Designer versus Artist

I love working with artists because they can make my ideas spring to life like magic. But it seems like MMO artists and MMO designers come to blows about a few things over and over. Let’s look at the common arguments, and who should win.

Nighttime is too dark!
Most games suffer from this to some extent. (WoW and a few others are exceptions.)

  • Artist says: “It needs to be dark because otherwise the ambiance of the scene is ruined!”
  • Designer says: “Yeah, but you can’t see more than 20 feet ahead of you and the in-game torches aren’t strong enough to correct it.” Players have three responses to a dark game, based on age and savviness: they can squint, they can turn off all the lights and drape towels in front of the windows, or they can turn up the gamma and brightness until they can see again. In EverQuest 1, you had to do all three.
  • Winner: Designer. This isn’t a painting, it’s a game. The ambiance of nighttime will suffer, and that’s all there is to it. This goes for overly realistic weather effects, too. The older you get, the less tolerance you have for this. (Hint: it’s because your eyes get crappier.)

We can’t let players dye armor in the game! It’ll look like crap!
Although programmatic color variants were a handy way to add diverse appearance options in earlier MMOs, the techniques used back in the day look pretty unappealing now.

  • Artist says: “This is a suit of leather armor. Applying a ‘dye’ effect to my amazing leather texture just turns it into a big blotchy smear and it looks stupid. I won’t allow the game to look stupid.”
  • Designer says: “Yes, algorithmic dyes look bad, but we only budgeted for six suits of armor with five variants each, so in the end everybody is going to end up looking the same. We need dyes and any other cheap tricks we can come up with to give players appearance choices!”
  • Winner: Compromise. Don’t programmatically do “dyes” with cheap color techniques like some sort of 90′s game; instead, choose a dye selection of eight to ten colors and have the artist touch up all the dye variants. It’s not a perfect solution: designers would prefer far more color variants than just 10, and artists are annoyed because it means there’ll be purple leather and green plate mail in the game. But at least the artist will have touched it up so it shouldn’t look nearly as dumb.

This is the epic boss monster! He needs to be awesomer!
Monsters in an MMO (and any game, really) have a “budget” : they can’t exceed certain technical limits (such as polygon count, texture size, particle count, number of rendering passes, etc.) without causing framerate problems when there’s lots of creatures on-screen at once. But artists, like all creative people, will strain at their limitations.

  • Artist says: “This is the epic dragon at the end of an incredibly hard quest sequence. Only this dragon will be visible — no other monsters will be around it. So I should be able to triple the monster’s polygon count and it won’t affect anything!”
  • Designer says: “I was hoping to reuse that dragon by scaling him down and applying a texture variant. But now I can’t use the dragon near any other creatures without ruining the framerate!”
  • Winner: Usually the designer. MMOs have so much ground to populate that they need to be able to easily reuse all art assets. The exception? The amazing demo monster you use for selling your project to investors and making advertisements should be as impressive as you can make it. (Just make sure the artist also makes a crappier version for designers to use elsewhere.)

I don’t need your help, I can do it myself!
An artist’s time is precious, and designers never have all the assets they want. Resourceful designers will want to “wing it” by improvising. Say they need a corn field but don’t have one: well, if they have an art asset for a single stalk of corn, they just place that corn stalk into the ground 500 times and voila, it’s a corn field!

  • Artist says: “A corn field is not a rubber-stamped collection of 500 identical corn stalks. It looks stupid.”
  • Designer says: <nothing — normally tries to hide this from the artist so they don’t notice>
  • Winner: Artist. It not only looks silly, but the designer’s “improvisation” is also likely to be extremely inefficient in the game’s engine for one reason or another. Designers aren’t artists. If they can’t get the art they need for a particular dungeon or quest, they need to redesign the dungeon or quest. (After the game has shipped and the engine is stable and the designers are more experienced, this might be less of a problem. But early on, no funny business.)

You can’t see this player’s scar in-game!
Artists draw at really high resolutions. They tend to make things that look good in high-res. Unfortunately, seeing it in-game isn’t the same as seeing it in Maya.

  • Artist says: “I know what looks good, and this is a good-looking rugged scar [or a nice subtle tattoo, or a classy nose-ring, or...]“
  • Designer says: “It looks great in Maya, but in the game you can barely see it: the engine degrades the quality a bit, the player is wearing a shirt over the tat, and everybody is running around at 20 MPH anyway. It has to be BIG if you want it noticed!”
  • Winner: It’s a draw. It’s true that only exaggerated features are visible in game, but an important special case is the new-character-creation screen. While the player is customizing his avatar, the screen zooms in on the model so minor details are much more noticeable. At this stage, players want subtle touches, not grotesque scars or huge earrings. They’ll just ignore features that look ugly during character-generation. But once they get into the game, these minor details will be nearly invisible. So in the end, you use the exaggerated features for NPCs, and the subtle (and largely unnoticeable) features for player characters.

I’m sure I’m missing a bunch more. It’s funny, though — when I jump into a new game and notice that nighttime is too dark, I immediately think, “looks like atmosphere is more important than fun in this game,” and my confidence in the game goes down (in direct proportion to how much I have to crank the gamma up). Don’t make these same old mistakes! Make new, fresh mistakes!

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8 Responses to Designer versus Artist

  1. Talyn says:

    I’ll wholeheartedly agree with just about all of these.

