So You Wanna Make Games?? | Episode 5: Technical Art
Video games are constantly pushing technology to the limit. And, the art in video games is no exception: things like elaborate physics simulations, seamless open worlds, complex animation systems, or destructible environments. These are tasks that require both artistic sensibility and technical know-how. And the people that can do both art and programming may sound like terrifying imaginary space mutants, but they exist, and they’re called tech artists! Alright. Let’s find out what tech art is all about. Tech art is crazy important for making a game. Seriously, like, every team I’ve ever been on is always trying to hire more tech artists. So, what do they do that’s so important? We build tools for artists. Alright. Well there you have it. A tech artist makes tools fo– Well, we also streamline the game creation pipeline. We make game exporters, make implementation easier– Okay, yeah. So there’s a couple other things that a tech artist– Some of us work on the game content, rigging characters for animation. Wow Okay. So there’s even more stuff that a– There’s also file structure, version control support, automation– Okay. Jeez. I get it. There’s a… oh my god– So we also have art backgrounds. So we model, we animate, we make VFX, build interfaces, UI, websites, shaders, lighting– Okay! Stop. Stop. There’s so much in one job. How is this possible? You guys aren’t tech artists. You’re everything artists! Sure. Call us whatever you want, but our main job is to streamline how art is made and put into the game. Okay. So I guess one of the major specializations in tech art is rigging. Rigging is the process of taking a character model, or mesh, and giving it a… skeleton? Ew. Why do you have to do that? When a character artist gives us a mesh to rig, it’s stuck in whatever position it was created in, like a sculpture. It’s our job to give it the ability to move. To do this, we create a skeleton by placing bones inside the mesh. The bones influence different parts of the mesh, so when you move one bone a part of the mesh moves with it. We adjust this by painting the amount of influence, or weight, each bone has. This process is called weight painting. Weight painting can be a bit of an art because while we want the mesh to move, or deform, we also want to make sure we don’t create any… odd results. Bones can be hard to animate, and we often end up with a lot of them in our skeleton. So to make things easier for our animators, we create a series of controls that move the bones in an easy and intuitive way. You can think of this like the strings on a puppet. In this part of the process, we solve challenges like: keeping a character’s foot planted on the ground while the rest of the body moves, or switching that functionality so the whole leg can follow the body like when you swim. Another thing tech artists do is create custom tools for artists to use. And that usually means customizing the existing software that artists are using. Programs like Maya, ZBrush, Photoshop, Unreal can do a lot of stuff already. But artists often have very nuanced and eccentric needs. And they’ll ask for a very specific tool from a tech artist Then, it’s up to the tech artist to really determine whether that tools request makes sense. And that’s why every tech artist asks this very critical question: What are you trying to do? What are you trying to do? What are you trying to do? What are you trying to do? This question is really important to ask because even though an artist means well, they’re not always as informed as a tech artist when it comes to tools requests. For example: An artist might ask for a tool that hides all of the water and plants in a level. They need this tool so that they can count how many fish are being spawned. The tech artist might instead make a tool that simply displays the number of fish that have spawned in the level, saving themselves and the artist quite a bit of time. Art assets often require some implementation steps before they can work in the game. This can be things like removing unneeded components, turning on certain settings or parameters, naming the file correctly, breaking the file into multiple separate pieces, creating connections between the new file and the existing files… all kinds of stuff. We help with those processes as well, building out the tools to reduce mouse clicks. Sure, a click doesn’t sound like much, but imagine clicking on the same dialog day in and day out. Confirm. Confirm. Confirm. Yes. Yes. Always the same. Always the same confirmations. Yes update. Yes export. Yes load! Always load! Please load! Load like last time! Load like yesterday….load like last year! Just please remember what I always do! Making a game involves a lot of interdependent work. That means a lot of people handing a lot of files to each other. Even on a small team, it can be pretty hard to stay organized. There’s a constant flow of files being created, edited, and handed off between teammates. This whole process is called: “the game development pipeline.” Tech artists manage this pipeline. They help create clear channels, processes, and tools, that help developers exchange files in easier and more organized ways. Let’s learn some of the ways they do that. One of the biggest organizational challenges of making a game is that tons of people are editing the game at the same time. It’s easy to accidentally delete, misplace, or overwrite files. For this reason, game teams generally use some sort of version control software. Version control software stores and records everything that happens to every file in a