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Jagex: Hard-won advice on how to lead an entire studio’s artistic output

Every month, Jagex’s developers visit us from Runescape’s Gielinor to talk about their latest adventures. This month, Daryl Clewlow, senior director of art, provides talks about the challenges of art direction.

At Jagex we have a tier of directors who sit across art, design and programming to ensure quality across the business by specialist function; we also assist with mentoring and training and help guide development. While these roles are relatively new to the business, they have been pivotal in introducing new processes and other improvements at a studio, function, team and individual level.

While there are very few places you can ‘learn’ art direction as a craft on its own, there are resources available to take learnings from, such as recorded GDC talks, roundtable discussions, and published interviews. These are useful for mapping out essential workflows and processes and to cross check how you accomplish objectives against them.

Jagex’s Daryl Clewlow

Often the presentations and interviews are too perfect and don’t show the trials and tribulations of achieving the result. They won’t tell you how to evolve an art style from scratch, how to correct and nudge your journey through prototyping and pre-production or, more importantly, give guidance on leading a team to reach a shared goal. Learnings will come from being in the trenches with your team. Be prepared to learn as you go in the early years and improve from every game development cycle and mistake – of which there will be many.

Get used to having team members expecting you to instantly know what to do every step of the way, and pearls of wisdom to fall from your mouth that will fix even the most horrendous artwork. There is an expectation that you understand multiple art disciplines and have the ability to feedback at a craft level, as well as being a line manager. Both of which require repeated exposure on the job and to multiple game development cycles.

FIRST DIRECT-ING

Art directors are either freshly hired or promoted from within a team to spearhead visual direction. If you’re lucky, you’ll work with an experienced mentor or a studio art director – someone that you respect and can guide you along the way, support your decisions and be a second set of eyes on your work. If you’re in this position, gleam as much information as you can and don’t be shy about it.

If you are in a smaller studio, you’ll be learning through your own experience and using your best judgement to guide a project forward (see above for learning). Get connected with other art directors, be it online or in person at conferences and events, as one-to-one conversation is the fastest and most effective way to learn. But you have to be proactive.

Both time in the role and repeated hands-on game development will be your main training ground. At a soft skill level, be sure to get regular feedback from those you work with; if you can get 360-degree feedback on yourself, even better. Using those soft skills is at least 50 per cent of a director’s role.

VISION DIRECT

If the ‘easier’ part of being an art director is setting a visual direction, then getting the best from your team can be the hardest part. When you want to get your team behind a project and make it a reality, you need to engage with team members and empower them to ‘add’ to the vision – taking your personal vision, and making it a shared team vision, of which you, as art director, will shepherd.

Over a career there are very few occasions where you can build your team from scratch. More often than not, you’ll inherit an established team, or join a freshly-formed team with varied levels of seniority and skills to deal with. Very rarely will you have your dream team from the get go, but as art director, it is in your control to level up those around you and create one.

As a young art director, one of my big learning curves was adapting to putting my trust in the team and letting go of absolute control. It took time to adjust to that approach but it improved my upfront communication and my ability to set expectation for projects and deliverables.

Top tips: Sitting in the director’s chair

When I join a team or studio as art director, I’ll put the following key points in place to make any team efficient and effective:

■ Work with your team and lead them. Don’t dictate.

■ Align the team with your vision – communicate, present and feedback.

■ Get into a rhythm of doing ‘light touch’ morning rounds with those you work with most after stand ups.

■ Train your team to be confident and independent visual decision makers.

■ Ensure the roles and responsibilities of your leads, seniors and generals are clear and understood.

■ Have vision, set high-level goals and guide the team to deliver against them. Don’t get sucked into answering the questions you have set the team yourself.

■ You don’t have to be a master of everything – you’ve hired specialist team mates, so lean on them and trust them to answer the questions with you.

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