From personal experience, knowledge of traditional artistic principles isn't very strong amongst the majority of video game developers. It's not that video games have different visual needs, because we all communicate using the same visual vocabulary. The reason for this absence is partly the fault of the education system, as discussed earlier, and partly due to the fact that it's easy to be lazy as artists when visual communication is complemented by a complete multimedia experience of animated, audio, and visual prompts. However, more detail, more sound and more special effects don't necessarily lead to better communication.
With all that happens on-screen in a typical video game -- 360 degree movement, a constantly shifting viewpoint, dynamic user-interface, etc. -- players don't have time to take in all the detail which you can see in this screen from Bungie's Halo 3.
What happens is that player perception of visual detail is extremely reduced to something closer to the accompanying illustration.
As a result, it's even more essential that video game developers communicate in simpler and more direct visual terms.
Simple iconographic concepts do just that by helping players to understand their gaming environment that much quicker and differentiate, say, enemy characters from allies.
Selection of Mafia characters from the location-based, mixed-reality game, Gbanga Famiglia (2010) courtesy of Millform AG.
I face similar artistic challenges at Gbanga, which is the Swiss developer of a location-based gaming platform. Working to mobile platform constraints and supporting screen resolutions as small as 176 x 220 pixels, the emotional significance for each character must be entirely communicated in the edges and larger abstract shapes when each is no larger than 54 pixels squared. Small details are simply not visible at these resolutions in much the same way that a character in a 3D environment will appear when viewed at a distance.
Various iconic video game characters from around the world demonstrating the application of primary shapes.
Similar concepts can be observed with this ad-hoc selection of iconic video game characters from around the world. From the predominantly rounded features of Mario, to the triangular elements of his archenemy, Bowser, there appears to be a commonality in terms of which primary shapes are used for certain categories of characters. Sonic the Hedgehog's characters appear to be the only exception to this principle, which causes some semantic confusion. How conscious video game artists are of this and other artistic principles is still open to investigation, keeping in mind that the above selection of characters represents a minority group of successful titles. However the benefits of having a command over artistic principles is easy to appreciate.
The iconographic scale of emotions from passive to aggressive consisting of the circle (dynamic, positive emotions), square (strength, stability) and triangle (negative, aggressive emotions).
There may be some reluctance from artists to engage with traditional artistic principles considering the contemporary climate brought about by modern art. The conflict between freedom of expression and discipline is a constant debate as over-theorizing can indeed inhibit creativity. A quote from Juliette Aristides supports this belief that, "Often the most unique, compelling work comes not from a concept or an idea but from a deep, wordless place inside the artist." [xii]
There are many artistic methods to counter the expressive restraints of theory once the latter has been learnt to a comprehensive level. A common method artists employ is to let their subconscious find images in random shapes, which is an experience known as apophenia.[xiii] Great examples of this are found in the inspirational demos of Retro Studios' lead concept artist, Andrew Jones, in which he plunges headlong into visual "chaos" using semi-automated tools like ZBrush and Alchemy to spark his imagination with unexpected ideas and images. [xiv]
Andrew Jones creates abstract images such as these to inspire his subconscious with unexpected ideas. His traditional training allows him to easily realize any idea.
What remains evident throughout Andrew Jones' demos is that he has a very strong command of traditional artistic principles, allowing him to easily realize an idea once inspired. The same holds true for Degas, Ingres, and Michelangelo; artists throughout history have always held traditional principles in the highest esteem because they form the basis of our visual vocabulary. Their significance is timeless.
What these artists also valued was the practice of drawing from a life model, which develops in the artist a discipline for simplification, as there is no other way to successfully capture a dynamic and highly complex subject such as a human being when armed with just a pencil and paper. The act of drawing also makes the relationship with a subject more vivid than when using secondary reference. Consider the difference between witnessing something as spectacular as a whale swimming in the ocean, with watching a televised documentary about one. Firsthand experience wins hands down.
The ideal trajectory of an artist's path to learning and experience is best summarized by a quote from the master Japanese painter and printmaker, Katsushika Hokusai:
"At seventy-three, I learned a little about the real structure of animals, plants, birds, fishes and insects. Consequently when I am eighty I'll have made more progress. At ninety I'll have penetrated the mystery of things. At a hundred I shall have reached something marvelous, but when I am a hundred and ten everything I do, the smallest dot, will be alive."
Aristides, Juliette. Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2008.
Carlson, John F. Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting. Peter Smith Publishing Inc., 1984.
Glenn Vilppu's educational DVDs, http://www.vilppustore.com/
Hale, Robert Beverly. Masterclass in Figure Drawing. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1991.
Mattesi, Mike. Force: Dynamic Life Drawing for Animators. Focal Press, 2006.
Quiller, Stephen. Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory. Watson-Guptill, 2002.
Schmid, Richard. Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting. Stove Prairie Press, 1999.
Ruskin, John. Elements of Drawing. Dover Publications Inc., 1857.
The Society of Figurative Arts Forums, http://www.tsofa.com/forums/
[xii] Aristides, Juliette. Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006, p97.