Thursday, July 17, 2014

GDC 2014 - Day 3 - Artists

The third and final day of the Art Leadership Roundtable was intended for Artists.  By the last day of GDC, people tend to be tired and a bit less-likely to speak up.  As such, I've learned to permit the topics to run a bit longer and on less-dramatic topics.  Given that the day's topics were intended to be Artist-centric, I wanted to provide a chance for mentorship -- a chance for art leaders to answer the questions that artists might have.

There are many art leaders in this room.  But we didn't start out as art leaders.  We started out as artists.  Then we found ourselves in leadership positions and we stumbled and failed and learned and became better leaders with time.  This session is about giving back to the artists -- to the next generation.  What questions do artists have about leadership or direction?  What insight can we provide into how projects and teams are managed?

The session got off to a rocky start.  If I recall correctly, the first person asked how to get artists to relinquish the rights to their artwork for use in mobile applications.  Interesting question, but completely unrelated to the topic that was proposed.  One person responded with "talk to a lawyer" and then we quickly redirected away.

The second attendee to respond presented a much more relevant issue.  I can't remember exactly how the question was phrased, but the key concern was getting artists to do what tech art is telling them to do.  The speaker expressed frustration in working with artists who only care about the visuals and don't want to understand how the pipeline works or care about technical limitations.  What I wrote on the notepad was:  Tech Art vs. Art.  FIGHT!  However, this is a very real concern that exists at the intersection between visual goals and the medium (technical limitations) within which we work.

Given the way the question was phrased, attendees were asked what techniques they used to engage artists in the pipeline and technical processes early in development.  Here are the suggestions that were offered:
  • Work with a select group of artists (role models) to create benchmark visuals which lead the content creators to the pipeline.  Show them the results first, then the tools that achieve those results (rather than the reverse).  In short, make the tools part of the art style.
  • When it comes to tools development, involve artists in the mockups of interactivity.  Encourage them to think about user experience.  How the tool functions is just as important as what it does.
  • Active technical mentorship.  Weekly discussions or informal "brown bag" lunches where pipelines and tools are open to discussion and dissection.
  • In the cases of student projects (where some students create content and others create rigs), implement a clear mediator (faculty) to resolve conflict.
  • Develop visual documentation.  Documenting tools is an important component, but artists tend not to read long-winded instruction docs.  Image-heavy documentation is more likely to be read and understood.
  • When creating new tools, ensure you're focusing first on the big problems.  Leave the micro-details for later.  Over-engineering is the Achilles' heel of tech art, and artist-involvement can help to avoid that scenario.
  • When new pipelines are implemented, make sure artists are actively using them from that first day.  Don't roll out a new tool that artists aren't planning to use until 2 months later.  Coordinate development to happen concurrently so that the tool evolves with the art staff.
We also talked about why this type of issue arises.  What causes fractures to erupt between the tools group and content group?
  • Authoring tools without input from the users.  In this scenario, artists are less likely to use a tool if they felt it was created without their opinions given reasonable consideration.
  • No clear value.  People are inherently suspicious of change and new tool deployments are no exception.  Artists won't embrace a tool that is rolled out without a sense of investment or especially if they fail to understand the benefit.
Last, we talked about how to keep a fracture from forming when tool deployments fail or the unexpected happens (as it often does).
  • When things go wrong, involve the artists proactively.  Postmortem new tools quickly and be clear about what next steps will be taken (and which won't be taken).  The whole purpose should be to define and redefine the goals.
  • Encourage artists to question the workflow/pipeline.  Just like games, rarely are tools perfect on their first iteration.  Artists need to be open to the iterative process, but they will only engage in that process if they feel encouraged to engage and see the results of their feedback take shape in future iterations.
There were a handful of other comments offered, but all of these represent the most significant components.  Artists need to be involved in tools development.  And tech artists need to engage them.  This is about the craft of what we do.  The final result will amount to shockingly little if people refuse to pursue the craft, but the responsibility belongs to both parties.  Exploration and iteration are cultural components of learning.  Learning is how we progress.  If we fail in that charge, we fail to advance our discipline and our industry.

As the topic was drifting to an end at this point, I asked the attendees if there were any more questions from artists that people in leaderships could respond to.  One student attendee was bold enough to raise her hand and ask the following.

Why aren't more studios hiring for entry-level positions?  How are students expected to get into the industry in the current workforce climate?