    Night: I actually didn’t care for WoW’s night because it was nearly as bright as day, only the sky color was different and a bright blue sky would light up my office but I could see equally in both. In Vanguard, dark is dark. Damn dark. Very damn dark. Not to mention it seems like they programmed the cycle to be 30 minutes of day and 3 hours of night.

    Dyes: Yes, please! We do like to feel like we’re individuals. Even if our neon pink and green armor looks utterly ridiculous and causes irreparable damage to the viewer’s eyes, at least we have that avenue of self-expression.

    Scars: meh… I actually just created my first character ever who has scars. One of the many reasons I’d never done this before is quite simple: within 5 levels, I’ll have enough new armor, etc. from the noob quests to cover up everything I did in the game’s “advanced” character generation, so why bother? If the designers aren’t going to let the artist’s work be seen and appreciated anyway, then the artist’s time is better spent elsewhere.

    Repetitive textures: Cornfields I can live with, though I’d certainly appreciate a few different varieties of the cornfields interspersed within each other to make it feel more real. But for cryin’ out loud, make enough textures to make the overall world look organic. Again Vanguard is a good example of abusing texture repetition; though I’ll give them free brownie points since the game wasn’t actually ready for release. We’ll see if they go back and re-texture the world as they progress though.

  2. Night: When I was on Asheron’s Call I was annoyed with how dark night was. My solution? The directional “sun” component was set to “high noon” and weakened slightly from its daytime level and the ambient light component was left at its daytime level. The sky itself was a dark star field at night and some distant and weak “black fog” made distant hills look dark beyond the range where you could see things like players and monsters. What surprised me was that night still felt dark even through the near-field vision was rather bright. I claim you can still get good nighttime ambiance without punishing your player.

    Still, I suspect in many cases its the designers crying for darker night. I’d think the artists would want their art to be visible and its misguided designers who think blackest night makes the game scarier or more dangerous or increases consequences or some other lame excuse for incompetence.

    The worst day-night cycle mistake you might make, however, is to tie in-game light levels to real-world light levels. This means that a casual player that can only play for a few minutes right before bedtime will always be left in the dark. If your day cycle actually has in-game repercussions (item/monster Foo only spawns at midday/night) that magnifies the problem even more. In Asheron’s Call we used a seven hour day cycle to ensure players weren’t stuck with one light level. Any day cycle length that is relatively prime to the 24 hours in a real day will keep things mixed up.

  3. Koal says:

    Quoting: but an important special case is the new-character-creation screen. While the player is customizing his avatar, the screen zooms in on the model so minor details are much more noticeable. At this stage, players want subtle touches, not grotesque scars or huge earrings. They’ll just ignore features that look ugly during character-generation. But once they get into the game, these minor details will be nearly invisible. So in the end, you use the exaggerated features for NPCs, and the subtle (and largely unnoticeable) features for player characters.

    Except players aren’t stupid. They see those fancy detail options the first time they make a character and quickly realize that the details they chose are completely invisible. Those who don’t just skip past all your fancy options then get a little pissed off when they realize they just spent 30 minutes fiddling with sliders and decorations that completely disappear the minute the character actually steps into the game. So, your team wasted how many man hours developing something that has now caused players aggravation and disappointment and added no value at all to your game?

  4. Brant says:

    A Tale In The Desert uses an interesting trick for its day/night cycle: instead of the world getting darker, it gets a little dimmer but desaturated. The desaturation makes the darkness feel like nighttime (while keeping the transition between day and night noticeable), without making it impossible to see. I don’t know of any other games that use the technique.

  5. Eric says:

    Todd – I remember AC1′s redone nighttime effect; it worked pretty well without being too dark. One side effect was that you got the impression the moon was always bright out, which worked fine in AC where there were multiple moons.

    In general I think you’re right, though: it’s always possible to get good nighttime effects without punishing the player. And you can even avoid the “everything goes purple” WoW effect if you want to…

    Koal – True for old-timers, but first time MMO players love those details, and I don’t think we have any evidence to show they’re disappointed about them later on. I’ve watched plenty of new MMO players spend a very long time in character customization. They actually use scars and tattoos to help define the character in their mind and give them a personality, so even though it’s hidden later, the player still knows it’s there.

    As I play more and more MMO’s, I find myself caring less about ALL of character-generation. Just get me in the game, already! So if I was making an MMO aimed at veteran MMO players, I’d be okay with skimping on the up-front char-gen options.

  6. Talyn says:

    I think I’d be in favor of taking a kinda inverse approach: just give me the basics when I create my character, then as I play if I take huge amounts of damage or wounds or “die” a lot, then start putting scars on my face and I’ll have to find some type of advanced healing player or NPC to remove them for a price (quest or currency). If my armor is taking damage, show that too.

  7. Sandra says:

    Todd Berkebile said: “The worst day-night cycle mistake you might make, however, is to tie in-game light levels to real-world light levels.”

    I initially thought that this was a terrible mistake in WoW (which does indeed tie the in-game time to real time). But because nighttime light levels in WoW are still generally quite acceptable, I quickly decided that it didn’t *have* to be a terrible mistake.

    But then I started fishing … and found out that a number of the fishing results tables (what fish you get in different areas) are also tied to the day/night cycle — which means that I had to set my alarm to get a decent catch of stonescale eel for my alchemy potions. *sigh*

    Of course, day/night content is another topic all together — and one I know is on our list to talk about at some point.

  8. Tzing says:

    Great battle. They were fighting really hard, but everyone left with his own opinion. Just one question – who is the one, who say “That one is the winner”?