Managing Digital Assets in Game Development
Content out of the wazoo
Content management tools and techniques have existed in game design studios for decades. Since the introduction of personal computers, people have been creating, modifying, deleting, and filing digital media on floppy drives, disk drive, tape drives, and CDs. Heck, I still have all my 5 1/4 floppies for the games I wrote for the Commodore 64.
This article will outline a framework for evaluating a Digital Asset Management (DAM) system and look at the process involved in reusing, repurposing and hopefully turning digital asset into a digital product.
In today's game, it's not unusual to have hundreds of assets that make up the game -- from wire meshes models, textures, storyboards, rough sketches, design documents, MO-CAP (Motion Capture) clips to various formats of the character. This raises the challenge of classifying and indexing material to allow individuals to search for and find digital content.
For many working in the media industry, the terms "media asset management" or "content management" are familiar. However, these terms are often used loosely to refer to various systems ranging from a view pieces of paper tacked to a wall, to analog media content stored in tape vault, to a system consisting of complex programs and tools that manage huge archives of digital material in an online environment.
For our purpose, I will refer to "digital product management " as the web-based process of digitizing, cataloguing, tracking and managing digital media assets for reuse and repurpose from a single source.
There be dragons
About six years ago, I worked on a Macintosh game called Shadow of the Dragon http://now4.com/wiredgames/ it was a role playing game in the same vein as Myst.
Figure 1. The hero Blackwood and the Wizard
We had a great artist that was freelancing for us and working offsite most of the time. Being a creative guy, he would work all sorts of crazy hours, which made it hard for us to have regular creative meetings. So he would send us his designs, it'd review them and make suggestions like "make the beast look meaner" or "can the fog in the forest be less dense?" and so on and so forth. He'd go back, redesign them and come up with four or five versions with different levels of fog densities.
Pretty soon, our assets were multiplying like Captain Kirk's Tribbles. -- We had the rendered versions, the BMP version and GIF versions for the website promo etc.
Then our creative director would go through all the thumbnails, preview the finished work and mark them as approved for use. By that time we had eight or nine versions of Orcs, Forest scene, monsters, footstep sound effect, water rushing effects etc.
Figure 2. A scene for the game
Once we narrowed down all the characters, scenes, sound effects etc, I'd start coding.
A few months into coding and playing the game, I realized that the first version of the forest with dense fog was probably better than the one we ended up picking. I kept thinking, that it would have been great if we could have stored all the different version of the forest so that we could go back and review them.
It also became clear that we were not going to be able to use all the creatures that we had designed in this game. But it would have been nice to be able to use them in another game.
That's the beauty of an asset management system, things can be catalogued, searched, retrieved and archived for future use.
Figure 3. One creature that made it into the game
The asset management system
One of the best DAM system out there is Bulldog (http://www.documentum.com/). It'll handles any type of media has a customizable web interface and
can be completely distributed geographically and across divisions.
Regardless of which content management system you decide on, there are a few key features to look for:
- Keywords: You should be able to assign one or many keywords to an asset so that you can quickly and easily find that asset again. Keyword systems can either be in a Flat or Tree structure. By tree of Keywords I mean only the way to present and organize large keyword list. If asset get assigned a keyword from the leaf of the tree, it does not mean that the branch keywords will be assigned to the same asset.
- Directory. You should be able to see your file system organized by folders. Search can be made in sub tree to speed-up the process.
- Security/User Settings. Security model will reflect selected asset components, so restrictions can be placed on asset, directory, keyword, media properties, media representation, versions, groups, etc.
- Version Control. The media management system should automatically keep track of the versions. For example if I have a picture of a dragon in my asset system and I "check it out", make change to it and "check it in" again, the DAM should automatically now that this is a different versions that still has the same asset properties, but different media. Some version specific information can be added per version, like revision description, label.
- Association. If you have a picture of an Ogre that has been derived from other pictures, you should be able to create something like a "consist of" association. So my picture of the Ogre is made up of three or four other pictures.
- Group. This is important. You should be able to organize your assets in groups that you can define. For example, you may want to organize all the asset for a level into a group. Or all the weapons in a game into a group. You should then be able to apply security to that group so that only the guys working on the game can get access to them for example.
- Proxy. This is just a way to have a preview or see a low quality image for your high quality image. This saves bandwidth if you've got really huge files that you're trying to view remotely.
- Workflow. This will probably vary amongst digital management systems. But at the very least, you should be able to update/change the asset's life stage to things like: Scan, Design, Development, Retouch, Approved, and Production.
- History, Tracking. When and how asset was modified in the past and who made those changes.
- Check in/Check out/Download. This is how you get access to your asset. You should be able to checkout an asset and check it in again after you've finished with it. Checking out an asset should "lock" it so that no one else can modify the asset when you are working on it. Downloading the asset should simply move the asset from the repository to the location that you want.
- Report. As you store metadata in relational database various off the shelf reporting tools can be used to produce custom reports. You may also want to see statistical information on your assets. What has been changed recently and which media asset more frequently requested.
Also keep in mind that every asset has a lifecycle and your asset management system should be able to address all these stages:
Acquisition: How easy is it to get assets into the system? The acquisition process involves the ingestion and digitization of the media content and all associated metadata (information that is used to track the asset within the system) into an asset management engine. The engine provides the mechanism for tracking both pre-defined and user definable information about assets, as well as the ability to automatically index information about media properties, including format and size. The asset management engine serves as the repository for all content.
Editorial/Production: During the editorial process, digital media content is manipulated, resulting in changed content and changed metadata, possible adding value to the asset. Effective digital product management involves controlling access to digital assets, enabling efficient searching and retrieval of those assets, and keeping accurate records of all transactions performed on them while they are being manipulated and prepared for final usage.
Distribution: The distribution process involves the dissemination of changed content or products, accompanied by the supporting metadata, to various targeted divisions or departments.
Archiving: The archiving process results in a comprehensive record of all digital assets as well as all supporting metadata for each stored asset, regardless of whether the media resides online or has been migrated to offline storage. The cooperation and interoperation of these processes results in an end-to-end enterprise solution that adds value to digital media products at every stage of their life cycle, from acquisition through to production and distribution.
The implementation of content management system once focused on setting up and maintaining an asset repository - ingesting, indexing and storing media for reuse and repurposing. With the rich media demands of video games, this type of system no longer suffices; however, many vendors in this market have yet to reach beyond this point so avoid them like the plague.
If you have chosen the right DAM system you should be able to:
- Protect the commercial value of media
- Realize cost savings
- Find what you are looking for easily
- Facilitate a digital enterprise storage strategy
- Facilitate digital collaboration
- Enable reuse and repurposing of content
- Facilitates proper distribution tracking.
For a one- or two-person shop, a DAM may be overkill. But in any environment where you have to gather, track and basically worry about a multitude of assets, the need for content management starts to become apparent.
Otamere is a Software Engineer in the Advanced Development group of Bulldog Software-- a leading developer of software applications that leverage digital assets into digital products. Bulldog's software solutions provides clients with an enterprise platform to ingest, store, browse, manage and distribute any kind of digital media content. He's been involved in game development and in developing interactive television authoring tool and has worked on many interactive television applications including ones for MuchMusic, WebTV, EMI and Columbia/TriStar.