Another major area of responsibility for technical artists is to provide technical support to the art team. This includes tasks such as diagnosing a problem an artist is dealing with in the content creation package (3ds Max, Maya) or other in-house proprietary tools.
Filling in the support needs of artists can be a time-consuming process. To speed up the process for technical artists, we require that all requests be sent through email in the form of a descriptive explanation of the error or problem, along with attached screenshots.
We do this for several reasons. At Volition, technical artists support a vast number of artists, including any who are outsourced. It's critical that the response be focused to reduce the amount of time spent on the request and get the artists back up and running so they can continue to work with as little interruption as possible.
A lot of what a technical art team does (depending on how far the team is in the development process) affects scheduling, both their own and the project's. As individuals, technical artists frequently switch between developing tools and fighting fires, often at a moment's notice. And as multi-disciplined team members, they are required to be in many other departmental meetings, some of which come up unexpectedly.
If management accepts that the discipline is difficult to schedule and maintains an open mind, scheduling technical artists can be manageable.
Here are a few approaches we've found that work well in creating technical artists' schedules.
Early identification of needs. At Volition, we allow anyone in the studio to submit ideas for a feature or new tool to the project via email aliases. These items are reviewed by all project leads and dependencies are identified at this stage.
When evaluating a request, we use a five-point rating scale, with 1 signifying "must have." We make it a priority to fill all level 1 and 2 requests, while items with priority levels 3 through 5 are reviewed later to fill out empty spots in schedules.
Due diligence. Every tool or feature request goes through a three-phase process: investigation, implementation and documentation.
Investigation is used to identify risks of the request. Too often, risks are not accounted for in the schedule; by identifying them, you impress the importance of building solid tools.
Documentation is often glossed over. Good documentation ensures that anyone using the tool, no matter their technical ability, will use it properly.
Schedule support time. This is to accommodate the roller coaster frequency of support calls. From our experience, we have found support time typically ramps up quickly the closer you get to the end of a milestone or deadline.
Schedule buffer time. Even with the scheduled support time, things inevitably crop up that can't be foreseen.
Change management. Implementing a solid change management plan for tools and feature requests is essential to keeping to the schedule. Too often, features are requested for existing tools that may seem minor to implement, but added all together they further complicate the already difficult problem of scheduling tech art. See Figure 2 for a flowchart that illustrates how we have implemented our feature request and change management plan.
Figure 2: Volition's flowchart for feature requests as well as a change management plan.
How many technical artists should a company have? Over the past few years at Volition, we've found a need for three or four per project with a team size of roughly 80 to 90 people.
We structure the team such that there is the lead, who is the technical art director, then at least one senior technical artist, and a character technical director. The others are more focused technical artists who are assigned to specifically dial in on certain areas of the game.
While finding the right person to fill this role is difficult, it should not be overlooked in today's competitive and high cost environment. If your studio has no technical artists at all, or has some that aren't being used to their full potential, I encourage you to take another look. You'll be glad you did.
Title photo by Wolfgang Staudt, used under Creative Commons license.