Being a Designer (As Opposed to Being an Artist)

Off the art wagon

I recently got a new job as a designer at a company that makes games for the DS and PSP. I love my new job and my new coworkers are admirable (to say the least).

Since I’ve always styled myself as an artist, taking a job as a designer was a surprise to some people. I started rolling it around in my head, trying to figure out my own motivations on this one. I’m quite proud of the art I’ve done for games, and I had more “first shot” art approvals than anyone else at my company. I even got the main character of the game right on the first pass. It’s certainly not that I’m a lousy artist and just “can’t keep up”.

There must be something else…

Here are some of my thoughts on why being an artist in the game industry isn’t all “fun and games”.

Everyone’s got an opinion

Your work is under a microscope and everyone has an opinion about it. A lot of the opinions come from people who don’t understand the system’s limitations (“Why is it so blocky????”) or the hardware itself (“Why do the graphics fade when I tilt the system???”). It’s easy to look at art, and so art is what gets looked at.

Getting a build and actually playing the game requires time. Art often comes under fire first. And it comes under fire from EVERYONE at once. Everyone comments on art. They can’t help it. Your coworkers usually know better than to add their voices to the chorus, but your boss, your boss’s boss, everyone on your publisher’s review team, and everyone on your licensor’s review team will want to comment.

It wasn’t unusual, with one licensor I used to work for, to get a giant, 15+ page document that everyone on the licensor’s team took turns adding to. The voice and writing style changed every sentence. A lot of their comments conflicted with one another, too. Everyone had to have a piece of this pie.

It’s all about how it looks… no pressure!

Every publisher I’ve worked for is obsessed with the game’s appearance. They will waste months of development time getting the character’s knees in JUST the right place. They won’t hesitate to send back a character model 10 times until the artist finally relents, departs from the provided reference, and gives a human a balloon-shaped head.

Even better – the person writing the comments from the publisher or licensor often have no idea how to articulate what they want. They say “this is WAAAYY wrong, can we push this thing up a tiny little bit?”. Is it way wrong, or just a little bit wrong? Who knows!

Yes, we have references, and NO, you can’t see them!!

Licensors, in my experience so far, keep their references in a locked, guarded vault. No one on their end knows when these references might be coming out of said vault. The usual course of action in this situation is to just have the artist “wing it”. And nothing produces a batch of overnighted references faster than an environment your art team spent 4 weeks creating without reference. And if you’re really lucky, your scripters and programmers have already built on top of this level!

Yes, we have references, but they are disorganized and they all contradict each other! Oh, and we don’t really like them anyway.

The title pretty much says it all for this one. It’s not unusual to get a stack of references and find they are all in conflict with one another. Once you do manage to cobble something together from this bizarre collage of art styles, you’ll move onto the wonderfully fun step of publisher feedback that tells you to blatantly ignore the reference and make the following laundry list of changes. How can anyone get it right when the directions are wrong? And worse yet, what must your boss think if your work keeps getting kicked back?

Who has time for fun?

By that same token, no publisher I’ve worked for gave a shit about whether the game was fun. It was all about whether the character’s hair was the right length. Seriously: no publisher or licensor I’ve worked for EVER expressed concern over game mechanics, accessibility to the target audience, and whether or not the game was simply FUN.

This can be exhausting to even the most determined artist and destructive to even the most carefully planned development cycle. Approvals on environments often crept as far as into the week before gold at my previous company, and game mechanics and playability suffered while minor graphical issues were revisited over and over.

Better hope your designer knows a thing or two about art…

I worked under a producer who seemed to believe that art could be created by anyone, at any time, instantly. It wasn’t unusual for me to be asked to whip out days, even weeks, of work instantly because “It’s easy to draw a picture, right??”.

I’ve been responsible for adapting designs from other companies/designers and sometimes I am outright frightened by what designers think is possible. A bad designer has no respect for the amount of time it takes to create art. A bad designer will ask for 30 different characters, all of whom might appear once or twice, because they have no grasp of how long it takes to make just one of them.

Obviously this is a problem with the company, for keeping a designer like this on board, but the company I worked at wasn’t about to fire anyone or shake up the roles mid-project. When you’re an artist working under a bad designer, those are YOUR weekends getting sacrificed to pump out 25 thingimabobers that the designer thought would take minutes to make. And those are also your weekends being sacrificed to redo the 25 thingamabobers when the licensor decides that the reference they originally sent was out of date, and “could you just use this new reference now?”

When the going gets tough, the art gets going

…to India, that is. Or to the boss’s friend’s son, because “he’s a good guy who fell on hard times and needs some work – it’s okay that he doesn’t know 3d, RIGHT???”. Art is easy to outsource and everyone’s eager to do art. Especially people in China and India.

However, that art has to come back at some point. And that art is often WRONG. It’s in the wrong file format, or the wrong colors, or it’s just hideous, or they ignored the reference, or everyone’s face looks like melting rubber, or their idea of lighting was “total blackness” – you name it, they think it looks great, and it’s now your responsibility to fix it. Or replace it. Most likely on your weekend, since the outsource team (or person) dragged their ass on getting it done and it’s now a week before gold.

Good art won’t save a bad game

I am sure there’s someone out there who plays bad games even though the art is good, but I don’t. I’ll play a game with stick figures on polygonal planes if the game is fun. Anyone who makes games can probably relate to the frustration of dealing with a publisher/licensor who thinks that if the art that is “just so”, it will make up for the fact that there was left no time to polish the mechanics of the game.

In conclusion

From these experiences, I think I’m fairly well prepared to treat the artists working from my designs with respect. I know they have it rough. I don’t know if I’ll ever work as a game assets artist again, as design work is a lot of fun and very rewarding.

I’d love to work as a conceptual artist, or to continue to follow my lifelong dream of illustrating books and book covers. But whipping out art assets one after another for an unappreciative, difficult audience is taxing. I think I will enjoy this “vacation” as a designer. 🙂

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