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Managing Art when the Design is behind

This is a blog based on my experience as the Lead Artist of an indie project with a bit of a rocky development.

Nevaeh Swaim

December 4, 2023

4 Min Read

This is a blog based on my experience as the Lead Artist of an indie project with a bit of a rocky development. While we had a vision for what we wanted the game to be, we lacked designers to help meet that vision from a gameplay perspective; and the most difficult thing we learned from this experience is that when the design is behind, everyone is behind. With little framework of design to go off of for asset creation and ideation of the environment and art structure for the game, I had to navigate how to delegate tasks for UI, Environment and Prop art throughout the game.

For context, the setting of my game changed multiple times across its development, which meant that environment assets couldn’t be locked in until later on. The primary action in the game is to possess interesting objects, and cause reactions from victims with them. With the changing settings and level layout over and over, it was hard to solidify these, too. From graveyards, to restaurants, to factories, to finally, a hotel, we had a lot of vastly differing ideas in mind for what our levels looked like from time to time throughout development.

The biggest problem with this, as I’ve started to detail, was how to get ahead at all on the art direction for the game, while also ripping up and replacing our design and intentions for the level over and over. This was a huge time sink for us, and I made a lot of mistakes in the process of handling this. The *wrong* thing to do is to spend time making assets that there is no confident design for, as there is a high chance those assets will be scrapped. It’s even worse to task other artists with doing this, only to later have to tell them that they have to completely redo it for a new vision, or that their work won’t make it in at all anymore. While the trial and error was a beneficial learning experience for us, it’s something I think definitely doesn’t need to happen twice.

So, the solution, in the easiest way of describing it, I believe is to delegate a list of what is most integral to the core game, and to really hone in on that. The creation of mood boards, key art pieces, concept sketches for different environments and things like such are integral to maintaining a vision for a project, but especially for locking it in. Something that we lacked a lot in the beginning was confidence on the setting, and I think establishing that first is most important tho making a cohesive project where the work done art wise is important and will match the final vision.

This works for the foundation, of course, but even deeper than that, there’s the approach to handling this from the Lead Artist position. Allocating time to research and reference gathering has proven to be a good allocation of time for artists who are blocking on design, especially since doing so, while it feels like stalling, will only benefit the final product. With the artists more confident in the work they are producing, they make much more cohesive pieces for the overall project than if they tried to create things with little footing. Beyond this, creating generic, but necessary asset lists also create a good foundation of where to put in work when the main hero pieces cannot be created yet because of the lack of design. Even if the environment cant be fully fleshed out yet, generic props like rocks, trees, doors, fences, etc are ones that can be universally used across vastly different environments, which allows more confidence that the work isn’t running the risk of being void later on. This makes for more enthusiasm in approaching tasks, as well as more confidence in the art direction for the game as a whole. No one likes to spend hours making art that gets tossed away in the end.

With a focus on allocating artists time to meaningful work and also making sure their time is spent productively, good work can still be done even on a project that is lacking in design. Prioritizing the vision and solidifying that early can ensure that artists have a cohesive image of what they’re working towards and makes for easier task delegation on how to get people working towards the finish goal, and not aimlessly tossing work around and praying that some of it is able to stick and make it through.

This is a bit into my mind of what I learned while working from my own personal experience with this issue! I hope it helps in any way for people who might be struggling with the same, I completely understand the frustration and burnout it can cause. Try your best to pull through!

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