Category Archives: smArt Management

Worklog — how to create an art wall.

Art management time! Has anyone created a wall grid full of printed art assets for basic tracking and visualization? How did you do it and what did you track? I decided to design a system for that today.

I do all my project tracking in Shotgun (www.shotgunsoftware.com) but I like the idea of a wall to visualize relationships between sets, with really limited tracking indications that map to asset-specific tasks.

Let’s choose a standard 8.5 x 11 piece of paper to print on. That’s 2550 x 3300 pixels at 300dpi. Let’s see how many figures (characters in this case) we can fit onto a sheet. The practical considerations here are:

1) Scale. How many can I fit onto one sheet and still be meaningful? If it’s too few it’ll take up too much wall space. If it’s too many it’ll make looking at it difficult. We can also use either portrait or landscape mode, depending on the proportions of the image. Additionally, if there are too many and you’re printing updates, if you update more than one asset in a sheet you’ll be printing up new pages all the time.

portrait:
5×4 grid: 510×825
3×3 grid: 850×1100
2×3 grid: 1275×1100
2×2 grid: 1275×1650

2) Buffer room at the edges in case you’re using a paper cutter. Do EVERYTHING you can to size it correctly so you don’t have to use a paper cutter to correct it. Trust me, I’ve been down that road.

3) Buffer room at either the top center (for magnets) or in the corners (for push-pins) so you’re not covering up information.

4) Clearly labeled asset name with stroke around text, for easier visibility in all conditions. I like white text in Impact with a black border, or inverted colors if necessary.

5) Limited colors so we don’t waste printer ink.

6) Character is on a neutral RGB 128 grey background, but outside of those bounds it’s white. This saves ink, and prevents the painful contrast of looking at a character with a bright white background. That’ll distort your perception of color and values. (note: I’m using a placeholder since I can’t show any of my game’s assets.)

7) Stroked inside edges of the image. This’ll aid in snapping them correctly (although you should be using Guides) and cutting them out, if you absolutely have to.

8) When you print, make sure to Scale to Fit Media otherwise it’ll clip the edges by default.

9) Clear indications of asset status at the bottom that you can mark with a ballpoint pen or Sharpie. I have “R C B S T I,” which stands for “Ref – Concept – Blockout – Sculpt – Texture – Ingame.”

After several experiments, this is what I ended up with:

charsheet

This is what 4 of them on an 8.5×11 sheet looks like:

charsheet_final

And this is what all my experiments look like on the wall:

charsheet_photo

Bottom right is the winner. :) Obviously this is just the start of a LOT of effort, but I feel like I have the design down and have avoided a LOT of pitfalls I’ve subjected myself to in the past.

Hope that was helpful, or at least interesting! I’d really like to hear how your studios do it and if you have any suggestions on a simpler format, or if there’s anything I haven’t covered.

Cheers!

How to get answers faster!

One of the most important concepts I’ve learned as an art producer\manager is this: If you want to get a specific answer from someone, make your best guess — ANY guess — and invite their feedback on it. It’s 10x faster than asking them to start from nothing, even if your guess is horrible. It’s a starting point *you* create, and it works because it’s easier to critique an existing idea than conceive and commit to a new one.

Developing a standardized directory naming system for art drops

Hi, everybody! I’ve been using a system of directory naming for years for tracking all incoming\outgoing files with outsourcers I use, and I’m tweaking it and trying to standardize it. The goal is to be easy to understand and simple to sort. I’d love to get input and feedback on this. Here’s the way I do it now:

/(2012-03-22) INCOMING – SUBMISSION – STUDIONAME (character art for milestone 002)/
/(2012-03-22) OUTGOING – FEEDBACK – STUDIONAME (feedback on characters)/

The syntax is [date] [droptype] [studio] [description]

Date always comes first for easier sorting. The date is written year-month-day to adhere to the ISO 8601 information interchange standard. It sorts perfectly alphabetically so months don’t get mixed up between years. For example, you could write March 22, 2012 two different ways:

2012-03-22
or
03-22-2012

What if, a year from now, I make another directory with the date?

2012-03-22
2013-03-22
or
03-22-2012
03-22-2013

The more directories get dumped in there, the more confusing it’ll be trying to sort out which year which drop came from since it’s not sorted well.

Droptype comes second so I can easily sort out what kind of drop it is. Is it something I sent to the contractor? Is it something they sent me? Or is it a reference or information drop of some kind that doesn’t really count as incoming\outgoing?

