Programmers, move over! Already.

In a discussion of procedurally generated art in game production, the wonderful Brenda Brathwaite -whom we met at the last GDC during a very encouraging panel session about sex in games- said:

In my view, procedurally generated art doesn’t ask artists to leave the party. Rather, it invites programmers to it.

This sums up, in my opinion, to a large extent, what’s wrong with games as an artistic medium. On an aesthetic level, in most games, the people who are making the artistic decisions that matter are the programmers. Sure, the grunt work (3D models, textures, sound, music, etc) is done by actual artists. But that is just called “asset creation”, and correctly so. The real artists are the ones who create the normal mapping, the lighting systems, the shadow shaders, the physics effects, the water simulation, forest rendering systems, etc.

Without a common aesthetic vision, contemporary games quickly start looking like collages of different technologies. This doesn’t come as a surprise. All of these systems are built as solutions to problems, not as artistic statements. I’m sure a programmer wants his blur shader to look pretty. But that’s just not the same as an artist who really knows why he wants that shader and how he’s going to use it.

Games are an art form where the real artists are engineers. No wonder they fall apart, aesthetically! Engineers shouldn’t be making art. Just like artists shouldn’t be building engines. A bridge created by an artist without the help of an engineer, will fall down. The same is true for a painting created by a programmer. It will fall down like an empty house of cards that was never supposed to be meaningful in the first place.

So how can we solve this? The technology that we are using is very complicated. With all the work that it takes to make something even run on a computer, there’s hardly any time left for artistic decision making. Let alone a place for a global artistic vision in the production pipeline.
I guess one way is wait. Once the hardware gets so fast that it can do anything, there will be a lot less need for difficult programming. Because, let’s face it, most of the programming in games is transpiration, not inspiration: it’s creating software so that it can run on our feeble hardware.
But will that moment ever come? Will the hardware ever be powerful enough?
And isn’t there anything we can do in the mean time?

13 thoughts on “Programmers, move over! Already.”

  1. The common response that I get to this stance is “Da Vinci”. But that’s a cop-out. First of all, in millenia of Western art there has only been one Leonardo Da Vinci. So it is very unlikely that we suddenly have hundreds of them and that they al work in the games industry. Second, Da Vinci did not excel at either engineering or art, in my opinion. His helicopters may be clever but they are not practical. And his paintings are nice, but they lack the depth and subtlety of, say, a Botticelli.

  2. as usual, your ideas are provoking. but this time i even feel a little bit insulted. why? because my phd in computer sciences helps me a lot in my art practice (actually not the phd itself, but i wanted to squeeze it into the sentence). of course i will never be as artsy as a painter. i consider that a good thing.

    btw: i like botticelli, but ever since i visited the louvre i know why the mona lisa plays a role of this importance in art history.

    concerning your naivety about the complexity of programming: history tells us that the more complicated machines get the more complicated the programming gets. simply put: the more possibilities you have the more code you need to handle them. even simpler: code for the c64 is _far_ less complex than that for the cell.

    ps: a lot of technical artists and engineers lack taste and artistic capabilities. i subscribe to that. but that does not lead me to a bold “engineers should not do art”.

    pps: what do you think about eskil steenberg’s LOVE mmo?

    ppps: at last: i anyway think that the aesthetics of computer games largely originates in the gameplay. that’s usually not taught at art schools (there are exceptions, of course).

  3. LOVE looks very interesting. And pretty. I’m looking forward to playing with it!

    I agree that the aesthetics of computer games cannot be divorced from interaction and other dynamic processes. But I don’t see a lot of games that make up for their ugliness with gameplay. The two go hand in hand for me.

    My statement is not as bold as you may think. If there were no artists in this world, I’d have no problem with engineers making art. But since we do have artists, I would like to see them use this technology. The engineers could enable this. But it seems like they’d rather play at making art themselves.

  4. Hello Michaël, been reading your blog for a while, first time commenting …

    I know you are not in favor of a sectioning off artists and engineers – but it’s difficult to escape. I think it’s sort of built in to the language we use to talk about these issues. The assumption is: artists are all about visual aesthetic, engineers are all about better code. I think part of the challenge is to break down those categories as frequently as possible.

    I think those who come from an engineering background can afford some education in visual aesthetics… just enough to practice restraint. Maybe the kind of restraint that is used by Google in their UI practices for example.

    The real artists are the ones who create the normal mapping, the lighting systems, …

    I tend to agree with this, but cautiously. It is always tricky to identify “real artists.” I agree with it to the extent that those individuals are working somewhere in between categories, and that’s what is needed. I am cautious about it because physics, normal mapping, lighting, etc. are all a visual language based in very old traditions of visual aesthetics. I tend to think once we get more visual-artist-coder types working we’ll get more unexpected visual vocabularies…

  5. I totally agree with martin in that better (more complex) hardware invites more complex coding. Which is very interesting for us programmer types, but I imagine to be very overwhelming and frustrating for people more focused on the artistic values. Therefor I think we need tools with a heavier emphasis on these users.

    One thing that I’ve learned during my AI courses at Amsterdam university is that there is great need for methods that focus on user in a very specific context (in this case art) to help them in such creative processes as game programming. We often see this in tools written by ‘programmy’ artists that address a specific problem they have in creating their art of which us more hard core programmers had absolutely no idea that they where needed, but which we can improve upon.

    The good news is that this is already happening. At the human computing studies lab here there are often workshops focusing on bringing programming tools to artists. And ofcourse there are such initiatives as processing and nodebox which seem to me to be a step in the right direction.

