I want to make Video Games: The Game Artist
In the previous post, we discussed the roles of a Game Designer in depth. The Game Designer deals with setting up the rules and parameters of the game and documents. Now we are going to discuss about Game Artists and what do they do!
To be a good Game Artist, it’s essential that you know how to draw and color on paper. You should know about drawing using shapes for structure, anatomy, still life drawing, perspective, shading, coloring and other techniques an artist know of.
I can draw pictures of comic book and anime heroes!
Well, that’s not enough to cover it. Just as a Designer needs to be aware of all other subjects other than Game Design, a Game Artist needs to know about multiple art styles, a lot of theoretical knowledge of art culture and other subjects such as architecture and fashion trends existing in various parts of the world throughout the eras and even technological know-how.
Since, video games are always on digital platform, a game artist should know how to do all of the above in digital software such as Adobe Photoshop (2D), Illustrator (2D), Autodesk Maya (3D), 3DS Max (3D), Blender (3D), etc. Of course, there are a lot more tools available nowadays, but these are standard software used by most Game Development studios around the globe.
So, what exactly does a Game Artist do?
Unlike Game Design which, very honestly, comprises mostly of thinking, calculations and documentation (I am a Game Designer myself!), Game Art includes a lot of physical work which involves intense thought processing. Since, Game Art takes much more time, it is usually divided into a team of artists each handling one part of the art production.
Seriously, if you have only one artist in your team and you are frustrated that the production is slow, get them some help instead of freaking out!
Like I explained in the previous posts that there are various stages of Game Development, there are multiple stages in art production as well in which the Game Artist performs different tasks.
In the pre-production stage, the following tasks are handled by the artist (common for 2D or 3D games):
It begins with mood boards. A mood board is a collage of existing images or text based on a set topic, which is usually the game concept. For a single concept, there can be one for everything or several mood boards for character, environment, props, etc. A mood board typically tells you what art style one wishes to pursue and give a visual “feel” of an idea.
A collage of existing images for my game? What about copyright?
This is something that needs to be clarified. Taking references for artwork is common and highly recommended and there is a big difference between taking a reference and outright stealing (Plagiarism).
Referencing is when you are taking an image as an example to see if you are proceeding correctly in your own work. Plagiarism is taking an image and copying/tracing it completely!
Finalizing an Art style
Once the mood board is done, the artist starts rough sketching to finalize on an art style. Art style is something that distinguishes games graphically in today’s market! There are several art styles that exist in this day and time. It is usually much better if an artist can take an existing art style and mix it with their own unique style of drawing to create something completely new!
The three main art styles that are prevalent in games are Realistic, Semi-Realistic and Cartoon. The other styles are sub genres of these 3 styles.
Once the art style has been defined, work on the concept art begins. Concept art is basically illustrations made to convey the concept of the game. This process is lengthy and is usually done by 2D artists who excel at illustrations. In this phase, you draw concepts for everything that exists in your game, the character, the environments and even props such as weapons.
Usually, concept art is done in iterations. Multiple concepts are made and then the team agrees on one as the final concept art.
Concept art for the inside of a pirate ship
Character and Prop Design
Technically, these fall under Concept Art but you need specialized character artists for these. In the concept art phase, you will know how the characters of your game might look like. However, a character designer will put much more details on the character such as how will a character look with different emotions, how will they look from front, behind and sideways, what costume will they wear, etc.
Character Design Example
Similarly, prop design is also done by specialists as well. Prop design includes detailing the smaller things that make up the game’s whole environment such as how will the trees look, how will the rocks look, how will the sky look, etc. Prop design also includes items which are seen in the game world such as vehicles, weapons, consumables, etc.
Prop Design Example
UI Design can be done in the production phase as well. After the Game Designer gives you the layout of the UI, you need to make sure that all the UI elements such as the buttons, bars, heads-up displays, navigation arrows, etc match the art style chosen for the game.
UI Design Example
Color keys does not start at the end but actually goes hand in hand with all of the above. Colors play a very important role in a game as a video game without proper visuals is destined to fail. Colors not only set the mood of the game but also provide essential feedback to the players as well. This is also done in iterations and the team chooses one at the end.
In the production stage, the following tasks are handled by the artist:
Once production begins, you start producing art assets. This is where it gets technical and different from being a regular artist. As a game artist, you need to realize that your assets are going to go inside a game engine and if you do not consider several technical nuances, it will be a major detriment to the team’s progress!
A very simple example would be the size of the assets themselves. During conception, you can go nuts and fill entire A3 sheets with a beautiful illustration. However, in case of 2D asset production, the sprite sheets need to be produced and put into the engine at a particular size which will be defined by the programmer. Everything that you draw will have to be in that particular size.
