[Seeking advice on your art pipeline? In this article, originally published in Game Developer magazine in 2008, Bungie's Steve Theodore delves deep into the issues behind taking a piece of art from 2D concept sketch to finished in-game model, with the least waste and complication.]
You could build a nice cozy two-bedroom bungalow out of all the verbiage the games business has expended on "the content pipeline" over the years. The term "pipeline" makes it all sound very rational and linear, the sort of high-tech industrial process that involves hard hats and jumpsuited henchmen.
But let's be honest. If what artists do fits into any pipeline, it's one of those that you find in Dr. Seuss books, full of crazy loopbacks, recirculations, and about-faces.
Partly this is because even the simple part of the pipeline -- the software that's supposed to get the art out of your content tools and into the game -- is mutating and morphing constantly as game designs and engines evolved. But mostly it's due to us. Even the part of this mythical "pipeline" that we control, the concept and design side, is iterative, messy, and nonlinear. We're artists. We aren't built for assembly line production.
If you don't face that fact (and build your process and schedules around it), you'll ship stuff you hate, full of bugs you know you could have avoided, or full of crappy content that should never have left the building.
On the other hand, once you accept that the art process is fundamentally not linear, you can make some common-sense adjustments that will help make the whole crazy business a little more manageable. So this month let's look at some of the ways a concept can get jammed in the pipeline, and some of the virtual Drano you can use to muck out that old pipeline and get things moving.
If you still subscribe to the myth of the pipeline, you know that creating concepts is the key to production. It seems logical, after all, that you should try to work out all the messy creative issues in sketches, where they can be tackled quickly and cheaply.
A concept artist and an art director can spin up lots of images quickly as they grope for the elusive soul of the new character. They can also use those images to sell the new concept to the rest of the team, getting feedback from other departments to head off potential problems.
And of course -- ah, sweet naivety! -- since the character has been carefully defined in the concept stage, turning it over to modeling and thence to animation is just a matter of execution.
You can see why this is an appealing idea. Strong, thorough concept work is undoubtedly a Good Thing. It keeps the whole production cycle attuned to clear vision and goals.
It allows you to iterate cheaply and minimize risk. It also has the seductive side effect of centralizing the creative work, meaning the team can get by with less experienced artists on the production line.
There's nothing particularly innovative about any of these observations, of course; they are the stuff of many a GDC talk. They're also music to a publisher's ears since it helps them pretend that their teams have a master plan that can be followed rationally, step by step and milestone by milestone.
Unfortunately, "appealing" and "likely" are two very different things.