Thursday, 3 September 2009

Attitude and Criticism

One thing you will face as an artist in the games industry is criticism. It's unavoidable. Your co-workers will tear your work apart, your leads will tear your work apart and your art director will tear your work apart. Maybe not devastatingly so, but they will still find things you can improve and undoubtedly you will be told to change things. So the right attitude is pretty important, on both sides if you want to keep the artists at least civil with eachother. Giving and being able to take criticism is probably one of the most important skills to have in order to stay moderately sane when working in this industry since you are working with a group of creative people who (hopefully) want to create the best looking game that they can.

In order to do so we try to help and push eachother to new heights and there will inevitably be occasions when someone will look at your screen and, depending on their social skills, say anything from "That's shit" to "Looks good, but you could chage that bit to this and this bit here to that, could be cool" to "The publisher has changed the date, we need to cut this down". That last one is especially fun. What I'm getting at is that no piece of work survives contact with your co-workers so being able to distance yourself from your work is very important. I'm not saying don't be passionate about what you are doing, you have to be if you want to be good but don't let your work equal your self esteem. I've seen a lot of young (and not so young) artists starting out and as soon as someone points out a flaw get very defensive and try to fob it off with "It's supposed to look like that, his nose was grafted on after a dog bit it off and the doctor was a cross-eyed drunk with parkinsons so he couldn't do it very well so that's why the nose looks like that, be quiet". Which isn't really helping anyone. Of course, you don't have to rely on your co-workers since there are a few simple ways to check your own work. One of them is to just mirror whatever you're working on, either in your tools or by looking at it in a mirror. After a while your brain gets used to the way things are placed in relation to eachother so flipping it will force your brain to re-evaluate the image, helping you spot flaws or maybe if you nudge that bit there a bit to the left it will look even better. Or you can flip it upside down. Another way is to play with colourschemes, again forcing your brain to refresh.

Being able to look at your work with critical eyes and a bit of distance is going to help you in the long run and make you a better artist. Being able to look at other peoples work and point out things that could be better in a nice way is also something that will help you in the long run, especially on the social side. As an example, CGTalk has battled with this for some time, on how to get people to give constructive criticism instead of the usual "AWESOME!!!11" and "That's shit!" and it's just as important, if not more so in a studio. You don't want your co-workers seeing you as an obnoxious idiot so when commenting on peoples work it's a good idea to articulate why something is great/shit and what could change. Preferably at the same time. Criticism is usually absorbed a bit easier if you point out something that is good at the same time as you point out something that is bad. Of course, once you get to know the poeple you work with you will know who you can walk up to and say "Jesus, what the hell did you do to that?!" and have a laugh and who is a bit more sensitive about their work where a more diplomatic approach is needed. I'm not saying you have to be overly nice about it but you do need to be honest. If you give honest criticism and explain why and perhaps think of a few ways it can be improved, people will (hopefully) appreciate it more. When you ask for advice they will hopefully treat you the same way since that is the best way to improve. Being nice to someone can actually do more damage than good in some cases. Tell the truth, but do it in a polite way and you get the best of both worlds. There's no need to put someone down just because they made a mistake, that is not constructive and will only generate ill will which might come back and bite you later.

Speaking of attitudes, having an open mind towards new techniques, tools and programs is really important in my opinion. In this industry the technology is always evolving and there's almost always something new popping up that looks cool and interesting so to dismiss it wihtout giving it a look seems counterproductive to me. On one hand it's easy to get stuck in your ways and not really try to evolve ("it works for me and I'm happy with it") which isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself but it does mean you can get left behind in a way. Take the not so recent transition where we started to use normalmaps. It's been used in games for at least 4-5 years by now but there are still games where the normalmaps are a mess. Wether this is due to lack of knowledge or lack of passion, the result is the same, it looks like crap. Having an interest in learning and sharing the knowledge is as much as anyone can do since you can't actually force anyone to learn new stuff unless they want to (well if you're the lead/AD you can force them...) and it will show that you're trying to improve both yourself and the general quality of work which you will hopefully be encouraged to. There are of course places where this isn't appreciated or might even be actively discouraged but you can't win all the time.

In conclusion, being able to give constructive criticism is very important as is being able to take it on board. Having an attitude of "I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread!" and ignoring what your co-workers are saying isn't going to do you any favours. Being open to knowledge no matter the source and being willing to share is the way to go. This might be a bit obvious to you but from what I've seen and heard, it really isn't that apparent to people that we are evolving as an industry every day, every week. New tools, new ideas and new processes will always come along and complement the old ways. Being able to seize on these and bend them to your will is not a bad thing and it saddens me when people treat them with suspicion. Don't fear the change!

Last of all, I want to apologize for the lack of images. This is supposed to be an art related blog and no images? Shame on me.

-Day after posting edit-

I remembered a few other ways to refresh your brain in regards to your own work. Taking a break if you can is a good way (look at this addendum as an example). A coffee break or ever better, a day or two without looking at it will make you come back to it and see it in a new light. Of course, in the games industry you are usually working to deadlines so being able to leave something alone for a day or two isn't always possible. If you're working on a texture, taking a step back and unfocusing your eyes will draw your attention to areas that stand out. If you're doing a 3d model, assigning it a completely black material will allow you to focus on the silhouette, making it easier to see how your model reads from a distance without any detail to distract the eyes. Team Fortress 2 is worth noting in this since each of the nine classes have distinctly different silhouettes. You can spot which class you're up against from a mile off thanks to the excellent character design. The Australian painter Bob Abrahams has a long list of things you can do to re-evaluate your work on his blog, worth a look if you want to read more about tricking your brain.

Worth noting is that this being the games industry, odds are you'll be revisiting things you've created in the past to give them a bit of extra polish and to optimize the assets. For example, those 16 sided cylinders that seemed a good idea at the time has turned into a problem and needs to be reduced to 6-8 sides. This is again something you'll get used to, things inevitably change. The only thing we as artists can do is to try and do the best job we can with the information we have, accept the changes imposed on us with dignity and then have a rant at the pub after work. In an ideal world we wouldn't have to change our work but then again, changes where you can add more detail and polish isn't always bad. The kind where you have to chop a couple of levels up and mash the pieces into a new one is less fun however but sadly it happens. In the end you'll just have to roll with it (but no one says you have to like it).