An Artist Grown: Reflections on Being a Video Game Art Director
[02.26.08] - Robert Chang
As the studio art director at a video game development studio and publishing house, I oversee the art quality of all the games the company develops and publishes, including advertising and publishing material.
Most of my time is spent on first-party games, as that's our bread and butter. Second- and third-party games don't get as much love because they're usually developed externally; I just review them during milestones, either signing off on them or making a list of comments with references, mock-ups, and other changes for the external team.
To explain what an art director does, you need to see how a game comes together from the art director's point of view.
Where the Games Come From When a game is in its infancy, it's usually just an idea, and it has to evolve into a fully completed game design document, detailing everything about how the game is to be played: control layout, game rules, user interface, game mechanics, story, content, level design, and everything else that can be written down or diagrammed. As a senior manager, I'm invited to all review meetings, and my involvement in a game starts at roughly the point when the initial idea is pitched to the senior managers. The people involved at this stage usually are the CEO, studio director, vice president of production, vice president of technology, vice president of creative, studio art director, and senior producers.
We either like the idea and decide to go forward, or kill it right there. If we go forward, then the game designer works on the design document, and we review it when it's completed.
The game design meeting usually last a very long time because everyone has an opinion about what's fun and what our target audience will and won't like. There's also the very important decision of setting the scope of the game: Is the design one that we feel deserves triple-A treatment, meaning the largest budget and longest production time, or is it more of a B title? There may be design elements we chop off immediately if we decide the idea doesn't warrant triple-A status.
At the end of the meeting, we decide which producer will own the project.
Establishing a Game's Art Style Once a producer is assigned, I work closely with him or her and the designer to determine the game's visual style. Often the designer already has an idea for what it should be. If his idea is good, I use it as a starting point and then refine it, add to it, evolve it. If I don't feel the designer's idea will work, then I have to come up with something new and try to sell it to the producer and designer, usually with references, mock-ups, sketches, and other visual tools.
They either like what I come up with or we powwow back and forth until we reach common ground. Whatever the case, anything visual is my responsibility, so I'm the driving force behind the visual development. But as part of a team, I also respect the input and opinions of co-workers, no matter what their position.
After determining the visual style, I sit down with the producer and help her budget and schedule the art production by going through the entire art assets list. I weigh the pros and cons of using expensive art resources that are very good, or cheap ones that are not as reliable.
Our internal art team is quite small, so the bulk of our art production is done externally. I'm in charge of picking which art house or freelance artists to use, and that usually means I have to give them art tests to make sure they can nail the style we've defined. Sometimes I will have already done some preproduction work, such as concept art or mock-ups, and will use them as the benchmark to judge the art tests. Whom we decide to use is always determined by a mix of factors: How good is the result? How long did it take? How much will it cost? Where are the artists located? How well do they communicate?
Once a decision is made, contracts are drawn up, and we move into the next phase.
Preproduction Once we've locked down the resources, we officially kick start preproduction, which usually consists of developing the concept art (character design, background design, and so forth), storyboards, logos, user interfaces, mock-ups, and more. This is also when we sometimes do our on-the-fly research and development to make sure a particular production pipeline is doable for the project.
Often, some of the preproduction work is already done by us internally, but sometimes we leave it all to the external people. I'm the kind of art director who likes the team to take on a sense of ownership, so I try to get them pumped up and feeling challenged. Nothing annoys me more than artists who just go through the motions with no sense of ownership, no pride, and no creativity, just showing up for a paycheck. Artists like that eventually get fired because game development requires real passion; if you don't have it, it shows in your work.
There was a time back when I was just a grunt artist when I didn't feel passionately about the games I was working on. And believe me, it showed. I could tell the love wasn't there, and other people could, too. But somewhere along the way, I learned that you have to put in everything you've got, no matter what it is you're working on. That's how you can be the best artist you can be -- by trying your hardest always.
At this point, the programmers have a basic prototype engine for us to throw placeholder art into so we can see how things will work in the game. Games are quite fun to look at during this stage because they are a mess of placeholder art, programmer art, and designer scribbling.