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[Blitz Games Studios' (The Biggest Loser, Dead To Rights: Retribution) art director Webb shares lessons and experiences in applying R&D strategies to art, unifying tech and tool chains with artists to create a tighter visual ship.]
I trained as a traditional artist and have worked as an artist for more than 20 years now. The last 12 years have been in the games industry. As soon as I was in my first games job I fell in love with it. I'm constantly fascinated by the way game development requires a crashing together of right and left brain thinking to make art and tech gel together and strengthen each other.
Over the years a lot of my focus has been not only on driving the aesthetic quality of games upwards, but also on constantly improving the means to achieve that quality and then pushing the potential to do more.
This means thinking across boundaries, looking at art, tech, and tool chains together with the aim of driving improvements wherever they can be made.
My current role as R&D art director for Blitz Games Studios allows me to pursue exactly these goals, and I want to share some of our recent experiences with you in the hopes that you can benefit from what we have learned.
In the current challenging economic climate it might seem counterintuitive for companies to spend money and effort on anything beyond their core game teams. Nonetheless I am proposing that having an art research and development team that doesn't make paying games is a significant business win.
The R&D team at Blitz came about because our chief executives had the forethought to encourage and support its growth. Its remit is to investigate strategically significant, multidisciplinary issues which don't easily fit into pure engineering development, but equally cannot be explored safely in a current game project.
The first thing to understand about an R&D team is that while many of its aims involve improving aesthetic quality and pipelines, it is absolutely not just a team of artists. It must be a fully-staffed, multi-skilled development team of programmers, artists, animators, and designers, all working as equal members.
What differentiates it from other teams is its broad remit and a mindset focused on problem-solving away from core engine technology or game specifics. Let me explain further by exploring the different mindsets of different teams, and how those mindsets and a team's best abilities are linked with R&D.
A strong independent dev studio will have a dedicated technology team. Blitz has exactly such a team. It is exclusively an engineering team -- the largest single group of programmers in the studio -- and has been in existence for over a decade focusing on the studio's crown jewels, our cross-platform game engine that every game team uses.
This is hardcore tech work. These are the devs who code to the metal, get the prototype kits first, and have crafted a constantly-evolving engine over man decades of work. Their mindset is to be highly focused on making the core and low level systems work, on delivering long term core engineering goals and providing immediate engine support on technical issues.
Again, a strong dev studio will have dedicated, creative and professional game teams. These developers have to focus on their immediate project specifics and their ongoing milestone deliverables which are tightly bound to the current game's theme and scope. The game is king; they cannot afford to be distracted beyond the game's core focus. Nor can they risk the project by using too much unproven functionality or tools. Their mindset is highly focused on the best possible delivery to the scope and deadline of the current project.
Typically this produces a studio with one mindset focused on core engineering needs, while others are focused on immediate project needs. Clearly both are crucial, but neither allows the space for strategic exploration of techniques and functionality that won't fit comfortably into either engine development or current game project specifics. This is dangerous, as it is exactly this space between the core tech and game specifics that has the potential to give new direction and edge to a studio, allowing it to break new ground and counter problems that arise in development.
What an R&D team can deliver is work that even before it's finished and is still in "kit form" can be used as a business development tool; publishers will always be happier with what they can see than with what you are telling them you can do. This allows you to pitch for projects that previously you would not have been able to go for, and equally to add value to projects that you would probably already have got, but perhaps now with a higher budget.
The traditional method of incremental improvement in game development is to make such changes during the life cycle of a project, which inevitably means that you cannot take big risks. This limits what you can achieve and can result in your game team or even the entire studio being locked into a genre-trap. The sort of exploration that an art R&D team can undertake allows your studio to evolve by building on your existing achievements and opening up inventive new possibilities.