  • As to the why, the first response highlighted the cost in mentorship and training.  Much has already been written and discussed about the competitiveness about the job market.  However, the additional reality is that it requires a lot of effort to "train up" new hires with little experience.
  • As to the how, another attendee responded that students need to be prepared to do literally anything to get that first industry position.  If they are still students, they should be applying for internships.  If they've completed school, then they need to look for tangential entry-points such as QA.  In fact, this comment was repeated multiple times in many ways, the culmination being to just "get through the door."
  • At this time, the counterpoint was offered that QA Leads and Managers hate losing good people to development teams.  It is frustrating to train people into a position where they have impact and then lose them once they've built up a breadth of knowledge.  When pressed for how to successfully initiate such a transition, it was suggested that those entering QA speak to their long term plan but also be dedicated to the QA role for which they are applying.
  • Another responder commented that their studio is more isolated from the industry, and so they make more of a concentrated effort to draw hires directly from the schools.  The implied suggestion here was that students should explore studios that aren't already in dense, competitive market locations.
  • The comment was offered that too many students or recent graduates are expecting to just land in a AAA studio right out of the gate.  This person strongly suggested that job seekers have more realistic expectations.  Given their overall lack of experience, it was suggested that they tap into the indie development community, where they might be able to explore contract opportunities that could afford some early experience.  They should also actively pursue contributing to a mod, a gamejam, a hackathon or whatever else might build upon their experience and expand their network.
  • Wisely, another attendee suggested that students really need to solicit and collect personalized portfolio feedback.  Many schools are cranking out students whose portfolios are largely interchangeable and fail to highlight the students' individual strengths or area of interest.  I can agree that I've seen way too many of these as well.  In order to combat the pool of portfolio mediocrity, students need to network with the intent of soliciting feedback.  When you get out of school, you have a job -- that job is to replace everything in portfolio with a stronger piece.
  • Although I don't recall the context, the book Mastery by Robert Greene was recommended.  LINK
  • Another attendee lamented that students miss out on opportunities from poor philosophical instruction in school.  Students become so focused on creating the "cool piece" that they fail to grasp the context.  They don't think about how the content is part of the product.  In order to combat this problem, it was suggested that students build a "visual experience" instead of just things and then actively share their work with the greater artistic community to get feedback.
  • On a related note, it was also strongly suggested that students and new developers become more visible in the development community.  They should be participating on forums and in art challenges.  This was coupled with the feedback that it is no longer sufficient to simply submit a resume and a cover letter.
  • The final (and frequently heard) comment was that new artists need to cater their portfolio to the prospective employer.  They must also be willing to build long-term relationships and not become bitter if it takes a long time to land your "dream job."

Although there was only time for two topics, the day ended on a high note.  Once more, I would like to thank everyone who attended.  Below you will find the unedited feedback from the session.  My comments, if warranted, were added in orange.

Art Leadership Roundtable: Artists
Friday, March 21 from 2:30 PM to 3:30 PM
Room 112, North Hall
Total Headcount: 82
Percentage of Evaluations Returned: 42.68%
Percentile in Visual Arts Track: 35th
Percentile in Overall GDC Main Sessions: 37th

Session Totals (This Session)
All Main Sessions
Visual Arts Track
Percentage of Responses
Average Percentage of Responses
Average Percentage of Responses

Very insightful and helped to network quite a bit. Surrounded by the people you want to work with and having them help me get started in the industry is just wonderful.
This was a leadership round table and we talked way too much about how to get a job as a student which we aren't anymore.
While I understand the sentiment, the simple fact is that there are MANY students in attendance at GDC every year.  The idea that their questions should be ignored is unwise and, in my opinion, an example of poor leadership
The third session was dedicated to artists but focused on new artists entering the industry. That should've been done in a careers roundtable versus an art leadership roundtable. He should've focused on the art leadership and art management. I waited in the first two sessions and did not get in. Was looking forward to a revamp of the things they discussed in those meetings at this one. Will try again next year.
I regret that you were unable to attend the previous sessions.  I hope that you are able to learn from the notes from those dates.
This was pretty great. Answered a lot of questions.
I was very very disappointed in this session. I think that the type of artists to attend this suggestion should have been defined as technical artists.  This clearly was not for artists who deal with mobile devices. I was very disappointed that my question on licensing art was clearly told that it would be discussed if needed after this session. What is the audience you expected to come to this session? Perhaps there needs to be a session for casual gaming or casual gaming art.  Artists are used in this format as well considering this is a GDC not just in the XBOX or playstation platforms.
I'm sorry you felt this way.  However, I fail to see how an exploration of the question of tech art / tools or gaining entrance to the industry is exclusionary towards mobile development.  Given the fact that your question about licensing art received silence and blank stares from the room, I think it was reasonable to redirect rather than to force a topic without traction.
This was my first roundtable.  Keith was great at leading the discussion and keeping the room on topic.  I primarily attended this one despite some others I was interested in because it was not recorded for the Vault.  It was interesting, but I think I may stick to the regular talks in the future.
Keith has a good command of the room, although I was a little disappointed in what we discussed in the roundtable. A lot of it seemed like rehashing of information about how to break into game art that I've seen plastered all over the internet.
great information and topics discussed for new and old art directors.
Keith did a nice job moderating this roundtable. The group did not have a great number of ideas they wanted to discuss at first, so he goosed the conversation. It flowed nicely from there. His follow-up promise of notes from the roundtable sessions are also greatly appreciated for those of us that could not make earlier ones.
Good discussion.
again iT NEEDS TO BE LONGER!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Best part of GDC for me.
Always a good dicussion
Talk was ok, a bit too much focus on "How do i get a job as a student"
Keith is a fantastic moderator - best of all the roundtables I have attended at GDC.  Please bring him back for future sessions.