Thursday, May 3, 2012


GDC 2012:  Art Director / Lead Artist Roundtable

Day 3 - Friday, March 9

3 Day Attendance Stats:
Wednesday -116, Thursday - 90, Friday – 57

First of all, let me state once more how much I enjoy attending and speaking at GDC.  This was my fifth opportunity to speak at GDC, but the first time heading up this specific roundtable.  I want to take a brief moment and thank everyone who attended the roundtable series, especially those who put forth the effort to attend each session.  I also want to extend additional thanks to the Conference Associates who helped run these sessions.

On with the notes…

Day 3:  “Here we are again…”

The opening topic of the day was art leaders’ struggle between leadership and delegation.
  • Interesting, the first speaker was a student, who wanted to talk about the struggles of leading student groups.  He shared his perception that student projects often lack clear direction.  Many of us remember group projects from school.  However, unlike the workplace, in academia the only individual with authority is the instructor.  In absence of the instructor establishing clear roles and responsibilities, leadership is left to the discretion of the group – to the benefit or detriment of the whole.  Ultimately, it seems like that is one of the project challenges as well.
  • The second comment also did not come from an art lead or director.  A programmer in attendance, which is spectacular to see, asked who holds responsibility for providing feedbacks on tools or art-pipeline development.  It’s a great question.  The response seemed to be that feedback on tool usability or functionality needs to come from the individual artists.  The critical component, however, is that the tool has to be in active-use rather than just being observed-in-development.  Furthermore, responsibility for tool priority is best shared between engineering and art leadership.
  •  In order to successfully delegate leadership responsibilities, an attendee asked what type of leadership training was offered.
o   One director commented that it’s important to identify key individuals in each discipline (character, environment, cinematics, etc.), and provide targeted mentorship to that group.
o   Another director commented that the best process to provide mentorship/feedback was face-to-face and in real situations.  The best ways to provide guidance is by observing the individuals’ natural style and provide feedback in separate one-on-one interactions.
o   While a select number of participants from a handful of studios indicated that their employers provided regular leadership training, the majority indicated that leadership mentoring happened individually (and irregularly)
  • Another attendee indicated that the most important factor wasn’t the structure of leadership training, as much as it is identifying the right people.  Putting the wrong people into positions of leadership will do more to harm the project (and the team) than if they were operating without any leadership.
o   Through discussion, the group agreed that the best artists frequently do NOT make the best leaders.  In fact, by shifting such people into positions of leaderships, the team may be losing out on key “hard skills” that may be of greater value.
o   One attendee brought forth what he called his “theater analogy.”  There are actors and there are directors.  Being a great actor is not the same thing as being a great director.  And being a great director does not automatically mean that the person had to be a great actor first.

Naturally, the next point of discussion was how the attendees’ respective studios identified leadership opportunities in their staff.  Without simply thrusting someone into a position of leadership, what qualities do you look for in candidates for consideration?
  • The first quality voiced was sociability.  Communication is obviously a key factor in leadership.  However, this comment was aimed at the individual’s extroversion and tendency to get engaged in group discussions.  The speaker indicated that some artists in their studio have a stronger tendency to put on their headphones and focus simply on their work.  While valuable, an individual who naturally becomes a nexus point for communication will have more ability to lead a team (by channeling information internally and externally with respect to the group)
  • One quality voiced was consistency over time.  Leadership is best groomed rather than simply bestowed.  In this case, the speaker advocated that growing team members is ultimately more likely to succeed than hiring externally (although this is obviously difficult and takes more time/investment)
  • Another smartly identified observation was the individual’s response to critique.  An individual who cannot productively or effectively give (or take) critique will struggle in a position of art leadership.  Therefore, those who are good at building their peers and critiquing work-in-progress, may have a knack for leading art teams and setting clear vision.
  • A very important component voiced was that anyone with leadership aspirations or potential has to be willing to let go of content creation (to some degree).  Leading teams frequently (and necessarily) result in the individual spending more time guiding others and less time dedicated to individual goals.
  • Likewise, an effective leader is someone who can share the vision.  However, this cannot merely be someone who decides everything down to the last detail.  Along with sharing the vision, the leader needs to be able to trust others to carry the vision forward.  In short, beware individuals who only trust themselves or seem unwilling to share responsibilities with others.
  • Although this is an incredibly difficult attribute to identify in others, leadership candidates must be able to strike a balance between guiding the project, and also being caretakers for the careers of others.  Naturally, these responsibilities more fall to management roles rather than directors.  However, strong directors are also capable of identifying the strengths of their team members and nurturing those strengths through work of increasing complexity or responsibility.
  • At this point, I posed the question:  How does the art director or lead artist maintain credibility with their team, given their lack of hands-on art creation duties.  These are just a few of the responses that were offered:
o   Regular interaction with the team.  Through communicating the vision of the project, and through regularly critiquing artists’ work, the lead/director establishes their understanding and vision.  Even without creating the content themselves, the results of the team showcases the lead’s/director’s ability to “set a course and hold true.”
o   The lead/director also maintains credibility through their focus on the culture.  Team’s accept and respond positive to those who can build an environment for the team’s success.
o   Although this may seem superfluous, the lead/director also establishes rapport and credibility by sharing in commonalities.  Even if this person is not tasked with creating art, it’s equally exciting to see this person become excited by art, media or other creative outlets.
  • Going back to the topic of sharing the vision and trusting the team, how does an art director or art lead do this while also adhering to the stylistic goals of the project?  As one attendee suggested, the art director should be "stubborn in vision, and flexible in details.”
o   In terms of vision, the director should clearly establish the guiding principles of the art styles.  Clear priorities and points-of-reference help the team to validate their work against these principles.
o   Understandably, the art director also has to have the right team to accomplish this goal.  Although reviewing resumes and sitting in interviews can eat up a great deal of time, this is one of the most direct means by which the director ensures that the team can operate autonomously and successfully.
o   Simply put, the art director must cultivate an attitude of “Letting Go.”  As the vision becomes more firmly established through the stages of production, the director should enable his art leads to hold responsibility for adhering to the vision in their respective disciplines.  This allows the director, in turn, to focus on how the pieces are coming together, rather than on the pieces-in-isolation.
  • Naturally, a good leader is someone who can learn from past mistakes, but it was also pointed out that the leader has to also be able to teach from those mistakes.  Someone who refuses to take responsibility for their mistakes (and there will be mistakes in game development), or looks to blame others when things go wrong will never be an effective leader.
o   Another roundtable attendee commented that being able to solicit input/feedback from the team is a similarly desirable attribute in an art director or lead.
  • Although not explicitly an attribute, the group also discussed that an effective leader looks for opportunities to “break the routine.”  Game development is a business, after all.  However, this should not preclude the team from finding opportunities to engage in dialog around other games, art styles, films, comics or other forms of visual entertainment.
o   Some studios look for opportunities to have events over lunch – whether it’s watching parts of movies or having informal sketch sessions.
o   Others proposed sessions after hours sessions, which could go for longer duration.  However, this has the obvious downside of being at the end of the day when team members may be ready to go home.

