Thoughts on technical art in Flash

In the past half a decade or so the ever-increasing complexity of traditional game development has prompted the emergence – and subsequent mainstream acceptance – of the “technical artist” as a fully legit and often sought-after position.

Typically these individuals have a strong art foundation, but for one reason or another their interest extends beyond the aesthetic impact of their work into the technical as well: they become very mindful of performance, memory and scalability issues, knowledgeable in various setup techniques, optimizations, art-asset management and maintenance practices.
Some of them acquire considerable scripting or programming skills and end up writing shaders, effects, tools or even entire applications.

Coming from a similar background myself, but having spent a good amount of time in Flash development I can’t help but think that a large-scale adoption of a similar role in the Flash development community is just about overdue.

I noticed that in Flash development there’s a surprisingly sizeable and largely unexplored gray area between developers and artists (designers) which neither side is particularly eager or interested to venture into, beyond the absolute basics (e.g. setting a registration point, or properly naming a Library object ;)).

This is frustrating, but at the same time it represent great opportunity, as in my opinion one of the top, widespread causes of subpar performance – particularly in Flash games – is sloppy setup of art assets, and/or inefficient approaches to handle them.
I suspect this is going to get even more pronounced in the not-too-distant future, when 3D asset creation becomes a common part of the Flash art pipeline as well.

On a more than related note, perhaps the number one culprit of this issue right now is the Illustrator-to-Flash workflow, which is an incredibly rich subject-matter in itself, and I believe it’s something sooner or later Adobe is going to have to take a serious look at.

Most artists – quite understandably – prefer Illustrator over Flash for creating vector artwork, as it clearly has the edge in that department. On the surface everything looks good, as most Illustrator artwork can be ported to Flash just fine. However, a peek under the hood reveals the unpleasant details behind this process: as some signature features in Illustrator (most notably Blends, Pathfinder operations or the Gradient Mesh) have no direct Flash equivalent, Flash resorts to arcane substitutions/approximations to match the end-result as closely as possible.

While Flash does an admirable job at matching the Illustrator-source visually, from a technical (art) standpoint some of these substitution-techniques range from mildly annoying to balls-out insane.

Please allow me to illustrate my point with an extremely simple but effective, actual real-world example I encountered recently.
Take a look at the button background below – created directly in Flash it would require maybe 2 drawing objects, a simple radial fill, and roughly a dozen vertices:

Now let’s look at the same thing created in Illustrator using blends and a pathfinder operation, then brought over into Flash. Visually it looks pretty much the same, but Flash ended up substituting the pathfinder operation with a mask, and the smooth blend with literally hundreds of concentric circles, adding up to probably thousands of vertices:

Ouch. I’ll just leave it to your imagination what a few of these things will do to drawing performance and the overall CPU-load if they stay in their original vector form.
It’s amazing how out-of-control even this one particular issue can get with more complex artwork, while looking completely and deceptively fine visually (we are talking hundreds of movie-clips, drawing objects, masks and groups in a hierarchy that’s incomprehensible to the human mind).

Of course the simple example above barely scratches the surface of this whole subject matter, which leads me back to my original point: has most art-intensive Flash development reached a point of sufficient complexity where the emergence of dedicated specialists (a.k.a. technical artists) in this field is warranted, or am I just being completely biased and way off-base here? :|

As always, I’m very interested in your comments, observations or experiences.

4 Responses to Thoughts on technical art in Flash

  1. Ruben says:

    As a tech artist in traditional game development I can’t imagine how flash devs get by without a tech artist. I dabble in flash in my spare time and I can easily see how a regular artist could make non optimal choices from a peformance perspective.

  2. Great article! I knew Illustrator could do weird things in Flash, but that is ridiculous. I am a lead artist at a Flash game company and I am trying to build a set of technical guidelines for everyone here. I would love to hear more from you on this.

  3. Ron says:

    So is the solution to stay with one program?
    Since Flash is the software you’ll be using to create the animation and interactive elements, and the MB size of your Flash game must be kept to a minimum, it would seem that creating the art in Flash to begin with may be the smartest thing to do. A technical artist seems to be needed through out the process indeed.

  4. Og2t says:

    Yeah, as Flash dev (and a technical artist) I often end up converting assets from Illustrator to Flash, removing masks, flattening artwork etc. CS5 has landed but these issues remain unchanged – try to copy/paste between Fireworks and Flash. Ridiculous! Artists usually don’t care how their artwork actually “works”.

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