Monday, April 29, 2013

GDC 2013: Art Director & Lead Artist Roundtable - Day 3

In light of the fact that the previous two days had been more tightly scripted, I wanted a more loose and open format for our last day.  Therefore, after bringing attendees up to speed on what had transpired during the first two days, I opened the floor to topics of discussion or issues that art leaders were facing currently on their projects.

The first topic voiced was how to choose a project's art style in pre-production.  Several different responses were offered.
  • Give the art department a chance to prototype and present an art style based on the projects tools and limitations.  This would be a "bottom up" approach to art direction, but which at some point would require the director to decide and then drive consistency.
  • However, one attendee also suggested that in a "bottom up" approach, that you still need a framework or criteria for driving focused critiques.  This is most important if you are allowing broad experimentation but one style may differ wildly from another groups approach
  • Another response focused more on the gameplay.  Define the player experience or key descriptors of the game and use those as the pillars or  upon which to build the art style.
  • Key collaborators was another suggestion.  Given that pre-production is traditionally a smaller-team stage of development, partner your key artists with design directly to prototype visual targets relative to gameplay targets.
  • Another comment related to the previous 2 responses is that there will be a need to define clear gameplay mechanics.  The looser the gameplay design, the broader the art style and those mechanics will need to be refined at relatively the same pace at which the art style focuses.
  • One responder reminded the group to not forget your target audience.  In short, the demographics may play a part in defining the type of art that is appealing or reinforces the player experience.
  • Reference or touchstones (comics, movies, concept art) were also strongly recommended as helping to build consistency in vision.  One positive to this approach is that the art director can set basic guidelines while still allowing for creative input in the development of the art style.
  • Lastly, a very strong comment voiced in the pursuit of developing an art style was to "stand behind your pitch."  This was very interesting.  As most creative directors and leads know, there will be a lot of feedback coming in as the art style develops.  It's unwise to try to appease all parties and continuing to "shift with the wind" may erode the confidence of the art team.  If there is a reason an art style was selected, then you must possess the wherewithal to stand behind that choice (not obstinately, but as an advocate).  This transitions well into the next topic.

A secondary question was raised at this point.  How to communicate and convince others of the "correctness" once an art style is established?
  • As an art style is established, one of the art leader's key responsibilities is building inspiration on the team.  The process can vary, as outlined above, but it is crucial that the art style be understood by the department and that the artists have confidence in their own ability to make choices in support of the art style.
  • Another challenge facing the art leader is to communicate that the audience for the product supersedes the desires of the art team.  Ideally, the art leader can find a match in styles, but where those two deviate, the art leader needs to make the criteria for the audience perfectly clear to the art department as well as why that criteria is important.
  • In addition, the art leader must possess flexibility as the art style develops.  There is always iteration and refinement to be pursued.  Furthermore, projects change and adaptability is critical, both in order to respond to the change and also in communicating the changes that are forthcoming.

The next topic was particularly interesting.  How do you build a stronger relationship between artists and designers?
  • One response was that a key component of a strong relationship between Art and Design is a clear accountability and delivery.  In short, this is about building trust within and across both departments.  As each is responsible for supporting the other group, a relatively clear process or milestones for decision making, evaluation and delivery of needs is appropriate and healthy for both departments
  • Likewise, role clarity and expectations should be set for both groups.  Ideally, this is established by leaders from both Design and Art and reinforced through the relationship between those Leads.
  • Persistent communication was also listed as a key factor.  There was some additional discussion surrounding office arrangement or partnering.  In truth, geographical location will play little part in solving the problem if both parties are not committed to collaboration.
  • Autonomy was also mentioned, but not in the sense of isolation nor absolute freedom.  Rather, both groups are deserving of respect for their own expertise and neither group should be chained to the whims of the other.  Again, this is about collaboration or dealing with conflict/disagreement openly -- this is natural in game development as it is in all creative pursuits.
  • It was also recommended that the Leads needs to set priorities for both groups.  These could be the project pillars or simply coming to an agreement on what is a "need" versus what is a "want."  The Leads should also be empowered to work with both groups and encourage them to ask themselves, "Does it fit?"
  • Although this was called out as being difficult in large teams or organizations with many strike teams or pods, there should be consistent effort to break silos between the groups.  Individual contributors will naturally want to focus on their immediate work, but it is important for leaders to ensure that people are getting face time as a group to encourage critique and also to provide broader awareness of what other departments are developing.
  • In this way, Leads should be providing reasonable oversight as well as mentoring their own department on how to give effective critique.  That could be it's own topic for next year; however, we did touch more on artist critique which you can about later in this blog post.
  • Finally, an attendee suggested cross-department learning.  Provide opportunities for each department to undergo some basic training in the tools and processes the other department uses.  The challenge therein lie in meeting this objective despite the rigor of production schedules and milestones.  Two solutions mentioned included 1.) encouraging developers to do this on their own time (lunch / after hours) or 2.) build this level of interaction into your team structure from the inception of the project.

