In a game artist-specific Gamasutra feature
, former Valve and current Bungie art veteran Steve Theodore examines the state of artist-friendly shader tools.
Theodore likens working as an artist in a shader-driven medium to supporting the Chicago Cubs, tapping the frequency with which hope and excitement quickly turn to frustration and disappointment.
He explains some of the difficulty:
We know many tactics for managing a complex visual appearance. It's not as if we've never heard of texture maps or compositing or multiplying pixel colors together.
But actually putting together a working shader has always required unpleasantness like syntax-highlighting text editors and compilers. Many artists who are fully capable of imagining and even designing great shaders have been put off from actually building them by all these programmer-ish accoutrements.
Things may be changing for the better, Theodore suggests -- modern shader creation systems tempt with UI and workflows that look straight out of Maya HyperShade, while Unreal Engine's material editor, Lumonix's Max plugin for ShaderFX, Mental Mill and others all use familiar graphic interfaces that avoid hand-typing code.
But there are still challenges, he explains:
Unfortunately, despite this new convergence in tools, offline and online rendering remain very, very different. To achieve the millions of computations they must do every second, graphics chips evolved into the idiot savants of computing: amazingly powerful, but weird and off-putting.
It is absolutely true that the new generation of shader tools lets you create sophisticated effects with (relative) ease. What has not changed, though, is the awful truth that achieving reliable, sustained performance in the harsh world of online rendering still demands specialists.
Despite the cool new GUIs, the intricacies of graphics hardware and the esoteric, special-purpose shading languages that drive the hardware are still the province of engineers.
Theodore outlines further challenges and savvy solutions -- and asks, "who among us will build this shader?" in the full feature, which you can now read at Gamasutra
(no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).