There are the different droptypes and subtypes I’ve set up so far:

INFORMATION
    ASSET DUMP
    TECH DOCS
    REFERENCE
INCOMING
    ESTIMATE
    SUBMISSION
OUTGOING
    RFP
    ASSIGNMENT
    FEEDBACK
    REFERENCE

RFP means “Request for Proposal,” by the way. This means I’ve sent the studio a batch of work, reference and tech docs so I can get the work priced and scheduled out so we can decide whether or not to sign a contract.

I have everything capitalized for easier readability. I don’t like lower-case or mixed-case for important information. And I think all of these droptypes and subtypes encompass pretty much every type of standard communication I have with outsourcers. It’s a short list.

After that I include the studio name, which helps a lot with filtering alphabetically if I’m working with a lot of art studios or artists for a single client. I used to include the studio name in the description, but I prefer this for sorting, especially as projects scale.

From there, I include a short written description of what’s in the drop. It’s a lot more casual than the rest of the naming conventions. I don’t care about capitalization as much and I don’t have a very standard syntax for it. It’s just a brief description of what’s in the directory and why it exists.

That’s the best system I have so far. I’d love for people to pick it apart, though, to see if there’s anything I could be overlooking or doing better. I’ve gone back and forth before on whether or not to put STUDIONAME before DROPTYPE as a means of sorting more easily. It came down to being purely a matter of preference, as I’m personally more focused on seeing at a glance the actual inflow and outflow of information on a daily basis, and the ratio of in vs out. That’s more important to me than sorting first by how many times I interacted with an individual studio on a certain day.

Because of this, I’m better able to assess how productive my artists are and how productive I am, and helps me see relationships with regards to the amount of time I’ve invested on art drops and feedback and how quickly it comes back and from which studios. Again, that’s just a matter of preference.

Seriously though, any and all feedback is appreciated! :)

smArtist hardware! AKA How I manage my business from everywhere.

Hi, guys! I’ve been spending the last few months really digging into the most efficient ways to manage my business from wherever I happen to be while having plenty of backup options for staying communicative even if everything starts exploding. First off, I’d like to showcase my hardware!

These are the main tools I use for smArtist! Detailed below:

My command center! HP Pavilion dv6t quad core. Intel i7 Q 820, 8gb RAM, 500gb HD, etc. This is my primary laptop where I do all the heavy lifting, be it art, mass file storage, syncing data everywhere, etc. It’s heavy, but can handle anything I can throw at it. I take this laptop to client sites, set it up wherever there’s room, sync the data to my local HD and mirror onto an external HD then do all my work on this. This helps me work remotely and have everything at my disposal and help save my clients time and money trying to get a new system set up for me.

My Google Chromebook! I got this for free in Google’s very first round of beta hardware, and a year later, I still use it extensively. I use this for responding to email, dealing with documentation and spreadsheets, etc. I’m an ENORMOUS fan of Google and actively use most of their products, especially Gmail and Docs.

For the most part, everything I ever need to manage my business with exists in Google’s cloud — securely passworded a hundred ways, of course — and it’s all automatically accessible from this Chromebook. All I have to do is log into my Google account, and all of Chrome’s browser settings and Chrome web store applications and their relevant data are instantly accessible to me. The best part is that the Chromebook comes with 3G data plan through Verizon, so I can access the internet and all my data from wherever I am, at any time.

My Motorola Atrix laptop dock! This is the most awesome cel phone accessory ever devised. I have the Motorola Atrix phone with Android, which is an absolute beast of a phone. One of its most notable features is the laptop dock accessory.

It’s basically an entire netbook with a dock for my phone, and it’s powered by my phone’s hardware. The lapdock’s OS is actually Ubuntu, but the Android OS runs in its own window as a separate app. That window is everything on my phone. All my settings, apps, everything, 100% exact copy except I can use the lapdock’s mouse and keyboard to click on and run everything. I even unlock my phone and entire my PIN from the lapdock’s keyboard. :)

The way it works it that I dock my phone into the lapdock, then boots into Ubuntu and has a virtualized window of my phone’s Android OS as a running app. It’s incredible. It’s a fully functional netbook with 3G access through my AT&T data plan using my phone, and for no extra charge. The best part? The laptop dock has its own battery that automatically charges my phone when it’s docked, even if the laptop dock is closed.

My first-generation 64gb 3G iPad! This is the best piece of consumer electronics I’ve ever purchased. Except for the graphics work I can only do on my primary laptop, I can do EVERYTHING I need to do for my business through my iPad and with its keyboard dock. Emails, spreadsheets, reviewing portfolios, Dropbox, FTP, reading PDF docs, everything. I have apps to do basically anything I’d ever need to do, and since it’s 3G, I can do it from anywhere. :) I’m writing up an article on how I use my iPad to manage my business, and I’ll be posting that at some point in the near future.

