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Common Methodologies for Lead Artists

December 4, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Back in the early 90s the industry could get away with not having clearly defined roles because game development was a giddy new discovery and we loved the "seat-of-our-pants" style of production. Nowadays it is serious business with a competitive edge. Larger teams need more structure. If hiring managers are going to effectively be able to do their jobs, we may need to adopt common definitions and methodologies.

Defining Art Roles

If you ask a variety of artists and producers in our industry what they think the term "lead artist" means, you will receive a variety of answers. For some, it means "head honcho"; for others it means "technical artist". I have heard of instances where the lead artist was more of an art director. How do we begin to define the role of lead artist? This article describes the various responsibilities of the lead based on the combination of definitions I have seen that work best.

My experience has taught me that the most successful formula for establishing roles is a combination of one part tradition and one part progression. Tradition can describe the common ideas people share when it comes to what constitutes leadership. Progression involves transforming our notions of leadership and make them fit to the demands of game development on a continual basis.

The art director is the creative visionary, responsible for defining the visual direction of the project. What colors will define the mood of the environment? What level of detail should the textures convey? What are the buildings in a city supposed to look like? How does the terrain look on this level? What kind of ambient characters populate this world? How red should the blood be? The art director works closely with the game designer to shape the game world. The art director carries the burden of communicating his or her vision of the game design to a diverse team of artists.

The lead artist helps the team technically and artistically, to carry out the art director's vision. The lead understands how to conserve where necessary and how to give more freedom to the areas that are important in achieving the goals of the game designer and the art director. The lead artist handles the technical aspects of the art team: art processes; tools; geometric budgets; texture budgets; task definitions; scheduling of tasks. The lead also communicates with the lead programmer and the producer to identify risk in the production pipeline. The lead takes the burden of artist management and protects the art team from counter-productivity.

The best teams I've worked with had an art director and lead artist who worked closely together and respected each other's roles. They communicated openly. They agreed upon the visual direction of the product and discussed their respective responsibilities that were required to carry out the execution of the design. Not surprisingly, they were relatively stress-free teams. With the definitions out of the way, we can look at the methodologies and stages of production the lead may encounter.

The Art Specifications Document

Ideally, the lead and art director would ideally have time to examine the game design document well in advance of the assembling of the art team. Having reviewed the first draft, the art director and lead work together to define the art portion of the design doc, called the Art Specifications Document. In this document, the lead identifies the requirements for producing the art assets and the risks associated with any unknown areas. This could include the introduction of a new tool, lack of programmer support until late in the development cycle, testing processes and approval systems. The game design doc is a living entity, and should be used as a method of tracking original plans and staying focused. It is very important that the art director strive to outline the artistic direction of the product in as much detail as is possible. The art director needs to have an open line of communication with the decision makers and should obtain written approval of the project's art specifications.

An Example

Failure to come to agreement on art assets, such as character design, can cost hundreds of hours of production time.

In this example, the Art Specifications were outlined very thoroughly in many areas, even containing blueprints of world object creation. However, the character portion was left vague and undefined. Figure 1 is an example of the spec document illustrating that section:


In Jumping Jack Flash, the enemy characters have distinct personalities. JJF will feature 26 enemy characters that are placed throughout the level, offering a wide variety of challenges to the main player character.

The characters range from a butcher to a policeman and will appear in the environment best suited to their occupation.


Object groups come in three categories: static, interactive and obstacles. Static objects will follow the naming convention: DF_FHT_001. They will have a polygonal budget of 500 polygons and a texture budget of no larger than 128x128.

Figure 1

More thought is given to the technical approach of building world objects, which can be far less complex to integrate, than is given to character design. As a result, the characters created were too stylized to fit the client's ideal and had to be revised after the second milestone. It may seem amazing that it could get that far without being caught, but it happens all the time. What could the above example show that would satisfy the description necessary for the enemy characters? How about this:


In Jumping Jack Flash, the enemy characters have distinct personalities. The style will be more realistic than arcade. JJF will feature 26 enemy characters that are placed throughout the level, offering a wide variety of challenges to the main player character. Following is a character list with illustrations to describe the visual style:

Chinatown Butcher - constantly angry, always waving a cleaver, this character is stereotypical. The poly budget is 500 polys. See reference folder: S:\JJF\Art\Reference\

Figure 2

The Art Specifications should include estimates for texture footprint budgets, polygonal budgets, animation requirements including a first pass animation list and, later, a flowchart describing the motion flow of the animation. They should also cover character design, descriptions of construction methods for models, naming conventions, tool requests, roles and responsibilities of each member of the art team, visual examples and possibly storyboards supplied by the art director.

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