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Effective Art Directors: Gaming's Something Something


November 20, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

[In a detailed feature, Microsoft Game Studios' Cammarano documents the five major traits that make the video game art director truly effective, from partnerships through unlikely inspiration.]

The game industry has reached a crossroads, where the demand for creative, unique IP and immersive experiences is becoming a priority for many studios, rather than your classic tech demo or iterative, licensed project.

"Quality" is the popular (and somewhat ambiguous) term to help measure a franchise's success, and a number of teams have done a better job of defining it than others.

One of the key roles important in making this happen is that of the art director. It's a relatively new role when compared to other creative industries like advertising or film.

It's even defined differently among game companies: art lead with technical experience, lead artist who can script, art director but must be hands-on, publishing art director with program management skills, etc. Art director turnover is high and it can be hard to find the right mix of creative, technical, and management experience.

I've had the privilege of working for, with, and managing effective (and not-so-effective) art directors. I've also learned the hard way that those lacking certain qualities will make developing successful experiences that much harder.

The goal of this article is to share my perspective on what separates the average Art Director (AD) from an Effective Art Director (EAD) in this challenging, evolving and exciting industry. Let's take a look at five of the most common traits:

1. Proactiveness

Taking initiative helps differentiate successful art directors from the rest of the pack. Many art directors lack organizational support because most people in project or studio leadership do not come up through the ranks of the artist job track ("Can't you just push that 'make-it-look-good' button?!").

There are a large number of moving parts to building a game, more so than most other creative industries. Instead of being reactive, EADs seek out the knowledge to be effective and do what they can to not be a victim of circumstance.

While it's unrealistic to think an AD can be a subject-matter expert (SME) on everything in the game, EADs take greater interest in game design, technical, and production agendas as it affects visual goals.

They will perform reasonable due-diligence by reviewing GDDs, TDDs, creative pitches, etc. to get an added sense of what the over-arching goals are for development. If there's an area they have no experience in, they go seek out other SMEs ("What do you mean I only have 16ms to render a frame? Can't we just send it to the render farm?!")

In addition, EADs utilize their strengths even when it's not directly defined in the job description. I'm not saying they should do the work of 10 people (maybe some do), but they don't avoid opportunities to help out some of the other functions in a reasonable way.

If leadership is their strength, EADs may take the point on a shared team goal. If they've observed something will affect a teammate's workload, they speak up and offer a solution. If they're a good mentor and see a new hire in another function is struggling, they offer up a little of their time to give helpful advice. The message here is that EADs take initiative in a reasonable way to help the team as a whole.

2. Building Bridges: Forming the Right Partnerships

Team communication is an important interpersonal skill for EADs and it's a two-way street. The triad of production, design, and engineering obviously plays an important part in developing a successful game; if they want their position in the group to be respected, EADs respect others.

There is no monopoly on good ideas and much they don't know, so they ask questions. (Remember, everyone likes a modest AD.)


"View of the Brooklyn Bridge", Emile Renouf (1845-1894)

One too many ADs have tried to do their job from the confines of their office or cubicle, but EADs look to understand the issues from other perspectives in order to appreciate the dependencies. They realize it makes being understood that much easier.

They don't let the triad steamroll creative issues, but they don't effect visual change while working in a vacuum.

EADs play the game, read the supporting documentation and regularly interact with the triad to discuss features. When a course of action is decided upon, they lead by example and keep their commitments. Once completed, they follow up with the triad to make sure it's consistent with what was messaged.


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