Art Design Document and Art Assets

This blog will hopefully help spread the understanding of what is to be featured in your Art Design Document, also possibly called your Style Guide. An Art Design Document explains the entire visual approach the designer has for the game and just like how you list and explain mechanics in your Game Design Document, you list every asset in your game and try to communicate what is to be constructed by your artists. 

The purpose of the Art Design Document is to make sure your team captures the soul and feel of your game. A lot of things may change as artists present various pieces of work that may be a better approach for the game’s world or characters.

What’s First

Begin your Art Design Document as you would your GDD. Game title, last revision date and who is in charge of the document. The first thing you would write is similar to the overview that summarizes your game. Explain the desired look and feel of the game you’re trying to create to the best of your abilities. Play on all the senses when describing what you’re looking for. This usually gets the concept artists to begin designing pieces of the world that can then be used as a base for other artists to create them for in-game use. They’ll present ideas for the levels you want, the characters you’ll see and play as, the enemies you’ll face, the weapons you’ll use, even the UI you will be seeing and all manner of things to create your game’s world. 

Explain simple things like if the game is to use 3D models or hand drawn animations or pixel art. Make note of any use of particles and any more technical art effects that will often be in the hands of programmers.

First and foremost, explain what game engine you are using and explain things like what file types it is capable of using and any other specific nuances that the artists should know. 

How do we do all this? 

The next section should be headings to separate the types of assets. Examples of these asset types would be:

Models

Textures

Particle Effects

Shaders

Animation

UI

Under each heading, further define any specific approaches to the models you wish to see in the game. Then let the artists know what program and version of the program they may be using. In Canada, the standard modelling tool is 3D Studio Max, with Maya as likely the second most used. Both are Autodesk programs. Other programs like XSI, Soft Image, Cinema 4D also exist.

Once you start learning 3D programs, you’ll realize a lot of them share many similarities. As an artist, it is your responsibility to make sure you keep up to date with programs you will commonly be using, and be able to adapt to a new program in a limited amount of time. 

For 2D art, Photoshop is king, you would list this under Textures. For particle effects, determine if the game engine you are using has its own system or if it will be written by the programmers. 

Shaders are graphical processing systems that determine things like lighting and other render related properties. This is usually developed in house by the programmers. 

For 3D animation, Autodesk Maya is most commonly used. 

There are many factors that determine what kind of file type you’ll be using, and for all studios and teams it will likely be a little different depending on the tools they have at their disposal. You will almost always be using third party plugins either developed by existing companies or created specifically just for the game project. Using vanilla versions of programs is rare. 

Now get specific 

Some information to include under your Models heading include:

The scale of the models so they appear properly in-game. The tri-count limit or polygon budget, this is based on the game engine and platform you are using and developing for and determines how demanding a model is for the game to handle. The number of bones a model has sets up a base for the animators to work with. The unwrapping tool you may be using. There are many things that go into an game model and this would be a VERY long blog if I went through everything. 

Information under textures includes: 

The rendered size of the textures you’ll be using. When a model is unwrapped, the texture applied to it can be of high or low resolutions depending on how the asset is seen in game. The texture artist paints on the rendered UV template (you can see a BAD example of this in my previous blog) to begin creating what a model looks like in-game. This is called a Diffuse Texture. Diffuse simply means colour.

Further texturing includes all the fancy parts of 3D game models like Normal Maps which fake detail in games by making light strike the model properly, Specular Maps which add a gloss or brightness of light hitting the object and Ambient Occlusion Maps which cause the object to have its own natural shadows to make a model look more believable.  

When you begin describing the game asset by asset, you would explain any particle effects needed for it there as well the animations that the asset is supposed to do in game. A lot of the terms and words I used here will require research if you are just getting into game design and my blogs are about introducing you to these processes so you can explore them on your own. 

When it comes to UI (user interfaces) you’ll usually design mock-ups, really basic drawings that let the programmers know where menus and text is positioned. From there you can use those locations to determine the size of specific UI elements and then give them an art style. Designing a good UI is a deep topic on its own that we may explore later. 

Make a readable document 

Leave lots of white space, put breaks in between paragraphs, use tables and charts as much as possible when detailing plentiful, repetitive information, use sarif font for text bodies and make headings bold and appealing. 

Other things to practice doing are developing good table of contents that allow quick access for your team members. Most word processors can use links to let the reader jump to a specific part of the documentation. However if it’s printed out, you’ll need to take into consideration proper labelling of sections. Put the printed version in binders, stick a large Art Design Document on the spine of the binder and make sure it’s a presentable piece of information. 

