Art vs. Design

This is about why I'm interested in the design side of game development, as opposed to the art side. There are personal reasons, and practical ones.

Personally, I come from an art background. I have an art degree, the only thing I've ever really been good at is drawing and writing, I've made a lot of comics. But I just don't think the art side of games is for me. My artistic skills are not really craft-focused; in other words, I'm bad at making visual art look finished and appealing and complete. Anything I do is far from polished. Art in games needs to be 100% complete, detailed, and visually flawless. My skills taper off past the concept and illustration stage. I don't know my way around Photoshop, and I'm just not interested in making that Perfect Texture or building that Perfect Mesh. I don't think it's right for me, even if I did put in the time to train and get good enough to do it effectively.

Another personal factor is that my interest in game development, and thought processes regarding it, always focus primarily on the systems, level, and gameplay design aspect. While my time working on character animation in 3DSMax was interesting, it didn't engage me in a complete way. I'm just not so personally invested in how a game looks, or how a character moves (not that they're unimportant aspects of the finished product at all.) Example: While I keep a sketchbook of general drawing and character design (currently being neglected,) I keep a series of notebooks completely devoted to notes and ideas on game mechanics and design (usually updated daily.) Like anyone, I love for a game to look great, but when I'm thinking about games, I'm thinking about how they work, how the levels are laid out, how the play systems interact, not all the details of how the characters or environment look, visual improvements that could be made, and so forth. My time spent with level design tools has hooked me much more strongly than time spent with game art tools. I think you have to pay attention to where your interests naturally draw you.

From a practical standpoint, I believe that a design position is much more sustainable, career-wise, than an art position. It seems to me that these days, when you're making game art you're constantly playing catch-up. Technologically, games are always changing. Normal mapping and parallax mapping weren't viable a few years ago, and now they're becoming standard. Ever-increasing texture detail, model complexity, DirectX shader capacity, and so forth make many skills a game artist has today obsolete tomorrow. Conversely, strong design sense, both in level/scenario design and game system design, is more universal and perpetually relevant. While keeping up with the latest advancements in game design and content creation is of course important to a designer, the concepts behind what make an effective playspace, an intuitive interface, and satisfying game mechanics are not contingent on changing technology. Scripting is based on consistent basic principles across the board; a level that was fun 10 years ago should still be fun today (while a game from 10 years ago will almost undoubtedly look terrible against current standards.) The core elements of solid game design found in such as Super Mario Bros. are still relevant today, while sprite animation is (largely) a long-dead discipline. Maybe the game art industry is just too fast-paced for me. Maybe I feel like design skills are something that will always be valuable.

Also, now that we're in the "HD Era," the sheer volume of art and man hours required to produce it are mind-boggling on a commercially viable game. Studios need exponentially more artists than they did five or ten years ago, but your role as an art contributor is liable to be proportionally smaller in comparison to the overall project. Artists are quickly becoming contractors, used to farm out particular assets and paid on a per-item basis. I don't want to work from home, I don't want to be a hired gun. I want to matter to the team I'm on, and I believe that design positions, even junior-level ones, are more individually important to the creation of a game than equivalent art positions. I feel like, in game development, artists are often largely expendable. Conversely, demand for designers seems like more of a constant. A single game will never need a staff of level designers numbering in the hundreds, nor can a developer get a contractor to just design one hallway of a level and drop it into the game. There may be less demand for design personnel by volume, but I feel their contributions are more central to the project, and their skillset more generalized, and applicable across projects and over time.

This is all the result of overthinking my role, I guess. It all comes down to: I want to make levels and design gameplay more than I want to make art and animation. I'm following my instincts here, but I think I have good reasons to back them up.

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