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Bridging the gap between tech and art at Ubisoft

November 17, 2020
4 minutes read
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“The bar has raised for what skills and knowledge a tech artist is expected to have as our games have gotten more complex.”

When making big, open-world AAA games, rarely are development hurdles isolated to one department. Having skills and knowledge in multiple fields – and being able to walk the tightrope between them – will give you the best shot at finding new solutions.

There are an increasing number of roles in the industry that exemplify this balancing act.

Today, we’re highlighting a member of the Ubisoft Toronto team whose multifaceted role sees him interacting with nearly every production department on a weekly basis – sometimes even in a single day.

Meet Liam Gilbride, Ubisoft Toronto Senior Technical Director.

“I’m not sure I ever really have a ‘typical’ day,” says Liam. As Senior Technical Director his role is a unique combination of Lead Programmer, Producer, and Art Director, and he works with technical artists and a cross-disciplinary team.

“Things change considerably over the course of production on a game, and my responsibilities can shift dramatically from day-to-day.” So what challenges does a technical director tackle at a studio like Ubisoft?

“There are always tricky problems to solve with programmers, pain points in content creation, production schedules to flesh out, or project direction to solidify. Often the interesting part is in figuring out which path to take,” he says.

That path could mean identifying if it’s a programming problem to solve, or asking is there a design solution that could reduce the implementation difficulty? Ultimately, it’s about working through these problems — keeping in mind different viewpoints — and making a better game in the process.

What kind of background do you need to be a Technical Director?

Liam’s interest in programming began at a young age.

“I remember playing in QBASIC on a 486 around 1991 without really understanding what I was doing at the time,” he recalls.

He showed an early aptitude for physics, math, and programming during high school and the early days of HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. “I had started to play around a little bit with early versions of 3dsmax, mostly finding ways to extract models and characters from games I played and then making small scenes to render them out.”

After high school he spent a couple years working towards a physics degree before making the big decision to change course. He switched to a digital animation program at a technical school where he rounded out his Photoshop knowledge, learned Maya, and got his first taste of MEL scripting, 3D scene debugging, and optimization.

Liam got his start in the video game industry as an environment artist at Radical Entertainment working on PROTOTYPE. “It was a great opportunity to learn a ton of new skills fast with a motivated team, and I was able to get a shipped title under my belt relatively quickly.”

“Everything else I’ve learned over the last 14 years on the job” – over six of those years spent at Ubisoft, working on titles like Starlink: Battle for Atlas and Watch Dogs: Legion. But even as a Director Liam never stops learning.

“On the tech side with programming languages like python, C#, C++, shading languages like HLSL or CGSL, on the software side with profilers, graphics debuggers, art tools and game engines, and on the art side with traditional principles like silhouette, negative space, color theory, leading the eye, principles of animation…  there’s always something new to pick up.”

What is Technical Art at Ubisoft Toronto?

Liam has seen the technical art role grow during his time in the industry. While it isn’t a new job, he says it has evolved significantly over the last 15 years in terms of growing in scope and in the recognition of its impact on video games.

Much of that growth has happened in the skills and knowledge that technical artists now need as games have gotten more complex. Tech Art at Ubisoft Toronto is no exception, with the number of software packages to keep up on and fit into pipelines, the complexity of modern shading and lighting models, the size and scope of data in modern games, and the number of platforms that we now develop for simultaneously.

One of the best things about the role is how much it encourages you to always be learning. “Every year I see new young tech artists mastering skills that used to be rare, and cutting-edge knowledge that only a few people understood just a couple years before.”

It’s this emphasis on constant evolution that many find attractive.

“The role attracts people who like to learn and push themselves—and through that, each other—so there isn’t much room for resting on your previous accomplishments.”

At the end of the day, technical artists bridge the gap between programming and art, and while every studio has slightly different needs for this person, there’s no doubting its increasingly important in the industry.

Be the Future of Technical Art

Interested in a future career in Technical Art at Ubisoft Toronto? If you’re a student or recent graduate check out the Ubisoft Toronto NEXT Technical Art Challenge. Winners receive a paid apprenticeship at the Ubisoft Toronto studio learning from industry experts. Learn More.

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