Besides the triad, there are four other cross-functional groups EADs must look to leverage:
- Test (or QA) teams are more than just a bunch of people playing games all day looking for bugs. EADs realize that engaging test members who demonstrate a critical eye for visual quality is a great way of providing additional help in reviewing art assets.
- User Research (UR) is probably one of the most underused resources available to an AD during a production cycle. Questions that most UR teams use to conduct gameplay sessions on visuals have more to do with generalizations that come toward the end of production or during alpha (e.g. "Do you like the graphics?", "Did you feel there was enough variety in animations?", etc.)
EADs won't build an art direction style based on feedback from the public but they will look to get UR involved periodically in concept or pre-vis phases to provide objective data from the public around ideas.
- Marketing. Many ADs have complained about not being a part of the visual decisions around marketing materials. Believe it or not, I've asked most of them if they ever even met their team's marketing person. The responses from those who haven't usually ranged from the blank stare (Wow, what a novel idea) to something like "No, why should I? I'm the art director!"
If EADs want to have some type of input into those decisions, they don't wait for the marketing guys to come to them. They take initiative to reasonably understand their goals and limitations and see how they can help make their jobs easier as it pertains to art. I haven't met too many marketing people who don't want an EAD's input when it comes to visual decision making.
- Business/accounting/financial development. EADs try to reasonably understand how business or financial decisions have an effect on their teams. A studio head long ago once said to a group of us that if you have a project team of 50 people and development costs of $10 million, then each person on that team is worth $200,000 worth of decisions.
While that's a very black-and-white viewpoint in boiling down the financials, the point is to highlight that EADs realize their creative decisions have a far-reaching effect all the way to the bottom line.
Making the wrong choice can lead to a significant hole in your budget with little in return, and being able to fund the right type of R&D initiative, art tool or hiring that extra talent who could go a long way to realizing a distinctive vision. ("Gosh, I could definitely use an extra animator on this team, but going with that over-priced, low-quality outsourcing company my friend works at sure made all the difference!" )
3. Less Detail, More Big Picture
Participating in the overall vision of the product and developing how the art supports, enhances and innovates is the core of an AD's job. EADs make these observations and look to clearly develop a cohesive vision about what the game will look like.
Too many ADs practice what I call "Art Direction by Task List", which is essentially an ambiguous vision built around a grocery list of graphical enhancements ("I can't describe what I want to make yet, but I know it needs to have lens-flare, light bloom and lip-sync!")
Nothing instills less confidence and more doubt in an AD's effectiveness than to set off on a course without a clear idea of where the game is going visually. A wise EAD once said to me that you have to start with the end in mind or you're down the road to nowhere. Here are two time-proven contributions an EAD will do to focus to the visual direction of a project:
- Create a vision statement. This is the guiding principle(s) or "elevator pitch" that helps an EAD stay grounded during all the noise associated with developing a game. They might be making the next fighting game and decide to develop a "hard-hitting, fast-paced and in-your-face" visual style.
Any ideas or discussions that come into play to support this statement are more likely to be recognized; anything contrary gets thrown away. These principles also guide team members when the EAD may not be present. (E.g. the animation lead adds that extra "pop" to the finishing moves guided by the EAD's principles, the cinematics director uses it develop a new zoom cam to enhance the close-up shots, etc.)
- Visual targeting. The terminology varies (vertical slice, beauty shot, finished moment, etc.) but the objective is still the same: demonstrate an example of what the finished product will look like. The visual target is the next logical progression of all the concepts that get fleshed out by the end of preproduction and it's the visual extension of the project's aesthetic X-factor.
It's probably the most effective and most controversial of initiatives an EAD pursues because so much can ride on the decisions and add to the natural concerns of fear of getting artistically pigeon-holed ("How am I supposed to know what the game will look like in three years?").
I've seen deals get signed over one sizzle video, and I've seen deals go sour because a good developer lacked the ability to communicate the vision of the product. I firmly believe there are more pros than cons to going beyond concepts to refined visual targeting, because they are used to communicate to the team, studio and/or publisher the end-goal for which everyone is about to commit.
Trying to describe it to a group of stakeholders using ambiguous references like "It's meant to be real but not that real...", "It's a little of this combined with a little of that..." or "It's a just a concept that's only 10% of the way there..." is a recipe for doubt, randomized efforts and unnecessary discussions.
A visual target cuts through the grey areas, rallies the project's efforts and helps filter the creative randomness that can occur during a cycle.
A picture is worth a thousand words: The concept (right) is the idea. The visual target (left) is what the EAD wants it to look like in the end.