A Technical Artist bridges the gap between the worlds of art and programming. They are required to have the knowledge to complete both professions to a decent degree and will often find themselves as the middlemen that help the sides communicate.
The jobs that a Technical Artist is required to do are large and varied. These can range from creating tools to help artists, lighting and shadows, HDR, optimization, and many others. Most Technical Artists will specialize in different areas in a similar way to Programmers and remaining their niche, but sometimes they will remain more of a generalist. It is also quite common for Techincal Artists to assist multiple projects rather than focus on a single one when a studio has multiple games on the go at once.
One of the main focuses of a Techincal Artist will be to create tools that will assist other artists. These can be tools to speed up production, automate time-consuming tasks or allow Artists to do something that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. By taking advantage of a Technical Artist’s skills it’s possible to save a huge amount of time and remove some of the duller jobs that might sap an Artist’s creativity.
An example of a tool that might be created is an automatic UV unwrapper. Many 3D programs and game engines come with something similar but it might be that you have very specific needs that can be better met by a customized tool. Perhaps the game you are making is isometric and only viewed from one angle. With this in mind, it might be easier to work out exactly how to unwrap it in the most efficient way for the project better than a general UV unwrapper will.
Working on the game’s render tech is a job that is sometimes handled by a programmer, sometimes by a Technical Artist. It requires an artistic eye to tweak and perfect but is programming heavy so it often comes down to the company or project’s needs as it who it falls upon. Often times it will be a collaboration between disciplines.
Rendering is all about telling the game engine how it should show the content it is given. This can involve how the engine renders textures, how it deals with post-processing effects or a number of other things from the very basics of how the engine works to the finer details that really make it work.
Shader creation is another important part of a Technical Artist’s job. Shaders determine how the textures on an object are shown in the final product. Many objects can use standard shaders that give a large amount of variety and can be used in the majority of cases. Many pre-made engines such as Unreal Engine or Unity will provide these versatile materials. Sometimes, however, you will want a very specific function not available to you through the standard shaders. This is normally because the specific material has unique properties such as ice or something that needs to be incredibly high quality, such as skin or hair.
Lighting is an incredibly important part of modern game development. It’s transitioned from fake highlights to baked lighting all the way up to modern games’ usage of most real-time lighting and even real-time ray tracing. As game graphics improve further it’s more important than ever to make sure the lighting is as realistic as possible whilst having the smallest possible impact on performance. It will often fall to a Technical Artist to make sure the lighting is set up correctly and many games, especially ones with bigger teams, will have dedicated Lighting Artists.
A Lighting Artist can elevate the hard work of other artists to whole new levels and it’s the lighting artist that’s involved with programming how the lighting works, if it’s efficient, and if they’re set up correctly. Many modern triple-A games now have entire teams just dedicated to getting the lighting right. The role is only needed in certain situations, however. For example, an indie 2D title might not utilize lighting at all while other smaller projects may rely on the lighting setup of a ready-made game engine such as Unreal.
Baked lighting is the most efficient form of lighting in most situations. It utilizes ‘lightmaps’ which are textures that are applied to the model that has been rendered beforehand. All the lighting is worked out beforehand during a ‘light bake’ which may take many hours. The lighting data is converted into a texture format that is applied to the model. This makes them cheap at run time as the engine does not have to work out what the light is affecting and how for every frame that’s shown.
There are a few disadvantages to baked lighting, however. The most obvious one is that the lighting is static so it cannot be updated. This is fine for an object that cannot move but it becomes an issue if the object moves, as increasingly more objects do in modern games. Another disadvantage is that to get high-quality shadows the texture maps need to be increasingly bigger. This can inflate the game’s overall size a very large amount, especially for big open-world games.
Baked lighting is used less and less these days as computers and consoles become powerful enough to handle more real-time lighting but it is still sometimes used particularly for games that are on weaker consoles such as handheld or mobiles. Sometimes a game can use a combination of lighting methods. For example, the environment will use baked lighting and the characters and any movable props will use real-time lighting.
Real-time lighting is when a game generates the lighting as the user is playing the game. This takes up much more processing power than baked lighting so it is only more recently that such a technique has become so widespread. Most PC and console games these days will use real-time lighting primarily and often exclusively. Due to technological improvements even mobile and handheld games can utilize real-time lighting to a certain degree, but it may be limited to just character lighting or the player’s torchlight for example.