At this point, the conversation shifted again to focus on career development for art teams.  The question was posed as to how art directors and art leads provide meaningful direction on a regular basis.
  • Art Lead – naturally, the art director relies on input from the discipline specialist to validate and inform their observations of team members.
  • Attendees agreed that providing career development regularly included the reassurance that moving into senior roles did not mean that the individual had to change career path (from content to leadership).
  • The question was voiced, how you respond when someone asks their path to Senior Artist.  The advice given was that the lead/director/manager should always respond with “Why?”  Although this catches the person off guard, it also gives them a chance to talk about why they want to be a senior artist, which does more to fuel the conversation.
  • A large number indicated that their studios had a “Principal Artist” career position.  As such, I asked what expectations were set forth for this title:
o   This individual is tasked with the largest, most difficult problems
o   This individual sets the standards, in both process and quality
o   Aside from problem solving, this person is also on the frontline of problem identification and risk mitigation.
  • What attributes of a Senior Artist do you communicate to artists as critical for career advancement?
o   Expanding influence was listed as one of the key components of advancing one’s career.  In the beginning, an artist is focused on their own work.  However, over time that person’s influence should expand to impact their discipline group, the art staff, the whole project or the whole studio.  That is how you identify someone whose career is advancing.
o   Mentorship.  Although this can be construed as another component of expanding influence, the key here is that the person is communicating what has been learned to other artists.  Senior artists are naturally going to be learning, but it is their teaching that indicates their ability to lead others.
  • What attributes of a Lead Artist do you communicate to artists as critical for career development?
o   Management and Organizational Ability.  Lead artists need to be able to step away from the tactical components of production and address strategic planning issues.
o   Communication Ability.  Obvious, huh?
  • Back to the point of identifying artists who are on the right path to career advancement.  One attendee indicated that he focuses on those who ask for responsibility.  Not those who ask for a title.  Game development is largely a meritocracy (or it should be), and so most leaders look for those who contribute first, not those who are looking to be given a reason to contribute.
  • During this portion of the roundtable, one of the significant revelations occurred.  I asked, of the directors present, who went through some period of anxiety as they transitioned from artist to leader.  Of the group, almost every single hand was raised.  I then asked who among them are actively involved in guiding artists down the leadership path.  Again, a large number of hands were raised.  I then asked how many of them warn artists of this anxiety.  Almost no one raised their hand.  That is simply fascinating, but I also realized that this would be better saved for a future session rather than the remaining few minutes of this roundtable.

One attendee posed the question:  What do you do when an employee asks for more money?  Here were the responses:
  • Send them to HR.  If the lead has little insight or input into salary ranges or where someone fist on the scale, this obviously limits a lead’s or director’s ability to respond, so redirection is reasonable.
  • Others advocated direct involvement in the conversation.  They usually tried to direct the conversation to discuss experience and level of contribution to the project or studio.
  • Still others advocated using this question to kick-off a conversation around opportunities for the individual to have greater impact.
Do studios still focus on the “number of projects shipped” as a contributing factor to promotion?
  • It makes sense at an entry level (associate position) when a person may not have any experience or little relevant experience.
  • More than number of projects shipped, the more reasonable assessment seems to be the impact the individual has on the team.  What do they contribute?  Experience is obviously a factor here, but it isn’t tied solely to inconsistent project durations.

In the last few remaining minutes of the roundtable, I polled those attendees who had changed employers over the past year.  I asked these people what was most important in the next studio they worked for:
  • Values of the studio
  • Work / Life Balance
  • Defining Individual Growth beyond work
  • Smaller (or right size) of company
  • Opportunity to build the art culture
  • Presence of Veterans (implied stability and satisfaction)
  • Opportunities to network, learn from others
  • Life drawing, Sketchcrawl

Noticeably absent from the list:

Big Takeaway / Lessons Learned:
  1. Finding the balance between leadership and delegation.
  2. Identifying attributes that suggest leadership potential
  3. Strategies on providing career direction to others.

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