Dispatch from the Ministry of Art Direction

Alright, real talk: I don’t have much in the way of final art assembled in a presentable format for some pretty pictures, though I daresay, there’s been some fascinating work done lately that I can’t wait to show off on the blog, especially to do with the game’s terrain.

So instead of that I’m going to talk about what I actually do around here. On the good days, I get to draw dirt.  (Am I selling it yet?) Usually there’s not so much actual art-making for me and more doing meetings to coordinate with the other partners (that’s Daniel and Nicholas), popping over to the artists’ workstations to give feedback, filling out spreadsheets, or hiding liquor around the office.

I really do love drawing dirt. But someone has to keep the art team organized, on-task, and keep worried about the big picture so the artists don’t have to, so they can actually get some work done.

I could do this all day.

My job is to connect the big picture of the entire scope of all of the art required for Clockwork Empires to each distinct asset that needs to be created by each individual artist. You can’t just sit back and wave your hand at the artist and say “Oh, uh, we need some shrubberies”. We need to know how these shrubberies fit in with other assets already created (and yet to be created), the exact dimensions required, the gameplay role they fulfill, the visual style they need to match, and (best of all) the time allotted to production of the particular asset so the project can be finished on time.

Let’s walk through this process.

First, what does the game need? We’ve all got vague ideas in our head, but these ideas need to be written down so a. we don’t forget them (like during the Realm of the Diggle Gods production when we realized a week before final testing that we really ought to have some Diggle Gods in the game what with the expansion pack being named after them and all), and b. that we can have a knife fight when we discover that our ideas don’t actually agree with one another when we compare them in detail. A long time ago in an office far, far away (8 blocks or so) we wrote a giant design doc which is basically the “Clockwork Empires Bible”. This gets changed all the time, new testaments added, say, when we realized that we never actually talked about exactly how axles are supposed to attach to machines or someone came up with an idea to replace a system that was, in hindsight, completely terrible.

So need to know what biomes are going to do? Just search for it in our handy internal wiki (see fig. 1) and you will find a design overview of what biomes should do in Clockwork Empires. Reading this, we find that there are a number of layers of vegetation, one of which requires shrubberies. So I sit back, think a bit, and write a new page that lists all the shrubberies that I think will be cool to put in the game – and could fit into our production schedule – see fig. 2. (This list was also used to create a “minimum viable product” asset list which I then, for each category, very roughly estimated difficulty and current state of completeness, which then gives a rough idea of how much of remaining development time can be budgeted to each particular asset.)

1: Rough design doc of game system. 2: Giant high-level list of desired assets.

This part of the process is rather fun, about as close as one gets to “just coming up with cool ideas for the game”, though it must be tempered with, again, the overall project timeline. And it’s not a decree; maybe Daniel will be like “I think shrubs suck, we should only have very short trees”, then we have to have a design discussion. Still, I’m the bloody art director here, so I get a lot of free reign here provided I can make all the numbers add up and draw pretty enough pictures to sell the notion.

3: Concept art, 4: Task ticket & writeup

From here I get to the really fun part: concept art! I draw my idea of what these shrubberies should look like in the game, paying particular attention to palette, silhouette, simple geometry, and matching the vaguely defined style of all foliage built so far, and so on.

I can’t be too indulgent at this stage of the process though: when one thinks of “concept art” the image that appears are those beautiful art books you can purchase with all the concept art for a game laid out in wonderful spreads, or those promotional blog posts with the lovingly rendered characters looking all awesome. I don’t have time for that; I’m one guy and have a ton of other work to do and need to keep the pipeline flowing so that Joseph (characters), Sean (environment), and Chris (animation) have material to keep them busy at all times. These are not painstaking renderings; these are quick sketches that convey the most important points to hit with the design and no more. Sometimes I’ll pass concept art to one of the other artists, though I do tend to hoard these tasks because I enjoy it so much … and it probably helps to keep a somewhat consistent style for reference.

Right, so with concept art done, I write up a task ticket via our internal task tracker. This gets a description, a time budget, concept art attached, and is assigned to a particular artist. Then it’s done.

You didn’t think that was it, did you?

Oh wait, no it isn’t. I also maintain a central page of the current 2-week milestone for the art team which displays all the work they need to do in the given week. This is where artists look to see what they ought to be doing (well, I also tell them directly, but it’s important to have a record).

There’s also yet another page I maintain (with occasional mandatory volunteering from the art team) that lists every final art asset which has been written up and is awaiting production or is completed. It’s like the “list of ideal assets” from step 2 but referring to actual work that is being done or is done.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Sometimes we do experiments – “What would it look like if that man was riding a beetle?”, sometimes guidelines have to be written – “This is the Imperial standard unit of chair, table, bed, door, window frame, foundation height, step, and machinery module connector node height”, and sometimes I just need to scan 20 pages of documents.

