A sheep stands in his field. Munching. Baa-ing. Wait, is that—spaghetti on his head? A bib around his neck? Aww, that’s the cutest sheep I ever did see! But why is that darn sucker moving so slow?
In fact, our poor wooly friend is an animation from Zynga’s game FarmVille. When we worked on this game, 140 million of you were coming back daily to plant and sow. Well, not YOU, of course! But if no one admits to it, where did all those players come from?
When optimizing art assets for Zynga’s Farmville, we noticed that some graphics had huge performance problems. In fact, some of players’ most favorite animals on the farm slowed game play to a crawl. And since Zynga depends on solid game performance to retain its user base, this was serious business.
Our first instinct was to build an art optimizer to simplify the artwork and make it faster via a process called rasterization. And it worked! Great, done—that’s all folks, the end.
BUT we all wanted to know more—why were some artists better than others at making cute little animals that would also show up on your screen with lightning speed?
There were plenty of other sheep on the farm that looked great and didn’t slow game play, so why was our spaghetti guy causing all sorts of trouble? It turns out it wasn’t the sheep—it was the spaghetti.
Get out of the building moment
Suddenly, the problem the spaghetti bowl caused made so much sense—the artist had individually drawn each noodle in glorious pasta-riffic detail.
Displayed up close on a large-screen monitor, all that detail looked great. But in the game, the entire bowl of spaghetti was just a few pixels across, so the detail was superfluous.
At that moment, it occurred to us that the problem here wasn’t optimization, it was training.
I immediately scheduled a meeting with the FarmVille studio art director and a few of the artists on the team. They were really surprised at the impact a few extra pen strokes had on game performance.
To find performance bottlenecks in other artwork, we next built the Zynga Analyzer, a tool that integrated directly with the artist’s workflow. With each action in the authoring environment, an artist could see the impact on performance.
The Analyzer tool helped give everyone a sense of how much drawing “budget” they had for a given character. Some drawing techniques, such as transparency and shading, had more impact on performance than others.
Everyone wanted to install it to find out what they were doing right and which art assets could be improved. Given these constraints, I saw that Zynga artists were incredibly clever at making cute illustrations that also performed well.
What started as an engineering optimization problem had morphed into an artist training program. The tool that exposed total impact on game performance now instilled a bit of self-reinforcing competition within the art team. Artists were spurred on to create illustrations that looked great and performed well. By exposing character performance during the creation process artists felt they had skin in the game, so to speak.
And finally, for illustrations with no fat to cut, the Optimizer tool gave an animation a bit more pep in its step. Altogether the effort once again secured each special animal’s place on the farm, including our little sheep who can now munch spaghetti till the cows come home.