Similarly, in case of 3D, the models need to be grouped properly into various parts and have a minimum poly-count as well.
Asset production is where 2D and 3D start doing their specialized work. In case of 2D, you need to make sprites of the characters and props as well as background images.
Sprite Sheet Example
In case of 3D, you need to make models and then rig them with “bone structure” so you/someone can animate it. In case of 3D, a modular approach is used (a set of models are built in such a way that they can be mixed and matched to create many other finished elements). Models are created in high poly and then the details of high poly model are baked on low poly model for optimization purposes.
Baking? Are we talking about cooking again?
Let’s assume you have a 3D model. You add a texture (basic colors) and another texture with displacement (for detail like the character’s freckles). A few lights to cast shadows. Then you also use Ambient Occlusion (where will light shine on the 3D Model).
Now, every time you render the scene, your 3D software has to calculate the texture, the displacement, the shadows, and Ambient Occlusion. This takes a while.
Now you have finalized your first model and are not going to change it any more. You add a second object and work with it. But every time you render the scene, your 3D software still does all that extra work for the first object even though nothing has changed.
Wouldn’t it be much more efficient if you could somehow store the work your 3D software does on the first object? This way, instead of wasting time re-calculating everything, it could instead quickly re-load the stored work.
This process is a simple explanation of Baking.
Once the sprites/rigged models are ready, they need to be animated. In case of sprites, each frame has to be drawn separately, matching the style and size of the original sprite. However, nowadays software like Spine allow 2D artist to “rig” their sprites so they do not have drawn frame by frame.
In case of 3D, the rigged models are animated using software as well. A set up of bones is created which will control the character movement. Then character is skinned to that particular set up of bones. Depending on the game complexity and style Animation can be done manually or you can use motion capture.
3D Animation Example
A Texture is basically color information on a 3D model. It’s about creating a map on the model to tell the computer which color goes where on the model. There are other more complex texture mapping techniques like height mapping, bump mapping, etc. which will be talked in later posts.
Unity and UE4 Both have visual shader scripting (node based shading network editor.) Physically Based Rendering (PBR) shaders, which add realism to the objects are created with the help of software like Substance Designer, Substance Painter, Photoshop and Quixel Megascans. Shaders are physically very accurate in new game engines and have consistent look in different light scenarios.
Texture resolution matters and lower tile-able textures must be used for performance reasons.
Once the assets are ready, a technical artist implements them in the engine which already has placeholders in place. This may cause a lot of bugs and errors, which the technical artist helps the programmer to solve.
Model without Texture
Same Model with Texture
If you have ever worked on a 3D engine like Unity or Unreal, you will notice that if you do not have proper lighting, everything just looks really basic. Lighting is more of a 3D thing as in 2D, the sprites are “lit” by the colors. However, in 3D, the models need a separate virtual light source to render them properly. Without proper light, all the hard work of a 3D artist is wasted as the game does not convey the “feel”, it was supposed to.
Once the 3D assets are integrated in engine then you can assemble a level as per the level design document. After the level is approved then it is lit with the help of lights and Image-based lighting (basically, you use one object as the “Sun” using specialized Cameras) systems in engine. Art Design Document will be the main reference for look development and consistent style. Then apart from movable models the lightning data is baked on 3D models in the form of textures.
3D Model with Lighting Example
Some might argue that both lighting and optimization come in the post production phase as you are not really “producing” any more art assets. However, from a complete development perspective, since post-production is after development, I put them both in production phase.
I have already covered this topic in my previous post about Game Production and I cannot stress enough on how important it is. Optimization is very technical as well and you need a lot of experience to do it. However, without optimization, your game might look really amazing but it will barely run on any system available.
Optimizing a simple Staircase
In the post production stage, the following tasks are handled by the artist:
There will always be bugs and there is a chance it might be caused because of the sprites or 3D models and their rigs. In such cases, the artists need to fix them as soon as possible.
Marketing materials such as posters, banners and promotional videos are also a Game Artist’s responsibility. These need to be made in the pre-production phase to promote the game on various social media websites as thus need to made in specific dimensions as well.
Those are the roles of a Game Artist and thus, it’s not a single person job. As you can see, Game Art requires a lot more physical work, yet it has to be finished within a deadline and thus requires tons and tons of practice to get it right. In case, you want to be a Game Artist, pick one of the multiple responsibilities, such as Concept Art, Character Design, 3D Modelling or Animation and practice till you are faster and better at your skills.