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The Code/Art Divide: How Technical Artists Bridge The Gap
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The Code/Art Divide: How Technical Artists Bridge The Gap

August 20, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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.

Case In Point

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 Art of Diplomacy

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Not sure about any other real artists here (or in the majority of the gaming community in general), but "technical artist" needs to be changed to something more fitting. It's unfair to compare a button pusher to a true creator, and it's really disappointing that some studios pass off said geeks as any form of artist. "technical artists" are the reason alot of games are watered down ripoffs of the latest fad. Grow up game industry,'re starting to really piss me off...

Doug Poston
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Anon: Did you read the article, or did you just feel the need to rant?

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Anon: It's a bit pretentious to call yourself a real artist, no? Who's to say that what you do is art?

Posted by a geek,

Continue to be pissed off. 8-)

Rob Nixon
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Anon: I find your comment to be absurdly arrogant. Without technical artists, much of the work "real artists'" create would continue to be unrealized. In an industry like this, one cannot afford to be so close-minded. If you want to be a pure artist, then this is the wrong field for you.

Robert Farr
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Good article, putting established intermediaries between coding and art teams also allows both sides to develop a better working relationship between departments, plus it can minimise the potential problem of one or two members of either team souring the relationship by having the unfortunate attitude displayed by Anons comment, I even doubt if Anon actually works in the industry atm.

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Good article, I agree that every game development team should have a technical artist on board as it can only make the game better.

I don't agree that the technical artist should be the one writing the tools in the future though. That's what tools programmers are for, of course the technical artist should be the one that tells them what tools need to be made and how they should work. As soon as the technical artist starts writing tools it will be perceived like just another programmer that artists have to beg to for features and bug fixes instead of an ally that can translate their needs effectively to the programming team.

Also, unfortunately the example given in the art of diplomacy section doesn't really proves the point of the need for a technical artist, there are much better examples. For that specific example, any graphics programmer worth its salt would have proposed a mixed system, or other ways that allowed to preserve the per pixel dynamic lighting on the parts were it really is important, and fake them (or alternative ways to do them faster or lower quality where possible) to keep the frame rate up as soon as the performance problem was discovered, if not way before that. A good graphics programmer would have seen the possibility of that problem arising since the really early stages of development of the game engine and develop techniques or enforce practices to avoid it entirely.

To Anon: Technical artists are real artists, at least all the good ones, they just happen to know the technical side too.

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I have enjoyed reading this article. And its articles like this that help bridge the academic/industry gap. I mean this isn't the type of information you get during lectures, well not in mine anyway as im doing programming (maybe the design course covers this type of thing).

As for the first poster i think you need to consider the film industry where you can afford to take weeks to render a scene and each character model is a billion trillion polygons each!

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As a Technical Lead myself its nice to see this area of development being given some focus. Schedueling is a particular bane of this discipline, too often the idea of having 2 or 3 days a week listed as support time is seen as not providing useful work. The industry needs to be more aware of the importance of closing the art/programming divide, not only for practicle reasons but also for cost reasons, time consuming low level tasks all too often add up to huge slices of development time (and hence budget) that could have been avoid had there been someone to push and champion clearer, faster editors.

Whats missing from the article is alot of the art side of the role, working with programmers is only 1/2 the job the other 1/2 is looking at art pipeline efficency, how things are constructed, the way shaders are used etc to make the assets as efficent as possible and allow artists to get the biggest bang from their buck, yes support for the software package is there but its vital that guidelines are established and regularly checked for the creation of assets, a large game can no longer afford rigourous scrutiny of indvidual assets for inclusion in a build.

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Completely argree with this anon 20 Aug 2008 at 1:17 pm PST

I totally agree, I've been a part of a company where a

Tech Artist has completly sabotaged the studio by passively aggressively controlling the pipeline.

These types really need to be watched carefully, because they are not creatives but instead are pipeline bug fixers. I'd rather change their names to "pipeline technician."

This specific Tech Artist, was a huge whiner and sabotaged the entire creative process. So we began to invite this person into the creative meetings; to no real creative person's suprise his ideas where way off to being anything unique or stacked.....

Aaron Casillas
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here here, I like Pipeline Technician, creativity and bug fixing are not the same thing.

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I think it's really a shame some of you haven't had good experiences. At our studio, Tech Art has saved the project many times by creatively and elegantly handling huge, delay-inducing issues.

I can see why you'd object to the term 'artist' if you worked with mere 'pipeline technicians.' When another artist, who happens to have some coding experience sits with you at your desk to design a tool and really stresses over making the work flow easily and efficiently based on your creative process, you'll appreciate why Technical Artist is an appropriate title, especially when you compare that to the glorified spreadsheets, through no fault of their own, that programmers deliver as tools.