game. It saves every previous version of every piece of art. It records every change made to the game and who made it. And most importantly, it lets you know if someone else is working on a file that you’re trying to work on. Tech artists build tools to make it easier to interact with version control software. Otherwise, it can be overwhelming and tedious for an artist. Another organizational challenge that tech artists have to manage is how to name files, and what folders to keep them in. It can seem like a simple thing to name a file, but things can get pretty crazy and hard to organize when dealing with thousands, even hundreds of thousands of files When working on a game, we have to finally retire some of our more… inefficient naming styles. Naming conventions and folder structure can become a huge problem if not handled and maintained. Tech artists build the stucture and build tools to handle mass renaming when needed. Some tech artists specialize in shader technology. Check out our character art video for a quick intro to shaders. These tech artists help build and utilize shaders to make materials like stone, wood, metal, or grass. But shaders don’t just make basic materials. You can achieve pretty unique results from the creative uses of the parameters on a shader. For example, you can connect the vertex color of a mesh to drive different textures based off of the height of the vertices. And this is how, based off a terrain system, you could actually paint the terrain extremely fast just based off of vertex colors, and get a lot of variation within your environment. Aww! That’s so cool! Though, I have to mention if any of this doesn’t make sense to you… that’s ok. Just know that you can do a lot of amazing things with shaders. And if you’re interested, they’re definitely worth looking into. Because you can do things like automatically apply dirt or rock to the steep parts of a mountain. or creating the effect of flowing magma with a realistic look. Or, you can achieve a toon shaded look by clamping the light direction input in a shader to create a unique art style, similar to “Breath of the Wild.” Ok. That’s pretty cool. Do tech artists write all the code of a shader? Tech artists might write the shader code or work with an engineer to help figure out what the shaders need to do to support the art. In either case, tech artists help influence the look of the art, and teach the artists how to use the given shader parameters. Another specialization within tech art is simulation. Simulation could probably have its own series of videos but basically it’s using math to simulate the behaviors of materials and physics. These would be things like cloth, hair, ragdolling bodies, water, mud, lava, burning stuff, goo. uhh… cereal? Ok I think you get the idea. And unfortunately, it’s time to wrap up this video. So let’s look at all the topics we’ve covered. Tech art has a lot going on. But, don’t let it intimidate you. If you’re interested in any of this stuff just know that it’s all learnable. Speaking of which, let’s get some advice from the experts. When I graduated, I drove out to California, from Philadelphia, and I was living on a friend’s floor trying to apply to places and I could not get a job, but all the while still applying to places at night, working on my demo reel, and taking that feedback that I was getting from places that would turn me down. You need to get yourself ready to learn new things. You can understand how the syntax works in Python, or how to write a sentence in Python, but it’s better for you to understand the fundamentals of programming and then you can actually translate those principles back into a different language or even something different in the future. I was between two worlds and it felt like I had to make a decision; like, I liked to program and I liked art. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that I could just continue to kind of straddle the line between those two and turn that into a career. I thought I had to, you know, be an artist or be a programmer. Turns out, there is this role which is, you know, technical art where you get to flex both of these muscles in a really cool, visible way. One of the most challenging parts of being a tech artist is having to context switch constantly throughout your day. For instance, one moment an animator might come up to you and they have a bug in their tool, and the next moment a modeler might come up to you and they’ll have this awesome new feature request that they want implemented. And even after that, you might end up talking to an engineer about something. You’ll have to be able to be quick on your feet so you can pivot what you’re thinking about and what you’re doing constantly. So the best advice I can give is go download one of the free engines that are out there. I definitely would recommend Unreal. There’s tons of tutorials that are out there and the best part about learning a game engine like Unreal is you learn how to make a game. And it’s applicable to any other engine that’s out there, be it a custom engine that a company is going to be be using, or one of the other off-the-shelf engines like Unity. It will teach you all the ins and outs to making a game, and it will allow you to inject anywhere you need to need to. And that is what is extremely important about being a tech artist, is understanding how games are made and what you need to do. It’s important to recognize that you are going to fail. And it’s not always going to be easy. But if you keep your head up, and you keep trying, you will get through. You’ll get into the industry, and… you’ll make it.