Create an Assets List

Use a spreadsheet program or other organizing program to write down every asset that needs to be made for the game. This will be a giant check-list to track down the progress and completion of in-game assets. Develop a way to tell the artists which assets are top priority. You can use this by using symbols as opposed to coloured cells as you may not be able to print a coloured version of your document. 

One effective way to keep track of assets is to also use symbols to determine the status of submitted work. Letting the artists know whether their work has been accepted to move down the pipeline, sent back to be revised or rejected will help keep the process moving.  

Create file naming conventions 

Team members handing in “sketch01.psd” or “guy.png” will infuriate you. Creating a proper file naming convention makes it even easier to track assets and makes things clean, professional and organized. To create file naming conventions, stick to TLA (three letter acronyms). A file naming convention should have acronyms that can summarize what type of asset it is. Another thing to include would be the version the asset is currently at. A lot of asset handling programs like Perforce may even feature automatic version updating software so the creator saves a bit of time that way. The artist’s name is sometimes a good thing to include. I’ve only worked in small teams so it was easy to manage. 

Bad file naming conventions will make finding what you need impossible and creates a huge disconnection between team members. Every piece is dependent on someone else, and if the animator can’t find the model he/she was supposed to work on, they’re stuck doing nothing, creating a cascading effect that slows everything down.

Hopefully you get an idea of how to organize your documentation and assets. As you learn more about how programs and game engines work, you’ll discover more and more information that will become relevant and necessary for your team. 

So how are these things made anyway?

Let’s look at a very basic, linear flow of parts that build up something you see in a game. This could be applied to a building, a character, a weapon etc. Though all workflows and pipelines are going to be a little different wherever you go, I feel that this simple image represents the parts of an in game asset that NEED to exist in order for it to be properly implemented in a game. 

Concept

Concept Art is actually a piece of documentation and not a game asset as it is not implemented in game as an interactive thing. Concept Artists at the top of the pipeline and they determine the design of what will eventually be passed through all the members and wind up in-game. Concept Artists might work traditionally or use programs like Photoshop, Corel Painter and Gimp with graphics drawing tablets. 

Model 

The concept artists designs from multiple angles and draws parts that may be difficult to model separate such as smaller pieces that are still important to the design of the character. A modeller can create a high poly or low poly(in-game) version of the concept first then construct the other type of poly model based off that.  

Unwrap

2D faces. Remember when you were first learning geometry and had to glue together a cube or a pyramid or a rectangular prism or something? Well, a UV unwrap is the process of doing that in reverse, and with very complicated shapes. Usually the modeller or an unfortunate entry level person will be in charge of unwrapping their models. There do exist easier ways of unwrapping models now, but it can still be a time consuming process but is absolutely necessary for a 3D model to be implemented properly. If an unwrapped 3D model has a texture applied, it will appear stretched and warped. We may explore the theory of unwrapping later. 

Texture

With the UV Template, a texture artist can begin painting the designs and appearances of an object. A brick wall in a game isn’t modelled brick by brick (the low poly anyway) what you see is an illusion of depth created by a normal map and an image painted or created by a Texture Artist through photo manipulation. A character’s skin, the metal of a gun, all of these things are created by a texture artist working from an unwrapped model. Some programs like Zbrush do allow direct painting on models though I’ve never seen how that model functions in game. 

Rig

Rigging is the process of applying a skeleton to a model. The Rigger creates joints so that the model can actually move and be animated. Often animators rig their own models. If a model is not rigged well, the topology of the model – the way the polygons are laid out – can get corrupted and destroyed which shows up clearly in game and makes animation impossible. 

Animate

Lastly, with a fully modelled, textured and rigged asset, the animator can start bringing it to life. Sequences of animations are saved out as sets of images that are then loaded in game when the player moves or presses a button or any action that triggers an animation. An animator uses control points that hang away from the model, manipulating it like a marionette to get the precise look and feel. Research the 12 principles of animation if you are interested. 

Implement

The asset is ready to be put in game and made functional by the programmers. 

Wrapping up 

Feel free to ask questions about what else you may need to include in your current designs and ideas for games. Stop worrying that people will steal your ideas, what one team will do with the same premise will always wind up different and the resources available to them may differ. You’ll need to share your ideas with your team and others to convince them to help you anyway. 

Hopefully you have an idea of how to start organizing the pieces of your game now. You have the vision, now get very specific and start breathing life into it. 

In the next blog we’ll go into a little bit more detail with the individual aspects of the art workflow. We’ll start with the concept artist and do a general overview of what a concept artist does and how their pipeline works.

If you have any ideas for blogs you’d like to see, let me know! 

 

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