Interview with Starborne: Frontiers Technical Artist, Jonathan Dunn
We're back with another round of insights from our team! This time our Technical Artist Jonathan Dunn is under the spotlight. Let’s take a closer look at his role here at Solid Clouds.
What are your main responsibilities, and what does an average workday look like for you?
I am the bridge between the art and tech teams, so my role as a technical artist involves solving audio-visual problems that require combining output from both departments.
I primarily achieve this by coding systems that implement a variety of other graphical and audio systems, and then building internal tools for these new systems to speed up asset production for myself and other team members.
It seems like you have a wide range of tasks, what do you enjoy doing the most and why?
My single biggest responsibility is the combat system, and creating the movements and abilities you see the ships use.
It’s a lot of fun making things explode and react in a satisfying way. I really love the process of dialing in and fine-tuning FX so they feel weighty and responsive,in the industry we appropriately call this ‘the juice’.
A lot of the magic in well-made FX comes from the timing and layering of the various elements, and so my love for making music also likely informs my approach to ensuring these systems feel good to experience.
What are some of the challenges you face when programming visual effects, especially for the combat system, and how do you overcome them?
It is relatively straight forward to make an individual ability look good, but making the entire range of skills and abilities work together as a whole is much trickier. We currently stand at over 300 skills in the game, which is a lot of assets to manage.
To make our lives a little easier we have developed tools to help author new assets where code can handle a lot of the repetitive tasks. This means creating new FX or improving older iterations can be done much faster, with a smaller chance of human error. I find eliminating this busy work keeps me sane and able to focus more on being creative.
Do you get any creative oversight when adding visual elements to the game?
At the start of a task, there will be some guidance and idea generation, and a design document if it’s a big feature. Many plans don’t survive contact with reality though, and thankfully there is a lot of autonomy in the role, so I often experiment with solutions as I am building a system.
Once the first pass is complete we will review what works and iterate from there. We are very open about gathering feedback from outside the department and from the wider community, good ideas can come from anywhere, and if something is not working we’ll try a different approach.
How do you balance the artistic vision with the technical constraints when implementing assets into the game?
One of the more challenging aspects of the job is managing the scope of the ideas that come from the art department, as developing for mobile enforces tight restraints.
Instead of always saying no to lofty ideas it is necessary to sometimes explore how to make unrealistic ideas feasible by finding novel solutions and carefully balancing the render budget. This often requires communicating to the relevant team members any strict requirements the implementation may have, and also to advise on which techniques they could use in order to produce optimized assets.
How do you work with the art team to ensure the best result?
We are always in a state of educating each other on the specifics of our processes so we get a better understanding of where the limitations are, but also where optimizations can be made. Over time this knowledge becomes solidified as best practice, which only increases the quality of our work as we continue to develop and gel as a team.
You mentioned that you add audio effects to the game. Does this also include incorporating the soundtrack? If so, what considerations do you have to take into account when integrating the soundtrack into the game?
We are fortunate to work with some very talented composers and sound designers, so implementing their work just requires respecting the original material and trying to find the balance so that everything works together. For example, we've used special techniques to make certain sounds more noticeable and blend better with the music. Think of it like adjusting the volumes of different instruments in a band, so you can hear everything more clearly in the mix.
What is your favorite part about working for Solid Clouds?
I really enjoy being part of a team of dedicated and talented people, who respect each other's disciplines and champion collaboration and the common goal. We are the perfect-sized company for knowing everyone well and that makes a big difference when it comes to team cohesion and the quality of our output. I am truly blessed to spend my days working with such people.