Last Friday my wife and I attended an art gallery reception hosted by the Santa Clarita Artist’s association, of which she is Vice President. During a conversation with another couple, my wife said that we were driving up to the San Francisco area later this week to participate at an outdoor art festival in Los Altos. The couple then asked if I were an artist like my wife, and I rather sheepishly explained that I was just her “roadie.”
When talking to painters and photographers, I never describe that the work I do in video games as art. I suppose that I feel self-conscious about making that claim, knowing that many people still think of video games as a wasteful pastime for children and juvenile adults. I remember reading the late film critic Roger Ebert’s answer when asked if video games were art:
“To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
While Roger Ebert did admit that video game art can have artistic merit, he did not make such a concession to video game writing. Of course, now video game writers such as Amy Henning and Neil Druckmann are finally receiving critical recognition for their work from the Writers Guild of America and other writing peers who see that video games can tell meaningful stories about the human condition.
But what about the work as a whole? Is assembling different artistic components together into a video game make the collective work an artistic one. To answer that question, I look to another quote, one from the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, in which Aaron Sorkin wrote this exchange between the characters of Apple founds Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs:
Steve Wozniak: What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?
Steve Jobs: Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.
I suppose that what I do as a video game designer and producer is play the orchestra of programmers, artists, writers, and sound engineers. Yet still I call myself an artist, even in my best work. For me, art is not art when an artist thinks it’s art, but when the critical consensus says it’s art. And until the day when the Producers Guild of America or the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences starts bestowing video game production awards like the British Academy of Film and Television Arts does, I must be satisfied with considering myself to be a video game roadie.
The state of video game art has come a long way since the Magnavox Odyssey was released in 1972. Sprites in that first home console system consisted of monochromatic blocks, and the background filled in by colored overlays that designed to fit over a television screen. These overlays would have drawings or artwork on them to represent what the machine was not capable of showing.
The 8-bit era of the 1980’s allowed for more colors and a higher resolution in computer and console graphics, but a lot of game art was created by the developers who programmed and designed the game. I remember placing a transparent grid over a photograph over an airplane, and using a primitive sprite editor I had programmed, trying to recreated the image pixel by pixel for a wilderness survival game I was developing.
Modern technology has expanded the canvas upon which developers are able to paint environments for their games. Game now include many forms of traditional artistic expression—2D illustration, 3D modeling, animation, and cinematics—that combine with storytelling and technology to create something that transcends any one art form.
Video game art is like no other art form. Video game art is interactive and intertwined with complex and evolving technology. A museum visitor or movie audience sees only what is in front them, whereas a video game player is free to walk around the images. Video game artists have to build an entire world for the player’s character to observe and explore.
Video games have become increasingly immersive to play and amazing to watch, and it takes many talented artists working in many different disciplines to create a AAA game. If you are excited about the potential in creating video game art, there will be creative roles you can fill in the industry.
What Exactly Does A Game Artist Do?
The first thing any artist thinking about the game industry needs to understand is that a game artist is a commercial artist, not a fine artist. By that I mean that a game artists do not get to create whatever art in whatever style they feel like. Their job is to provide creative services to the people managing the development team, following the creative guidelines and technical restrictions specified for the game’s art assets. The producer managing the project’s budget and schedule, the game designer or creative director determining the art’s creative goals, and the programmer who will be implementing that art into the game all have a say in the game artist’s work.
Some people thinking about a career in game development confuse game art with game design, perhaps because they are familiar with the term graphic designer. However, it is a a game designer who specifies the look-and-feel for the game world, and it is the game artist responsibility for creating the art pieces, or assets, that fulfill that vision.
Successful game artists need to enjoy working in a collaborative team environment, sometimes working on their own but often also getting feedback and ideas from other team members who push you to do better. The whole team has a vested interest in how the game looks, so you are going to get critiques from all corners of the team, including non-artists who have no art training or vocabulary themselves. You need to keep your ego in check because they are probably having the same reaction to your art that your players will, and nothing kills a team dynamic like prima donnas refusing to put the goals of the project before their own.
Most game artwork, especially that on large-scale projects, are created by artists specializing in a particular task, working in an assembly-line fashion, rather than by generalists who work on a piece of art from conception to its final form and implementation. (Smaller development teams, however, do hire generalists). There are positions for both creating 2D and 3D art. 2D refers to two- dimensional “flat” images that have the dimensions of length and width only, while 3D (three-dimensional) images have depth in addition to length and width, allowing the player to move all around the objects and environments they see on the screen.
