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Moving Up in the World: How Artists Can Become Game Development Leaders

Most artists who have been asked to lead teams have experienced the growing pains of becoming an artist manager. Reconciling art and management is a challenge that every new lead artist or art director may face. As a manager, you may have to put your own ambitions aside and concentrate on the artists in your team. There is a bonus to adopting that attitude: once you make your artists look good, it reflects on you as a manager and you look good as well.

I've spent 9 years working in the games industry as a lead artist, animator, and 3D artist. I've gone through the gamut of self-examination as both a leader and as a production artist. I've been lucky enough to work on some very well managed projects and have been tortured through some very badly managed ones as well.
This article is designed to help both artists and managers identify key issues and begin to create working solutions to management problems.

Moving from Production to Leadership

Most artists who have been asked to lead teams have experienced the growing pains of becoming an artist manager. Undoubtedly, it would be nice to be prepared for the challenges that managing presents, but often, not much thought is given to preparing an artist for their first leadership role.

As production artists, we enjoy the luxury of producing game art assets without any worries about keeping the whole team together; we only need to worry about what we are doing and satisfying the lead artist's expectations. That may seem complex while you are producing under those circumstances, but imagine suddenly having to keep an eye on your fellow artists, making sure they are producing on time, and being responsible for creating the production pipeline. Now add to that conducting reviews of the work, communicating with the producer regularly, working with the lead programmer to make sure your methodologies are working together and making sure your artists are able to function properly.

The first step in moving from production to management is understanding that how you prepare your art team will have an effect on the outcome of the project art. In other words, seeing the big picture is your first and perhaps most difficult challenge as a new leader. What is that big picture? It entails having an understanding of how your part of the production process will effect the project as a whole. In order to do that, it is important to be organized and to plan as much as possible early in the project.

The next step is being able to accept that you will no longer be producing the volume of artwork that you may be accustomed to producing. Other tasks--management tasks--will now begin to take precedence over being responsible for producing an entire group of art assets. Reconciling the artist with the manager is a challenge that every new lead artist or art director may face. As a manager, you may have to put your own ambitions aside and concentrate on the artists in your team. There is a bonus to adopting that attitude: once you make your artists look good, it reflects on you as a manager and you look good as well.

How do you enable your team to perform well? A good part of it has to do with how well you can manage yourself. How well do you communicate ideas to others? How well do you offer criticism? How well do you plan? It never hurts to try to improve on any of those skills even if you think you are an ace.

Practicing Good Leadership Habits

Good management will be the power tool of development companies in the years to come. Imagine the things teams can accomplish when they have good managers helping them produce. Every management book in the universe offers a selection of key qualities of a good manager, but simply keeping in mind how you would want to be treated is a good practice. Being a good leader is not about you, it is about helping the artists you are leading produce the best work they can. A great looking game owes its success to the teamwork behind it.

Communication, Empowerment, and Ownership

Communication, empowerment, and ownership are terms that are thrown around within our industry without any real effort to understand or incorporate them into the management model.

Communication is the most important factor in successful teamwork. When the lines of communication are truely open people can function the way they need to in order to get the job done. Artists (or any employees, for that matter) will learn styles of communication from the people they see as role models. If your style of communication is to focus on weakness, mistakes, and to play one employee against another, then the people you are leading are effected by your example. Lay the groundwork for constructive communication by encouraging open discussion and feedback within your team. That way, no artist will feel that they cannot speak their mind. To encourage feedback is to teach the skills of positive evaluation of work, rather than negative criticism. The next area of communication to establish is conveying the vision of the game design to the artists and how you plan to help them incorporate it.

Empowerment means that members of the team have been allocated responsibility for their part of the project.

People get ownership of their piece of the development pie because they are empowered and are communicating successfully.

Identifying problems within teams is really simple once these three simple principles are put into place. If you find your team's morale dwindling, ask yourself how well those principles have been enacted. The following example can help illustrate some common problems caused by a lack of early communication and not clearly establishing roles:

