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Game Artists: The Three Cardinal Rules
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Game Artists: The Three Cardinal Rules

March 12, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next
 

[What guidelines do video game artists need to follow to succeed? Volition manager Self-Ballard draws from his experience to suggest three key traits of the best game art creators.]

Last year, I was contacted by a professor from my alma mater, Purdue University. This professor asked me for "five tips for artists" that could be shared with the student body. Purdue has a Computer Graphics Technology department, and I serve on the Industrial Advisory Board.

I and many other alumni have entered the gaming industry since graduating from the department. Thus, the faculty shows a great deal of interest in what its students should know.

This is a topic that has interested me for many years now. Over a decade ago, I started in this industry with admittedly very little understanding of the expectations in place for professional artists in our industry.

As I learned new tools and techniques, I also developed an understanding of how to collaborate with peers and leads, resolve issues during production and work with a wide variety of truly unique individuals.

At the same time, I also made mistakes in conducting myself professionally. We all make mistakes. Thankfully, mine were not so egregious that it resulted in my termination. I would argue that most mistakes that people make when they're new to this industry are more like your common workplace pitfalls.

In the intervening years, I've continued to be vigilant for these behaviors, both in myself and in others. And I have continued to observe them and their impact.

The impetus behind all of this analysis revolved around a personal career change. Roughly two years ago, I moved from my position as a veteran production artist to a studio management position at my current employer.

This prompted a change in my priorities, and I found myself in a position where I would be addressing issues of staffing, hiring and personnel performance as they related to artists. As such, I desperately wanted to identify common expectations for professional artists.

To those ends, I began doing research into established expectations that our industry holds for artists who work in this field. I ultimately wanted something concrete that I could share with artists and use as a coaching tool for employees who are coming straight from educational institutions or other industries and have no clear understanding of expectations.

To my surprise, I found very little on this topic. Most of the articles I did read were either too broad or too focused on the details.

In the absence of a substantial amount of written research on the topic, I had to turn to alternative means for establishing these professional practices. Beyond just my personal experiences and observations, I solicited input from professional colleagues.

I spoke with art directors and producers from other studios. I spoke with faculty from different educational institutes. Finally, I discussed these topics with senior artists from outside the gaming industry, all in an effort to identify consistency in these practices or lack thereof.

Returning to that professor's original request, I sent him the following off the top of my head:

  1. Don't wrap up your ego in your artwork. People are going to criticize the work you do. Learn from those people.
  2. Engage your peers and learn from them. Every artist knows something you don't. A tool, a tip, or a technique. You only have a limited amount of time to learn these things from them (before you graduate, one of you changes jobs, etc.) The best way to learn these things from others is by sharing what you know. Don't hoard.
  3. You can only grow so much through school and work. The best artists hone their skills outside of school and outside of work. They keep creating even when they're not "on the clock."
  4. You will not enjoy every task/assignment you are given. Some you will like. Some you will hate. As a professional artist, you will be gauged on your ability to execute both types with the same quality, efficiency and dedication. Half-assed work, regardless of preference, is still half-assed.
  5. Learn to communicate with others proactively. If someone tells you what they want, and they walk away without you having enough information, it's not the other person's fault. If there is information you need, it is your responsibility to obtain it. If you start working with incomplete or inaccurate information, you're probably going to end up doing the job twice. Ask the questions you need to ask. The flipside of that argument is true as well. If you foresee a problem or think that a peer or manager doesn't have enough information, then it's your responsibility to voice your concerns.

Candidly, my original list in preparation for this article enumerated over 30 professional practices. These were condensed through my discussions with others.

While this article does not cover all of my thoughts and research on the topic, my goal was to highlight three of the most consistent, high-priority practices that were validated by others. It is my sincere hope that this can be used as a guide for new and aspiring artists, and also provides food for thought for the veteran artists as well.


Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Comments


Jeff Beaudoin
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This is a really great article, and has good information even for non-artists.



Well done!

