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Interview: Ross Patel – Technical Artist from Airtight Games

Cg Cookie just spoke with Technical Artist Ross Patel from Washington based game developer Airtight Games. Ross is currently working on the upcoming game “Murdered: Soul Suspect”. Read below for Ross’s experience in the game industry.

How did you get your start as a Technical Artist in the industry? Did you find it hard to tailor your portfolio a specific way?

There were two significant points that steered me towards tech-art. First, during the production of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, I noticed that the technical artists were making the changes on the content team that had the most noticeable and broad visual impact; shaders, lighting ect. Secondly, after the production of Tomb Raider: Legend, I quickly realized that my progress as an artist was most hindered by iteration time, and by that I mean how long it took to get an idea from my head onto the Xbox360/PS3 etc. I mentioned this in my post-mortem, and our new creative director at the time, Darrell Galagher took notice and steered me towards the tech-team and I started training as a technical artist. I owe a ton of my success as a technical artist to Crystal Dynamics and their willingness to help me morph from a content creator into a tools developer.

As a Technical Artist, what are your daily responsibilities?

My mission statement is pretty simple: “if a content creator is ‘not’ spending their time making the game look better because they are fighting the pipeline and workflow, then that is my fault.” Another way of saying it is, “I am constantly trying to script or code myself out of a job”. If I’m not doing that, then I’m helping optimize the content to fit in memory and within frame.

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What are your tools of the trade? Do you have any favorite tricks you use to create the work you do?

I live in Notepad++ for Pymel and javascript (scripting in python for Maya), Visual Studio, Excel, Microsoft PIX, and more recently Sony’s GPad. Usually, I’m either streamlining a convoluted process in Maya or corroborating data from multiple sources in C# to make integration from the content creation packages (Maya, Photoshop, After Effects etc) into the game engine (Unreal Editor, Unity) in as few clicks as possible.

Can you describe what programs such as Notepad++ for Pymel and javascript (scripting in python for Maya), Visual Studio, Excel, Microsoft PIX, and more recently Sony’s GPad are used for?

GPad and PIX are applications written by the console manufacturers to assess frame rate and performance of in-game content. Notepad++ is used for pymel scripting, javascript and such.

Excel is a spreadsheet application used to look at spreadsheets. Visual Studio is used to write applications that run on a windows operating system (tablets, pcs, phones, etc).

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In your words, what is scripting?

The difference is how they are implemented. Some computer programming languages can be used for scripting ‘and’ programming. Python and C# are good examples of this. Scripting is simple programming that runs inside another application. Think of it like a shortcut for regular tasks that the program can usually do. Melcript, maxscript, JavaScript are all good examples. Full-fledged programming languages are usually written to run within an operating system as their own application.

If you were not a Technical Artist what do you think you would like to do?

I would be a mechanical or electrical engineer, but I’d need a ton more/different schooling for that, but I think I have the mind for it, and I do related projects in my free time.

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You’re currently at Airtight Games working on the upcoming game “Murdered: Soul Suspect”. What is the premise of this title?

You are a recently deceased detective who exists between the world of the living and the dead, and you are trying to solve your own murder.

What has the biggest challenge been on “Murdered: Soul Suspect” so far?

From my perspective, maintaining competitive visual fidelity on 8 year old hardware.

What have you had to do in order to maintain this polish? Can you speak more on what’s done on your side for it?

Since the PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 have fundamentally different hardware architecture, a game that runs on the Xbox360 won’t necessarily run at the same performance level as other platforms. We usually don’t make console-specific assets, so there is a juggling act to figure out how to preserve the look of the game across all platforms of a similar generation. My task is to identify the assets that are the most expensive (framerate and memory-wise) and suggest performance optimizations and alternatives to make them run faster on all the GPU’s, and, to make sure they have the smallest memory footprint.

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Following up with the last question, with the new consoles on the horizon and the increased popularity in mobile games, how do you see the tools currently being used for game development needing to be changed?

It’s the same old story: with every new advancement in technology we get more content, with the same or less people, with the same or less budget, and customers’ expectation of quality rises.

We need to focus the efforts of our content creators so that every moment they spend (or as many as possible) is improving the visual impact of the game, because there is more to cover, with a higher expectation of quality, and less time per asset.

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What are some mistakes new hires can make during their first week at a studio?

Grossly under-estimating the time it takes to develop production quality work vs student quality work. However much time you think it will take, triple it. Not paying enough attention to the last 10% of effort that makes the artwork shine. It’s that last 10% where the in-game art really comes into full fruition, and it’s often missed. Check your artwork on-target (xbox, ps3, pc, Nintendo, whatever your target platform is) before you finalize it. I would strongly recommend you evaluate your work in-game and on target as fast and as frequently as possible. How it looks in maya, photoshop, max, zbrush, xsi ect is NOT going to be how it looks in-game with ingame lighting. Context is everything. Put your effort into the art assets that will be seen the most, the hero assets. Noodling roof textures is wasted effort.

How important is it for a Technical Artist to understand traditional art and be able to create that art as well?

It is important for a technical artist to walk the entire ‘production’ pipeline, but traditional art is less important. If I put my character, animator, environment or VFX artist hat on I imagine the answer would be ‘the traditional foundation is important’ but with my tools engineer hat, the answer is ‘not-so-much’.

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What class do you wish art schools had to better prepare future artists coming into the industry?

Lighting, checking their work on-target (devkits) and comparing student work with not just that of other students, but current games on the market. This is their ‘real’ competition considering how many full-time artists ‘with’ experience are out-of-work.

How important is pre-production in game development to you?

Pre-production is where the lion’s share of tech-art work occurs if your tech-artist knows what’s good for the content team. Most crunch time bugs for the art team are created during asset set-up phase. Pipeline and art production workflows designed in pre-production often mitigate these issues. This often solves hairy and gross problems before they have a chance to fester. Before you start full production of your game, the core pipeline and workflow for set-up and iteration of content should be solid and bug-free. During production, the tech-artist should be streamlining the content-editing path for bug-fixes and cleanup (yes, there should be a toolset for that). One of the best ways to have a horrible art creation experience is to test tools and develop tools 2 weeks after you need them.

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Lastly, what movies are you excited for during the remainder of 2013?

Movies over the last 10-15 years have been derivative and crappy. I like premium cable TV shows like The Walking Dead, Homeland, Hell on Wheels, Top Shot, Sons of Anarchy, etc… I really can’t wait to see what happens on The Walking Dead!

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Discussion

4 Responses to “Interview: Ross Patel – Technical Artist from Airtight Games”
  1. Posts: 1
    amythewhat says:

    Great interview – very insightful and well said! Techart represent!

  2. Posts: 13
    Clay says:

    I hate to spoil it for you, but they Kill more Zombies and get in overblown fights with one another but come together to slay the outsider or villain if you will and this time it is………………………

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