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Art Direction in Video Games - A roadmap for finishing your projects
by Ricky Baba on 06/02/14 06:50:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

These notes were inspired by the idea that it's difficult (near impossible?) to complete art for a game. The challenge is keeping the team inspired while working against deadlines, disagreements & lulls of creativity. 
  • Commit to a vision: If you have the luxury of time on your hands, create a style guide before other artists join the project. This forces you to actually think about what it is that you are doing and trying to accomplish, visually. Strive for consistency and clarity in style, shape, size, line, color, perspective and anatomy. Sell the team and yourself on the gestalt and the fiction of the game. Sounds daunting? Here’s a trick to take the pressure off; If you’re still trying to figure things out, schedule it in to your daily routine. Dedicate an hour at the end of each day for a week to reflect, curate, itemize and resolve your work. You will be left with the beginnings of an elegantly compiled style guide. 
  • Alignment in vision: Aim for each artist to have a clear understanding of what the game should look like. Distribute the style guide and have an open forum to discuss the visual direction that has been chosen and why. Hold art "town hall" meetings to get realtime feedback from the team about the overall look and feel of the project. Great ideas tend to be presented by team members when asked for feedback on artistic decisions that have already been made. Remember that alignment in vision is a living process. It involves many opinions and may never be fully realized. Aspire to give artists a visual and mental starting point rather than having them start with an intimidating blank canvas.

  • Play to strengths: Amidst a hectic production schedule, where artists may feel less inspired, enabling them to do what they do best can significantly increase engagement. If an artist excels at sketching, then allow them to focus on that skill. If they show an interest in other artistic areas, such as painting, work out a tactical plan to exercise that skill. For example, dedicate 90% of their time towards what they do best, and allow 10% for skill development. Keep your team strong and flexible.
  • Chunks, not bites: Rather than having artists complete daily isolated tasks, think of their contribution to the team in terms of chunks of work. Aim for significant outcomes from each artist. Let them know how their work fits in to the big picture and benefit's the project. Taking ownership of a large portion of work is empowering and acts as motivation through the daily grind.

  • Keep things moving: More is lost through indecision than wrong decision. Aim for rapid iteration. Avoid getting caught up in the beauty of just one image. When it feels right, move on to what needs more attention.
  • Celebrate the milestones: Show that deadlines matter. Successful delivery is something to celebrate. This could take the form of a presentation of all the work done by the team in a meeting or on a visual board. Let them take a step back, see how it all came together and appreciate it.  A round of applause goes a long way.

  • Work is for the game: Remind yourself and others that the work you are doing is for the game. It is dangerous to fall in love with an isolated idea only to have it be misaligned with the overall direction of the project. Check-in with the Design and Product teams frequently to make sure you’re staying on track.
  • Play the game! Each artist should be playing the game that they are building. If it is too early on and a build is unavailable, the Art Lead/Director should understand enough about the game to describe it in detail to the team. The artists should know the context for which they are creating art. Inspire them with a written synopsis and reference images that capture the spirit of the project. Daily interactions with the Game Design & Product team also provides a healthy dose of inspiration. Immerse your team in the theme of the project. Artwork should not be done in a vacuum.
Obviously not every single point will apply to all teams and all artists, nor is this list entirely comprehensive. The important thing is to create a roadmap like this one for yourself, with what's best for you and your team. If you're planning ahead and doing what you set out to, you'll be just fine.
- Ricky Baba
Art Director, Kiwi, Inc.

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Oscar Choquecota Ale
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Very interesting! do u have some books recomendation to create a style guide?

Ricky Baba
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Hey Oscar!

Apologies for the delay with this reply. I unfortunately have no personal recommendations for documented instructions on how to create a style guide. I just did a quick google search on the topic and it returned many results, but I am not convinced that they are relevant to gaming or you. I can break down my thought process into steps however. Simply put, I just went with my gut!:

- Gather ALL artwork created for the game so far, even work-in-progress and process sketches
- Separate those art pieces in to distinct categories such as: characters, environments, props, UI, splash screens
- Choose a few key and defining examples from each category and put them on separate pages (I use Google Docs Presentation)
- If possible, show process. Artists gain valuable insight into the art style when they see process from another artist.
- Take notes on desirable commonalities, and less desirable artistic qualities in each categories
- curate that information into a concise Do's and Don'ts list and include this information next to the drawings. Show specific examples for each Do and Don't. A Don't example: Avoid pure white and pure black colors. A Do example: each icon should have a 2 pixel stroke color of Hex#333333
- Include a written synopsis of the game
- Show a mockup of what the game project should look like when put together; a visual target. Include characters, icons, UI, backgrounds, environments, props.
- If you are inspired by another piece of art or product, decide what it is that you like about it and put it in to your own words

This all may seem backwards: how do you compile artwork for a style guide, when the style guide is supposed to inform the art for a game? Well, this is all assuming that you've taken it far enough to know what you want the game to look like, a visual vertical slice. Either alone or with a small team. The style guide would then allow you to get leverage and expand your art resources (freelancers, vendors, contractors) to take the project across the finish line as efficiently as possible.

You've inspired me to write a more detailed post about this very topic.
I hope this helps! Cheers and goodluck.

Catalin Marcu
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Great advices, thanks for sharing!

I think these apply in most areas of game development, not just art. Especially the one with playing the game, this is vital for everyone. Too often I find team members throwing ideas at the rest of the team without even taking the time to play and/or understand the game. That can become very toxic, with people retreating in their corners and bouncing off feedback just because they feel that the other person doesn't know what they are talking about.

De Sousa Axelle
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Such wise words! Especially about the vision and testing the game. In the rush people tend to forget those. Also I think it is necessary to make sure the artists understand the function of the assets. It's hard to tell to an artist who did a great job that he has to start over because as good as it looks the player will just don't understand it.

Ricky Baba
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Regarding function of the assets, this is very true. One common artistic oversight, especially in mobile gaming, is adding detail that will never be seen. I found that a good rule of thumb, is to review artwork on the intended end device. Meaning, if you're working on a mobile game, reviewing artwork on a 50" TV or 24" monitor can be out of context and exposes the art to unnecessary criticism. If you're working on an icon or asset that looks beautiful on a 2048x2048 canvas in Photoshop on a large monitor, sanity checking it on your phone would be wise. Those beautiful bevels and highlights might disappear or resolve to noise when reduced to a 64x64 PNG.

Florin Covit
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So true! Soooo true!

Florin Covit
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"Keep things moving: More is lost through indecision than wrong decision. Aim for rapid iteration. ". Words to live by. This part is a very big trap for programmers and artists. I feel a motto coming out of this line! :D