It’s not exactly what I imagined the future would be back when I was cranking out pixel art for Dungeons of Dredmor from a basement somewhere, but it’s extremely rewarding when all the hard work and planning comes together. I expect this to happen more and more as we get closer to completion of Clockwork Empires and I am very much looking forward to showing it all off.


Edit: Because you’ve been so very patient and read to the end of this post about management, let’s show off something cool. Mr. Chris Whitman, suspected wizard, has been very busy but found the time to put together this screenshot showing progress on terrain rendering featuring a great deal of lovely, lovely dirt:

The water is pretty OK too.

Posted in Clockwork Empires | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

26 Responses to “Dispatch from the Ministry of Art Direction”

  1. Lekon says:

    “Make Terrain Pretty with Whitman” would be the most awesome public access art show ever. “And here we have an angry little tree. See how his self worth crumbles under the weight of a dystopian future.”

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  2. Fade Manley says:

    I love this kind of post. It’s not as immediately gee-whiz-rockets cool as the bits about character psyche or what not, but I love seeing how fractal complexity gets on a project like this. There are an awful lot of steps between “come up with cool idea” and “sell game” and some of them are deeply non-apparent to folks like me who don’t do anything nearly like this for a living, or even a hobby.

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  3. Jarenth says:

    I won’t say that that’s the loveliest dirt I’ve seen all day, but there you have it.

    I suck at operating scanners. Guess who’s staying tuned?

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  4. Kazeto says:

    You have my sympathy for being forced to be responsible, Sir David (no, really, I had to cooperate people in the past and I much prefer not having to do that and instead just doing my own thing).

    And the post isn’t really all that bad, contrary to what a certain tag implies.

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  5. Selvah says:

    Really love these posts you make weekly. I’m always waiting for them to show up so that i can enjoy an insight into your great work. Each and every time I find it awesome.

    So basically… I love you and just wanted you to be aware of it. So just keep it up and i’ll soon be willing to marry a diggle. Provided he’s a decent cook. Er… Not sure… what can a diggle possibly eat in a dungeon ? Roasted adventurer-only diet ? Too bad.

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  6. Meleketh says:

    Man, if your name wasn’t David I would so gay marry you, but that’s my name too, and thats just beyond my comfort zone.

    In other news, awesome post, its fun to see all the inside detail that goes on. I have to admit I’m dying to see something a little more Lovecraftian, I love that you guys geek out over that. Till then I will wait patiently for something unspeakable with tentacles to surface. Preferably with no teenage japanese schoolgirls in the vicinity. 😉

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    • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

      Please file marriage proposals as task tickets in the “marriage proposal” category so they can be entered into the correct spreadsheet.

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  7. Ruigi says:

    “First, what does the game need? We’ve all got vague ideas in our head, but these ideas need to be written down so a. we don’t forget them ”

    story of all my modding work

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  8. Seriously you’re still getting marriage proposals?

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  9. Marius Janke says:

    Hey David,
    you hav tagged the post with:
    “this ticket just requires me to make the dirt 20% cooler”
    Does it mean… you have a “Drawing Dirt”-Cutiemark?

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  10. Thndr says:

    I love reading about your guy’s development process. If it wasn’t for my crippling procrastination, I’d be doing a project myself. (I’ve been doing pixel art for years, well prior to my recent 1-4 year spell of procrastination).

    I know it’s still in development, but please sate me by telling me that the dirt on water edge generation is going to get some variance of grass levels to water level, at least on non-ocean borders.

    Rest of the last image looks great.

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  11. Bluerps says:

    This was not the worst blogpost ever! In fact, this blogpost is pretty interesting.

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  12. Aegis says:

    Don’t suppose you could show us some of the work done for the art of Dredmor (the asset lists and such) 😛

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    • Thomson Thorbrand in the White Van says:

      I’m rather curious about this as well – I like these peeks behind the curtain into the wiki-pages and asset tickets of madness.

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    • AdminDavid Baumgart says:

      Dredmor was a *lot* less organized, but I’ve got piles of documents somewhere … even sketchbooks where I planned skills out and drew ideas for items. Those might be fun to scan in.

      Yeah, I’ll show those at some point.

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  13. Pertusaria says:

    This is really neat – I respect your organisational ability, and the fact that you’ve laid out a timetable. It’s hard to force yourself (myself, at least) to do that.

    Also, I like your tree-drawing skills.

    Who won the knife fight?

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  14. isilox says:

    Dirt texture is indeed lovely, but what about texture tiling in the last screenshot? Nothing screams more “you are playing a game!” every second that obviously tiled textures.

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