As I’ve said numerous times, I started doing CG at the age of 15. That was nearly 34 years ago. So, for a VERY long time, forums weren’t a part of my life. Before 1997, it was all “mailing lists” and newsgroups, the sort you’d find on CompuServ or AoL back in the day. 1997 saw the introduction of Planet3DArt. For those unfamiliar with it, Planet3DArt was (iirc) the precursor to CGTalk; Both had Leonard Teo behind the scenes in those early days. I was 23 at the time.
From that point on, there was just this whole forum boom that, not coincidentally, coincided with the newfound popularity of CG thanks to 1995’s Toy Story. Everybody wanted to do CG. It was the next frontier for art and, by all accounts, a modern Wild West. Unexplored territory galore and new challenges at every turn. All of the techniques, by today’s standards, were simple enough and accessible enough that anybody willing to put in more than 60 minutes of effort could become internet famous. Low cost consumer apps like Caligari trueSpace made it [CG] that much more accessible.
That right there is at heart of the issue. Low cost (or free) apps and indie versions make CG accessible to everybody, but the state of the art has advanced to such a state of complexity that it has all become that much more impenetrable and daunting. Sitting through days of YouTube videos sometimes isn’t even enough to scratch the surface of some topics.
For a good number of years, I moderated/admin-ed on sites such at CGChat and GameArtisans. Back then, they used to run all manner of small challenges and large contests. Entering and finishing them, even for a newbie, was not only possible, but pretty common. After all, what were your requirements? A few thousand polys, a simple pose, maybe a multi-angle one-sheet, and single texture that was small to the tune of 512x512. No ambient occlusion. No normal maps (yet). Just a single texture sheet with everything baked in. Sculpting wasn’t even widely used yet and the most commonly referenced tutorial of that day was still “Joan of Arc” for 3dsmax. That was pretty much the case (more or less) as recent as 2007.
Flash ahead 16 years later to now. If you tried to hold a modern version of one of those old competitions, the briefs would be so complex that only people with 5+ years of experience could enter or finish. The state of the art today is hardly accessible, which is really why so many people are turning to AI - it cuts out the middle man (ie. core art skills).
I’m almost 49 now. I’m still glued to my screen for 10+ hour days. I still adapt to the changing climate and adopt new techniques all of the time. For my part, I haven’t aged out. I just think that forums, which are highly newbie accessible, can’t keep up with an art form that is itself… not.
We’ve seen all manner of attempts at keeping the conversation going and bringing CG communities back.
- Facebook has many groups. Most are largely useless. Nobody wants critiques. Nobody knows how to give critiques. Nobody is willing to spend the time writing or reading them. People just want “likes” and that’s it. Improve your social status through flex and followers.
- Discord channels exist to fill the gap. They suck too. Little organization. Too decentralized. Inhabited, mostly, by newbies trying to look big by “schooling” other newbies. Lots of people talking and nobody really accomplishing anything. Like standing in a full elevator and trying to fill the void for a 50 floor ride.
- Sites like ArtStation and CGSociety exist, but they’re all about “show and tell” and not at all about community. You certainly can’t give or get critiques. Little sharing of tips. No real community engagement.
- YouTube has a comments section for its endless supply of videos, but there are as many trolls as there are legit comments. To make matters worse, the actual content is spotty. 10% good content and 90% that’s just ill-informed, outdated, or redundant.
We now live in a “look at me” culture. The idea of CG communities is an old, outdated concept. That implies the exchange of ideas. The notion that a pro can come in and mentor a newbie in such an environment seems quaint and antiquated. If the only things that matter are likes and followers, who the heck cares about legit growth? When every newbie with a high like count is delusional enough to fancy themselves masters, what’s the point of community?
AI really only worsens the problem. Just head over to ArtStation. There’s a metaphorical sea of “artists” who can crank out amazing (derivative) works in zero time. I just saw this page from one member who managed to bang out, maybe, 20 full character pieces in 4 or 5 days. What need to THEY have for community. It’s all about the flex and how they can parlay that into becoming internet famous, enough to monetize that status - bypassing industry work altogether.
Communities like CGTalk, GameArtisans, CGChat, and so on existed as places where you could share ideas, have friendly competitions among friends, and grow. They were welcoming to newbies back in those early days because, let’s face it, EVERYBODY was a newbie at that point. CG as we know it was still relatively new and everybody was able to grow with it. Today, even if you valued the idea of community over social status, joining a forum as a newbie is like becoming a Harry Potter fan 5 books in. By the time you’ve caught up to 5, everybody else is already on to book 7.
At this point, forums like Polycount are odd duck relics. Great that they still exist and prosper in spite of it all, but still remnants of a different time. At best, they stand as a monument to all of the people who’ve contributed and learned there over the years - their archived posts marking the evolution of the art and serving as a massive reference for those newbies who can’t get help elsewhere. A self-serve repository of knowledge.
Overall, what I might miss about the “old days” is that accessibility. I was thinking about that a few weeks back after I replayed the original 2000 Deus Ex. The entire art pipeline for that game was, what, 2 apps? Photoshop & LightWave. 3 apps if you include Unreal Engine. That’s it. 2 apps for all of the assets and 1 extra for level layout.
What might it look like today, a full game art pipeline? Photoshop. Maya. ZBrush. Marvelous Designer. World Creator. Substance Painter. Substance Designer. Marmoset Toolbag. Unreal. That’s 3x as long of a pipeline and it could be made much longer through endless ancillary support apps and 3rd party plugins.
How much more do you need to know today compared to 2000 if you wanted to make an indie 3D game? It’s certainly some magnitude well beyond that 3x factor. More people could engage in that sort of activity 23 years ago than today. As I said, the current state of the art has made it impenetrable with anybody with fewer than “x” number of years to even try. This issue of pipeline, comparing then VS now, is really emblematic of greater problem underscoring why forums are less useful or possible.
Even if the world today slowed down and social media died, nothing is as simple as it once was. CG has grown up and forums, which were once playgrounds, aren’t welcome.