Thomas Bousquet
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Such a position might be interesting for studios with lots of resource to spend AND which put a lot of emphasis on cross-project tools and long lasting pipeline process and engine.

However, as a software engineer, I don't believe you'd need to introduce a Technical Artist - or a whole team of them for that matter - to solve 99% of the issues this article is mentioning.

Obviously, there needs to be a real software design process while crafting tools, but to me, this falls in the responsibilities of the Tool team.

Let me explain : in other industries involving software odevelopment, a programmer/engineer and even more s someone creating tools is not only expected to have technical knowledge but also to build an expertise about the domain he's crafting something for. For instance, someone involved in making software for trading is supposed to end up knowing most of the stuff related to this field, otherwise what he does will somewhat be off the expectations.

Thus the problem lies with Tool Programmers being unable or unwilling to understand whatever artistic field they are in contact with. So rather than introducing a new element, you need to pick tools programmer based on their ability to work tightly with artists and manage them so they can build an expertise about sound, art or level design. Then you won't need a middleman that might slow down the tool creation process.

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Wow, there sure is a lot of elitism in these comments. I think too many people are concluding that these generalists are useless just because they had experience with one person who was bad at their job; as though finding somebody who has talent for both programming and art should be easy.

You need somebody like a technical artist (or tool programmer if you want to use a different name) on these large teams in order to facilitate work between two increasingly specialized disciplines. Specialists - those that are pure programmers or pure artists - put a lot of focus on being good at what they do. However, the more you focus, the less ability you have for bridging the two disciplines. You need a generalist or two in order to get your studio's left brain to work effectively with it's right brain.

The fact that a good tech artist is so hard to find is probably part of the reason that the vast majority of development tools for games are absolute garbage compared to what they could be.

Jason King
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As a former Tools Programmer I have found Technical Artists to be invaluable. Where I've worked, the technical artists are experts in the scripting side of the artists tools of choice (Maya, Max, etc). And with their expertise in the scripting language, they are quite capable of producing significant production side tools.

They are artist (generally coming from an animation background, but not always) with a distinct eye towards art that is functional in a game. And that is the key here... they understand what will be functional in a game. And not only are they able to communicate on both a technical level (with programmers) and artistic level (with artists), the ingredient that makes a technical artists successful is their ability to translate across disciplines.

From a programmer's perspective, I have seen artists make claims that they are not being given the tools or engine to do their art. I'm a programmer and not an artists so sometimes I don't have the ability to refute their claims. A good TA can come in and call BS on the artist and proceed to demonstrate the skills required to get the job done.

Likewise a good TA can have greater knowledge in the tool that is being used and can point out features of the tool that the tools programmer didn't know about. So if a programmer says they can't implement tool functionality because the base tool does not support it, then the TA can call BS on them as well. Not only that, often time the TA can script up a solution much quicker than a tools programmer can code it.

Where a TA excels is not in making suggestions about engine and tools features (though they are generally better at it than most non-technical artists), but in cross communication and watch-dogging between the individual disciplines.

Andrew Lee
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Fantastic article. I am what you call a "technical Artist", but at my company which employs ~300 Development personnel, we have 6 people who fill the exact positions described, but we call them "Game Systems and Integration Engineers" (GSI). Most of our work involves tools development and support to increase productivity in the graphics pipeline.

Thomas is right in saying that the benefit from such a role only comes when the resources have exceeded a certain limit, but that is true for every business were multitasking is better for smaller companies.

I wouldnt consider myself an artist as I dress relatively modestly, and i dont have a plethora of little toys around my work station :) I do however, understand the wants and needs of artists and the technical capabilities of our platform. Our role is quite unique, but it is very VERY satisfying reading that it is recognized by the industry.

The "technical artists" (GSI) in our company are a critical and integral part of the SDLC. What was done in a day several years ago, can be done far more accurately and efficiently in 15 minutes with our new toolset and methodologies. Also, when you have a team of 50+ software engineers, you will have a large number of "colorblind" and "tasteless" software engineers. Hence why we keep the art to the artists, and the software to the software engineers - further justifying the need for such a role.

And then theres the issue of software cowboys who think they have a great eye and secretly add their own personal graphic touches, but that my friend, is another story.

Peng Du
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What is the highest possible/average salaries for Technical Art roles?

Animesh Jha
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I think that would depend on the studio... I have got this take from Game developers Mag which might give you an idea.

(Do know that Tech-artist are CG Supervisors (after 8+ yrs of expereince) also and the same knowledge is conveyed as CG / VFX supervisors in movies (who are higher up the ladder compared to the game counter-part).