The next topic.  How does each studio approach artist mentorship and development?
  • At a fundamental level, having Leads or discipline-experienced managers who can perform regular one-on-ones and provide clear career development objectives.
  • Culture was also listed as a key component -- more than management structure.  Make learning part of the culture of your studio.  Establish learning objectives for each individual and for each project.  This requires a measure of "down board" thinking I'm sure, but is well worth it in terms of employee engagement.
  • However, learning cannot be limited to simply individual growth.  It is equally important to bring artists from different disciplines together for peer-to-peer learning and development.  Sharing is the best indicator by which learning (and development mastery) can be measured.  Furthermore, the mixing of these groups can help with breaking down silos between groups as well as projects.
  •  It is equally important, with all this learning, to not forget to team artists where their interests lie.  Growth and development should be married with both talents as well as personal investment, otherwise you risk an unproductive exercise.
  • At the team level, it was strongly encouraged that the art lead or director bring the whole art department together for group critique.  This was suggested as an exercise to promote team vision.  However, there may be a point at which the size of the art department makes this impractical or inefficient.
  • Lastly, at the individual level, artist development was encouraged through allowing individual ownership of the work.  This affords the artist an opportunity to drive ideas within the art style as well have their own creative contributions for their craft discipline.

The final topic of the day.  How do studios encourage effective art critique?
  • As listed above, cross-discipline critique was listed as healthy.  It enables artists to see their work from a different perspective and perhaps learn from processes or techniques utilized in other areas of art production
  •  One attendee also keenly noted that artists need to be trained in how to "take it" where feedback is concerned.  They need to be mentored on how to be receptive to critical feedback.  It was suggested that the strongest attribute in this regard is that it "requires inquisitiveness."  I found this striking as it succinctly points to the need for the receiver to possess genuine interest both in the opinions of others as well as in the limitations and opportunities for growth within his or her own talents.
  • It was also suggested that building and reinforcing an "open environment" was key in communicating safety.  Artists may not feel comfortable critiquing artists who are more senior unless there is a culture that flattens the structure where critique is concerned.  This also can create a healthy peer-to-peer feedback environment, rather than focusing instead on lead or director-level feedback in isolation.  Where culture is concerned, the most vital ingredient is to ensure a culture of respect -- both for the self and for others.
  • As counterpoint, a "broad audience" approach may be the most effective in the early stages of development, whereas later stages of production may require more tightly reined direction from art leaders.  At the same time, it was suggested in this session that the art direction should find opportunities to take risks.  That is a constant balancing act for all creative leaders.
  • Artists should also have a say in the source of their critique.  In most cases, the artists are likely in a position to know whose help they most need or whose techniques from which they could learn the most.  However, there is still the responsibility of the lead and manager to ensure that "groupthink" or "buddy praise" does not promote an environment of non-critique.
  • In terms of nuts and bolts, it was highly suggested that critical, developmental feedback be focused on factual observations.  Especially in circumstances where an artist is struggling, subjective feedback may provide more distraction and direction.  Instead, focus on providing as much detailed feedback as possible regarding what is observed and why.
  • One attendee pointed out a provocative and insightful comment on art critique itself.  Ultimately, critique isn't only about color choices, polygons and pixels.  At a very high level, critique is about helping another developer to watch out for blind spots and distractions.  In my own mind, blind spots can be thought of asset obsession or whereby an artist focuses so much on the single piece of content that they lose sight of the broader picture.  By comparison, distractions may be considerations that are too broad, and which create paralysis in moving content forward.  Effective critique can be used to help an artist disengage from either scenario.
  •  Briefly, the topic of "unqualified critique" was mentioned.  In this context, unqualified referred to critique coming from outside of the art department.  However, rather than automatically viewed as a negative, this type of critique was encouraged at one studio as a means to drive questions.  If non-artists cannot understand the visuals or suggest different approaches, then this should be a prime catalyst for conversation and interaction.  This relates to the previous comment of requiring "inquisitiveness."  For this studio, a dismissive approach was seen as a limiting factor to their departments' growth.
  • It was also suggested that the art director plays a critical role in encouraging a culture of critique.  Beyond the art lead's specific actions and approaches, one attendee recommended that project art work be posted in the most visible way.  It should be posted publicly and update regularly.  Not only will this motivate discussion, but the art leaders can see who responds and how frequently.  These can be cultural leaders on your team in terms of both advocating for and analyzing the artistic choices of the project.  Find the trend and then leverage the talents and the interest level.

That last bit of advice was specifically for art leaders -- all of those who attended as well as all of those who may read this blog.
  • You have to make a choice.
  • If it fails, know why.  
  • Keep Learning.
  • If it succeeds, know why.
  • Keep Risking.

Once more, a special thanks to everyone who participated in the Art Director & Lead Artist Roundtable.  I hope to see many of you again next year at the Art Leadership Roundtable.

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