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Keeping up with The Sims: Managing Large Scale Game Content Production

With project budgets in the multiple millions of dollars and virtually no margin for error, more and more development teams are under tremendous pressure to come out on top of the entertainment software market's cutthroat competition. No team manager wants to contemplate dropping the ball when creating the vivid graphics necessary to help make a game a success. Electronic Arts' The Sims franchise is an excellent example of this pressurized situation. This article highlights the critical issues that govern the high volume asset production needed for today's most demanding games.

September 3, 2002

28 Min Read

Author: by Charles London

With project budgets in the multiple millions of dollars and virtually no margin for error, more and more development teams are under tremendous pressure to come out on top of the entertainment software market's cutthroat competition. No team manager wants to contemplate dropping the ball when creating the vivid graphics necessary to help make a game a success. Electronic Arts' The Sims franchise is an excellent example of this pressurized situation. With recordbreaking sales on its initial release of The Sims, as well as the subsequent successes of the expansion packs The Sims: Livin' Large and The Sims: House Party, EA had a lot riding on the success of its content generation strategies.

Much of The Sims' appeal is due to the very same element of the game that presents one of EA's strategic production challenges: the sheer number of highly detailed, technically complex objects that populate its game world and provide interaction for The Sims, the little creatures that are at the core of this unique world. Designing, specifying, engineering, and troubleshooting these objects is no small amount of work; EA counts on balancing that effort by send ing the actual production of much of the sprite art assets for these objects out of house. New Pencil has been the studio charged with delivering on EA's demanding vision for these critical assets, from providing auxiliary production capacity on the original version of The Sims to the creation of most of the sprite assets on later expansion packs, such as the recently released The Sims: Hot Date.

This article highlights the critical issues that govern the highvolume asset production needed for today's most demanding games and some of the techniques upon which New Pencil has relied to create the artwork for The Sims franchise. These principles were developed at New Pencil and at Maxis over the long association between the two studios, and New Pencil has found these techniques to be fundamentally good practices. Although New Pencil uses these principles to provide highvolume content outsourcing services, they can be employed by any internal development team with excellent results. If you are in the position of managing this kind of production capacity, there are some things you are going to need to consider.

As New Pencil developed its systems over repeated contracts with Maxis, four strategic targets emerged that helped us generate a large body of game content on time and on budget while still holding quality as the uppermost value: time estimation and cost modeling, style matching and crossteam consistency, asset staging, and project tracking and team management.

These four fundamentals are cornerstones of a solid production foundation. Omit one, and your production may collapse. Let's take a closer look at what each target entails.

Time Estimation and Cost Modeling

No project is going to be delivered on time and looking great without good projections of how long each asset will take to make and how much it will cost to make it. Too often, teams stop short and focus exclusively on the underlying technical issues that support time estimation without going to the next step. This is especially true when work is being done internally, where budgets often deal with large numbers of assets as a group line item such as "animations."

The reason for doing these projections goes beyond just wanting to hit a budget and a timeline; it goes to the deeper issue of quality. Good time projections allow you to reserve buffer time for extra polish, integrate new techniques, and create tailored resource plans to handle special concerns in the production without having to rush too fast or cut too many corners on the look of any asset.

Once the time estimates are in place, it is then possible to institute good cost models. A solid cost model allows internal teams to make the best use of their budgets and outsourcers to defend their profit margins, which in turn allows them to be more flexible and serviceoriented toward their clients. It seems easy just to take the average time you think an asset will require and multiply that by the number of assets. At that point, you need to then add 20 percent right away as a rule, as a rough stab at accounting for the unknown developments that are sure to occur. No seasoned client or production manager, however, wants to depend on that kind of superficial analysis; he or she knows that there are far too many efficiencies to be found and dependencies to be contended with for any such simple formula to reflect reality. In order to develop a more indepth cost analysis, we focus on the following three general areas: the pipeline, the approval process, and the aesthetic target.