Christopher Willingham
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I'm 4 years in as an Artist professionally... This article is great for any game Artist - regardless of your level of experience.

David Boudreau
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Great advice for those starting careers- but as I think most experienced professionals would agree with Jeff's comment above- it applies to any role, not just for artists.

John Paul Zahary
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Keith, you did a spectacular job.



The line that ironically sums it up for me is: "I wrote this article to kick off what I feel must be a broader dialogue." When dealing with artists or as Jeff stated, with any organization with specific teams, dialogue is the key.



Whether it is production vs. sales, or artists vs. management, all egos need to be in check in order for proper communication to be conveyed. The ultimate goal is to have a cohesive team that works together to present a powerful product inspite of the deadline.



Also, I loved your overall conclusion that teams need to understand where the other group is coming from in their language. If artists could work closely with programmers from the onset and have an understanding of their programs and limitations and vice versa, at least a clear direction can begin.



Before anyone enters a strategy meeting, this article should be required reading!

Dave Endresak
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I agree with the observation by others that the position of "artist" could be replaced by pretty much any other position and the topics of the article would still apply.



Perhaps part of the problem (in every industry, I think) is that our educational and training institutions continue to stress specialization even when the real world work often requires diversification. This is also true for the hiring process; job postings and hiring searches seem to home in on specifics rather than listing diverse requirements.



Like so many things, communications is key. Understanding and accepting (but not necessarily agreeing with) a multitude of viewpoints is important in any group effort.

Lorenzo Wang
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These aren't artist-specific tips, as useful as they are. My artist list have these three:



1. Don't lose your roots. Fundamental and traditional art skills should be continually honed even with all the technology around you. It's always relevant.



2. Keep abreast of technology. While you're maintaining your roots, you should also be savvy as to all the amazing new tools and innovative workflows that are constantly coming in. Artists who hold too tightly onto out-dated ways of working will quickly lose influence if they can't communicate on the same level as the rest of the company.



3. Does what you do serve the look? Some artists are extremely talented in working in their pet style, but how about when the new project throws you a curveball and goes in a different direction? Comic, photo-realistic, gritty, cel-shaded, apocalyptic, casual, etc. etc. there's a million ways the art direction can go, and most artists need to be able to adapt.



4. Efficiency. Games are still slaves of real-time performance issues. Is your work optimal and clean? The more efficient it is, the less of your vision (and punctuality come alpha) is compromised.



5. Criticism. Giving it and taking it is an art that needs to be learned through practice. All I will say is that all criticism should end in a tangible, achievable, and mutually agreed upon goals. If you can't agree on one of two things, then do both and let that help make the decision - artist discuss better with art than patter.

Bryson Whiteman
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Great article. We've all gotta learn this stuff one way or another -- it's all about team work!

mr jasler
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I would add another to that list..



- Respect gameplay and realize that it comes first before your artwork



This is a tough comment to swallow for many artists today, believe me... Artists are so rapt up in their own world in trying to create content, that they forget the big picture. The advancements in graphics has created a culture in gaming that thinks art trumps gameplay. This does open up a much bigger discussion as games have become more of an art piece than a game. Graphics and Gameplay go hand in hand and both need to be respected.. at the end of the day your end product is a game!

Charles Voyles
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Thank you Lorenzo Wang and mr jasler for adding a little more specificity to the topic, even though Wang's three turned to five. :D I believe the tips you added are valuable and often overlooked. Both of you mentioned how art fits into the game. You wouldn't think that artists sometime forget they're a part of a team making a game, but it happens (especially someone from an animating/movie background).



Keith's article is generic enough to fit any position; but if you put the article in Programming from a programmer's perspective, some artists might miss the points of this article.

Greg Wilcox
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Excellent piece! As one of those artsy types (and an old fart with 36 years of gaming experience), it's great to see some common sense stuff hold fast over time.





Um... so when are you guys going to start working on Summoner 3? You've got the engine (Saint's Row 2) - I've got some ideas... call me.



g.

Ivan Kanev
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great article, thank you! =]


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