Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 8 (August 2002)

New Tools, New Tricks

By Mike Swanson

Artists working in the video game industry have seen many changes over the last few years. One of the most noticeable of these was the large-scale transition from 2D to 3D about six years ago. Fueling further change more recently are high-powered consoles and PCs that can handle procedures that were once available only to film-effects professionals. Cloth simulations, shaders, and complex facial animation rigs were not to be found in most games two years ago—now they are common. Subsequent console generations will see more simulations, such as muscles, hair, volumetric effects, depth of field, logical motion blur, and cloth with collision detection.

Several factors are driving the technological changes forward so quickly. Software companies are developing middleware for game development that allows artists to view and modify art assets in game engines without having an internal engineer develop specific tools to do so. Developers of 3D and 2D software now offer game-specific tools within their packages. Off-the-shelf programs now exist for the creation of character musculature, automatic level-of-detail foliage, markerless facial motion capture, and accurate automated voice sync. Colleges and universities are now teaching game development within their curriculums, and their graduating students should theoretically be plug and play within the game industry.

Gone are many of the limitations that once prevented game artists from realizing their full visions. But gone too is the usefulness of many past techniques. For example, the smaller game company artist will now need to become a generalist and learn many more programs and techniques in order to accommodate the rise in technology. And the larger game companies will likely have to create specialized art departments that mirror those of large film effects companies.

An example that follows a film model might be a game character that is first created by concept artists. The character is then passed on to a modeler, then to a character rigger, then to an animator, and finally ends with an art technician whose task is to integrate the character with the game. The pipeline involved in getting that character moved through all these different stations will necessitate specialized tools written by a technical director. Many of these pipeline roles did not exist even two years ago within game studios.

As we master the next generation of consoles and PCs, the visual style will be elevated several levels, and the public perception will be that all games should have the same high-quality look. The games that will succeed will be the ones that stand out visually with compelling, entertaining storylines and puzzles to solve. In order to facilitate making more complex games that will touch the emotions of the player, game artists will be required to do more rapid prototyping of work—for instance games created in animatic form before actual production starts with full-scale storyboards, color charts, emotional graphs, and so forth.

The background of game artists is changing as well. Film artists are becoming increasingly common within the gaming industry—animators, TDs, and modelers are crossing the digital divide and cross-pollinating with seasoned game artists. This crossover from films to games is allowing for the rapid exchange of ideas, pipelines, and the creation of new art authoring technology. While this is good for game development, many of the older artists are feeling pressured to keep up with the film artist and the younger generations who have lived entire lives with computers and art creation software.

The competition is fierce; and students coming out of school with the latest software packages under their belts, as well as professionals who are making the leap from the film industry to the game industry, are setting new expectations for artists in the gaming field. In order to meet these challenges, today's game artists must be willing to look ahead. They must be ready to accept the new technologies and techniques that will not only help them accomplish their tasks more efficiently, but make them more valuable workers in a changing marketplace. ..

Mike Swanson is manager of technical art for LucasArts Entertainment Company in San Rafael, California.