Art and Engineering Are a Thousand Miles Apart. Now What?
Have you ever had to throw a party at the very last minute? Isn’t it just horrifying? You want everything to come together perfectly—the venue, the food, the decorations etc. And if you’re anything like me you don’t want multiple people to be running to multiple places—you want to go together into a one stop shop like a party-planning Seal Team Six.
That’s still just a party though, and since you’re awesome company people are going to enjoy themselves no matter what.
Game development is less forgiving. Especially when the art and engineering teams are a thousand miles away from each other. Things can spin out of control much more dramatically than clashing colors and a DJ permastuck in the 80’s.
At Frag Games we have everything in-house. Artists, developers and game designers all working, eating and fighting over the Blue Shell in Mario Kart under one roof.
But even so, we’re often called on to provide one or the other. So we’ve developed a few tips to help out.
If some of these seem obvious, trust me, these are the things you forget when you’re flush with the excitement and overwhelming business of a new project.
Know when to keep an eye out. Hint: it’s not right at the beginning.
You should go into Vigilance Level Alpha Maximum as soon as you enter the production phase.
Concepts, prototypes and design architecture are usually easier in this regard because there are fewer interlocking parts. This can lull you into a false sense of security – don’t fall for it!
Be sure to ramp up communication and coordination between teams when you enter the development and testing phase. This, much more so than the beginning, is the time to really put your teams’ integration to the test.
Export: the Unexpected
We’ve had artists give us .mp4 files assuming we could freely integrate them into a game’s character animation.
The above sentence isn’t a joke.
Now, that’s an extreme example but whether an exported format is slightly off or tragicomically off often doesn’t matter. It’s still unusable, and it’s still going to cause a pain-in-the-ass delay while you write a passive-aggressive email explaining how you can’t integrate a screenshot of a character model and animate it in-game (that one was a joke, but just barely).
An external art team may create some gorgeous looking assets but if they’re not specialized in game-ready art for engines like Unity and Unreal, they may overlook many export requirements. Some of the most common errors:
- Not providing a range of aspect ratios and screen resolutions so that the game looks sharp across various mobile devices. Failure to do this will cause blurry or off-center graphics, eat up graphics memory and lengthen loading times.
- Providing the wrong file types. For example, engineers will need FBX files for 3D models or environments, sprites for 2D animations and PNGs in most cases for UI exports. Going back and forth to the art team several times to get it right is a surefire way to lose time, energy and patience
- Inexperience in the required technology. In one memorable case, we were asked to use Spine 2D but the external artist provided wasn’t familiar with it so she struggled to create the proper slots. There were missing files, resulting in improper customization and animations. This leads to, e.g., character outfits not fitting well on the skeleton, a hat that’s floating on the head or a sleeve that’s longer then the arm.
- Specify well in advance what files types your engineering team will need. Really, don’t skip this step even if it sounds like the most obvious thing in the world. It’ll save you a huge amount of headache later.
- If you require art for a specific technology like Spine, make sure the art team understands how to create the right output for it. Have a pop quiz if need be, with questions like “could you detail the process of going about x?”
- If all else fails you can ask them for the source files but here’s the catch: that will only work if you have at least ONE artist of your own to export the files correctly. This is bad because at this point, you’re redoing work. And if you have no artists? Ruh roh Raggy.
The Knowledge Canyon
Now, I’m sure you’re nodding along. You agree about how dangerous a gap in critical knowledge can be on the side of the team you’ve contracted.
But when it’s combined with, no offense, your knowledge gap? It becomes a Knowledge Canyon.
It’s the age old problem: you can’t judge a process that you have no expertise in yourself. Yeah, you’ll find out when the final product looks like nightmare animatronics, but that’s going to be thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars (at least) into production.
3D animation pipelines, in our experience, are the most complex. The most common pitfall: the animators, though skilled, aren’t aware of specific game output requirements, while the producers and managers (being non-techies) defer to the animators judgment.
Disaster, she wrote.
Read guides like this!
Seriously though, we wish we could give you a one-size-fits-all solution here but, without an internal expert, the very best way of handling this is to get an experienced consultant on board to manage the art team.
They can not only help to pick the right outsource group from the get go, they can also guide them throughout the process while making sure that they’re being square with you.
You’re saving a lot of money using an outsourced art studio, and this is a fantastic place to spend a small part of it.
“Gate” is the four-letter-word of development. It means a resource is sitting around, being paid, willing and eager to spring into action like a thoroughbred before a race but…there’s a gate in front of him. And that gate is: “I need the assets from the art team before I can start the next phase of work”.
Oh, look, he’s been here all morning checking Facebook to see if Naila is single yet and knows he’s going to knock off for an early and long lunch. All while on your dime with the game release just around the corner.
To be honest, gating can happen even in integrated art/engineering teams – it’s just much more likely to come as a surprise when the teams aren’t aware of each other’s day to day progress.
The solution, therefore, lies in good reporting discipline – use the project management tool of your choice to chart out a path, and make sure that progress against that plan is being measured frequently.
Careful though: no team, particularly no art team, enjoys having to do paperwork every day in addition to their regular tasks. We’ve sometimes used a very simple, Agile inspired method of sending a message out from the art team every day that states:
What was done today
What will be worked on tomorrow
Any issues so far.
5 minutes or less, and you can be on your way home. Beautiful, right?
Those Slow Communication Blues
You know how in the thick of a project you solve problems with RAPID FIRE COMMUNICATION? Problem! Discussion! Solution! New Problem! It’s like a fast paced ping pong match.
Now imagine that match taking place underwater, with balls made out of lead, with the players 2000 feet apart.
That’s how it can feel when two remote teams aren’t well coordinated. This causes:
- Limited flexibility: Game development is an iterative process. It’s normal to deviate from the initial game design, features, and art style. But it needs to happen smoothly.
- Troubleshooting issues: Unexpected glitches and technical hurdles are inevitable. But because the teams are working separately it takes longer to explain the problems and come up with solutions.
- Testing your game after integration. If you find issues with art you have to wait for the art team to respond. But in the meantime, remember how “gate” is a four letter word?
Let’s face it: there’s only so perfect a plan can be. There will be times you NEED that communication.
There are plenty of ways to make this easier but here’s the one that’s worked best for us: during phases of the project that need more rapid fire communication, make sure that the teams overlap during 1-2 hours.
At that designated time, treated as Holy and Unviolable, the art and engineering leads must both be available to answer any questions in real time. No “competing priorities”, no “long lunch”, nothing.
Magical things happen when you implement those overlap hours.
First, emails get answered a lot quicker when someone knows that they’ll be running into you in a few hours anyway (awkward, right?)
Second, 1-2 hours is enough for someone to test what they’ve been given, ask questions, probe about the issue, and get on call to resolve things.
Third, we’ve found people on both teams are a lot less likely to slack off when they have to talk to the person they’ll be gating every day. It’s just a human thing.
And that’s it! Plan ahead, make sure the studio you pick passes the communication tests with flying colors and be absolutely pigheaded about talking every single day and having a long meeting at LEAST once a week.
Trust me, if you think you don’t need it, you’re heading for disaster and don’t even know it.
Or hey! You could send the whole entire estimate, art, engineering, everything, our way and we’ll make sure everyone’s under one roof.