[In this intriguing technical article, originally published in Game Developer magazine, Volition's Jason Hayes discusses how the Saints Row franchise developer integrates the technical artist into its development pipeline.]
As game development becomes more complex, with bloated budgets and team sizes doubling over last generation development, the need to bridge the gap between art and programming has never been more pressing.
It's already passe to rely on programmers to develop art pipelines and understand those needs. Game development today needs to be far more efficient, able to produce high-quality triple-A titles with team sizes comparable to those seen in the last hardware generation.
The technical artist is a new concept and role in the game industry that is starting to take hold. Every company has a different idea of what a technical artist's roles and responsibilities are. However, to really maximize the development process, a company must integrate the technical artist to the fullest capacity.
What follows is a blueprint for how we've integrated technical artists into our game development process at Volition, which will hopefully give you ideas as to how your studio can do the same.
During development of Saints Row for the Xbox 360, I was responsible for designing and developing many of the tools and pipelines used for getting art assets into the game. But before Volition had any technical artists, it was up to the programmers to design and develop these systems for the artists to use.
Like any studio that doesn't employ technical artists, by and large programmers are the ones who develop and support the art pipelines. Generally, an artist will submit a request, and at some point in the future they are presented a tool to use. Most of the time these tools are not easy to use from an artist's perspective, nor is the workflow clear. Moreover, diagnosing problems with the tools can become problematic because getting programmer time to address them is typically difficult, especially near the end of a project cycle.
Integrating technical artists into a studio frees up the programmers from being solely responsible for the development and maintenance of the game's tools and pipelines. While programmers still have a hand in the design (and sometimes implementation) of those tools and pipelines, the technical artist is the driving force behind them and is looking out for the best interests of both parties.
This allows programmers to focus more on developing game code, and artists to focus on making the best-looking content they can with easy-to-use tools and workflows.
The following scenario, which took place near the end of development for Saints Row, illustrates the importance of utilizing a technical artist.
Our game was having some serious frame rate problems, especially during nighttime gameplay. This happened for a number of reasons, but primarily because we were developing the game long before any hardware was available, and it was a new type of genre for the studio.
One of the many causes for the frame rate problems was our liberal use of per-pixel dynamic lighting. Since we were running low on time, many people on the programming side felt that it would be best to turn off the dynamic lighting at night and fake it with effects. On the art side, there was a desire to keep it because the lighting gave the night scenes a much better sense of believability and richness. All things being equal, programming would have won that fight because it's better to ship a game with stable frame rate than not.
Because of my knowledge of the engine and its capabilities and limitations, I proposed that we develop a hybrid solution to the problem. Dynamic lights would remain on at certain distances around the player, while further out, effects gave the impression of a much more well lighted city without paying the GPU and CPU costs associated with the dynamic lighting.
This along with other optimizations improved the frame rate during nighttime gameplay dramatically, which kept the programmers happy. And visually, we still retained the believability and richness the artists wanted.
Cases like the one I described above happen often, sometimes daily. It's important to have an experienced technical artist between the two disciplines to negotiate what's best and important for not only each of the respective departments, but the product as a whole.