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Thursday 2 March 2017

Arran Langmead, lecturer on Solent’s computer games (art) degree, talks about how the games industry’s size has made it risk-averse, and the balance between its artistic and technical sides.

When publishers reach a certain size, they realise they’re responsible for the lives and livelihoods of their people; husbands; wives; kids. Mortgages. You don’t take risks with people who need to pay their mortgages. The ethics are sound, but you lose something – the ability to take on those risky, truly innovative jobs.

It became safely formulaic at the bigger companies – repeating familiar formats, familiar franchises with a built-in audience. And it works; Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V generated more than $800 million worldwide within 24 hours of its release, and broke a billion dollars within three days. For the creators, though, indie is the way to keep pushing games beyond the boundaries, keeping it fresh.

But what even is ‘indie’? It’s difficult to tell. There are studios with massive budgets, with publishers behind them, who call themselves indie. Yet the clue’s in the name – ‘independent’ – working independently of a publisher.

There’s an air of nostalgia about that; of recalling the early days of gaming, where the first few games were made by programmers without an art team; they were doing everything themselves, using simple designs or iconography rather than art. Running on passion, without the support or safety net that a publisher provides.

But you could argue that modern games, at the top of the industry, are too complex for that. People always want to make bigger games. The art pipeline has become progressively more technical, and the demand for the average artist to understand the technology is very high.

Plotting movement routes within the Bears Can't Drift game

There’s almost a split going on within the structure of the industry, as to what an artist is. You can have a high-end artist who doesn’t understand the tech but is an amazing artist, and there are jobs for those people… but they need a lot of support. Translating art into real-time display is difficult, and smaller studios don’t have the resources to support those kinds of avant-garde figures.

The smaller the studio, the more they want you to be able to understand the entire pipeline. It’s very difficult for programmers to sacrifice processing power for something which is just pretty on the screen. Artists come in with these huge artistic demands that the hardware simply wasn’t capable of. They need someone with a firm understanding of both disciplines – that’s where technical artists come in.

PBR (physically based rendering), for example, simulates the behaviour of light – that’s an awfully complicated thing for an average artist to understand. You’re doing a lot of inferences, like how reflective the surface is; artists have to paint a texture which tells the programme how reflective the surface is, and that’s not an intuitive thing.

So there’s real complexity, and the big budget triple-A studios are pushing the boundaries of what can be done. They want technical people who can work out how to simulate how cloth reflects light – that kind of work requires someone who understand the technical and the artistic at the same time.

So tech artists are definitely in demand, with roles taking months to fill – an eternity in the games industry. So for artists with technical understanding, it’s good money and fairly secure employment; but you really have to have a passion for it, and more.

A good artist, to bridge that gap, has to be really inquisitive. They have to want to understand things, to question.

So what we do at Solent, on the art side, is go deep. Modelling, computer graphics, PBR, how light works – we go all the way down to the physics. Is light a wave or a particle? We push our artists to develop their understanding of programming and technology, to be able to think about those questions.

Virtual reality systems are likely the next big thing, with potential applications in healthcare, engineering and more. But it’s still going to need someone to create the art, and make sure it runs on the hardware available. It’s the gaming industry that has the skills and experience to find that compromise, to make it work.

And perhaps we’re starting to find that same balance, that same spirit of compromise, within the industry. Where indie studios can afford to take the risks, bringing boldness and innovation and fresh ideas. And those ideas filter up into the triple-A market, where they can bring the latest technology and art resources to bear – and really make them shine.