Speaker Q&A: Jodie Azhar advocates for formalizing technical art processes

As game development teams achieve veteran status working on project after project, questions begin to arise about formally documenting what were once improvised solutions to commonplace problems. But how should developers, especially technical artists, go about formalizing these processes?

At GDC 2018, Creative Assembly lead technical artist Jodie Azhar wants to help developers solve that problem. As part of the technical artist bootcamp, she’ll be giving a talk on what happens when tech art teams need to stabilize workflows in order to save time in the long run during development. To learn more about Azhar’s talk, we’ve reached out to her for a quick Q&A which you can read in full below!

Don’t miss out! The Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next March is going to be full of interesting and informative sessions like Azhar’s. For more visit the show’s official website.

Tell us about yourself and what you do in the games industry.

I’m the Lead Technical Artist for the Total War series at Creative Assembly. My team supports all the Total War projects in development for both their project specific technical art requests and supporting our central art pipelines. This means our day to day work is quite diverse and we solve a range of problems within tool development; art optimization; art asset generation; shader writing; and artist support.

My role as a Lead sees me working with our Art Directors on what each project wants to achieve with our art and helping to come up with solutions that drive the visuals forward with each game we release.

What inspired you to pursue your career?

I’ve played video games from a young age, with some of my favorite memories being playing point and click adventures with my mum and older sister. However, it didn’t occur to me growing up that I could get a job making games. It wasn’t until my final year at University that I decided what I wanted to do for a career.

Luckily my interests aligned with the skills needed to become a game developer. I loved maths and science at school, but it was my choice to also take art that paved the way for where I am now.I went on to study a course that’s now called Computer Animation Technical Arts at Bournemouth University in the UK and it taught me maths for computer graphics, programming and 3D art and animation. My background in both maths and art was essential for this.Being able to work in an industry that’s constantly evolving, allowing me to find new technical challenges to overcome, but getting to do so in a creative way that results in amazing visual output is what keeps me happy.

Without spoiling it too much, tell us what you’ll be talking about at GDC.

I’ll be talking about different methods and techniques that developers can apply to be more critical thinking in the way we approach problem solving. This focuses on how they can be applied to benefit both veteran Technical Artists and those who are still aspiring to become Technical Artists in the games industry, and even the technically minded artists or programmers who support the art in games.

Technical art has evolved out of the space between creative thinkers and technical thinkers and for many people that’s meant starting out on one end of the spectrum and making their way to the middle. Because of this we haven’t always had a shared vocabulary for discussing solutions or a formal way of doing things.

This talk should give ideas that developers can explore and apply to their own processes, whether they work in a large or small team, with the goal being developing the right solution for the team and the project.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work?

Technical Art is all about challenges and solving problems, which is what I find so exciting about my job. But there are a couple of challenges specific to my team and the games we make.

Firstly Total War renders a lot on screen at once. Most of our games have a campaign whose map covers a wide area for the player to traverse, explore and take over. The Total War: WARHAMMER series allows two full games to combine their campaign maps for the Mortal Empires campaign and load content from both games. As well as this we have battles where hundreds of characters fight against each other, which means lots of animations and VFX all playing at once, as well as a detailed and engaging environments for them to fight in. We help optimize the art to enable all this data to be loaded and rendered on screen to make an incredible experience for players. We also need to support pipelines that work with multiple projects.

We currently have several Total War projects in development at various stages of production. Each of these titles requires a different level of support and may want to push the development of different art features. We need to support the artists on each project, and provide tools to support these new features, while ensuring our tools still work for every other project.

Creative Assembly has been making games for over 30 years now, with over 18 years spent developing Total War titles. We’re invested in continuing to develop high quality games, which means building on our tools and code base for our games. However, in this way we’re lucky as developers, as any feature we’re unable to add to the game or to our tools, we’re able to consider implementing for a future title.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

Being a Technical Artist you feel a lot of achievements. This ranges from small things like helping to fix an issue that an artist is encountering, to something big like improving the framerate in game, or building a system that supports a whole new art feature. It’s also a great feeling when you reduce the time it takes for artists to create their work, because you know they’ll invest that saved time back into the creative part of their job and improve the visual quality of what they’re making.But the best reward is knowing that the people playing the finished game will have an enjoyable experience that runs smoothly and is filled with all the amazing art that our artists create.

Do you have any advice for those aspiring to join your field someday?

The role of Technical Artists is all about problem solving, so it’s important to develop these skills and become a good critical thinker. Learn to analyse problems and understand how things work and how they might be improved or applied to different areas. Our role is to support artists, so observe how other artists work and see if there are processes that they do that are slow or repetitive that you could improve with a tool, or if there’s something that you or another artist wants to achieve that is difficult or unreliable with the current software. Where you find these issues, come up with ways of enabling the desired art to be created efficiently and to a high standard.

As a Technical Artist you also need to be great at communicating and working with others. Since Technical Artists support the rest of the art team in what they want to achieve and need to articulate ideas and requests to programmers, we need to be good at communicating information in a meaningful way to each discipline and work as a team to come up with the right solution to problems. If you’re not a team player then it doesn’t matter how good you are at creating great tools or solving complex problems, as you won’t be able to support your artists effectively by ensuring you’re coming up with solutions that make sense to them and that they trust in your support.

You need to understand the processes of creating art and how artists think, but I’d also recommend studying maths. It’s not essential to be good at maths to be a Technical Artist, however, it’s a very powerful tool for problem solving. Everything in computer graphics has its root in maths, so understanding it unlocks a lot of potential for you. Many people get put off of maths because they don’t know how to apply it to something they’re interested in and so don’t pursue it far enough to realise the exciting possibilities it allows. There are plenty of online resources for learning maths these days, so you don’t have to feel you’ve missed your chance, or if you didn’t enjoy learning it in the classroom you can find a more interactive approach from your own home that may work for you.

How do you think other developers can better approach the concept of building workflows into their game-making processes, whether it’s for technical art or another department?

When creating workflows you need to analyse what it is you want to do. If you’re starting with an existing workflow the first question is “Is what we have good enough?”. If the answer is yes then you can leave it as it is. Overengineering a solution can do more harm than good.You need to create workflows that are right for the end user. What do they want to achieve? How do they want to work? How do they think? You need to create workflows that are right for the end user. What do they want to achieve? How do they want to work? How do they think?

There are a few main reasons for improving workflows

1. Reduce the amount of time something takes

2. Make the process more reliable and consistent and reduce chance of error

3. Reduce the strain/impact of change at critical times

4. Improve the quality of what you’re creating

By being analytical and using these reasons to help measure what the improvements will be if you were to make changes to a workflow, it’s a lot easier to decide when the right time is to make a change to a process, or how big a change to make. Getting these right helps ensure there’s a successful conversion to the new workflow, it doesn’t disrupt those using it and that you can handle any problems that you may not have foreseen.

GDC 2018 will take place March 19-23rd at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. For more information, visit the show’s official website, or subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitter, or RSS.