  • Bob is the lead artist for the PS2 monster game.
  • Frank is the art director for the same game.
  • There are 3 artists and 2 animators assigned to the project.
  • Bob has never led a project before.
  • All of the team artists are pretty inexperienced and need some strong leadership.
  • Frank is a competent artist, but thinks that his role is to be in charge of the project.
  • Bob is too inexperienced to stand up and talk to Frank directly, sees Frank taking over the team and not really following the schedule.
  • Bob assigns the team artists some tasks.
  • Frank tells the artists that they need to concentrate on the quality of the work and not worry about the schedule.
  • Bob is tearing his hair out trying to get the artists to stick to the schedule, while Frank is chewing him out for interfering in "his domain".
  • The producer has no idea any of this is going on because it's early in the project and some art assets are trickling through.
  • Frank continues to undermine Bob's authority to the point that the other artists don't respect Bob and don't listen to what he has to say, even though it is in their best interest to do so.
  • 2nd milestone approaches and the producer notices that the art team is behind and that the design is causing problems in the game engine - files are too big, textures are out of control and none of the technical issues have been resolved.
  • The producer calls Bob into his office and demands to know what the problem is on the team. Bob feels trapped and doesn't really know how to communicate the problem with Frank. He complains that the leadership is not clear and that he is having problems getting the technical issues across to the artists because Frank contradicts his decisions…

Sound familiar? This scenario is replayed in countless companies every day. I could continue on with that scenario and go into how the team becomes systematically demoralized, but none of that would occur if leadership had been established and Bob, Frank, and the producer communicated more often. The junior artists would never form bad opinions about any of their leaders because they would be too busy producing work for the project on time and gaining the praise of the producer. Bob and Frank ideally would work together closely and help the junior artists have a strong understanding of what is expected of them.


An artist, whether they are an animator, a 3D modeler, or a 2D artist, is going to be attractive to an employer because of their individual skills. An experienced manager will know how to get the most from that artist by first being realistic in their expectations as to what that artist can accomplish, and second by gauging their growth and successes based on those strengths.

A few years ago, a manager hired me based on the strength of my skill as a character animator. He also liked my ability to organize and document the processes I utilized for each project. I never touted myself as technically brilliant, although I assumed that my ability to problem solve highly technical issues should have been clear to this manager. However, the manager hired another animator into the company and soon I was hearing how this fellow was a genius and could do no wrong! Now, this animator is a nice guy and I didn't have any problem talking to him, but I didn't see that his abilities made him a better animator than-- just different. The manager saw his technical savvy as being much more indicative of being an accomplished animator. How could I, a character animator with some technical know-how, compete against a technically brilliant but average character animator when the manager gauged an animator's proficiency on technical prowess?

Well, I could go into all sorts of gory details, but the result was a gradual evaluation of my skills that was so far removed from the original appeal I held for this manager that I could not reconcile his changing expectations. As an art lead, knowing that every artist is not going to be up to the challenge of certain tasks, but will try their hardest, is important in avoiding demoralizing an artist. Don't ask an animator to texture map a building and expect them to do the job as well as your environment modeler!

Rewards

I asked some ex-employees of a company where I used to work to identify the one thing that bugged them the most about the company. Each and every one of them came back with the same sentiment: "You know I worked for them, giving up weekends and holidays for 2 years and I never once got a 'thank you'."

Artists and programmers are exactly alike in this regard. Nothing makes a battle-weary production artist perk up more than a pat on the back for a job well done. Interestingly, a pat on the back from team members isn't nearly as significant to a game developer as recognition from the project leaders. It means that somebody who has an effect on your career path is taking positive notice.

There are several ways to create an atmosphere of appreciation for your artists:

  • Express your appreciation for their hard work regularly.
  • Reassure artists under the pressure of deadlines that they are doing a great job --but if an artist is not pulling their weight, you need to tell them that as well.
  • Teach positive reiteration of their work to achieve quality. Example: "Hey, Jim, that model you made looks great! You know, I think we can add another level of quality to it if we just consider tuning those few polygons there…"
  • Thank them for going that extra mile. Example: "Hey, Jim, I appreciate you taking another look at that model. It really looks fantastic now!"

 

Leadership Downfalls

Learning to be a leader can be a painful process. I would like to share some of my mistakes in hopes that new art leaders or even current art leaders can avoid some degree of pain!

Some mistakes are only possible to learn through time and maturity, but acquiring the skill to evaluate your actions and style of management is something you can do now.

A few years back, I was asked to lead a group of very young artists who had been ego-stroked to a degree of self-delusion I had never witnessed before. The team was already assembled before the design documents had been completed.

Having been burned by some previous leadership experiences, I resolved that I would do everything in my power to help these guys avoid having to worry about anything but producing their work. I closed myself off in my office and began producing documents to plan as much of the art production and scheduling as I could. I asked the producer what he thought the team artists' individual strengths were, and he gave me his opinions.

A month went by and I had had little contact with the team members except to pass them documents describing their schedule and identifying some tasks. I received some pretty close-mouthed comments and sly looks from a couple of the guys. What I did not know was that there was a political atmosphere brewing where these guys thought one of their own should have been promoted to my position. To make matters worse, they saw little actual production work from me, and regardless of how monumental my planning tasks were, they could only form opinions of me based on what they knew. Nothing. All they saw was somebody making a paper trail and handing them their work assignments.

Eventually the level of hostility toward me came to a head and in a meeting where we were trying to evaluate my leadership, one of the artists gave me an earful! Now, I am a person who really cares about what people think of me, and I genuinely like people and want them to like me. Nothing hurt my feelings more than this guy telling me that he thought I was condescending! It also came out that he felt that one of his buddies should have been promoted to my position. Knowing the fellow he had in mind, I could not disagree with his choice!

  • Mistake #1: I should have considered how these guys worked together and asked them more questions.
  • Mistake #2: I should have insisted my desk be moved into the art team room, rather than being isolated.
  • Mistake #3: I should not have worried about the organizational aspect as much as giving the artists some visual examples of where I saw the animation going.
  • Mistake #4: I should have had the artists working on a prototype of the game while I mapped out the schedules. I put some of the responsibility of this leadership failure on the producer, as he assembled the team too early and offered me no support. He had been in the company a long time and knew the relationships involved, yet he brought me into a situation that was volatile from the start.
  • Mistake #5: I should have been far more relaxed and not seen myself as being in charge of the team artists, but rather as part of the team, charged with the task of helping the artists produce their work. I definitely needed to interact with them more and offer feedback.

 

I learned my most valuable and hardest lesson about leadership because of that experience. Since then, I have declined leadership roles, preferring instead to observe some leadership styles around me to learn which styles work and which ones don't. Now I feel that I am better equipped to handle leadership if I so desire to seek it out. That in itself is an important lesson for all artists, as well as art leaders: don't be afraid to take a step back in order to strengthen your abilities. Monitor situations that may not only be ego damaging but career damaging as well.

Risk Management

"Risk is a consequence of the uncertainty in our work, not a reflection of our own ability." [1]

Planning for risk, or the event of circumstances which can disrupt a project schedule, is not solely a producer's responsibility but is the responsibility of each leader. When an art lead is defining the schedule, based on the guidelines that the design document outlines, it is important to include risk analysis as part of that process. It may be difficult for a first-time lead to understand how to properly prepare a schedule that considers risk in the estimation of time and resource allocation. There is a fairly simple model the artist lead can use, based on the years of risk analysis science. It is called the 6 Discipline Model. [2]

The Six Discipline Model uses a six-step process to reduce risk in any development cycle:

 

  1. Envision: transform ideas and concepts into goals and objectives.
  2. Plan: the process of mapping resources to goals and objectives.
  3. Work: implement the plan to produce the product.
  4. Measure: compare the expected results with the actual results to track progress.
  5. Improve: learn from the past. Establish benchmarks to improve processes.
  6. Discover: investigate the unknown; question the known, to be prepared for the future.

The neglected design document is a very common ailment in our industry. Some poor group of people slog away on a design document for a month, everyone on the team has a look at it individually, and then the document is filed away to a network folder and never heard from again. It is one part of a very valuable risk management tool. As artists, it should be invaluable in assisting in our evaluation of the progress of our work. Still, revisiting the design document is rarely a consideration.

The second tool a lead artist should use is the post mortem. The post mortems of other projects, even post mortems of failed projects, can provide valuable insight into areas of risk that may be avoidable. This is part of the 'discover' discipline mentioned earlier. I don't know of a single company I have worked for that actually used another team's post mortem to evaluate risk.

When the lead artist is writing up the schedule, part of the schedule should include time for risk analysis. This means holding meetings to talk about the schedule, and examining areas of risk to come up with a contingency plan. This is not a one-shot deal. Time should be incorporated at each milestone to examine the design document, modify it and track the progress of the asset building timeline.

The last part of risk management is creating your own post mortem document. Every lead artist should take responsibility for creating a post mortem with each artist, including the art director, contributing to it. Even if the post mortem does not contain particularly technical observations, just having a "what went wrong" and "what went right" section can be enough to help future risk analysis. Encourage the artists to use the post mortem as a professional, analytical tool, rather than a forum for expressing their complaints. Nothing detracts more from the legitimacy of a document than emotional team bashing.

 


The pressure of game development deadlines or milestones makes it difficult for people to accept criticism of their work if it is not delivered with consideration. Even without the pressure of a deadline, there is still the pressure of proving oneself to the team. Learning the art of offering constructive criticism is key to winning over an artistic soul.

