Sunday, May 15, 2016

GDC 2016 - Art Leadership Roundtable - Day 2

For the second day, we crowd-sourced the key topic and the winner was Art Culture.

I was curious about the audience's experiences, so I polled the attendees and asked who felt like they were currently working at a studio that did not have a strong art culture -- or desperately needed to improve the art culture they had.  A small, but still noteworthy, number of hands were raised.  In response, I asked these people to share the key reasons they felt they had a poor art culture:
  • Failure to regularly meet as an art group.  When the group fails to synchronize, the opportunity to build the team or develop into a cohesive "tribe" is lost.
  • Art not a priority.  I asked for more clarity on this particular one.  The attendee responded that they were from a small start up that was still forming and that the pace of development didn't truly allow for a lot of artistic introspection.  They had sacrificed art culture for productivity.
  • Another attendee echoed these comments.  Limited production time created an atmosphere where everyone moved at a speed that didn't allow for comment or critique let alone social development of the art staff.
  • This comment, in turn, triggered another point.  One attendee came from a studio that didn't really have a social culture.  The employees merely did their own work and didn't interact much within the studio and almost never outside of the studio.  This absence of social engagement seemed to have created a void where people didn't discuss artistic goals, technique or interests.
  • The last shared insight came from a studio where the attendee felt the "life had been sucked out" of the art culture.  The art group had become cynical and left despairing of their own culture.
Okay, I have to admit, this all sounded pretty terrible.  It also sounded woefully familiar.  Despite starting on a bit of a low note, it felt critical that we start identifying tools to help. I asked the attendees, those who felt like they came from a strong art culture, to begin sharing the processes, structure or activities that they felt helped foster a better art culture.

