In this article, software engineer and project manager Casey O'Donnell discusses the role of technical artists and tools engineers.
Game development has seen a dramatic shift in the last five years. The amount of storage space available for developers to use has risen dramatically and the expectation on the part of players and publishers that this space be used has risen as well.
This has meant in many cases that more content must be placed into a game. More levels, more models, more textures, etc. All of this has required a shift in how developers approach game development. "The pipeline" has become much more important. The pipeline is at its simplest a process by which a particular game asset (sound, image, model, level) is placed into a game.
As the demand for content has increased, the pipeline has become much more important. Specifically the turnaround time for an artist or designer to see something in the game such that they can ensure that what they've constructed in 3D Studio Max or Maya indeed looks as it should inside the game. Or, in the case of designers, that a level moves as anticipated, or that indeed "out of bound" areas cannot be accessed.
The pipeline has become much more complex over this time period, and its two main laborers have become the "Technical Artist" and the "Tools Engineer." Each serves different purposes and many are the same person in smaller game studios. Technical artists, in my experiences, have often been artists who first started college as computer scientists hoping to make games, only to find that such is not the mission of most computer science programs. In the mean time however, many of them did learn something about scripting/programming languages and assorted computer and operating system nitty gritting elements before migrating towards more art friendly disciplines. Many technical artists simply emerge in small game companies, making scripts, toolbars, and other utilities that speed the process of getting their work into the engine so they can see it. They are the saviors of other artists when things don't go quite as anticipated. More recently this has become a specific sub-discipline of artist in many game studios.
The tools engineer, much like the technical artist, has been an accident of history, rather than a deliberate shift of the industry. That said, I must admit my predilection towards the tools engineer, having been one. Tools engineers were typically engineers that found themselves watching designers or engineers continually making the same mistakes over and over getting things into the game. Tools engineers' sole goal seems to be helping others manage the chaos of game development. This has lead to the construction of custom tools for generating all sorts of items in game, many of which may have been previously constructed with the editing of text, ini, or XML files.
Those editors that you see for games are the babies of tools engineers. Perhaps unfortunately for the tools engineers, they have also become the masters of build systems that must frequently perform numerous tasks and integrate the persnickety compilers and tools developed by console manufacturers with little regard to usability.
Ultimately, however, each one of these disciplines has made it their goal to create game development systems that respond rapidly to the work of the developer. Adjusting a slider and being able to see the change in particle system behavior is much more intuitive. Dropping a new texture onto a model or selecting it from a drop down menu is far more responsive. Clicking a single button to perform a model check, export, and load into the game engine takes less time than following a check list. These systems are actually extensions of what I previously wrote about with regard to debug menus and consoles within games.
Their objective is to provide flexibility and make the lives of developers easier. Except that in this case, gamers rarely come into contact with the proprietary tools and pipelines developed by technical artists and tools engineers.
In some cases, when a pipeline or tool chain is effective enough, it becomes a company asset, such as the Unreal Engine and its array of tools. Even XNA Game Studio shows its colors with its accompanying asset pipeline.
Casey O'Donnell has worked as a software engineer and project manager both in and out of the videogame industry. He is a faculty member of the Telecommunications department at the University of Georgia and is currently the Athens Chapter President of the Georgia Game Developers Association.