Every ambitious creative endeavor has at its helm a single individual who is responsible for providing the vision for its development. In games, we have Art Directors in charge of the aesthetic, Technical Directors in charge of the technology decisions, and Creative Directors in charge of the overall game. Their chief responsibility is to guide the creation of a project that achieves their vision. The most successful directors are able to articulate a clear vision to the team, get buy in from its merits and his success, and motivate the team to execute with excellence. A project without a director’s vision is uninspired and unsuccessful.
It is no surprise, then, that even though we talk about tools and pipeline as its own niche- and even acknowledging it as its own niche is a big step- we have such uninspired and unsuccessful tools and pipeline at so many places in the industry. We seem to have a mild deficiency of vision in our small community of tools programmers and tech artists, and an absolute famine of vision and representation at the director level.
This situation is unfortunate and understandable, but underlies all tools problems at any studio. Fixing it is the vital component in fixing the broken tools cultures many people report. Without anyone articulating a vision, without anyone to be a seed and bastion of culture and ideas, we are doomed to not just repeat the tools mistakes of yesterday, but to be hopelessly blind towards their causes and solutions.
Where does this lack of vision come from? What can we do to resolve it?
The lack of vision stems from the team structures most studios have. Who is responsible for tools as a whole, tools as a concept, at your studio? Usually, no one and everyone. We have Tech Art Directors that have clever teams that often lack the programming skills or relationships to build large tool, studio-wide toolsets. We have Lead Tools Programmers that are too far removed from, or have never experienced, actual content development. We have Lead Artists that design tools and processes for their team, that do not take into account other teams or pipelines and are uninspired technically.
There is no one who understands how every content creator works, who also has the technical understanding and abilities to design sophisticated technologies and ideas. No one who understands how content and data flow from concept art and pen and paper into our art and design tools, into the game and onto the release disk.
Without this person, what sort of tools and pipelines would you expect? If there were no Art Director or someone who had final say and responsibility for a cohesive art style across the entire game, how different would characters and environment look in a single game? If there were no Creative Director who had final say over design, how many incohesive features would our games have? If there were no Technical Director to organize the programming team, how many ways would our programming teams come up with so solve the same problems?
So how come with Tools and Pipeline we don’t think the same way? There is no Tools Director, so we end up with disparate tools and workflows that fail to leverage each other or provide a cohesive experience. The norm for the tools situation is to look like the type of situation we find in studios with weak leadership at the Director level. A mess. We need a person who understands how everyone at the studio works, and to take ownership of it and provide a vision for improving it.
No longer can this vital role be left to a hodepodge of other people. Your Art/Technical/Creative Directors, your Lead Programmers/Artists/Designers, can no longer be the people expected to provide the vision for studio’s Tools and Pipeline.
The person who fills this role needs to be someone with enough experience creating art that they can embed with Artists. Someone who can program well enough to have the title of Programmer. Someone flexible enough that they can deal with the needs of Designers. Someone charismatic enough that they can fight and win the battle against the inevitable skepticism, fear, and opposition a change like this would bring.
These people are few and far between, and every one of them I know is happily employed. We’re asking for a unique set of passions and skills, a set that isn’t common in the games industry especially (who gets into games to write tools?!). We need to start training our tools developers (tech artists, tools programmers) to aspire to have these passions and skills.
This won’t happen magically. Unless our studios can promise that these aspirations will be fulfilled, few people will bother, and I cannot blame them. Many studios have made the commitment to having killer tools. Almost as many have failed. And almost as many as that have failed to realize lack of a cohesive vision as a primary factor.
It isn’t surprising that resources get moved from tools dev, that schedules cannot be stuck to, that they cannot attract senior developers. Without a cohesive tools vision, how are resources supposed to be properly allocated? Resources become a fragile compromise between competing departments, rather than brokered by a separate party without allegiances. How is a schedule supposed to be followed, when the people doing the work are not the ones who feel the repercussions? And it is no surprise that it is difficult to attract senior talent with strong programming skills necessary to develop great tools to these positions. If there is no career path- and, let’s face it, most studios have no career path for tools developers- they’re going to go into game programming, or the general software industry (which is, for the most part, some form of tools development in a different environment).
Not every studio has these problems (I know because I’ve argued with you about this). And I dare say that studios that don’t have these problems are simply lucky. I suspect that such people are in a fragile situation, and taking away a key player or two would destroy the precarious dynamic that doesn’t birth these problems. If you are at a studio without these problems, ask yourself this: is your setup one that you can describe, export, advocate for, reproduce? How would you do it, without saying “just hire better people?” It is this “coincidence as a solution” that propogates the problems at less lucky studios.
Let’s create real solutions.
We need to create roles and departments that can provide studios with a cohesive tools vision. We need to fill these director-level roles with uniquely qualified individuals who are experienced in art and design, and are excellent programmers. We need to mature our views on tools as an industry, and start looking for concrete solutions for our endemic tools issues rather than relying on chance.
We’re not going to find these people or do these things overnight. We need to, first, decide on this path as our goal. Not just you, but your studio’s management, and there’s no formula helpful formula I can give to convince them. Just nonstop advocacy, education, and reflection.
Then, start discussing what the application of these ideas would mean at your studio. And who is going to fill these key roles? There are people you already have at your studio who just need a little bit of training. Put your tech artists on your programming teams for a bit, or your programmers working on game design or art. See how quickly you’ll find someone with the unique set of skills for a Tools Director position.
We need people who understand how people work and content flows across a project. We need people who are able to guide its formulation/improvement/reconsideration. This is vision. And the lack of vision in tools development is a deadly disease we must remedy if we are to improve the state of our tools across the industry.