It's worth noting that many of these ideas may be cost prohibitive to a smaller studio.  Where possible, I've tried to note those items that are both relatively cheap as well as those that may well exist beyond reach.  Not every studio has the same budget/resources, therefore it's worth knowing which options best fit within a studio's reach.
  • Visual Leader.  This may sound obvious, but some studios don't have an art director or, aside from the title, lack a key individual who champions the artistic growth of the studio.  This is the first step in building a cohesive art culture -- someone with the experience and the knowledge to guide and develop the art staff.
  • Craft Meetings.  These may also be called discipline meetings.  Separate from project-level meetings, the idea of these meetings is to gather those artists who work in the same area (characters, environments, animation, etc.) to talk about the challenges they are facing as well as share their inspiration and techniques.  Aside from the relatively small time commitment, these meetings are cheap and are a good opportunity for artists to connect regularly.
  • Relative to the creation of craft or discipline communities, one attendee suggested weekly/monthly challenges to engage the staff in competitive yet friendly competition.  I personally like this idea as it engages artists in work outside of the regular project.  However, if project deadlines loom, then these efforts will likely get put on hold for a period of time.  If so, the on-again-off-again nature may dissuade some from participation.
  • Place Leads over each Discipline.  This necessitates having a moderate sized staff, but there is value in having one person as the lead representative of the group.  This is taking the informal structure of the craft meetings and formalizing it with a structure that identifies a person who may be tasked with the specific development of the group.  The risk here lies in selecting someone who has leadership skills as well as craft skills.
  • Offsites.  The potential cost on such an activity ranges.  Low cost options can be limited to local galleries or even social events.  These are often best viewed as events to bolster the communication strength of the group rather than any specific craft skill.
  • Newsletter.  This requires an engaged visual art leader or at least an art manager.  Generally, the cost is low aside from the time collecting images and publishing the document.  However, those who take on the responsibility of creating a newsletter should know that the culture gains that come from having one could backfire should the priority of a newsletter dwindle and/or die.
  • Gallery shows.  A relatively low-cost option as long as the gallery/museum/venue is reasonably close.  This is assuming that your team is visiting the gallery to view the work of others.  Arranging a gallery of your own team's work, however, comes with a steeper cost.  The benefit may be worth it, but the organizer should approach this option knowing that it will be costly in terms of time and effort.
  • Dedicated Training Space.  Having spent time as a training manager within Blizzard Academy, I'm particularly fond of this idea.  However, this is an incredibly high-cost option.  The space, the hardware and the software are just the baseline costs.  Once you factor in the time finding/funding trainers (internal or external) as well as the time invested in training and this becomes a barrier too steep for all but the largest organizations.  For most studios, investing the time in supporting small grassroots art initiatives is far more reasonable -- and cost effective.  I asked the attendees and the general consensus was that the success of any such initiative rested wholly on the support of the studio/senior management.
  • However, some types of art classes likely don't require a dedicated training space at all.  Figure drawing, sculpture or painting are the types of social/artistic events that could fit into most common spaces.  The cost varies, but I imagine in most cases the artists should be willing to absorb the material costs themselves.
  • One attendee shared their experience of having the studio organize a "talk-show interview" format for building culture.  I thought this was an interesting idea.  Assuming all artists are viable candidates in turn, the opportunity to shed light on everyone's background and techniques could yield benefits both social and practical.  My personal estimate is that the cost for this would be relatively moderate and mostly on the time/organization as opposed to money.  I'd peg this one at relatively low cost, though it does obviously scale up between figure drawing and painting.
  • It's worth noting that in addition to the internal interview option just listed, a studio could also bring in external speakers.  However, this may be a high-cost option depending on where the studio is located relative to where the guests live.  I predict the cost would be insurmountable for "celebrity" art guests.  However, each studio should explore local art talent to see if there are opportunities to bring in creatives from industries outside of game development.
  • One attendee shared the idea of permitting project mobility.  In this instance, the studio afforded artists the opportunity to shift focus between art disciplines (the skills are still required) and/or between projects.  This allows artists to engage in a variety of creative work as well as build social structures beyond a single team or discipline.  However, I foresee this as a relatively moderate-to-high cost option due to the nature of project scheduling.  Nevertheless, if your studio can afford this level of flexibility, then this is definitely worth consideration.
  • An effective yet low-cost option was voiced by another attendee.  They indicated that one of the best ways they had seen culture improve was through the promotion of accomplishment.  Once the team had someone who was championing their work, the sense of pride and progress buoyed the spirits of the team.  In addition, this was an openly manifest showing of appreciation from the art leader(s).
  • The idea of collecting ref boards or inspiration was also suggested.  Artists should be in the habit of crafting ref boards for themselves -- especially where concept art may not be present.  However, I was particularly drawn to this idea as an opportunity to have the staff participate in visual direction.  While the final decision would still lie with the art leader, the opportunity for artists to collect images and present their ideas can create an atmosphere where everyone feels invested in the direction.
  •  Lastly, the idea of team members engaging in side projects was voiced.  These could be small game jams or even maker projects outside of game development entirely.  In terms of social construction, these are often great opportunities for staff to share their interests and passions beyond the current project.  Over the course of my career, I've seen developers work together on projects ranging from cosplay to arcade cabinet restoration to robotics.  These are relatively low-cost; however, the challenge lie in getting these efforts started as they are frequently built from the ground up by individuals with shared interests.  These aren't the types of events that can be managed by the studio; however, they can be shown support through some of the other ideas on display (galleries, newsletters, show-n-tell, etc.)
Lastly, there was a handful of general comments that were espoused over the course of the roundtable.  Rather than try to weave them into the conversation notes above, I've collected them here.
  • A number of ideas were shared, both for teams and for individual craft disciplines.  The comment was made that efforts for the overall team should be pursued first, rather than tackling disciplines and risking the perception of preferrential treatment.
  • Many artists like to work while listening to music -- I admit that I do when I need to focus (and I have a desk in a large shared office space).  It's critical to maintain a culture of accessibility if you use headphones.
  • Culture is something of which you should be mindful.  It is also something that is extremely challenging to mandate.  By mindfulness, the team or project must have the self-awareness to understand how policies or processes are going to impact the culture.  These things (in additional to staffing choices) are likely to have greater impact on culture than any efforts to sit down and merely talk about the culture you want.  Ultimately, leadership choices have more impact on how the art team interprets and applies culture to the organization.
  • Ultimately, culture is about maintaining creative energy and engagement on the project -- by doing things outside of the project.
  • Learning and social engagement can take many forms beyond just art.  Many broad ideas were expressed including karaoke, street fighter presentations, as well as history-focused hiking tours.
Although culture has been a topic of past roundtables, it's good to get back to this topic every couple of years.  Many similar comments are heard, but I'm also surprised by how many new suggestions are forthcoming.  Ultimately, we learn through repetition and I'm happy to revisit topics for newcomers and veterans alike.

Speaker Evaluation

Here is the raw, unedited report from the day's roundtable

Art Leadership Roundtable: Day2

Thursday, March 17th at 11:30AM

Room 120, North Hall
Total Headcount: 99

Roundtable Session Ranking within Visual Arts Track: your session is ranked 8 of 12

Roundtable Session Ranking within GDC 2016: your session ranked 16 of 59

Session Totals (This Session)
Percentage of Responses

Went to all three sections. Definitely will come back.
This roundtable session (and the others) were by far my favorite sessions because of my chance of participation and being among both beginners and veterans.
I learned a lot from experienced art directors.
I only wish the roundtable was longer. Excellent roundtable!
another day of amazing insight.
I really enjoyed participating in this round table
Roundtables are the best. The discussion on culture was really inspiring.
Keith always runs a great roundtable.

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