Content, assets, and the infinite hole at the center of the universe

by Cory

I saw this article on Game Career Guide yesterday: “Which Artists Will Game Companies Hire?” Quite relevant to my interests.

To give the quick run-down, games are damn expensive to make, so outsourcing art assets is becoming increasingly common. To stay in-demand then, the article subject, Carey Chico, executive art director at Pandemic Studios, recommends being versatile and multi-disciplined, meaning anything from being competent with both character and environment art, to knowing scripting or programming, or even having experience in management.

It sounds good to me. I mean, the outsourcing bit is never good to hear, but the part about versatility is encouraging. As much as I love the process of art creation, my interest in game development has always been fairly holistic, and expanding my skillset laterally is something I mean to focus on in the future. I may never quite be able to quite grok programming, and may never progress past the stage of making a cheap little Tetris clone, but I mean to try, at any rate. It’s one of my 2008 resolutions, in fact: at least start to learn some programming.

I wanted to come back to the outsourcing thing too though — or at least the root problem of assets and content. It’s sort of the giant, looming issue du jour, for the entire industry, the main reason for ballooning development costs. I don’t want to dig into that entire can of worms though, so I’ll just cut to my little complaint: disposable content. What I mean by “disposable content” is game assets that the player will be exposed to for perhaps 2 seconds and never see again. Completely forgettable, arguably unnecessary, but an artist may have spent hours or days producing it. I’m very sensitive to this when I play through games, keeping my eye out for underutilized or superfluous art assets. In fact, I’ve probably worked on projects that were guilty of this offense.

To offer up a concrete example from a game I’m currently playing through, in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (which I’ll talk more about in a future post), there’s a side-quest in which you venture into a prosthetic limb workshop. There are crates of the guy’s handiwork (haha, punny) sitting around on shelves, and as intended, it’s pretty creepy. Unfortunately, you’re in and out of there in only a few minutes, barely a speed bump in the game experience as a whole. I imagine a handful of artists spent at least a few days producing the necessary assets, not to mention the designer time in laying the area out, so one can’t help but think there might have been a better use of those resources.

Portal and Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, are fine examples of effective use of art assets. Granted, it may be unfair to compare these to big, epic, AAA adventurey games, but there are lessons to be learned nonetheless. Both games take a pretty lean set of art assets — textures, props, etc — and manage to make them work, largely through focused, consistent art direction. Portal’s sterile, uncluttered environments obviously made a lot of sense for the game, and TF2 managed to use unique map layouts and centerpiece props/features to differentiate environments. For example, the radar tower in Gravelpit, the train station in Well, and the bridge area of 2fort all serve as memorable focal points, to make maps that otherwise share the same art assets distinctive.

I’ll leave it there. I of course don’t mean to say that it’s easy work, ensuring that art assets will have the content and gameplay to make them worthwhile (and vice versa). It’s merely something I notice a lot, and it sticks out more than ever in this age of skyrocketing costs and outsourcing.