Here are some of the game art specialists who work on a game development team:
- Concept artist: Creates sketches, illustrations or paintings of scenes and characters in the game, based on the game designer’s descriptions. Their work helps establish for the rest of the team the visual direction the game will be taking. Traditionally, concept art is more about illustration than 3D work, although they sometimes scan the art into digital form for finishing.
- Storyboard artist: Creates a series of images to help the development team visualize how a game mechanic, animation or cinematic cut scene should progress.
- 2D artist: Creates background tiles and animated sprites for 2D games using a 2D tool such as PhotoShop.
- User interface designer: Creates title screens, menus, heads-up display, text buttons, buttons, fonts, and icons, usually with a 2D art.
- 3D modeler: Uses 3D software to create wireframes of people, animals, vehicles, objects, buildings, and other objects based on descriptions from the game designer or sketches by a concept artist.
- Texture artist: Creates surfaces to wrap over 3D wireframes. Some artists like to create textures completely from scratch, while others like to start with photos and manipulate and layer them in PhotoShop to create their own textures.
- Rigger: Sets up a system of bones (skeletal structure) and handles (access points to the bones) in a 3D model of a character or object, allowing it to be animated.
- Animator: Creates the motions of rigged animated objects and characters. They may also refine the animations recorded through motion capture of live actors. A good animator has a firm understanding of anatomy, balance, and how body stance and facial gestures can communicate emotion.
- Environmental artist: Creates indoor and outdoor locations for a game’s setting. A large part of the work is level layout, taking all the 3D objects that have been modeled and textures by other artists build the level’s environment.
- Lighting artist: Creates and places all the lights in the environment, adjusting color, intensity, and falloff to both make the world more realistic and help create the game’s mood.
- Effects artist: Creates flames, explosions, bullet hits, smoke, steam, water, and magical effects.
- Art director: Coordinates the look and style of the characters, environments, and objects to ensure that all the different artists work in a common style and that all aspects of the game’s look are compatible and work together to deliver a consistent experience throughout the game. The art director my also assist the game designer in determining what the game’s art style should be.
Many people who come to me asking about art jobs in the game industry tell me that they want to become concept artists, presumably because they believe those positions have the greatest creative freedom and require the least software skills. However, concept artist positions are relatively few in game development. The art speciality that always seem to be in greatest demand is that of an environmental artist, because today’s games require so many levels and other environments to be assembled.
So, how do you get one of these jobs? You need three things: art skills (both creative and technical), a great-looking portfolio demonstrating you have these skills, and ideally, experience working on as part of a team.
Developing Your Skills
Drawing is the fundamental language for all artists in all genres, and video game artists are no exception. Before attempting master tools like PhotoShop and Maya, you have to a solid foundation in the traditional art skills. The more you can do with drawing, painting, or sculpting, and the more you can gain understanding in perspective, color, form, and anatomy, the more you’ll be successful with using these skills in the digital world.
Most game artists also draw to have something concrete to discuss with team members as characters and environments, and story concept are being designed. The nature of the creative process is that more ideas are rejected than accepted, and even ideas everyone loves need further development. Sketching ideas and concepts on paper is faster and more flexible than spending an entire day rendering it using 3D software.
Now, it’s easier to teach a good artist how to use a computer, than it is to teach a good computer user how to be an artist. For that reason, and many more, I strongly recommend that anyone interested in becoming a a game artist pursue a four-year art degree. It really doesn’t matter much what college you go to, and you certainly don’t need to get your degree from a “game school”, but having a degree can definitely be a benefit when it’s time to start job searching. A lot of game companies will require applicant to have a Bachelor’s degree, so having one can give you a slight edge when the time comes for an employer to choose between artists applying for the same position. In addition, a degree demonstrates that you are able to follow through on a long-range goal, which shows determination and a will to complete what you started, which are essential traits to be successful in the game industry.
Don’t worry if you already have a degree in a related field, such as architecture, industrial design, or even engineering, or that you only have an associates degrees. Many game studios will accept applicants who have equivalent education and/or experience to what the job specifies. And if you can’t afford college, it is possible for you to learn art skills on your own with patience, practice, and informal education. You can teach yourself. You can take online classes. You can volunteer for indy game projects and mods, either locally or long-distance. You’re going to have to work harder than a college student, but it’s possible for you to create an awesome portfolio over time. And if your artwork is really good, most game companies won’t care if you’ve got a degree or not.
