Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Looking at the development of games - Part 2

(Due to the amount of content in this topic, I have divided the research into two separate posts. This is Part2, for Part 1 CLICK .)

If you do not want to read through the entire post, rather read a brief conclusion regarding this research, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post.

In the early days, game developing companies had a small staff. There was 1 person who designed the game, 1 programmer, 1 artist etc. Nowadays studios have over 100 people working on their games, because as technology advanced and limitations started to disappear, quality requirements went up. This meant that each element of the game had to be very well done. This separated the art department into several "sub-departments". Companies had people who could perform throughout the whole artistic pipeline before. These artists were called Generalists. Generalists exist even today, but the focus now is to specialize in one specific area. Art department today consists of concept artists, character designers, environment artists etc.
Today, it helps to have Generalist experiences to better understand the entire work-pipeline, but you have to specialize in a specific area as well. The biggest and most successful game-companies rarely look for Generalists, they need specialists (more on this in another post).

Another important topic when it comes to games is visual realism. People often think that the more realistic, in terms of physical accuracy means a better gaming experience. History shows that this is not the case. Realism is only a tool to achieve a better gaming experience. What I have noticed is that style is often times favored over realism. There is a good example nowadays to enforce this theory: the game World of Warcraft. It has been around for 8 years now and its graphics engine has become quite out-dated. In terms of technology it's nowhere near to the flagship visual games of today (e.g. Crysis 2 etc.), but it is still the WAY most popular MMORPG game out there. How did the developers manage to keep the gamers interested? It has to do with pure art: they have put an extensive amount of effort into developing a specific visual style to the game, which makes the environments and the characters beautiful. They do not consists of hundreds of thousands of polygons, but the gorgeous way they are designed compensates for that.
Games are about art. In a way, they simulate culture, art etc. The technology is there to help us artists express ourselves all the better. The tools and their advancement allows freedom of expression.
Photo-realism could also support a surrealistic environment. You create something super-natural in a realistic way, so that the viewer/gamer actually feels that this place exists somewhere.

World of Warcraft: favor to style over realism.
It is important to understand to not just create photos. Always thrive for uniqueness!

Games today are still perceived in our culture as a kids' medium, but with the advancement of technology, they don't have to look like cartoons anymore, thus enabling them to appeal to more mature audiences as well. The same content can have different meanings or reactions depending of the visual style. For example, a murder scene might be funny in a cartoony visual way, but shown photo-realistically can have a whole different affect. This requires the artist to have a good understanding on how different visual elements influence the viewer. Again, this prove that studies outside of CG itself IS required.

Game developers have to take into consideration the hardware changes that are going to take place after the release of the game. They need to be aware about the direction and the speed at which technology is evolving. Their games have to have longevity in order to ensure success. This means that they have to somehow figure out what hardware their product needs to support.
This might affect my work as an artist as well, because the hardware changes that keep happening keep changing our workflow. How Environment Artists go about creating their assets today is very different compared to how they've done it before.

I have to learn to adapt to change and constantly improve and optimize my workflow to become as effective I can. The new possibilities provide swifter and more efficient ways to experiment and create new things. Change is constant and learning how to adapt is crucial.

Modern games are allowing players to customize and influence their gameplay even more. Assets become more interactive, meaning I have to adjust my work to not only satisfy as a static visual element, but as something you can interact with. As lot of games have a "never-ending" style to them, my art has to remain interesting enough so that players do not get sick and bored by looking at them over and over again.
The need for quality is drastically rising and the better understanding of what appeals to the human eye becomes more and more important. 

Will Wright would like programming to allow art and story content to be generated in a procedural way. He thinks that we are "brute forcing" the matter by having hundreds of artists manually place each blade of grass, each stone etc. in the environments. This results in higher costs as companies have to pay more and more artists. The next step in this matter would be an algorithmic solution on creating these details.
The algorithms today, though, do not match or requirements, meaning they cannot produce the visual quality and experience as an artist can. But, as programming and artificial intelligence progresses, this might be possible in the future. The players themselves in the game can create their own content through these algorithmic solution.
I identify in this a potential danger to my job, because if such algorithms do become used, than the need for artists might decrease. 
Game designer Rand Miller (Myst series) thinks that the answer is somewhere in between the two solutions. Procedural solutions can be a great benefit, but the manual, artistic approach will still be required, because nothing can match it and the details that these algorithms would place around the environment have to be created in the first place. 

Will Wright would like for the input to match with the output as much as possible. Today, for example a game designer can provide through their product 200kbyte/sec information to the user. The problem is that the user only perceives and consumes about 10kbyte of that data (illustrative numbers only). This is a problem and somehow balancing these numbers would be an important step.
I can really relate with this, because there have been a lot of cases when the effort, time, research and passion I have poured into a work did not match the user interactivity of it at all. The input was WAY higher than the output and bringing symmetry to these "numbers" would be a valuable thing.

Very cinematic look of Crysis 2.
Another important matter to talk about is the influence of films on the gaming industry. More and more "film-people" start working on games. Writers, composers, technicians, artists etc. produce more and more cinematic work. Games are starting to become interactive films.
I have talked to several professionals about the direction I should take as an Environment Artist and all of them shared a same view: make your work cinematic. It is obvious from the games of today that this is an important skill to have. Films revolve around story-telling, visual experiences. Although, games rely on gameplay. To achieve good gameplay you must use tools like story, art etc. Conclusion is clear: make my work cinematic.

Key notes I take away from my research of the history of computer games:

-a huge amount of great discoveries and new concepts were born through experimenting. It is important to look outside your own medium, play around with other things, because inspiration can happen anytime. You can't plan some things. You'r brain conjures up new ideas by looking "outside the box" and discovering other areas outside of CG.

-  even with limited technology, it is possible to interact with the consumer.

-  the appreciation of today's possibilities. The achievements of the past might seem "normal" and easy nowadays, but in truth they were the result of HUGE effort and creativity, due to the limitations that existed back then. Today, often times we take for granted the opportunities that are presented to us. I, as an artist, am only limited by myself. The technology is there!

-  what I have noticed is that style is often times favored over realism.

-  make my work cinematic.

-  the technology is there to help us artists express ourselves. The tools and their advancement allows freedom of expression.

-  it is important to understand to not just create photos. Always thrive for uniqueness!

-  studies outside of CG is required: fine art, anatomy, shape/form, colour etc.

-  I have to learn to adapt to change and constantly improve and optimize my workflow to become as effective as I can be. The new possibilities provide swifter and more efficient ways to experiment and create content. Change is constant and learning how to adapt is crucial.

-  identifying potential dangers (like procedural methods to generate art content in games) to my job and knowing how my art needs to change can later on raise my chances of remaining valuable to the CG industry, thus ensuring employability.

-  matching input (effort invested) with output (user interaction).

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