Typically, an 'Art Director' is expected to have expert knowledge not only of the major digital tools (Photoshop, Max), but of Art as a whole. Traditional training, an expert eye in anatomy, uncanny problem solving and creative skills are a must. Not only would a candidate need all of that, but they'd also need years of experience within the industry and would need to have fully worked on at least 2 'AAA' shipped titles.
So it's a bit of an understatement to say that Art Direction is a definitive part of a computer game. While the inner-workings ultimately determine how the game plays, art direction and style determines how it looks - and for some that's as important. Crysis had gamers bragging about actually having a powerful enough system to run the game. Team Fortress 2 is well known and loved for its art style even by people who have never played the game. Games like Psychonauts and Medieval had distinct cartoony styles, but retained a realistic element within texturing.
A consistent Art Direction can help bring a game to life. Whether the game is cell-shaded or uber realistic, it has to have a consistent art style to keep that illusion. I remember back in College where the first half of an animation submission was cell-shaded and the second half wasn’t. It completely broke the illusion and our focus, and we were all questioning the sudden change in style. It’s safe to say that the student didn’t keep a consistent art style and it was the first thing we picked up on.
Given that the ‘Art Director’ job title contains the ‘Director’, it’s safe to assume that it involves more management and paperwork than a dedicated artist role. The Art Director has to answer emails and phone calls – go to meetings and conferences – and help direct the work staff. Alongside that, they also have to find some time for asset creation and painting.
Ultimately, the Art Director has to keep the art style heading in one fixed direction, not allowing it to taper off and leak into other styles. On paper, this sounds like a relatively straightforward goal, but I’m sure it is far more complicated than it seems – hence the steep experience and technical requirements for the job.
Since the Art Director is such an exclusive and hefty role, it seems Game Developers take art style seriously. Presumably, this carries over into over industries – like Film and Graphics. The key difference between the Film and Game industries is interactivity, and while the inner workings are different the outer coating remains the same. Also, keeping a consistent, recognizable look is paramount to effective branding – a necessity of both fields of work.
Becoming an Art Director is a huge task. Not only does it require a heap of technical skill, creativity and experience – it takes responsibility. It’s not a job that can be taken straight after graduation, or even after a few years working as a junior artist. In my eyes, that’s a good thing. It means budding artists (like me) have to start at the bottom and work their way upwards, which will develop experience, skill and responsibility.