My Least Favorite Kind of n00b

by Darius Kazemi on August 14, 2006

in Uncategorized

I was having a conversation with an artist at the company where I work. We were talking about students trying to break in to the game industry as artists. One topic came up that I just had to share with you, my loyal readers.

I think I’ve already complained here about kids who think they can get a starting job as a game designer. (Briefly: this is an unrealistic goal, those jobs are very rare, you should get a job as QA or something first.) But far worse than those kids are the ones who think they can get a starting job as a concept artist.

If you walk up to me and tell me that you want to break in as a concept artist, I will first think to myself, “Wow! This kid is either incredibly uninformed, or incredibly arrogant. Either way, I’m not very impressed so far.” The reason for this? Concept artists have incredible influence over a game’s art direction, they get to basically draw all day, and they get to make up cool stuff. In other words, concept art is maybe the coolest job in an entire art department. And of course, there’s probably only one of these jobs at all but the biggest companies.

Hmm. Awesome job, lots of influence, not many positions… gee, do you think there’s a chance in hell that a student right out of art school will be hired for this? Allow me laugh for the next five minutes.

Okay, that was therapeutic. By now it should be obvious that you’ll have a much better chance breaking in as an artist if you’re a modeller, a texturer, or an animator.

From time to time I meet a student who shows me their concept art, and I say, “Hey, that’s nice. Do you have any models, textures, or animations?” And they’ll say, “No, Darius, I can’t do any of that stuff. I’m good at drawing and I have all this imagination and vision.”

At this point I spit on the floor. This person is literally saying that they have no other skills, so they’ll default to taking the best job there is! I usually tell them: “Pick any art department at even the crappiest, most mediocre game company and you will find that there is no lack of imagination and vision. In fact, probably every person employed there is bursting with imagination and vision. You need to understand that the reason their art comes out crappy is almost certainly systemic, due to poor management (Art Director left halfway through the project) or to market forces (publisher demands your game look more like Blockbuster X) or something else along those lines.”

This probably-innocent, over-idealistic student will come off as a royal asshole through their cover letter alone. That’s no way to get hired. You need to develop the grunt-level skills that will get your foot in the door.

One exception to all of this is that you can be a concept artist, as long as you choose to go the humble route and help out an indie developer, usually for free or for very little pay. There are lots of programmers and designers out there who can’t draw to save their lives (although if you’re one of those guys, you’ll do well to check out Craig’s great tutorials). Help them out, and get some actual experience under your belt. Maybe the game will be a runaway hit, because maybe you are that good, and then you’ll have tons more job opportunities as an artist.


Ian Schreiber August 15, 2006 at 3:42 am

You mention that it’s better to break in as an animator. In the last project I worked on, animator was probably the single coolest job on the entire team (I admit this particular project may be an anomaly in that sense :). I asked about the hierarchy of artists and was told that EVERYONE in college wants to do character animation, and that (much like you say about concept art) it’s reserved for those with experience.

Instead, what happens is you pay your dues for a few years making textures to use on sand dunes, or high-polygon models of chairs and tables, and then if you haven’t left the industry in disgust you can try out some cool stuff.

As far as a student who has good concept art but then claims not to be able to do animation or modelling or textures or anything, I would be *shocked* in this day and age to meet an art student — especially one who wants to break into the game industry! — with no practical experience in anything other than drawing. What kind of university would allow such a student to graduate? Isn’t this what a core curriculum is supposed to provide?

But I’ll agree with you that I can’t imagine such people getting jobs in the industry even if they do exist. At this point there’s no excuse for not being proficient in Max, Maya and Photoshop at the very least.

Bradley Momberger August 15, 2006 at 5:26 pm

I think it’s entirely possible to graduate from some universities (not my alma mater, mind you) with an art degree having only done traditional studio arts. It’s really up to the student, who should have some idea that he wants to get into the industry, to choose a track where he is exposed to software.

By the way, the October GAMES magazine has articles about CMU’s Master of Entertainment Technology program and the Wii. The latter is nothing you don’t already know, but in my mind it’s a sign of great publicity for the “let’s get people to play games” concept.

Patrick Dugan August 16, 2006 at 4:02 pm

I think the indie path you describe applies to starting as a designer. This is what I’m doing, though technically I did level design on another indie title before hinging a whole deal on my own creative shoulders. Its a cold, harsh path, but so much sweeter for the shipping. And if you do manage to ship and only sell 5k copies, thats still incredible resume fodder. This goes for concept artists as well.

David Ludwig August 21, 2006 at 8:10 pm

I’d like to second your statement that many programmers, myself included, can’t draw worth a damn. Back in college, I had more than one conversation where some of my programmer friends and I would discuss implementing various game ideas, only to hit a brick wall when we remembered that our art skills consisted of stick figure drawing and basic photo editing. These skills went a long way, mind you (in our heads it did, that is), but having some pixel artist friends with lots of free time would’ve been awfully nice.

Starting with indie development is definately a good idea though, regardless of whether the person wants to be a concept artist, an animator, a programmer, etc. I’d suggest not limiting oneself to commercial indie development either. Working on freeware projects is plenty fine, the same goes for game modding as well, so long as some degree of dedication is applied.

Jason Booth August 23, 2006 at 4:02 am

Well Darius, working at Turbine I can see how you’d think this way. Turbine was never big on any type of prototyping or iterative design, and likewise spent a minimum amount of time on concept.

Since I’ve joined Harmonix, I’ve watched the artist draw more heads than an entire projects worth of concept at Turbine. It’s just baked into the process here, and the same holds true for the rest of the design and implimentation. Ryan, the art director at Harmonix, often hires students from his class for these positions.

The reasons for this are simple: Someone with excellent traditional art skills will be a better artist in the long run than someone without these skills. They’ll make the transition to 3d modeling and texturing just fine. As long as they can draw fast and take direction, they’re immediately useful in the concept phase and require hardly any ramp up.

Additionally, 3d modeling is not what it used to be. ZBrush is changing the industry. I’ve watched an artist with no 3d experience pick up ZBrush and create compelling models within a day or two. Sure, the mesh isn’t fit for the engine, but when you’re just casting normal maps you don’t really care. You rough out the shape, model in the details, and hand it off to someone else to do the in-engine modeling. It won’t be long until much of this will be easy to automate as well.

In the end, a good artist is a good artist, regardless of the tools.

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