Besides having art skills, you also need to know how to use the tools of the trade. Adobe Photoshop is the industry standard for 2D artwork, although some artists may prefer to use Corel Painter, especially for concept development. As for creating 3D artwork, the two programs most used in the game industry are 3DS Max and Maya, both of which you can learn how to model, texture, rig, and animated game characters. The software also features lights, cameras, FX generators, and rendering engines for cinematics. Becoming proficient in either one of these tools would be a good idea, and an even better idea would be to learn a little about both of them, as different studios tend to use one or the other. But if you are able to only learn how to use one art tool, you can easily enough adapt to another.
Two other tool you might want to consider if you plan to do a lot of 3D modeling are ZBrush and Mudbox. If you are especially interested in creating cinematics, it also helps to know After Effects, Shake, Combustion, and Premiere. You don’t necessarily have to buy all this software yourself, but you definitely do need to know how to use them. Most of the major tools have downloadable demos and/or educational discounts for students, and if you do attend an art school, it will expose you to all these tools.
It also helps to know about the game art production process and pipeline — concepts like poly-count optimization, image compression, batching, and collision systems. This is where attending a game school can be of benefit to you, if you can afford extra education after getting your art degree.
But don’t stop there. Read the graphics and animation magazines, as well as art articles on Gamasutra. Download demos. Try out different different tool. Understanding what pop culture thinks looks good, and incorporate what you’ve learned into your portfolio. Employers are impressed if you manage to create an awesome portfolio with cheap tools, especially if you are a self-taught artist.
Building An Awesome Portfolio
A portfolio is a selection of examples of your best artwork to show a potential employer your skills, talents, and artistic vision. The artwork can be drawings, digital paintings, 3D models, animation, cinematics and other graphics. The pieces should visually illustrate the skills needed for the job you’re interested in and should also show your proficiency in all software programs required.
Today, an online portfolio is a must. If money is an issue, there are places like Wix or WordPress where you can get a free website or blog site, and there are ways to set those up with your own domain name. For extra storage, you can use use links to Dropbox or Google Docs for files you want visitors to download or view. When setting up your website, pay a lot of attention to it readability and usability. You want to demonstrate good design sensibilities and make it easy for people to navigate and view your work.
Remember that your portfolio is only as strong as the weakest piece in it. Your more likely to get a job offer with ten awesome pieces than thirty mediocre ones. Honestly assess your work and compare it to the pros; if a piece isn’t that good, then don’t put it in your portfolio.
Also make sure that the work in your portfolio appropriate for the job you are applying to. If I’m looking for an artist to create hyper-realistic work for my modern warfare first-person shooter, I’m not interested in your anime pieces, and I’m not going to hire you based on the hope that you can create the art I need.
This means you should be creating a wide variety of work on your own so that you have pieces that are appropriate for any future jobs you are applying for. In fact, employers look for passion in their artists. If you just create some art because you “have to” to get a job, you’re not going to get very far in this industry. That being said, it’s okay to specialize in some areas, and don’t work in styles or mediums that your not comfortable in. Know your strengths and weaknesses, but use your portfolio website to showcase your strengths.
Getting Work Experience
If may be difficult to get a job at a game studio without prior work experience, especially working as part of a team. So how do you get experience when you don’t have any experience?
You may have to start doing some work for free, volunteering to join an indy game development team, work on student projects, or participating in a game jam. After all, unpaid experience is still experience! In fact, take whatever job you can get in the games industry — it doesn’t even have to be art-related. Build an indie game, write game reviews, work in testing, build a portfolio.
Now, if you don’t live in a city where there’s a game development community, you’re going to have to start by getting involved in international (long-distance) mods or indy projects. Be sure to negotiate for your name in the credits and the right to use the project’s name on your résumé.
Once you’re ready to apply for an art position opening at a game studio, you’ll need to put together a submission package consisting of a cover letter, a résumé , and a demo reel.
The cover letter should tell the reader who you are and why you want this job. You should tailer the cover letter to the company you’re applying to and the job you’re applying for. If you are applying for a environmental artist job at Blizzard, don’t go on about your love of sketching characters in modern-day urban settings.
Your résumé is a one-or-two page description of your education and job history. List each job you’ve held, and list them in reverse chronological order (most recent job first). If you don’t have a lot of game jobs under your belt, be sure to list your non-game jobs, particularly if you are working as part of a team. Also list all of the art tools and skills you know, your contact information, and the link to your portfolio website.
