Managing Assets – Part 1: Setting Asset Quality

Today I’m going to talk about the way we work with assets here at Total Eclipse. This first post on asset management will discuss quality, forward planning, and balance.

Managing Assets - Part 1: Setting Asset Quality

Assets are everything that makes up your game, apart from the source code/script files (managing source code is a different topic and will not be discussed now).  Assets can come from a variety of media and different people may be responsible for creating them. For example:

  • Music: Musicians
  • Sound effects: Sound Engineers
  • Illustrations: Artists
  • User interface: UI designer, Artists
  • Animations: Artists
  • 3D objects: Artists
  • Movies: Producers, Artists
  • Dialogues/Text: Writers & Localisation teams

A lot of different professions, there. All these people have to be aware of, and in agreement with, the following project conventions whenever they create one asset:

  1. Asset quality
  2. Asset naming
  3. Asset backup and storage

The person responsible for informing and enforcing the creators about conventions is either the lead artist/sound/music/writer or, in smaller teams like ours, the producer/associate producer.

Communication and good teamwork are very crucial here. A non specialist (i.e the Producer) has to have a good level of knowledge of the specialist’s (i.e. artist) field of work in order to explain what the project requires.

I’m going to take a look at the conventions by using Maya’s Dress Up as an example. My examples will focus on image assets but what I’m going to say can equally apply to other rich media.

The quality vs. cost trade-off

Maya’s Dress Up, our most recent game for iOS devices, is extremely asset-heavy with thousands of images. Let’s have a look at one of the game’s typical assets, a necklace. After the producer and artist agree on what will be painted, the quality must be established. In images this can be expressed in terms of DPI (dots-per-inch).

  • Cost in money: The more DPIs and the larger the image is, the more you will pay for the art, as the artist needs to add extra details in the illustration.
  • Cost in time: The more DPIs, and the larger the image is, the longer it will take for the artist to deliver.

The following image shows one of the necklaces done for Maya. Here, in Total Eclipse, we generally stick to 3oo DPI per illustration.

A turquoise Necklace from Maya's Dress Up

Turquoise Butterfly Necklace in different resolutions.

On the left side you can see the level of detail that it was illustrated – at 300 dpi. The right shows the level of detail that would be needed if one would make it at 72 dpi. The chain links are no longer visible nor is the glass glow on the butterfly. Surely that should save a lot of the artist’s time – or not? Let’s suppose we have 500 items.

  • Avg time needed for a garment at 72 dpi -> 1 hour (500 total)
  • Avg time needed for a garment at 300 dpi -> 2-3 hours (1000-1500 total)

Looks like a ton of hours would be saved if the lower quality is chosen. This is how the necklace looks on Maya on a venerable 1st-gen iPod Touch with a 480×320 resolution:

Screenshot for Maya's Dress Up on an iPod Touch
Maya and necklace on a 1st-gen iPod Touch

Pretty small” you might think. Suppose for a minute that all of the assets were done in low quality. Then Apple goes out and throws an iPad at you with a 1024×768 resolution. And after a bit, it comes up with a new iPhone sporting a Retina display, of all sorts. This doubles the device’s pixel density of each image and effectively requiring an 960×640 resolution.

If you wanted to move to those new devices, you would need to scale upwards.

Scaling Upwards

Artist”, I hear you say. “Make me images for this new display”. The artist will rightly tell you that she’d have to work double the time and re-do all of the art to a higher quality.

Total time = Old time+new time = 1500-2000 hours

Have a look at the next image. Click on it to see it full-size.

Differences between non-retina, badly scaled-up retina, and true retina display

You can clearly see the difference between scaling up and scaling down in resolution. Image #2 is derived from a low, 72-DPI source file while #3 from a 300 DPI one. The quality level in #2 is bad, the image very blurry and non-crisp.

To go from #2 to #3 for all your asset library roughly means doing all your assets again. It would take a good artist hundreds of hours of work.  This would put a burden to your pocket and probably to the artist’s morale as she’d have to do the same things all over again instead on working at something different.

To go from #3 to #2 is a matter of resizing to the dimensions you need.  The following image shows some platforms that we could export to from one 300 DPI source file. Don’t worry, this is not a sneaky announcement for iPads with Retina display (although, you never know).

Varying resolutions from one high-quality image
Ensuring assets are future-proof: One source, many devices

Scaling Downwards

When the artists draw at the high quality resolution, details seem crystal clear and fine line-art shows. When you scale it down you must sacrifice a ton of detail. The trick is to sacrifice non-crucial detail –  detail that does not define the image itself.

One very important thing to remember is that even though the artist might draw at a high resolution, she must often check how the end result looks like in other resolutions as well. Previewing the work while it’s being created, on the intended medium scale, should be an integral part of the artist’s task.

Even when dealing with vector graphics, where scaling up or down is much less painful than raster,  keep in mind that line art will scale accordingly. If you have fine line-art, scaling an image down will make thin lines disappear. If this line-art actually ‘defines’ your illustration, then there’s extra work to be done, thickening those lines.

Detail Overkill

Put only as much detail as you’re prepared to pay long-term. Most of the times, there is no point dealing with assets with a ludicrously high quality. The software that you use might get slow and unwieldy, documents may crash, hard drives fill up faster than you’d like.

Think about what the actual size of the asset will be on your primary medium. Consider if the slower completion times are worth the steep increase in detail.

Using assets elsewhere

Keep in mind that if you want to use assets from your game to other mediums, like posters, collector’s booklets, printed DVD covers, t-shirts or a magazine advert, you will need high-resolution assets, otherwise it will look bad. And there’s nothing worse than beautiful artwork printed in bad resolution.  Or wait, there is: Bad artwork printed in bad resolution. (Here’s the antidote to that link).

Identify the key assets that make up your game such as the logo, music, video, and characters and invest towards higher quality.

Conclusion

The first convention about assets boils down to this:

You more easily scale down, than scale up. Future-proof assets justify the cost.

Study your project carefully and strike a balance between quality, quantity and scalability of assets. Find your game’s golden ratio between cost and future-proofing. Do not limit yourself to the current device you are building on.  When porting a project to different platforms, high-quality assets will save you both time and money which you can then spend to properly polish the game for each platform.

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