There are a few limitations to real-time lights. Due to the increased complexity of them, you cannot use as many as you would for baked lighting as each one impacts the performance as opposed to the limiting factor of baked lighting being the number of textures generated. The benefits, however, are being able to move the lighting and the objects being lit in real-time allowing for realistic character lighting, time of day changes, and turning lights on and off.
Ray-tracing is the new boy on the block. It works in the same way as real-time lighting, being rendered as the game is being played, but uses a different technique. A ray-traced light will fire out a load of invisible lines or ‘rays’ to figure out exactly how the light should react and function. This allows the lighting to be much more accurate and allows for more advanced rendering techniques.
Due to the high quality of ray-traced lights, it has a much higher performance impact. As such only the most modern games and game engines support it currently. These tend to be high-end triple-A games for PCs and some more recent consoles. As with real-time lighting though, this will eventually become standard practice for lighting within games.
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and it essentially allows for a game to use a bigger range of colors when projecting the game to a display device. Many modern-day TVs and monitors have HDR support build in which allows a game to take advantage of the wider color spectrum. This can make the games ‘pop’ more and give a much greater sense of depth. A Technical Artist may be required to ensure that HDR is correctly set up for the game and make sure it’s balanced well. This is where a good eye for art comes into play as well as the usual technical knowledge.
Optimization is a huge part of game development. As games get bigger and are harder to run it becomes all the more essential that what is there gets optimized. Good optimization can be the difference between a huge open-world game that runs seamlessly with all manner of creatures inhabiting it and a small railroaded corridor shooter that can only handle 3 enemies on screen at a time. This is often the reason there can be such a disparity of what can be achieved between large studios and indie developers as they later cannot spare the time and money to have a team of professionals making sure that it all works.
Culling is the act of reducing the amount of time the game takes to render by cutting down on the number of objects the game has to handle at any one time. This can be done in a number of ways. Frustum culling is one of the most common methods and has been around for many years. It essentially works out what the player can actually see in front of them and culls any other objects outside of the visible space such as behind the player. This is worked out constantly as the game runs so it’s always showing what the player can see and nothing else. Another popular form of culling is distance culling, ensuring you are not rendering anything that’s so far away that you cannot see it. These are just a few methods of culling and different genres will often utilize them differently depending on their needs.
Level Of Detail
Level Of Detail models, often called LODs, are simplified versions of models that are shown in-game that are used when the player is at a distance. Once a player is far enough away from an object it will get swapped out for the lower detail one in a way that it is totally invisible to the player when done correctly. Almost every object in modern-day games has at least 1 Level Of Detail model and some will have up to 5 or more. Sometimes you will see the object ‘pop’ between models when it has not been set up correctly and is often more noticeable on lower graphics settings that attempt to LOD the object faster to save on performance.
Mip-maps are the equivalent of Level Of Detail models for textures. As the player moved further away from a textured object that texture will be halved over and over again until it is as small as a 2×2 pixel texture if small enough. If mip-mapping was not used then an object in the distance that only occupies a few pixels on the screen could be loading in a material that uses multiple 2048×2048 textures, just to them compress them back down to a few pixels. As you can imagine this is incredibly wasteful. This is where mip-mapping finds its use. Mip-mapping is generally handled automatically these days and not something that requires a manual pass, but it can be important to check that textures are behaving correctly due to the huge performance gain this gives games.
What’s It Like To Be A Technical Artist?
Being a Technical Artist comes with its advantages and disadvantages. Due to the complex nature of the job and the fact that it bridges the gap between the programming and art worlds, it is a difficult role to get into. It often requires a decent amount of experience in both fields and the confidence to help out both as well. The positive side of this is that it is also a highly sought-after position. As a Technical Artist is responsible for such a large number of essential pieces of the game development pie and also the job requires a multitude of disciplines mastered, the industry is always after more, especially as games get more complicated and require more technical know-how to make. Along with the scarcity of Technical Artists and the high demand and skill caps, they can also be expected to earn more than the average artist.
What Is A Technical Artist is part of our Making Games series about the different roles available in the games industry. If you’d like to know more about the different roles and find the right one for you then check it out here or if you want to find out more about the different Game Artist roles then check out our Game Artist Guide.