The final part of your submission package is a demo reel. Although I used the word “reel”, it is a DVD, CD or USB drive containing a video file showcasing your work. Your video should be two to five minutes long, with your best work in the first thirty seconds, since people are busy and may not have time to watch the whole thing. If you can, re-edit the video so that it features pieces specific to the job you are applying for.
It’s okay to include a soundtrack, but keep the audio level consistent throughout so you don’t disturb nearby people who are working. Also make sure you’re not using some obscure codec that they would have to download in order to play your video. Make it easy for potential employers to view your work.
Actually, potential employers in the game industry often don’t find job candidates who approached them by answering want ads or through cold-calling, Many find employees through personal referrals; that is, they tend to work with people they already know or who were recommended to them by other people they know. That means that to find those job opportunities and potential employers you have to go out and meet with people who work in the game industry.
Figure out where the people you want to work with have their studios and do what you can to meet the people who work there. Fortunately, there are a lot of game industry conferences held throughout the year, the main one being the Game Developers Conference held in San Francisco each spring. However, conferences can be far apart, both in terms of time and distance, as well as expensive to attend (pro tip: you don’t necessarily have to purchase a badge to “attend” a conference; you can meet people for free in the venue lobby or a nearby hotel where attendees are staying).
A more affordable approach to meeting people is to look for local game events on EventBrite or Meetup. Look for game art groups and sketch clubs in your area, as this is a good way to make connections. If there isn’t one, then start one yourself. Perhaps there is a local chapter of the International Game Developers Association in your area. Go to these events, make new contacts, buy people a beer, and hand out your business card.
Seriously. In every industry, who you know is the key. Game producers are the most important people for you to meet, but anyone else who works in a game industry might prove to be a valuable contact. I’ve gotten most of my jobs and contract work either though someone I knew telling me about an opportunity or referring me to their bosses. Remind people that you exist by blogging, and then posting to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You are on LinkedIn, aren’t you? If you aren’t already on LinkedIn, get on it. I have found many artists on LinkedIn who I have ended up hiring.
Surviving As A Freelancer
The game industry is very volatile business without a lot of stability. When a game goes into production, a studio may bring in a lot of people to do the art and level design work, but let those people go as a project finishes up. So many game studios prefer to bring on artists as freelancers for a limited amount of time rather than hire them as full-time employees.
Freelancing can be an attractive alternative to full-time employment for some artists: you have a lot more freedom and get introduced to a wider variety of companies and projects. It can also be a good way to get work experience if you don’t have much yet. However, the downside is that you are constantly hustling for new work, and so your networking skills need to be very, very good.
You also need good negotiating skills. While it would be fantastic if you can get a job that pays you hourly, most clients pay per piece or per project. If you can, try to negotiate getting paid half of the fee up front, with the remainder due upon delivery, especially for large jobs.
Watch out for is clients who constantly request changes to your work. Try to negotiate for a maximum of two revisions for any piece.
Also beware of clients who say they can’t pay you now, but will share money with you after the game makes money. This is because most games do not make money, and you will likely never get paid for the work you put in. Only consider taking this type of risk for small jobs where you could use the experience.
Speaking of risks, employers don’t like to take risks either, and so some may ask you to take a test — a small art project to demonstrate you can do the type of work they want you to do. If the job is for a Concept Artist, they mask you do a concept piece based on something specific to what they’re looking for. For a modeling job, they will ask you to create a 3D model of something. When I’ve interviewed artists, I sometimes asked them to draw their own hand during the interview just to demonstrate they have drawing experience.
Speaking of experience, you are going to want to have the right to include the work in your portfolio so that you can get more work. Most work in the game industry is done as work-for-hire, which means that the client or employer owns the copyright to the artwork you create for them. Now, if you are dead set against giving away the copyright to your work, you can try to negotiate this and then bring in a lawyer to ensure that the language in your work agreement allows you to retain the rights you want. But more realistically, you should negotiate a clause in your contract granting you a license to use the work for self-promotional purposes. This allows the you to include the work in your portfolio, while the ownership of the work lies with client who paid you to make it.
Maintaining Your Career
Getting a freelance or full-time job in the game industry is a lot of work, but working in the game industry is a lot of work. When you’re faced with a deadline, the days can be long, and weekends can be work days as well.
Regardless of how many hours you are working, you need to set aside time to develop your art skills. The bar for what is expected from game art is constantly being raised, and it will take a lot of time investment outside of your day job to keep up. And remember that your art skills will be much more valuable in the long run than your software skills, so keep on sketching, painting, and sculpting. Besides, the world always needs more art.