Inside PikPok: Technical Art

An often misunderstood role within the games industry is that of the technical artist (TA). Standing in a research and development space, spanning the programming and art teams, and providing tools, pipelines, and training to artists, the technical art team has important role in maintaining optimal efficiency, both within the studio and in the game, in terms of asset implementation and resource usage.

Keir Rice, PikPok's lead TA, explains:

Which skills does Technical Art use to provide support to the production teams?

We use a combination of strong communication skills, programming skills, and problem solving skills combined with a broad knowledge of art asset production and content creation tools.

Do the technical artists at PikPok have to be jacks of all trades, or do you tend to specialise?

At PikPok we have a greater focus on the technical side of the job. We generally don’t get involved in the crafting of production quality assets i.e. the things that make it into game.

But on the tech side of things we are very generalised.  We need to be able to jump between systems and languages to track down issues from C++ and C# down to Python and JavaScript.

We are also responsible for making sure the artists have the tools they need to work efficiently and effectively. This means spending a lot of time writing scripts for Maya and to lesser extent other tools like Photoshop.

We are involved in planning how the assets are going to be built and how we are going to get them into the game, trouble-shooting problems and figuring out who is in the best place to solve them.

We do a bunch of “translation”, facilitating communication between the art team and the coders to make sure both sides are on the same page.

What has been the most challenging task you have come across in your role?

The most challenging task was related to a project where we were provided with assets from a flash game and asked to make an iOS version.  This required me to lean about how to script in Adobe Flash.

We needed to wrangle assets with multiple layers and animation tracks into a format we could use in game.  It was necessary to convert the pixel based collision detection into a faster kd-tree based structure, something I really enjoyed working on.

We also had to to cut up the big backgrounds to fit inside the texture size limits and pack all the small images together onto bigger sheets to reduce the number of files.

How much of the work TA does is project-specific, and how much is general across the studio’s toolset?

We try our best to make our tools in such a way that they will be helpful to future products as well as the current ones. So, maybe 40 % project work to 60 % studio work.

Can you please give some examples of how projects have driven the development of our pipelines?

So often a project team comes to us with something they want to put into the game that we have not done before, or they come to us with a problem they have struck.

In Velocirapture, for example, we needed to have heaps of dinosaurs wandering around on screen. In the early tests, we discovered that having 30 skinned animated dino’s was going be a major performance issue.

So, working with the Art team we came up with a sprite animation approach that avoided the performance issues. Then we built a process that converted all of our existing animations into flipbooks in a memory efficient way.

Has this solution been applied to other projects since it was devised?

Yes, it was used in Extinction Squad, amongst others.

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