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A treatise on Video Game Art - What is the formula for success?

There are three critical aspects that go into making the art in a video game successful. In this post I break down my experience and lessons learned in team-based art development.

Hi, my name is Heinz Schuller, and this is my first blog for Gamasutra. I've been working in the industry for a little over 20 years in various art leadership roles, from small startups to large AAA projects.

I wanted to share some hard-earned lessons that I hope will be useful to those engaged in team-based art development for video games. I am a firm believer that establishing studio culture for art is a baseline for development sanity. Please know I would never claim to be some sort of guru, as many of these lessons came from mistakes vs. successes. 

Essentially, there are three critical aspects that go into making the art in a video game successful. They are:

I. A strong, motivated team
II. A compelling vision for what the game will ultimately look like
III. A proven process for making high quality & efficient art content

In the end, it really all boils down to this list.

Successful game art captures the emotion required to support the narrative, provides a suitable level of fidelity in support of the game design & visual style, and executes at the edge of available performance budgets on the target hardware.

In plain English... it feels good, looks good, and runs good.

"Simple is Good" - Jim Henson

First on the list is the "strong, motivated team". 

Hiring talent is just a beginning, a step-1 task for creating an effective team. For many companies it's a piece of paper, a website, and 50-minute conversations that constitute an evaluation of a potential candidate. This is a non-formidable gauntlet equivalent to taking a dive into some chilly water. 

Demand more from the hiring process, and don't cave into the 'fill the seat, get on with the schedule' pressure from above (whenever possible). A bad hire increases drag coefficient on the whole team.

One of the most important goals for an Art Director is building an effective, collaborative environment for the creative process to succeed. It may sound obvious, but the key to this goal is to provide a structure where people know their roles & responsibilities, and have the authority to perform them.

So simple, right? Yet ultimately, the lack of this kind of structure is the source of the most frustration that team members feel on long, stressful projects.

Structure is a core system; people crave it, and the leadership implied within. The skeleton of structure is communication & collaboration. 

Once team roles are defined, sensible and trackable goals should be set in a collaborative process. Each team member leaves with the knowledge of what they need to do, and how to resolve questions or concerns.

What can break structure? Project changes. The liquid medium of games assures that any good creative decision can be re-decided later at a level beyond your reach.
The weapon against chaos of change is real, honest & diligent pre-production. If performed correctly, project pre-production will provide the data to validate most arguments against bad ideas or unnecessary detours.

One cannot completely forego change in the game development process, but a well-developed structure will absorb and focus change positively. An effective Art Director will provide the backbone of team structure, and will test the conviction of those who wish to experiment with (or derail) proven process.

While at Microsoft, I once composed a graphic describing the qualities of an effective Art Director. Some of the terminology is specific to that company, but most should be self-evident.

Art Director Sphere of Influence

Moving on to step 2, the "Vision For The Game"

"Looking up gives light, although at first it makes you dizzy." - Mevlana Rumi

Vision is one of those loaded words that often comes up during game projects. What's the vision? Who is the vision holder? Does everyone understand the vision?

Artistic vision takes many forms, but in the end needs to be communicable to be effective. Creating the vision is a team process. No one person just strolls in one day with "the vision", spilling it out on the conference table as artists eagerly lap it up. 

Vision starts with words, and those words are broken down into images. 

The most effective way to develop the Art Vision for a game is a thorough pre-production period. This includes close collaboration with the designers & engineers to ensure the art style will compliment the experience & technical features. The end product from pre-pro is a collective expression of how the game could look & play with a proper production run.

The risk of rushing into production without this early vetting & diligent testing of ideas is lost time. 

The time you will spend in production trying to solve for unforeseen design issues, or defending late choices while the team waits to commit and move forward. The time spent creating concept art for assets that should have already been in production. You will always pay for pre-production somewhere along the way, why not do it first when it's efficient and scheduleable?

Lastly, the role of the Art Director is to champion the vision, to gain buy-in from the publisher, management, and everyone on the team first-hand throughout the project. The team needs to see the A/D believe in the vision, and that belief needs to come out demonstrably, in a way that builds credibility.

This brings us to step 3, "A Proven Process".

"Not a half dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads." - F.Scott Fitzgerald (1940)

Process is one of those subtly powerful words. 

Canning marmalade is a process. But canning incredibly delicious marmalade inexpensively is a refined process that has value to anyone in the jam & jelly industries.

Art process for games could be defined as "combining mature art production methods known to achieve optimal visual results, with tools & technology that have similarly been refined through the experience and knowledge of users."

Without due diligence on art process, on both creative & technical fronts, it is difficult if not impossible to achieve the quality, consistency, and performance necessary to succeed. 

Art process is documented, transparent to the team, shared across projects, and passed on as staff migrates. It represents the technical culture, the accumulated value of thousands of trials and lessons learned within a studio.

To ignore it, to render it disposable, to not value the people who contribute to it, or to not provide sufficient infrastructure for process documentation to flourish is to squander resources foolishly.

Team, vision, & process. Make it your mantra! 

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