Artists vs Programmers

In project postmortems I often hear “communication” as one of the major problems plaguing game development. For years I took this at face value and just thought, “sure, so we should talk more!”. At the same time we continually complain about meetings that bog down our productivity. Is communication really a quantity issue? Maybe we should be investing in quality of communication? And taken further, perhaps, there are situations where poor communication is just a symptom of another larger roadblock?

That roadblock, my friends, is developers with divergent priorities.

In game development, I often see (graphics/systems) programmers view themselves as somehow fundamentally different than artists. Either they believe they exist to service requests from artists or alternatively they see themselves as the driving force behind development, and expect artists to fluidly adapt to their systems. Sometimes both of these flawed paradigms exist within the same project! The issue here is that the two groups view themselves as different teams and because of that their goals are split.

Years ago I worked at a company where programmers and artists sat on separate floors. I know of another company where programmers and artists were in different offices entirely, in different cities. Splitting an organization like this is a recipe for communication breakdown.

Programmers and artists are not inherently different! They have different skill sets, but when they’re working together properly, they’re working on the same thing. In fact, the most valuable developers are the ones that can tiptoe across disciplines. A graphics programmer that has no understanding of content creation is extremely ineffective, just as an artist that has no understanding of their tools and rendering techniques is equally ineffective. How can an artist request a feature if they don’t know it exists? How can a programmer implement a rendering technique if they don’t understand what it achieves?

Treating developers as only “artists” or only “programmers” is a misinterpretation of reality. Domain knowledge differences between systems are often much greater than the distinction between art and code for any one individual system. For example, consider the differences between animation, lighting/materials, and user interface. UI programmers are more similar to UI artists than they are to animation or materials programmers. Also, at the cutting edge of graphics technology (which we should be striving for!), the responsibilities of artists and programmers blur dramatically.

The absolute best work is done when everyone in the group has similar priorities. Communication is a crutch needed when those priorities don’t line up. We should not be organizing our projects based on programmers and artists, but around individual game (or tool) systems. Artists shouldn’t need to request a feature, because the team responsible should already want it.

Now I can’t just pick on artists and graphics programmers. There are all sorts of other development stakeholders than can introduce diverging priorities. Sound, game design, multiplayer – to name a few. Any time a task or request is met with resistance, our first thought should be “whose side am I on?”. We’d better have a good answer.