The importance of a strong content processing system is often overlooked at the beginning of a project, even in large, experienced companies. The amount of assets needed for a present day production - be it in film or interactive media - is mindblowing compared to a similar project from only five years ago, which is why a poorly designed content pipeline will have a much larger negative impact on the schedule and quality of the product now than managers are used to seeing. The simplistic approaches used in the past for managing and integrating the resources created by artists and designers crumble under today's requirements.
Managing diversity is probably the most immediately apparent challenge in building a game production pipeline. There are many types of resources involved: models, textures, animations, sounds, maps, scripts and so on. Part of the tools used to create them are commercial programs like Maya, 3D Studio Max and Photoshop, while others are built in-house. The source files need to be organized (and versioned, ideally) and most of them need to be processed by specialized code to produce data which can be used by the game engine. In some cases there are dependencies between assets, so a good system will have to track them to prevent inconsistencies or incomplete objects and to eliminate duplicates or items which have become unnecessary.
Exporting data for the game code is not trivial either. The file formats often change during development, so it is important to be able to re-export existing assets without human intervention (this is usually called a batch export). Some types of content require time-consuming processing steps (e.g. light map or normal map generation), which should be offloaded to a server farm. The system should support fast iteration and frequent changes, therefore pushing the exported files out to the entire team must be done as transparently as possible. Automated test systems can be hooked up to the export process, so that errors are caught early on. Many of the tasks involved in this are repetitive and error-prone, so a good pipeline will let your artists and designers focus on creating great content instead of slowing them down with boring, laborious and often much too technical house-keeping.
Off-the-shelf content creation software like Maya or 3D Studio Max must be enhanced with in-house plug-ins to be integrated into a production pipeline. A large number of teams stop after writing an exporter plug-in, but there is a lot to gain from customizing these applications further. It is possible to implement a source control system, to enforce the project conventions for file naming and structure and to script repetitive actions like setting up a scene for normal map generation, starting a new game character etc. Adding viewport preview for game shaders is very helpful for the artists and can improve their productivity. Sometimes the DCC application is used to build maps and set up game objects like triggers and computer-controlled characters, in which case custom property editors for these entities must be implemented by a plug-in.
Griffin Software has extensive expertise building and working with real, proven game content pipelines. We provide consulting and development services for all aspects of creating an effective system, from general design to the smallest intricacies of plug-in code. Experience matters a lot here, because many problems and bottlenecks appear in unintuitive places. Our know-how is best applied at the beginning of a project, but we can also improve existing tools and processes if the development has already started. We can also help you start on the right track if you are considering switching the team from one major DCC platform to another, for example transitioning from 3D Studio Max to Maya.
Film production pipelines have different demands than game projects, but some issues are shared. The problem of efficiently handling cross-referenced scenes is similar to tracking dependencies between game assets. Versioning systems for scene files are not as widely used as in games, but if adapted correctly can provide significant benefits for the artists. Managing jobs for render farms is not unlike administering build servers, but it is a more central part of the infrastructure in film studios than in game companies. Extending and scripting the content creation software to fit the requirements of the project is very important too.
Some studios cannot justify a full time position for a developer. In other cases, even when such specialists are available in-house, they are too busy with other tasks to handle improvements to the pipeline and tools. We can help in these situations.
If you need custom plug-in development for any digital content creation platform, Griffin Software is the right company to call. We have a wealth of experience writing varied and widely used plug-ins for Maya, 3D Studio Max, Lightwave and XSI. We know these platforms down to the finest details. Regardless of whether you need to customize one of these programs for a certain project, or you want to integrate your own product into them, talk to us and you will be impressed with the results.