When it comes to careers in game development, a few prominent roles probably spring to mind: gameplay programmer, game designer, and concept artist, just to name a few. But there’s another team of crucial, unsung heroes who often work behind the scenes to provide support and guidance to the entire production — technical artists.
“Technical artists are the foundation for a lot of game content,” says Kris Kirkpatrick, who is the lead technical art director at Ubisoft Singapore. “We make considerable effort to preserve visual quality while keeping the game running smoothly at high resolution and framerates.” As consoles and the type of games produced increase in complexity, the demand for technical artists continues to rise as well. After all, they are the ones who help to push art quality while keeping technical constraints in mind.
Want to find out more? Kris shares what aspiring technical artists should take note of, what to expect in the role, and how to best prepare for an exciting career in this field.
What does a technical artist do?
First things first: What exactly does a technical artist do, and how is the role different from that of a traditional artist? For starters, a technical artist does not directly create the art assets that are used in a game. Rather, Kris explains that technical artists should be able to use technology to make the art better. This goes beyond just knowing how to use the latest software and tools. Instead, technical artists should have a deeper understanding of the software and be able to manipulate and improve it within any technical constraints. In other words, they do not just know how to optimize art assets, but how to optimize workflows and processes as well. For example, technical artists can write scripts to automate processes and shaders (code that allows rendering and execution of computer graphics) to enable more efficient art pipelines for the whole team.
How can you become a technical artist?
There is no single path to becoming a technical artist. According to Kris, the origin stories of many technical artists — including his own — started from pursuing a career in another art role and discovering a knack for using technology to improve processes along the way. This could be in the form of supporting fellow artists through establishing smooth workflows or creating guidelines on art content production.
Since technical artists act as the bridge between artists and programmers, one needs more than just hard skills to thrive in the role. “The core of a technical artist is their adaptive problem-solving abilities,” Kris says. “We are relied on to be effective in an ever-changing industry to ensure smooth and efficient production pipelines.” He adds that technical artists must have the drive to ask how things work and be curious about looking for ways to utilize technology to optimize or improve art. After all, a large part of the job involves understanding the pain points faced by the other artists and finding feasible solutions to address them.
While having a programming background is not a prerequisite to becoming a technical artist, having some scripting experience and knowledge will only improve your effectiveness in the role. Kris explains that scripts may be used to automate tasks to improve workflows. “Additionally, technical artists may be required to help build and define pipelines and tools,” he says. “Understanding the work that goes into doing so will allow you to better plan for what is needed when collaborating with programmers.”
What does a typical day in the life of a junior technical artist look like?
Kris says that a new technical artist should be like a sponge — hungry to absorb as much knowledge as they can. As such, new technical artists can expect to be tasked with art pipeline support and asset validation to get a feel for the overall workflow when they first start out. Kris explains that this pipeline helps to support art production and ensures that the content produced is as optimal as possible. “This is valuable work for junior technical artists, as they will learn the art pipelines, workflows, collaborate closely with artists, and develop an understanding of the technical constraints and impact that art has on memory and performance,” Kris says. They can also expect to spend a lot of time looking at art assets and validating them against budgets, all while providing debugging support to artists. This ultimately helps new technical artists familiarize themselves with the studio’s engine, console, and various pipeline features and tools.
What are some common challenges that technical artists will face on the job?
Since it is the technical artist’s responsibility to balance the game’s visuals with performance and memory, hard decisions will sometimes have to be made when it comes to optimizing content. “In game development, there are so many moving parts and elements that all have to come together within technical budgets,” Kris explains. “Technical artists thus need to understand the limitations of the hardware so that we can suggest workable, feasible solutions within the given constraints.”
What’s the best advice for someone who wants to forge a career as a technical artist?
“Getting into the mindset of wanting to learn and know everything is a good place to start. Be inquisitive when it comes to the industry and technology, and engage in all aspects of game development,” Kris says. For example, when modelling an asset, it’s a good idea to ask yourself how a shader works, or why one shader is better or worse than another.
Kris adds that aspiring technical artists should also master the various 2D and 3D software and be comfortable with using a game engine like Unity. Furthermore, they should invest time to learn a scripting language such as Python and constantly look out for ways to use technology to improve art assets or the workflow behind it.
“It takes passion, dedication, and a willingness to go out of your comfort zone to learn everything you can,” Kris says. “The more you embrace technology and not fear it, the more effective a technical artist you will be.”
Starting from September 2023, DigiPen (Singapore)’s BFA in Digital Art and Animation will incorporate more learning pathways to equip students with the skills needed to pursue a career in the field of technical art. All BFA students will be introduced to scripting and computing modules early in the curriculum to improve their technical literacy, making them valuable and versatile artists in their future workplaces.