  6. It takes a very unique sort of person to create an artistically beautiful game, but at the same time have the software engineering abilities to create it in a reasonable amount of time running on a modest machine. Naturally, there aren’t many of these people, which explains why most games are entertainment, not art.

  7. “But will that moment ever come? Will the hardware ever be powerful enough?”

    I don’t think we need a “powerful enough,” computer, we just need stability. If you can pick platform which is not constantly evolving and demanding new technology, where the hard problems are for the most part solved and packaged up nicely, then you can give the control back to whoever is best suited for it.

    We can actually do this currently, as long as we pick a platform which is quite a bit out of date. So in a sense, the control you want is here, just with technology lagged 10 or 20 years behind 😉

  8. I agree with Zaphos concerning the limitations of the hardware. (Though it probably doesn’t contradict your point, since the very powerful hardware would also be stable.) Limitation sparks creativity. If you have your playground set, you can concentrate on what kind of game you want to play. Some of the best games for the PS2 (like SotC) were made when the console was considered outdated. A lot of gameplay ideas stem from hardware limitations and I feel like the current hardware is very powerful and gives much more possibilities than are actually explored.
    Maybe artistic unity comes with the “ripening” of a team of developers, when they don’t have to worry about struggling with a new technology anymore?
    The constant evolving of technologies probably eats a lot of time that just goes into adjusting.

    On a more random note: German rennaissance painter Mathis Gothart-Neithardt also was an engineer.

  9. While Da Vinci is undoubtedly the archetypal “renaissance man”, he is actually only one of many (I happen to like Athanasius Kircher). In fact, up until the late 19th Century, when industrialization and rationalist thinking encouraged a split between the arts and sciences, it was not uncommon for great thinkers to explore seemingly disparate disciplines.

    There was a utilitarian practicality to all of this when originally employed in the mass manufacturing of goods, however, with the advent of the WWW, this mindset seems to be losing a lot of steam… rapidly.

    I would agree that, as these digital tools become more sophisticated, artists will likely focus less on the “how-to-just-get-it-to-work” aspects of the medium and more on creative possibilities which they provide. However, I don’t feel that this possible uptake needs to ultimately reinforce an unnecessarily narrow “us vs. them” mentality.

  10. I think there is also some related line of thought that says that whenever a new technology is introduced to an art, and people get excited about it, there’s a period of adjustment where people abuse it horribly. This is a common explanation for the synth-heavy production of 80s music, for example. (Lens flare is to Reverb as ? is to ??) Games are in a perhaps uniquely-unfortunate place of being so close to technology that for their entire life they’ve always been sitting on some too-new exciting technology, and usually multiple of them. It’s not obvious to me that this problem is because artists are excluded; it seems to be a lack of perspective that affects everyone including artists.

    This line of thinking also encourages staying away from the cutting edge of technology, and perhaps suggests that game developers need to take special care to be skeptical of new effects.

  11. I think you wrongly state that engineers can’t make art. They don’t have to be the only one, but the physical art on screen differs from the art of a game.

    The art of a game lies in its mechanics and how they blend with the other elements of the game (graphics, sound, narrative, etc). How those mechanics state a message, an opinion, a value from the one who created it. This could be a designer, programmer, artist, or some combination.

    To think of art in games in purely a painting, sculpture, texture way is to not take advantage of the power of this medium.

  12. Whose to say a programmer can’t be an artist? I program my own games. Learning to program is much less difficult to learn than writing but because one is standard suddenly programmers can’t be artists?

  13. Great discussion all around. I think most of you who are making counter-arguments might be missing the point, though. Of course programmers/engineers can make art, which is exactly the source of Michaël’s problem. He’s saying that they shouldn’t make art. Your counter-arguments should challenge why engineers should be qualified to make art, not whether or not they can.

    I actually think the artists that you should be pointing at here are creative directors instead of engineers. In any given game company, there will be someone who decides it’s ok to have engineers code normal mapping, reflections, etc. Whoever makes that decision is the artist, and he/she directs the engineer to code the shader. Often times these directors will have risen to their role from some other specific field (like programming), or in other cases, they’ll let the lead programmers make those creative decisions themselves. In the context of this argument, giving up the directing role would be a bad idea, and that should be the problem. The engineers are simply doing their jobs the best they can.

    I don’t like comparing games to film, but in the production sense, the film industry works the same way with it’s directors. If what I say is true, then the problem is simply that most directors in the game industry have poor taste or are giving up their role to people who aren’t qualified. So to answer the question, “how can we solve this?”, I would base my solutions on the assumption that the problem is actually with the creative decision-making – or directing – and not with the production art or engineering, specifically.

    An easy place to start with the solution is with the business structure. Directors will often give artistic control to engineers who are not qualified. I think a lot of the reason why they are given this control is to make their job more enjoyable, which makes them more productive, or because the decision-makers see these decisions as a problem to be solved (an engineering task) in order to make a good product (often a marketing decision).

    Another problem is technology, and as you mentioned, it’s important to choose a technology that won’t get in the way, while still leaving room for expression.

    I think one of the biggest hurdles lies in the vision itself. We still don’t know what exactly lies at the heart of this medium. From what I can tell, there are those who think it is pure entertainment, those who think it is expression through rules or gameplay systems, and those who think it is expression through dynamic, real-time interaction and emotional experience. IMO there isn’t enough evidence yet to confidently choose any one of these views. But part of the solution should be exploring the medium through experimentation, and striving to create an environment that cultivates great directors that have good taste and understand the medium.

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