The net effect of having all this hardware is that I can pack as light or as heavy as I need and use any of these devices to access the internet and my data through a) direct ethernet connection, b) wifi, or c) two different cellular networks. I can do face-to-face calls through Skype or various VoIP solutions on basically any of these devices if I need to. Since all my tools are based online and backed up every which way, I can be on the highway in the middle of the desert and have full access to my entire business if I even have a single bar of cel reception on either AT&T or Verizon. I’m always on.

In addition to this, I actually have a really amazing laptop \ messenger bag from Timbuk2 that’s always loaded with all the cables and peripherals I need to work remotely. This enables me to simply toss my laptop in the bag and go where I need to immediately instead of having to wrap\pack everything and make sure I didn’t leave anything behind. Among the items in my bag are my earbuds, external speakers, extra mouse, extra USB cables and AC adaptors to charge my phone and iPad, a portable three-port surge protector with two USB outlets so I can split power in busy coffee shops, and so on.

Two of my next purchases are a keyed laptop lock for security and a spare AC adaptor \ power brick for my laptop so I don’t even need to pack my primary when I need to pack up and go work somewhere without wasting a moment’s time. It may not seem like a big deal at first, but I’m out and about working from a wide variety of locations all the time, and it sucks to spend a ton of time packing\unpacking and forgetting something important as I go.

So, in a nutshell, that’s how I run my business from anywhere I am. What kind of cool tech and tools do you guys and gals use for remote work? I’d love to hear!

LinkedIn for research and business intelligence.

People underestimate LinkedIn as a business intelligence tool. If you’re interviewing, ask for names of who’s interviewing you. If you’re looking to contract with someone, look them up. Research, make notes, ask around, develop questions for the first conversation. MobyGames too. Know your goal, take aim, be prepared, then have fun! Be a smArtist.

The Six Commandments of Contracting

I’ve been dealing with contract art for nearly fifteen years, and have been a full-time professional for over ten years. I’ve worked both as an artist and as a manager in a variety of settings. As an artist I’ve freelanced from home, in-house at an art studio, and in-house at a developer. As a manager, I’ve outsourced art at an art studio with internal and external artists, outsourced and managed entire art teams in-house at a developer, and now I’m a freelance art producer managing teams all across the world. And boy are my arms tired!

Suffice it to say, I’ve been through just about every contract art management position and relationship you can imagine. I’ve come to identify several habits and character traits that make me love working with certain contractors, and on the other side of that coin, I’ve identified a few that drive me up the wall thus ensuring that I will never work with them again. I feel the term “Dos and Don’ts” is cliched, and “Commit these acts at your own peril” is too Temple of Doom, so instead I’ll present Professional vs Amateur with relevant Manager Insights many may not realize.

This also applies directly to the way I approach freelancing now. I still have much to learn and I am far from perfect. In the past, I’ve made pretty much every mistake I list below. In a way, bringing them out in the open like this is a way to hold myself more accountable. I’m writing this just as much for my own benefit as I am for contractors. Everything I list here is something that I strive for daily so I can improve myself and be a better contractor for my own clients. Welcome to my catharsis!

The First Commandment: Thou shalt know the day and the hour.

Amateur: “I’ll have it done in two hours!” Delivers it in eight hours.

Professional: “I’ll have it done in eight hours.” Delivers it in six hours.

Manager Insight: If an artist blows his time estimates consistently, it erodes my trust in his ability to deliver at all. I always notice and remember. I don’t want to have to figure out “Amateur Artist Math” and do the conversions in my head: 2h = 8h, 4h = 12h, one day = two days. I am neither nanny nor mathematician. I have dates to hit!

I’ve been in a position where I’ve been stuck with an artist that won’t correct his behavior and that I can’t replace, so I actually have to lie about when it’s due just because I know he’ll be late if I give him the real due date. And obviously I can’t tell him I do that, because he’ll be onto me and will find another way to weasel out of it, once again leaving me in the dark on delivery dates. If you make me treat you like a child, no allowance for you. Sometimes that has been the only way to get the artist to deliver it on time, and this puts me in an odd and almost parental position.

What does it say about him, his competence and his skills as an artist if he consistently fails to understand how long a task takes? Is that someone you’d work with again?

