Here are some words of advice to some students who recently asked me some questions about their new start-up game company. They are at the very beginning state of creating their studio, have a game concept and art from an artist that hits on the direction they want to take. But, they are not sure about some aspects of execution, which can be difficult. So, here are the questions along with my answers that I thought some of you may find interesting.

We had a concept artist create an art bible that we really like, but they can’t stay with us. What that means is that we will probably be looking for a lead artist/art director who wants to embrace the style established in the art bible and direct our future art team to be able to execute consistently to that style.

Since I think your goal is to maintain a very small team, the art lead you choose should probably be able to handle hands-on contribution to one, if not all, of the major content components in a game – 3D characters/objects, environments, animation, FX, UI, and marketing collateral.

During Halo1, I designed, built, textured and animated all kinds of things like the Master Chief and Marines, the Warthog and Pelican, and many of the levels along with FX throughout.

I am wondering if you have much experience/wisdom with this process– specifically, a team of artists receiving a thorough, robust art bible and executing to that style, without necessarily retaining the concept artist on-staff throughout production.  Possible pitfalls we should be looking out for, or approaches we should take to maximize our chances of a smooth, successful art process?

I would highly caution against expecting a group of artists to strictly adhere to images made by a concept artist for the art bible. Even if they are very talented and will get you a long way in developing a look and feel for your game, you will need your content artists to translate that concept and convert it to real functional game assets. During that process, the content will change out of necessity for the needs of the game. You will also want your content creators to take some amount of ownership over what they create in order for them to become truly invested in your venture. To do this, you should allow them to translate the concept art and have a little leeway in transforming it into something that you both like. It’s very likely that you will find some designs that do not translate well to real functional content. For instance, after playing your game and iterating the design, you will certainly find aspects of some content that needs to change in order to suit design changes. If successful, you’ll be able to drive the original vision of the game using the art bible while allowing that vision to evolve with the people helping you build the game.

Personally, I always define what something needs to do before I begin defining what it looks like. Since I take such an active role in designing the game and how it plays, almost everything that we throw at the player needs to have some reason to exist. And, what it looks like, how it behaves or changes all need to follow how it fits into the overall design. Once  you start actively playing, you will begin forming a much clearer understanding of the core gameplay mechanics and what is actually proving to be fun. I’m positive that once you get to that point, your vision for the game will have modified. This is good and totally necessary, so expect it to happen. At this point, you need artists who can pull from the design aesthetics created by you concept artist and then build entirely new content based on that aesthetic.

Also, what have you found is generally a good ratio of modelers to texture artists to animators on an art team for an art/animation-heavy game?  Our game is, art-wise, probably equivalent to a game like Donkey Kong Country– albeit with a MUCH smaller team.

For a small team project focusing primarily on animation, I would build it out like this:

  • 2-3 animators. I bet you could get away with 2 if you keep character capability reasonable. We made Halo1 with only 2 animators for the bulk of thre project! But in contrast, I had 16+ animators on Halo: Reach – a much more complex game.
  • 1-2 character/object modelers. I like to split my character artists up in ways where one owns all the monsters, and one owns all the allies. Something like this helps build consistency for the project.
  • 1-2 environment artists if you go with a modular approach – more if you build custom geo for every level.

For texturing, it’s still industry standard in games for 3D and environment artists to paint their own textures. The film industry has had dedicated texture artists for years, but due to the nature of game content, it’s not necessary most of the time. However, times are changing and content is becoming much more complex, so I believe the gaming industry will follow the film model especially when next gen content pipelines begin forming for future game consoles and engines.

For FX and UI, I would try to find 3D artists who are capable of both. Throughout Halo, I designed/built characters, textures, environments, FX and UI. You just need to find the right folks with enough capability and ambition to perform multiple tasks. For a small team, this is critical.

Of course, you need to consider time. If you want to bang this project out in a few months, then you may need more help. If you have the luxury of spending more time, then you could probably do it with fewer people. Scale is also a huge factor. If you are crazy ambitious, then you are going to need more people to build your vision. Make sure you keep a tight eye on your sanity regulator. Just keep it simple and you will find something that clicks, then allow it grow from there. I made Halo1 with a team of 45 back in 2000. In 2010, I built my team for Halo: Reach to over 250 and it cost a bazillion dollars

What can we do to maximize our chances of achieving a AAA aesthetic with a small team, in a game that has a variety of environments, 6 main playable characters, as well as a number of specific set-piece moments?

Think modular for the environments. If you build a set of highly interchangeable parts for the foundation, you can quickly build lots of environment content easily. It’s also a great way to quickly iterate the design of spaces. Then, you can skin them in different ways to theme each level uniquely. On top of the foundation, think of a limited number of palettes for objects that you may need to dress each level – all the stuff like rocks, trees, buildings, etc. Try to boil it down to the essentials and stay simple. If you have time in the end, you can always add a little more icing to the cake.

For characters, if you have some that can share the same skeletal structure, you’ll benefit with animation sharing, or at least being able to easily modify animation content in Maya or whatever app you use for animation.

We always call set piece moments “resource bonfires” because they usually consume a large amount of time and effort for very little repeat return. They are great to have, just be careful about how ambitious you get.

You should also be creative and “cheat” wherever you can. During Halo1, we ran out of production time, so we had to cut about 3 whole levels out of the game. It was painful. But, we got creative and decided to play backwards through 2 of the levels we had already created. We lighted them differently, added different FX and some custom set dressing items, and that allowed us to fill out the campaign with great content which was cheap for us to modify.

And how much should we expect to pay a quality artist, animator, or texture artist?

A seasoned game artist can command a salary from $80-150 or much more in the pro studio circuit. But, you can find talent coming right out of school and probably agree on something far less. You are going to need to set your budgets to determine how many people you can or should bring on full time. Maybe contracting to artists would make more sense. In that case, you could either handle it hourly or set a price for a bulk of content and pay them in installments. Or, you could arrange to pay them with some percentage of revenue for the shipping game.

Another question– have you ever heard of on-staff artists being paid per asset, instead of salary/hourly wages?  If so, what kinds of rates should we be targeting per asset?  A ballpark number for animated character as well as simpler environmental asset would be helpful.  Is there any standard rate for this type of pay structure?

Like stated above, this would translate to bringing in an artist as a contractor on-site. We did this all the time at Bungie. It’s a great way to test drive an artist and validate that they will work well with you and your team. The rates can be all over the place – usually hourly, not per asset.

There you have it. A bunch of hot air – maybe – but I hope it helps some people out there.