
The level at which tools are developed varies. Most technical artists, by today's standards, come from an artistic background and favor the use of dynamic scripting languages such as MaxScript or Mel.
As their interest and experience level grows, some technical artists grow into more lower-level languages such as C# and C++. This gives them greater ability to write compiled plug-ins, such as exporters, and tools outside the content creation packages.
If there ever were a difficult position to fill, it's that of the technical artist. Technical artists were once content artists who taught themselves to write scripts out of necessity and had a natural interest in the technical side of the craft. At Volition, we break down these roles into core areas of game development. See Figure 1 for an example of the typical structure for our technical art teams.
Figure 1: Volition's typical art team structure is shown.
Technical art director. The technical art director is at the same level as the art director in our typical team structure. This person is responsible for coordinating the technical art team, prioritizing features, identifying and assessing project risks, and scheduling and designing critical tools.
In addition, the technical art director also designs and implements game systems and pipelines, creates guidelines and budgets for art content creation, and makes sure that the game's rendering performance is running optimally, while working with the art director to maintain a high degree of visual quality.
Generalists. What we call generalists are typically the senior technical artists who can drive any system in the game. They have a wide range of experience to pull from and are typically the critical go-to guys.
Character technical director. The character technical director is responsible for setting up the character skeletons, rigging, identifying and assessing motion capture and animation needs, scheduling and coordinating the animators, and developing or designing tools and pipelines to support the game's character systems.
Senior technical artist. The senior technical artist is primarily responsible for the design and implementation of larger and more critical game systems and pipelines. She or he is also partly responsible for ensuring that content is being created in an optimal fashion for not only rendering performance, but high visual quality as well.
Focused technical artist. Focused technical artists are typically entry-to mid-level technical artists. They focus primarily on specific areas of the game, such as environment art or character art. These focused technical artists take the point position for their particular art department and get approvals through the generalist or technical art director types. They provide direct support and develop any needed tools and pipelines necessary for their respective department(s).