I understand that sometimes you run into problems. That’s fine. But if you’re going to be late, tell me. Trust me, I know how awkward it can be to approach someone pre-emptively and tell them something unpleasant. But I’d rather know so I can plan for it being late than simply not hear from the artist and get a late delivery. I have a boss, too. I report to my boss, and telling my boss it’ll be done on a certain day and getting it later makes me look like I can’t manage my artists or stick to a schedule. No one wants to feel that way, and that affects you directly, too!

I appreciate honesty and giving advance notice that you will be late. I do not like being surprised by a late delivery with no warning. In fact, that always irritates me. If you make me look like an idiot to my boss because I trusted you, do you think I would ever trust you or want to work with you again? Of course not. I’d cut you loose without a second thought because it is in my direct, immediate interest to replace you. No matter how cool a person you are, this is still business. Be a Professional.

The Second Commandment: Thou shalt heed the teachings of the technical guidelines tablet.

Amateur: “Here’s the delivery!” File is a mess, textures are named incorrectly, texture file associations are aimed to random files and directories on his hard drive. Bonus points for weird or profane filenames. (note: Not actual bonus points.) Obviously, the directions and technical documentation I sent were either ignored or misunderstood.

Professional: “Here’s the delivery!” Files are properly named, textures are properly assigned, technical guidelines were met and I don’t have to fix anything because he paid attention to my instructions.

Manager’s Insight: I don’t know if the Amateur just didn’t read the doc, or if he simply didn’t understand it. My three options in order from most desirable to least desirable are as follows:

  • a) Repeat myself. Tell him to reread the doc and hope he suddenly gets it. However, this could be another blown deliverable if he doesn’t. High risk, very little time spent.
  • b) Explain myself. Write up a detailed changelist and tell him exactly how to fix it. Medium risk, lots of time spent.
  • c) Do it myself. Low risk, excessive time spent.

Ideally, this will never happen. Practically speaking, it totally will.

When this sort of issue comes up, my ideal option is option A. I do NOT want option B because there is a 50/50 chance that the amount of time I’d spend re-explaining the task and what to do about it would take longer than doing it myself. That’s a slippery slope toward option C, which is the LAST thing I want. In option C, now I’m doing your work for you, and why should I have to? It’s obvious to my boss at this point that I’m wasting time and money, and that makes me look like a chump. This will ultimately affect you as well, because it’s not hard tracing the problem back to its source. (I’d like to point out that option C is a sign that I’m doing my job badly.)

Don’t make me do your job. I respect attention to detail and people that think of ways to do their job well, understand my bottom line, and try to save me time. It’s good customer service, good business and the Professional way to act. It’s the mint on the pillow.

Honestly, no one’s perfect. Sometimes I’ll have to rename a file here, tweak some verts there. That happens. If it’s just one or two issues small enough that it would be faster for me to fix them myself rather than telling you, I may just do that. It’s likely that a client may not even mention it. But if there are a lot of issues like this and it happens consistently, that’s more work for me, and it’s going to really irritate me over time. This is Amateur hour nonsense. It makes us both look bad, and will make me rethink working with you again. Your mom doesn’t work here. Clean up your own mess.

Be thorough, check your own work, pay attention to the directions I give you, and be a Professional. A manager may not mention this as being one of the reasons he continues to send you contract work, but trust me, it is a major factor.

The Third Commandment: Thou shalt heed thy client’s word to the letter.

Amateur: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Misses half of what I asked for and acts like nothing’s wrong. Clearly, he either didn’t read the feedback again, tried to remember all of it and failed, or just ignored half of it. All of this sucks equally.

Professional: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Nails every single point spot-on and (as a bonus!) verifies point-by-point what was fixed.

Manager’s Insight: This comes down to two points: 1) The Professional is showing me he pays attention to what I say, and 2) he’s focused on details and doing a good job. It’s easy for an Amateur to slack off, misread something, not double-check, or just let things slide and hope he’s not called on it because he doesn’t want to do the extra work. Maybe he doesn’t get called on it and it’s handled in-house. But just because a client may not bring it up doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticed and remembered. It absolutely should be brought up, but they may not have the time or desire to confront you.

Personally, I have no problem with confrontation, and I will be a bastard if I have to because I have a job to do. I don’t like doing that, and you don’t like being on the receiving end. Save us both the time and drama. Strive to be the Professional that makes a client think “Wow, he nailed it!” instead of the Amateur that makes the client think “Well, he completed items A, C and E but forgot B and D. Again. And now I have to either write it up or fix it myself when I have a mountain of other work to do. Splendid!”

