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IGDA Forum: Gas Powered's Swanson On Managing Next-Gen Artists

How best to manage artists with the particular pressures of next-gen development? At the recent IGDA Leadership Forum, Gas Powered Games (Supreme Commander) studio art production manager Mike Swanson discussed what's different for art teams in an e
At the 2007 IGDA Leadership Forum, Gas Powered Games (Supreme Commander) studio art production manager Mike Swanson discussed artist management in a next-gen development environment. He covered a variety of facets, from hiring to outsourcing, how dealing with creative people can create different needs for management roles, and what's different for art teams in an environment of new technology. Swanson discussed the way his career path has evolved -- he began as an artist himself, and is now managing artists. According to Swanson, the skill set from working on art assets to being the overall art visionary to managing artists is very different. Defining Next-Gen Art What does "next-gen" mean to an artist? Swanson explained that it's prettier graphics, as one might expect -- meaning normal mapped geometry, bloom, ambient occlusion and dynamic lights, along with complex shaders for things like hair, fur and water. Speed is also a big factor -- artists have the ability to push huge amounts of polygons, create complex simulations on animations, and build characters with advanced physics. "A lot of these functions made artists go, 'Holy crap! We can really make these games look great,'" Swanson said. However, he added, "They also required some relearning." "With the speed and function of next-gen comes the task of populating huge worlds," Swanson added, and thus the role of the artist, and the size of the artists' teams, must expand to work with a new generation of technology. The Purple Mohawk Effect So who should manage artists? According to Swanson, there's somewhat of a conundrum when it comes to hiring experienced artists or managers. He cited an example of hiring an excellent manager from Proctor and Gamble who promptly suffered a bit of culture shock -- seeing people with purple mohawks, and people that live by emotions and creativity. He notes that simply the culture of dealing with artists may require special training even for seasoned management pros. On the other hand, Swanson notes, when it comes to artist types, "A lot of them don't know how to manage people. They don't have the tools to deal with it." He continued, "Experienced managers have been trained to manage people. Experienced artists know how to manage art creations. What you really need is a good, solid mix of the two." He explained that next-gen gaming has created a new category of jobs and a new skill-set for game artists. He listed the positions of studio art managers, art managers, art outsourcing managers, art outsourcing leads, art production leads, art production assistants, and art production interns, to illustrate it's a new and healthy 15 to 200 year career progression. But gaming is still a business, of course, and Swanson pointed out, "One thing we never learn at art school is how to be savvy at business. We only know how to defend our art." Employee relations can be a challenge, too: "There's never a course on how to deal with your fellow artists." Art Management Issues Swanson illustrated some of the issues that arise with younger professionals in order to illustrate the qualities that are really most desirable with artists. "Junior artists often over-identify with their art," he said. "They spend too much time on details, and stuck on one art style. You're not just hiring an artist out of school because they put pen to paper. The thing that you're really buying -- you're buying the creativity. You need the artists to go into this mode that's almost like daydreaming -- visualizing, being creative, and then putting pen to paper." So how to search for this creativity? "When you're hiring artists, throw them some creative questions and creative blockers, and see how they react to them," advised Swanson. He also said that the dev cycle for next-gen games can help the artist create a deeper relationship with a project. "Next-gen assets take longer to create. This gives the artist more time to get attached to items in a particular scene and develop a relationship with their art. This is what artists to best. They're really identifying with the scene and that's what makes for great art." However, Swanson said, this makes the art process more difficult to manage. In the previous generation, making a cup, for example, in a game was a two-hour process: making a cup, and then a texture map. Now the process takes around eight hours. The artist has to make the cup and texture map -- plus the normal map, fluid dynamics, water shading, opacity map, specular map, and physics properties. Swanson noted that communication is the biggest component in managing artists, and identified four key components: Acknowledge their creative process, an always let them know that you are aware of their efforts; secondly, acknowledge their training and remember that they have been educated visually. Thirdly, differentiate passions between details -- designers want color-coded barrels, while the artists do not share the same passion for this detail. And finally, the team needs to educate each other so that everybody understands what they're seeing when it's in progress. Continued Swanson, "You want your artists to be as creative as possible. You want them to be overly attached and have passion for their work. Your job is to manage this process. As a producer or an art director, you need them to finish their work on time. You need to set limits and set expectations." He cited the cup example, saying that it's important to let artists know whether or not it needs physics or needs to be interactive. Managing Outsourcing Swanson went on to discuss art outsourcing. "Artists are afraid that outsourcing will jeopardize their job," he said. "I've found that it's the exact opposite, since it means that more projects are greenlit. Outsourcing allows us to tap into a pool of specialized talents we might not have had access to." He continued, "With outsourcing, artists worry about maintaining quality, added management, and added workload. Managers worry about cost, quality, schedule, and extra management. Having an art manager that understands art creations is a big help." He gave an example of sending two or three samples to a contractor before they start work. That way, they have a much clearer understanding of what's expected. He claimed that there are over 40 development studios in China, and that development in China will exceed 35 million USD. He added that there are development studios all over Asia and Eastern Europe, and art styles vary from country to country due to different cultural backgrounds. Finally, Swanson pointed out it's essential to be aware of these cultural differences -- for example, avoid using a Battlestar Galactica reference to describe what's desired in art because a contractor might not know what that means.

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