The place to start in developing good time estimates is the pipeline. Time estimates need to be based on a pretty solid production pipeline, or else they are meaningless. This is not to say that a pipeline can't be upgraded or amended during production, but unless the baseline is well understood by everyone who is going to use it, those upgrades cannot be evaluated for their impact on the schedule. Begin by posing a few questions about the pipeline: Who are the experts in the use of the pipeline, and is there access to those individuals? If assets have already been through production on this pipeline in the past, what were the timeframes associated with them? What technical taboos or requirements are there in the creation of the assets, and are they documented? How modular is the pipeline? If an error has been made somewhere during production, how far back in the creation must the artist regress to bring the asset up to specification?

We relied successfully on Maxis to provide instruction and support on their homegrown export tools and worked to make sure the pipeline that we set up at New Pencil was as close as possible in implementation to the pipeline at Maxis. The Sims ' sprite pipeline was well developed before Maxis went casting for a contract house to expand their capabilities. Just as importantly, Maxis worked hard to ensure that New Pencil had access to its experts who had the inside track on how the pipeline really worked. Maxis had clear expectations as to how modifications were to be made to assets and at which point in the pipeline each asset should be modified. New Pencil also had a team with a long history of working together, which is a huge plus when developing time estimates. Many new studios or teams are forced to rely on experiences with other teams that may not reflect their actual present skill sets, exposing them to potentially large errors in time estimation. As a result, New Pencil had a high level of confidence in estimating the time the average basic asset would require, excluding revisions.

Understanding the approval process and the approval team is the next most important factor. Are the members of that group in good communication with each other? Are the list of reviewers involved in regular critiques of the submissions restricted to only those with clear responsibility for the final result? Is the review group casting a wellaimed net to garner feedback from other individuals with influence on the product's future, such as marketing or the publisher? Is there someone on the review team whose task is to manage the review team to timely consensus and with the freedom to make a command decision when the team is at loggerheads? Is there a clear progression of stages that an asset will pass through to avoid changes to previously approved work? Can the art team expect to receive feedback from the reviewers in a timely manner? Is there a general aesthetic vocabulary in use by the reviewers, and is the art team conversant with it? In the case of The Sims, we were able to answer yes to all of the preceding questions about the review process due to the amount of preproduction work that Maxis had done, its own existing production pipeline, and the closeknit nature of its team leadership. If the answer that you get to more than one of these questions about your approval process is "no," or if the questions cannot be answered at all, get ready for rising costs. Sadly, it's easier to say that the costs will rise because of a faulty approval process than it is to say by how much, but a good rule of thumb is to multiply the costs associated with any existing approval process by 1.5 when there is risk of multiple iterations.

For internal development teams, calling attention to this cost inflation, if done diplomatically, can be a useful way of generating the leverage at higher levels of the company to address the problems within the team that underlie the approval process's instability. No executive wants to see money being thrown away because there are questions about how solid the review team is. For outsourcers, this is a more dicey proposition. Ideally, if your relationship with your client is solid, you can consider a gently candid conversation about your concerns.

If the relationship is not that strong, you're left with few options besides simply charging more for the work in order to reduce your exposure to these higher costs. However, in the bargain, you're also throwing away your competitive edge. In any case, make sure the contracts that you sign clearly state time limits and the format of feedback so that you can protect yourself. It's no substitute for being able to help the partnership address reviewrelated challenges, but it may help you avoid eating too many revisions.

Having a clear progression of stages for the assets was also crucial. It helped focus the feedback from Maxis on the aspects of the asset at issue and made sure that the likelihood of large revisions was greater in the early part of development, when changes were less expensive. The process that resulted worked to achieve ingame integration as early as possible, giving Maxis lead time to support New Pencil should the assets not perform as anticipated.

The process was divided into the following stages:

Design evaluation.The asset is shown as a highresolution render in 3DS Max, with no texture and only enough model detail to communicate the general direction of work (Figure 1). The key elements of the asset as described in the asset specification document are referred to, but may not be completely modeled.