One important point, however, that you may not realize: Sometimes — emphasis on sometimes — the sign of a job well done is the quiet, peaceful absence of problems. Everything flows smoothly, is exactly as expected, people are happy and there is no cause for complaint. Doing the job right simply may not bring open acknowledgement or kudos, but doing the job wrong is going to set off alarms that everyone notices. It took me many years to realize that, sometimes, lack of acknowledgement is something to take pride in. It’s not ideal and I try extremely hard to acknowledge and appreciate everything I can, but I have a lot to do and may not always be able to afford the time. Remembering this can keep you sane.

The Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt be mindful, for the End of Day is nigh.

Amateur: “I’ll have it ready for you by the end of the day!” Submits the deliverable at 3am, which is the end of HIS working day but is eight hours after I’ve left work and gone home.

Professional: “I’ll have it ready for you by the end of the day!” Submits the deliverable at 3pm, so I have another four hours to review it and write feedback.

Manager’s Insight: End of Day means the end of MY day, not the end of YOUR day, night owl. Plan for this. I need time to review the assets and generate feedback. If my workday ends at 7pm and I get it long after I’ve gone home, that doesn’t do me a lot of good, does it? Especially if I have an imminent deadline.

This all comes down to this timeless adage: Under-promise and over-deliver. The earlier in the day I get a delivery you’ve promised, the happier I am. But if you dramatically overestimate when I’ll get the asset and I get it uselessly late, what good is that to me? I can either stay late at work — guess how much I like that? — or put it off until tomorrow morning.

Remember: You are not the end of the pipeline. You’re an important part of the process, yes. However, other people are lined up after you take your finished product to the next stage of production and finalize it. This takes time, and issues like this pile up and affect a lot of other people down the chain. Do not be the cholesterol in the artery of my project.

The Fifth Commandment: Honor thy customer and thy reputation.

Amateur: “I’m just this guy that makes art. What’s customer service? If I make good art, that’s all that matters because that’s all they really want.”

Professional: “I’m a service provider and I take customer service seriously. I am an artist, but my success in that depends on creating art to my client’s exact specifications.”

Manager’s Insight: You are in the customer service business. A lot of artists coming from a studio environment don’t really have to worry about doing much else besides showing up and doing what’s asked of them. It’s usually hard for people to get fired for unsatisfactory performance, so a lot of annoying little habits and behaviors can get glossed over. (note: Everyone notices even if they don’t bring it up.)

It’s a lot like dating. You work out, dress well and try to get in “dating shape” so you can look as attractive as possible for potential mates. [Insert charming romantic comedy “how they met” story here, possibly starring Gerard Butler and Jennifer Lopez.] Then when you’re in a relationship, you let a few things slide because you’re safe. Contractors do this. Contractors should not do this.

This is the difference between being a contractor versus being employed full-time at a studio. As a contractor, you are ALWAYS dating. You are ALWAYS selling. You ALWAYS have to keep that standard of careful attention to detail, composure, and will to go the extra mile to make your client happy so you’ll keep working with them long-term. And even clients like flowers from time to time. (note: Please do not actually send clients flowers.)

The Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not mock the client with feeble protestations.

Amateur: “My dog ate my stylus!”

Professional: “I dropped the ball on this, and I will do my best to correct it.”

Manager’s Insight: I’ve heard every excuse in the book. Weird technical issues that are magically resolved when I try to step in to help, you never got that email you had actually already replied to, your wife\girlfriend DEMANDED that you nap through this deadline (true story!), and the list goes on. For my part, when I make a mistake, I own up to it. It sucks, it’s awkward, and I feel bad. But making lame excuses makes me look irresponsible, sloppy, and insults my client’s intelligence.

There is definitely a difference between an excuse and a valid reason. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. But if enough of those stack up, that’s a red flag. It’s easy to think to yourself “These are all perfectly valid reasons! If they’re reasonable, they’ll totally understand and forgive me.” Sure, but the more mistakes there are the less I’ll ultimately trust you, valid or not. If I hear one more “It was an Act of God!” story…

Don’t be a mistake factory. But if you make one, just fix it. I don’t always really need to know the details of why, just that a mistake was made and that you’re on top of it now. Honestly, I just want results and honesty so I can understand the situation, troubleshoot as needed, adjust the schedule and allocate resources to keep production moving.

Conclusion

Overall, these are pretty basic guidelines that may seem obvious at first glance, but so much more thought than you realize goes into dealing with issues stemming from not heeding them. I hope that this list and the Manager’s Insights prove to be useful to contractors that really care about being a Professional and want to be at the top of their game!

Artists, managers and clients: Is there anything you’d add to this list? I’d love to hear from you!