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Effective Art Directors: Gaming's Something Something

In a detailed feature, Microsoft Game Studios' Cammarano documents the five major traits that make the video game art director truly effective, from partnerships through unlikely inspiration.

[In a detailed feature, Microsoft Game Studios' Cammarano documents the five major traits that make the video game art director truly effective, from partnerships through unlikely inspiration.]

The game industry has reached a crossroads, where the demand for creative, unique IP and immersive experiences is becoming a priority for many studios, rather than your classic tech demo or iterative, licensed project.

"Quality" is the popular (and somewhat ambiguous) term to help measure a franchise's success, and a number of teams have done a better job of defining it than others.

One of the key roles important in making this happen is that of the art director. It's a relatively new role when compared to other creative industries like advertising or film.

It's even defined differently among game companies: art lead with technical experience, lead artist who can script, art director but must be hands-on, publishing art director with program management skills, etc. Art director turnover is high and it can be hard to find the right mix of creative, technical, and management experience.

I've had the privilege of working for, with, and managing effective (and not-so-effective) art directors. I've also learned the hard way that those lacking certain qualities will make developing successful experiences that much harder.

The goal of this article is to share my perspective on what separates the average Art Director (AD) from an Effective Art Director (EAD) in this challenging, evolving and exciting industry. Let's take a look at five of the most common traits:

1. Proactiveness

Taking initiative helps differentiate successful art directors from the rest of the pack. Many art directors lack organizational support because most people in project or studio leadership do not come up through the ranks of the artist job track ("Can't you just push that 'make-it-look-good' button?!").

There are a large number of moving parts to building a game, more so than most other creative industries. Instead of being reactive, EADs seek out the knowledge to be effective and do what they can to not be a victim of circumstance.

While it's unrealistic to think an AD can be a subject-matter expert (SME) on everything in the game, EADs take greater interest in game design, technical, and production agendas as it affects visual goals.

They will perform reasonable due-diligence by reviewing GDDs, TDDs, creative pitches, etc. to get an added sense of what the over-arching goals are for development. If there's an area they have no experience in, they go seek out other SMEs ("What do you mean I only have 16ms to render a frame? Can't we just send it to the render farm?!")

In addition, EADs utilize their strengths even when it's not directly defined in the job description. I'm not saying they should do the work of 10 people (maybe some do), but they don't avoid opportunities to help out some of the other functions in a reasonable way.

If leadership is their strength, EADs may take the point on a shared team goal. If they've observed something will affect a teammate's workload, they speak up and offer a solution. If they're a good mentor and see a new hire in another function is struggling, they offer up a little of their time to give helpful advice. The message here is that EADs take initiative in a reasonable way to help the team as a whole.

2. Building Bridges: Forming the Right Partnerships

Team communication is an important interpersonal skill for EADs and it's a two-way street. The triad of production, design, and engineering obviously plays an important part in developing a successful game; if they want their position in the group to be respected, EADs respect others.

There is no monopoly on good ideas and much they don't know, so they ask questions. (Remember, everyone likes a modest AD.)


"View of the Brooklyn Bridge", Emile Renouf (1845-1894)

One too many ADs have tried to do their job from the confines of their office or cubicle, but EADs look to understand the issues from other perspectives in order to appreciate the dependencies. They realize it makes being understood that much easier.

They don't let the triad steamroll creative issues, but they don't effect visual change while working in a vacuum.

EADs play the game, read the supporting documentation and regularly interact with the triad to discuss features. When a course of action is decided upon, they lead by example and keep their commitments. Once completed, they follow up with the triad to make sure it's consistent with what was messaged.


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.


How many visual targets should be developed? How closely should they be followed? That's up to the EAD to decide, but the common factor should be enough targets to get the idea clearly across.

They use their sensibilities and regularly observe how progress is going. If changes are called for at a point in the cycle, an EAD quickly takes the new concepts and creates a new visual target(s) to re-focus the team's efforts.

As a group of visual targets are finished, they should be collected into some form of cohesive format, whether it's a style guide, art bible, or organized directory structure of paint-overs, renders, or animations to which everyone can easily refer.

When the trade-offs and limitations of game development rear their ugly heads, the visual targets are used to help prioritize goals, focus resources and create a common starting point for discussions among all the cross-functions.

