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GDC 2012: Visual Arts Veterans Hanna, Reid On Tools, Trends For Game Artists

To help inspire submissions for the GDC 2012 call for papers, the event's advisory board members for the Visual Arts track spoke out on the challenges facing modern artists, and outlined what they hope to see at the upcoming March 2012 San Francisco-based event.

Seasoned industry professionals Jeff Hanna from Volition (Saints Row: The Third) and Steve Reid from Red Storm Entertainment (Ghost Recon: Future Soldier) discussed the most significant accomplishments, challenges, and trends facing game artists as part of their drive to encourage submission ideas for the GDC 2012 Main Conference.

As GDC advisory board members, these industry veterans oversee the show's Visual Arts track and ensure that each of its sessions remain relevant and hold up the high bar of quality that GDC attendees have come to expect.

The call for papers for GDC 2012 will close on September 6, with a list of Visual Arts-specific topics available on the official website. In the following interview, the advisory board members discuss key issues they'd like to see addressed at next March's show.

As tech continues to advance, what sort of new opportunities will arise for artists? And what complications?

Jeff Hanna: For every year that passes, artists have more and more opportunities to fully express their creative vision. As processor speeds increase, RAM expands, and graphics SDKs expose new features, a game artist's toolbox grows extraordinarily large. My hope is that none of these new technologies ever unduly complicate an artist's life. As long as tools programmers, graphics programmers, and technical artists strive to create artist-centric tools to encapsulate these new avenues of expression, artists can concentrate on what they do best: creating great art.

Steve Reid: Technology helps make technically savvy artists better, but it also risks alienating the traditional artists. Technology can help talented people become great craftsman, while not actually transforming them into great artists. As we have games now of all styles and genres, I still believe that technology can help, but it is more often a band-aid than a cure. I think the greatest project impact still comes from good artistic direction, planning, and prototyping, while the greatest personal impact comes from a traditional education with a thorough understanding of foundational skills and visual narrative.

In terms of visuals, what needs to be done to help developers get out of the uncanny valley?

Jeff Hanna: To get out of the uncanny valley, the first thing you need to determine is which way you want to go. Striving for fully photorealistic 100 percent human-appearing characters in many cases will not be the right art direction choice. In fact, backing out of the valley will often yield better results than pressing forward. I feel that we already posses the capability to make engaging characters that can seamlessly exist within a given art style. As with all game art direction, the design of the characters will be a balancing act between what is possible and the overall visual look of the game.

Steve Reid: For me, I believe that this isn't a challenge for all games. Only games that attempt to engage the viewer as a first person active character within the story really deal with the issue. And for those specific games, storage space might be the only limitation that truly needs to be addressed to overcome the uncanny valley. As the engines and platforms continue to improve, I'd only worry about the amount of data required to make an engaging digital character. For robotics, however, I still think they have a longer journey ahead to create a physical, interactive replica ... those are still way too creepy!

How have social and mobile games affected the role of artists in the industry?

Jeff Hanna: Social and mobile games have expanded the opportunities for everyone in this industry. They have created new jobs and allowed artists to better chart their own careers. Not everyone wants or needs to work for a large first- or third-party developer. For many people, a smaller more intimate team working on more diverse titles is a desirable employment choice. I find it wonderful that this industry can offer such a diverse range of job possibilities for everyone.

Steve Reid: In some ways, social and mobile games have reminded us that games do not necessarily need to be complicated technological marvels to be entertaining. Sometimes just being fun is good enough for the customer. The artist's role has expanded -- or perhaps reverted -- to include small format screens and limited palettes. But even better than the classic game-mechanic resurgence is the fact that [having] more quick-turn projects allows for a greater number of artists to experience the challenge of expressing their unique vision. More products equals more art directors. Working as an art director on any product forces that artist to consider the product as a whole. Not to say that there can be a direct comparison between a free-to-play iOS art director and a AAA art director, but the industry as a whole benefits as the talent pool more deeply understands the importance to create products with a unified vision and artistic harmony.

What are some of the biggest obstacles facing developers and artists in the visual arts space today?

Jeff Hanna: The two biggest obstacles facing every developer are time and money. We are constantly striving to do more in less time and with smaller budgets. Luckily, we are in a very creative industry and new solutions to these problems are always appearing. Emergent technologies, like using Microsoft's Kinect for low cost motion capture, for example, can help turn previously expensive tools into commodities that even smaller teams can add to their workflows.

Steve Reid: I agree with Jeff, as "striving to do more in less time and with smaller budgets" fits much of the industry. However, there is still a lot of work involved when creativity and quality are on the top of the development wish list, which means sometimes we strive to do more at the risk of longer development time and larger budgets. And while some people still dream of doing the biggest and best game, this comes at the risk of changing business models to reflect the longer development cycles and the decreased number of titles produced at that AAA scale.

What subjects are you particularly excited to see covered in this year's Visual Arts track?

Jeff Hanna: The renewed push to provide educational and compelling talks for artists at GDC 2012 is what has me most excited about next year's show. I think it will be one of the best in terms of learning opportunities for artists in our industry.

Steve Reid: I think it will be good to see more from the social and mobile gaming developers as the market grows to include them, [rather than] shifting to become them.

Additional Info

GDC 2012's call for papers for the Main Conference is now open until September 6, with Visual Arts-specific topics listed on the official website. Potential speakers are encouraged to send in their session proposals via GDC's online submission system -- the event itself will take place March 5-9 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

For more information on GDC 2012 as the event takes shape, please visit the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC news page via RSS, Twitter, or Facebook. GDC Europe is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.


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