First model. The first model is shown as an ingame screenshot with little or no texture (Figure 2). Color may be used to help differentiate the model's substructure but is not yet a subject for review. All comments from the design evaluation feedback are addressed, if they are relevant to this stage. In some cases, the asset may be well developed enough to skip the next step and go on to texturing.

Final model. The final model is shown as another ingame screenshot, where the model is complete with respect to geometry (Figure 3). All sprite animation states are represented, and the animations function in the game. All comments from the first model submission are addressed, if they are relevant to this stage. In some cases, there will still be model comments, but they will be small enough to be addressed in the forthcoming first texture stage.

First texture. Materials and lighting are shown for the first time at this stage (Figure 4). All comments from the final model stage are addressed.

Final candidate. Ideally, all comments have been addressed and the asset is ready to be delivered (Figure 5).

The last concern for time estimation and cost modeling is the aesthetic that you're trying to match. It's safe to say that this is a larger concern for outsourcers than for internal development teams, due to the separation between the conceptual artist or art director who has the vision that sets the bar and the art team executing the work. Nonetheless, the more elaborate and esoteric the style is that has been chosen for the work, the more it will cost to pro duce. Don't confuse this issue with the technical complexity dealt with in the preceding pipeline discussion. Rather, this is the cost of having to undertake the revisions necessary while the artists internalize the aesthetic they must match.

The questions that need to be posed regarding the style matching have more to do with one's own capabilities than what one needs from the client or the art director: Do you feel that you understand this aesthetic? Are the reference materials both broad enough to support a consistent look across all assets and deep enough to communicate clear individual asset identities?

Are the various skill sets that the project's aesthetic demands present in a balanced fashion across the art team? Is the requisite familiarity with software present in enough art team members to support general productivity? Is there someone on the team who has a particular understanding of the reviewer's vision who can share this insight with the art team? Again, we were able to answer yes to all of these questions; this was essential to New Pencil's confidence that the final assets could be produced with roughly the number of submissions planned.

So let's say you've asked all these questions of yourself and of your client or development team and you've come up with some time estimates and costs that you feel pretty sure about. Next, you should gauge your assumptions with a test run. Don't just sign up for the whole shebang if you can help it. There are going to be hidden costs, surprise developments, and plain old reversals of fortune you may or may not have anticipated. Choose a representative set of assets — a few easy ones, a few medium ones, not too many hard ones — and set yourself a milestone deadline and a team structure that reflects your best guess as to time and costs. It's important that everyone, especially your client or management, know that this is a test, and that the estimates will likely change as a result of how the test works out. It's a good way to blow the bugs out of the system and get everyone on both sides of the art fence accustomed to working together, without committing the entire project to deadlines and cost expectations that just aren't realistic.

Early on, New Pencil and Maxis took the time to learn to work together by beginning with more modest goals and then evaluating the realities of production that emerged. As a result of these early lessons, the negotiated price for content did rise by some 30 percent, but because the standard of quality had been set and the relationship forged in a climate of good communication, these price increases were perceived as reasonable and did not have to be repeated later, which would have endangered the longterm relationship between the studios.

Style Matching and Cross-Team Consistency

The name of the game is consistency; if it doesn't look like the reference, the product won't hang together. Once you've actually begun production, it takes a bit of time for the understanding of the visual style to percolate through the art team. In the period where the team is working to internalize that vision, an aesthetic checklist is a key tool in making this period as short as possible. This checklist enumerates techniques to be employed and elements to be checked for in pursuing the aesthetic at hand. It's a supplement to the reference package that incorporates the most common feedback points that the team receives. The table "The Aesthetic Checklist" shows the aesthetic checklist developed for the sprite content for The Sims.

Putting assets ingame very early allows feedback to be done visually, by marking up the screenshots and sending them via FTP so that the feedback can be stored on a server and remain accessible to the whole team. Working with annotated game screenshots (see Figure 6 for an example) instead of only email comments did wonders for centralizing art direction.