Games are getting more expensive and complicated to create and the risks are high. Mitigating a lot of that comes through experienced planning around a concise goal, and the visual target is an EAD's weapon of choice.


One of many concepts generated by an EAD and concept team based on ideas during early pre-production.

The game engine is used in this case by the EAD/team during pre-production to evolve the original concept into a visual target by which quality will be measured throughout all areas during the production cycle.

When issues or discussions occur around visuals, the target is used to bring focus and clarity to creative iteration.

Months later, in-game progress shows that while many elements of the original target have changed, its esessence and cohesiveness has remained the same.

Because the development and publishing teams could see the visual target and understand quality vs. trade-offs and risks, more focused support could be placed in the right areas to make sure the rest of the game gets the same level of polish with little randomization to the product.

The aesthetic and graphical quality the EAD wanted from the original target has not only been maintained but surpassed.


4. You're Only As Good As Your Artists


What's a seagull have to do with being an effective art director?

Unless an AD is a one-man studio, there is usually a team of two or more artists involved in the art production process. EADs recognize that without this creative synergy there is little success in attaining the visual goals. They conscientiously focus on making sure their team's input is heard, contributions recognized and collaboration is supported.

EADs set clear expectations and are willing to have legitimate debates over differences of opinion. Only through mutual trust can the EAD and artists find better solutions.

Regular reviews should be conducted where ideas and progress is discussed in a healthy, mature manner. EADs avoid "seagull management", which is essentially the practice of "flying in for a periodic review, dumping on the work and then flying away".

While there is a certain level of "fire-and-forget" when delegating responsibilities, artists do not like being taken for granted. EADs treat their talent with professionalism, clear expectations and an environment where good work is recognized.

Recruiting is an area where EADs will focus some of their attention in order to attract talent. Some of the most common factors that go into artists looking somewhere else is the lack of opportunity and unhappiness with management.

Time and again, the best "recruiters" in the business are the ineffective managers of one company driving the talent to another company's recruiting teams.

Building goodwill within the community forms a strong basis for succeeding. EADs actively participate in building quality relationships with recruiting teams, HR, and networking resources.

This ranges from reviewing candidate portfolios, to speaking at a local art college, to more sensitive activities like attending a recruiting event at a studio closure, to help the larger art community. Remember, it's an incestuous industry in which we work -- everyone knows everybody.

5. Look Outside the Norm for Inspiration

One of the main reasons for stagnation on new ideas is because games (and apparently the same three movies) can be over-utilized as a source of inspiration. (How many more games are we going to see with desaturated color palettes and bleach bypass?) This becomes a recipe for an "iterate, not innovate" scenario.

Competitive analysis and playing games are great foundations, but EADs don't solely rely on these tactics for ideas. They surround themselves with all types of inspirational and relevant reference like photography, books, movies, pop culture, comics, etc.

I've seen EADs work in the science fiction genre and instead of just checking out George Lucas and Ridley Scott movies, they pick up books on the latest studies in the medical or scientific fields.

If they try to create a more character-driven performance, they might talk with theatrical directors on how to get the most out of their (virtual) actors' performances. They keep an open mind by immersing themselves in other forms of media or artistic expression such as video, sculpting, painting, etc.

They collect stuff that is imaginative, motivating and look to incorporate it into their professional duties. It helps to recharge their batteries and build upon creative capacity.

If possible, EADs will also try to engage firsthand with the experience they want to visualize. Trying to make that next, unique first person shooter? Go out and play some paintball. Working on a new sports game? Play it regularly at a local gym, or go to sporting events.

I'm still amazed at how much some ADs will live vicariously through something else when they have every reasonable means to experience it first-hand. EADs, on the other hand, want to take in as much as they can to give back to the user the most fulfilling visual experience possible.

Conclusion

Art direction is an evolving role that requires the convictions of a martyr, the leadership of a general, the negotiation skills of a diplomat and the humbleness of a monk. Developing a visual style can break a studio's budget or define a franchise's visual ID for years to come.

Add to that the fact anyone with an internet connection and an opinion can crush or evangelize a game's artwork on a public forum and it becomes one of the most exciting, frustrating and dynamic jobs in game development.

Effective Art Directors never give up their quest for visual excellence amongst the distractions and look to utilize all their skill-sets and resources as best as possible.

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