I'm not saying we need to mollycoddle artists; as an artist I appreciate criticism when it means I can do a better job. What I don't appreciate is a lead or art director who needs to belittle my work in order to make them feel better about themselves. I speak from long experience on that one! Criticism delivered for personal ego-boosting once, I can overlook -we all have our Neanderthal moments- but criticism delivered that way three, four, or six times chips away at my charitable nature and makes me distrustful of the source.

Some examples of review styles that don't work:

  • The boss comes down and your art director and producers all stand over your desk pontificating their solution to improving your art.
  • The art manager secretly pores over the artist's work when they're not around, and assumes flaws and problems without talking to the artist first. Then the art manager comes over to the artist with a huge list of problems they saw in their work, not only attempting to belittle the artist and show what a great manager they are, but in the process make them look like classic jerk #1 to the artist.
  • The art manager sits in office creating their work in a vacuum, doesn't interact with other artists on the team. A milestone comes around and the assets reflect a lack of cohesion because art manager did not conduct regular reviews or work day to day with the art team.
  • A review process which exposes the artist publicly without giving that artist a prior tuning opportunity. The art manager should ensure that, before a review, they have examined the game art and have given at least some early feedback to the artist.

Some examples of review styles that empower artists:

  • The art team examines art assets regularly as a group and learns early in the development cycle how to objectively examine their work as a whole.
  • Teams offer milestone reviews to other development teams in the company, inviting open critiques of the game art. Art managers work with other leaders to demonstrate a positive perspective towards such a process.
  • Review a few animation sequences at once, in the game if possible, rather than reviewing each animation seperately. Review a block of environment art instead of scrutinizing each little detail as it is created. This helps to keep the production line flowing more smoothly and empowers the artist.
  • Focus on the accomplishment first; offer congratulations on especially difficult tasks or meeting a deadline. Afterwords, point out areas that really can improve the artist's work.

Mentoring Artists

 

Mentoring is another critical part of our business. Mentors don't have to be the most fantastic artist in the company. They can be artists who are consistent producers, can jump in and do whatever is required of them, and are respected by programmers and artists alike.

Mentorship in its most idealistic sense is about teaching inexperienced people how to be successful in their field, and how to become a professional that everyone likes to work with regardless of their position or expertise. Some of the difficulty in establishing mentorship programs is that management may expect the mentor to spend a lot of time officially mentoring an assigned artist. Perhaps it is simpler to suggest that a junior artist observe the communication style and production methods of the mentor, and assign the junior artist to the mentor's team to make that relationship easier to establish.

Most companies have an annual review they conduct for employees. It would be useful if reviews were more tailored to fit the job description, rather than generic, difficult review forms that do not evaluate properly. Part of the review form should include an area for mentoring. Objectives should include seeking out or providing mentorship.

Good Managers Attract Talent

When an artist is not being challenged, doing too many mundane tasks but being a real trooper about it, it wouldn't hurt to delegate a little responsibility to that artist. The term "too little too late" is a favorite in our industry. Perhaps you are the lead artist on a game and you've saved the juicy tasks for yourself. Would it kill you to give up one of those juicy tasks to show your appreciation to that artist? Probably not, but it is amazing how many artists in this industry feel they are managed by thankless leaders.

Common mistakes in assigning lead responsibilities:

  1. Hiring out of company to fill a role without considering established talent who may feel they have paid their dues.
  2. Placing an artist in a leadership role solely on the merits of their performance history, or because everyone likes them, rather than their ability to lead.
  3. Throwing the artist into the position without prior coaching.
  4. Placing an artist into a leadership position without considering what they want.
  5. Putting together a team of new leaders and not having veterans in positions on the team to help the new leaders along.
  6. Not teaching the lead that making mistakes is a natural part of the process.
  7. Keeping a bad choice in a leadership position to avoid admitting a mistake.

Dangling a carrot in front of an artist's nose to get them to do the job nobody else wants, and then delaying the reward is the most dangerous and commonly played game in the business. Look at the games companies out there that showed real promise in their early years and gradually gained terrible reputations. Eventually those companies are not able to attract decent talent. There's a clue for managers out there: production people stay in touch with one another for many reasons, but chiefly for the 'buzz'. Once a studio gets a reputation for not coming through on promises, it's only a matter of time before they find themselves unable to meet the quality demands of the publisher.

Good artist managers can not only champion the cause of the production artist in companies that don't understand the value of keeping experienced talent happy, but can also make that company a success by making artists feel their best interests are being looked after.

[1] Managing Risk, E. Hall. Addison Wesley Publishing, 1998. Page 20
[2] Managing Risk, E.Hall. Addison Wesley Publishing, 1998. Chapter 1.2.1. Page 12.

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