In addition, group reviews and the development of the checklist was crucial in allowing New Pencil to improve consistently its ability to implement art direction feedback across relevant assets, thus helping to ensure that feedback provided for earlier assets was incorporated into later assets that shared those aesthetics. Another vital tool to assure consistency across assets is the asset library. Developing an asset library is a goal that should be pursued immediately upon production. As materials or model elements are developed to approval, reusable elements that serve as style signifiers should immediately be archived in a file structure that is easily accessible to the entire team. The ability for one artist to reuse the work of another does far more than simply save time in construction; it's also a powerful way to keep the general look and feel of the project consistent across numerous artists. In addition, such reuse compensates for the inevitable inequities in skill sets among team members, allowing artists to complement each other's capabilities while working on separate items.

This checklist is a recap of all the elements that are often reiterated in feedback and that comprise the basic bar of quality against which an asset will be measured, regardless of aesthetic subtheme. The idea here is to call out all elements that need to be checked before an asset is submitted. The main purpose is to reduce revisions and to keep the burden on Maxis's review team low. Modeling


The Aesthetic Checklist

It's critical to get the team looking at each other's artwork. Often, an asset doesn't seem quite right, and it takes a few sets of eyes to determine why. Besides reg ular group reviews, the asset library reinforces this behavior by getting artists to assist each other in the integration of their various library contributions.

Template files, like asset library files, are another powerful way to help keep everyone's work in the same vein. Perhaps the most useful template file to New Pencil was a standardized lighting set, introduced after The Sims: Livin' Large and first used in developing a small set of downloadable objects. The lighting set is a 3DS Max file containing a fast spoof of radiosity, which all artists would merge into their workflow very early in creation. The set is not only a great timesaver with regard to the labor required to make an object seem lifelike and volumetric as per the checklist, it also goes a long way toward establishing a uniform appearance through subtle ambient lighting (Figure 7). After a few additional tweaks, this set became a standard part of asset creation both at New Pencil and at Maxis.

Asset Staging

Working on The Sims franchise means being faced with a very large number of objects to produce. Most recently, that Figure was 100 animated object sprite sets be delivered within a 10 week timeframe. Such a high volume of work cannot be done effectively with a completely flat team. We employ a modified assemblyline process that allows some artists to specialize in their strongest skills and others with broader abilities to float, adding capacity on the part of the line that may be under pressure. The assembly line is broken up between modelers and texturers/ lighters, with approximately one floater for every two craftdedicated artists.

The art director who leads the whole team serves as a liaison between the Maxis art director and the New Pencil art team, making sure that work done at New Pencil is being held to internal standards of quality as well as the detailed direction from Maxis. In order to make sure this art director isn't spread too thin, we usually designate a lead texturer and a lead modeler. These are primarily service roles for solving technical problems and providing critique in advance of the art director's review. In addition to these resources, keeping up with The Sims requires a project manager to track the progress of each asset and help make projections about future bottlenecks or overloads. Figure 8 shows how all these parties interact to maximize efficiency.

Keeping things moving forward is a primary goal. New Pencil works to make sure that all artists understand their weekly workload, and the art director or project manager communicates the priority of each object within that work list. The artists are directed to focus their attentionon the highestpriority asset that has outstanding feedback issues. Should an asset of higher priority come back from evaluation, the artist is expected to set aside the asset currently being worked on and address the requested changes on the high priority item quickly. This technique keeps the most advanced assets on the front burner, speeding their process through the system and helping to achieve a spread of assets across different stages of approval. This process helps avoid bottlenecks by making sure that there are always models coming off the line for texturers/lighters to work on, and helps New Pencil keep to a regular weekly output level.

Priorities are determined using a variety of criteria: New Pencil tries to interleave difficult items with easy ones in order to avoid a hard patch of slowdowns due to too many difficult assets. (In addition, because invoicing was done by blocks of assets finished, making sure there were enough easy objects in every block helped New Pencil stay on time and thus ensured regular payments. Any internal development team can also appreciate the benefits of regular output. Even if it's not tied to payments, it's in the best interest of every team to be seen as reliable and consistent.) Prioritizing to stay within a regular band of productivity also makes it easier to beat deadlines every now and then by getting the team used to a baseline average work pace, rather than an irregular one.

