In this reprint from the April 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine, 3D artist Josh White outlines some best practices for keeping lines of communication clear and cordial in your art department. Art direction is the communication between an original designer and the executor of the design. It's not the design process, and it's not the final design's execution. This month, we'll peek at the perils and delights of game art direction. For example, let's say you want a portrait of your pet lizard. Your idea is to put the lizard on a nice branch with a desert scene as a backdrop (that's the design). You hire a professional photographer to actually take the photograph. You spend 15 minutes explaining how you want the shot to look and drawing a simple layout sketch (that's art direction). The photographer sets up the shot, takes some prints, and shows them to you (that's art execution). You provide criticism and ask the photographer to retake the shot (that's art direction). Now that we have an idea of the scope of art direction, let's look at how it works in the game industry (obviously, this is a fictional story).
Kotz and Amy's Little IssueKotz is a wound-up monkey of an art director with a couple of solid hits under his belt. His enthusiasm is legendary -- with spittle flying and arms flapping, he spews out quirky artistic ideas nonstop and then leaps onto his drafting stool and slashes out his trademark designs, hooting "Ooo-ooo! " when he really gets in the groove. Kotz was hired to design artwork for a game project called "DreamFly," a cartoonish, dreamy flight simulator that feels like a kid's book. There are little fairy creatures fluttering around a big, puffy airplane. The plane zooms over surreal blobs of landscape -- you know, concept stuff. Kotz loves this idea, and has already scrawled out a huge pile of sketches for the game artwork. Now the project is ready to start, and Kotz's job is to find artists to build his design. He hires Amy, a skeptical veteran game artist, to create 2D sprites of the fairies dancing around the airplane. Kotz's initial direction to Amy consists of handing her a crude and childishly executed sketch of a fairy. "So hey! Check it out! I bet you're just itching to build this little bugger!" Kotz chirps as Amy stares at the sketch in disbelief. Let's freeze that frame and take a look at the problems so far. The sketch is completely inadequate for character definition -- there's not enough information. But there's another important problem developing here.
Problem 1: Staying FriendsAmy and Kotz are forging a relationship. This is an important interaction, and it's not going well. Neither of them is taking care to create a solid foundation for their working relationship, even though that's what they both want. As Amy's boss, Kotz wants to communicate enthusiasm and good vibes, but he has set himself up for disaster by approaching the problem too lightly. Since this is the first project he and Amy will be collaborating on, he should have assessed the situation more carefully. He should get Amy's input on the art-direction process and make her feel comfortable giving feedback. Right now, Amy can't criticize anything without implying that Kotz screwed up -- but she needs to say something. That's a lose-lose situation. What are Amy's options, given this situation? One option would be a response such as, "Umm... Kotz, I can't draw this." Her low, measured tones totally puncture his mood. "This sketch is, uh, really rough." Kotz's heart sinks. "What's wrong? It's a cool little fairy, right?" Amy's exasperation wells up as she dramatically sighs, "Oh, good grief... Kotz, this drawing is so far from a complete design! I can't work miracles." Amy's reaction is justifiable since Kotz has obviously made some mistakes, but that kind of self-centered attitude won't get her far in her career. Even if she hates Kotz and is planning to quit, she'll do better if she doesn't burn bridges. How can she be honest without burning bridges? Amy can prevent conflict by buffering her negative reaction. David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard fame) wrote a book called The HP Way (HarperBusiness, 1995), which describes Bill Hewlett's three-step process for critiquing ideas without dampening enthusiasm:
Bill Hewlett was passing judgment, but Amy could use the spirit of this technique. Her first step is to recognize that Kotz's enthusiasm is very valuable to the project, even if it bugs her. As a veteran, she has on occasion worked with uninspired art directors who glumly create standard-looking artwork, which never makes for an exciting game. Good games have passion in them, and if she wants to make good games, she's got to understand and empathize with the passion, at least a little. So her first reaction should be to the spirit of the sketch, not the problems with it. "I'm into drawing fairies! Back in art school, I drew these kind of wood-gnome-elf characters, kind of like this sketch, but more realistic-looking." Kotz is curious. "Really?" he asks. "I'd love to see them! Were they photorealistic, or more like Norman Rockwell fake-real?" "Well, sort of like... hard to say. I have some photos of the canvas I'll bring in tomorrow if you want. So anyway, what kind of outfit were you thinking?" and Amy steers the conversation around to gathering more design input. Once she's gathered an overall sense for Kotz's vision of the character, Amy can start exploring the technical issues of creating game art that works in the engine. For example, she might think aloud, "Hmm, so if we've got four frames of animation, we could do a little wing-flap bobbing cycle. But maybe we couldn't get an eye-blink in there because it would happen too often." From these musings Kotz would learn what Amy's limitations are, giving him a chance to calibrate Amy's judgment to match his. "Hey Amy, wanna just skip the eye-blinks? It's not a big deal, right?" After a few rounds of this, Amy and Kotz will each become familiar with the other's style and where they disagree. If Kotz knows Amy's style, he'll trust her judgment and avoid micromanaging her in the areas where they agree -- and he can keep control of the areas where they differ.
Upon first being approached by a creative inventor with unbridled enthusiasm for a new idea, Bill immediately put on a hat called "enthusiasm." He would listen, express excitement where appropriate and appreciation in general, while asking a few rather gentle and not too pointed questions. A few days later, he would get back to the inventor wearing a hat called "inquisition." This was the time for very pointed questions, a thorough probing of the idea, lots of give-and-take. Without a final decision the session was adjourned. Shortly there after, Bill would put on his "decision" hat and meet once again with the inventor. With appropriate logic and sensitivity, judgment was rendered and a decision made about the idea. This process provided the inventor with a sense of satisfaction, even when the decision went against the project -- a vitally important outcome for engendering continued enthusiasm and creativity.