Creative Assembly: ‘There are many definitions of Technical Art, and all of them are correct’

The team at Creative Assembly debunks some common dev role myths. This month, Mohrag Taylor, principal technical artist explains how the role requires a modern-day renaissance woman, with a love of both art and maths

Between art and code lies the role of technical art. There are many definitions of the role, and all of them are correct – the role of tech art can vary so much. They are helpers, innovators, problem solvers and diplomats.

Technical art originated with artists who liked to fiddle – those who didn’t have the patience for menial tasks and learnt scripting to speed up their workflow. Over time, that role has evolved into its own discipline.

Studios now have entire teams of technical artists whose role is to improve workflows, scrutinize pipelines, and work with the coders to bridge that gap.

University courses that focus on technical art have begun to emerge, students are encouraged to embrace the merging of tech and art instead of trying to find their place within the boundaries of each. Our role can suit the entire spectrum from technical to artist, where technically-minded artists and artistically-minded technical folk all fit.

Making shaders is one area that fits the role perfectly. Making things look good and run at realtime has its limitations, and over the years we have realised we can put more of that on the GPU. Shaders have become not only the place where you describe how your objects react to light, but also a place for computation, and ‘faking’ effects. In Total War: Three Kingdoms, we used a flowmap technique to emulate the flow of ink across a page dynamically based on gameplay.

We wrote shaders to emulate wind and other natural movements, sometimes reducing the need for skinned animation. To wrangle shaders effectively, a good core understanding of maths is essential, as you open so many doors once you understand how to make matrices, SDFs, and other data bend to your will.

The role of tech art has also grown alongside the popularity of procedural generation. Creating rules and procedures that define artistic and natural processes is another strong suit for tech art.

Houdini is becoming a greater used tool in the industry and with it a whole bunch of features that allow for easier proceduralism. On the Total War team, we are investigating ways to allow the massive amounts of design information to dictate object placement in our battle maps, and how the artists can work with this to get the best out of all the inputs we give.

Understanding the artist’s mindset is paramount to creating tools that enhance their workflow and allow them to focus on making amazing visuals, and not on tasks like placing objects and making simple variations.

It’s important for us to be able to prototype and innovate. With connections to all areas of the pipeline, it’s great to be a driver of new tech and tools, and to be able to make a difference to artists’ work.

From testing the latest apps, to helping create new systems for in-game needs, there’s always something new, and having an understanding of how and where we can use these new things is always important.  Most people fall into the role of Tech Art having loved maths and art equally and never knowing this was a path they could take. It’s great that it has become its own specialism, and that more and more people may find their way here.

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