Asset library needs are another criterion for setting an asset's priority. Often, the development of one asset will set the look and feel of all the others. A good example of this was the development of the castle-style objects for The Sims: Livin' Large. Heavy, dark wood, velvet, stone, and iron were the dominant elements in the Castle furniture and architectural items that New Pencil created. By frontloading a small set of items that used all of these archetypical materials, the Castle library elements were quickly laid down, speeding the development of the rest of the set while allowing them to be interleaved effectively with other assets as priorities required.

Lastly, work on some items must wait until the end of the project. Due to the complexity of the code that underlies some of the items, Maxis was often unable to provide us with the game files needed in order to proceed on certain assets at the beginning of production. However, because Maxis had done a good job detailing the rest of the asset list, New Pencil was able to remain productive with the objects on its plate and give Maxis the time it needed to develop the remaining objects correctly. In later contracts, as the relationship between the studios has become more mature, Maxis has chosen to wait to detail some 20 percent of the assets until the majority of the work could be seen together, thus choosing items that would best finish out the set.

Project tracking and Team Management

All the good plans in the world won't help you to manage large numbers of assets if you don't have some sort of tracking system. New Pencil's system is a simple but effective Microsoft Access database. The project database allows the project manager to list assets individually, define a series of states that the assets can pass through on their way to final, track which artist is assigned to these assets, and timestamp the asset for when it was submitted and when feedback was returned or when it was finalized. Furthermore, the system allows the generation of particular reports, such as project overviews by state or artist, or reports of assets that are blocked and what is blocking them. While these reports are invaluable, it's important to make sure that the system is easy to use and not overly detailed. Too many reports are a sign that you may be confusing the asset database with the project itself; ideally, you'll be spending as little time on it as possible, so don't burn too many hours setting it up.

The project manager who manages the tracking system is also the person who serves as the exclusive technical liaison with Maxis. The project manager notifies Maxis of files that are needed, of evaluations posted, and of requests for technical support. Likewise, the project manager also notifies the New Pencil art team of arriving feedback, priority assignments, predictions of bottlenecks or chokes, and any technical changes that have arrived from Maxis.

Keeping a single contact for these kinds of matters ensures that Maxis always knows whom to contact in case of some snafu or concern; on projects like The Sims expansion packs, time is of the essence. One of the most important things an art team can do is adopt the nosurprises rule when dealing with its clients or individual team members. While being the bearer of bad news is never pleasant, providing a heads up early enough for a solution to be formulated builds confidence and acclimates the team to problem solving and avoiding panic.

Schematic of the production pipeline that exists between Maxis and New Pencil.

Some simple but solid personnel management techniques will be needed to stay on the plan that you've worked hard to create and make sure that the work is of the highest caliber. First and foremost, the team needs to understand the task set before them and be motivated to achieve it. Make sure that everyone gets a chance to review all of the art materials. While you don't want to bury artists working on one asset group with the minutiae of references that doesn't relate to their assignments, it's important that everyone understand the broad context that relates to all the work.

Make time for questions from all team members, both individually and in a group setting, and make sure that questions are answered fully. Some of the most important technical challenges will be spotted not by the management but by the people on the ground who actually have to take the hill. Get feedback from the artists as to the usefulness of the reference material at hand and make clear action items to supplement the reference in places where artists clearly are not getting the concept. Where possible, give artists the opportunity to choose assets to work on for themselves instead of just being assigned their workloads. A sense of ownership will do wonders in helping the artist bring his or her own vision to the work in service of the existing aesthetic.

Allnighters and sevenday weeks are a fool's game. Nothing superb ever gets done by overtired people whose lives have been turned upside down. Sure, the game business requires the occasional supreme effort, but the smart manager does everything he or she can to avoid such excesses. Put your artists first. If they feel you are behind them, they'll be more than capable of providing the exceptional work that you've guaranteed.


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