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.
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.)
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.
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.
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: