We speak to two working game artists about their inspirations, career paths, and the tips they’d give to help you stand out from the crowd.
Breaking into the video game industry can sometimes feel insurmountable. It’s hard to know the right thing to do to maximise your chances at making that transition to an exciting and thriving sector. Whether it’s how to build a CV to the standard game studios expect, or how to create a show-stopping portfolio, we’ve got you covered with our in-depth candidate resources and Get in The Game from Grads in Games. Sometimes, it also helps to hear hard-won advice from those that have been through the process and who now call your dream job their day job.
“I love being immersed in games. I remember when I first got my PS1, playing Medal of Honor: Frontline, I was totally amazed by the art in that game! The feeling of storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day is one I’ll never forget. I always aim to create that kind of feeling and narrative in my own art,” says Stefan Oprisan, Material Artist at Frontier Developments. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but familiarity with the art form will certainly be a benefit, enabling you to emulate and adapt what you see and experience and use that in your own work.
“As a kid, I always liked to draw (very badly might I add). At school, I really enjoyed experimenting with traditional 3D mediums. My teachers really encouraged creativity and ideas, and that made me fall in love with art,” adds Jansen Turk, Groom Artist at Lancashire-based Airship Images.
Despite these early inspirations, a career in games art wasn’t something either Jansen or Stefan thought was possible until later in life, when the industry began to open up and the pathways into it began to become clearer. “I first considered working within the games industry when I was at college. There was a course module where we learned CryEngine (Crysis 3 had just come out too). I knew then that game art was for me,” considers Stefan.
The realisation for Jansen happened earlier, inspired by the games he enjoyed at the time. “Playing the first and second Uncharted games were key factors that got me serious about wanting to create art for games. Visually, they were just breath-taking, and they really gave me that drive and passion to begin pursuing a career in games.” This might be where you are in your career journey. Inspired by the gorgeous worlds and characters being developed by studios and artists like Stefan and Jansen. How do you take that drive and desire and take that next step which opens the door of the games industry?
“I was a finalist in the Search for a Star competition back in 2017. Soon after that, I was contacted by a recruiter at Aardvark Swift, who helped me to secure my first role at Playground Games as an Environment Artist,” says Stefan. Game jams and game development challenges are a fantastic gateway into the industry (yes, we’re a little biased). They allow you to not only work to an industry brief, but also enable you to create a high-quality portfolio piece and prove to studios and hiring managers that you can bring a project to completion. There’s nothing worse than a portfolio filled work in progress pieces, you need to show that you can see something through. If you take part in Search for a Star or d3t Rising Star, you’ll also get professional feedback from working game developers, an incredibly valuable resource that enables you to see what you need to adapt to take your work to the next level.
Jansen’s experience was slightly different, deciding to focus on a specialism just after university. “I wanted to specialise in character art, so I did a couple of courses at Game Art Institute (now Vertex School) and began to build a portfolio. I just kept plugging away at that and trying to learn/improve. Eventually, CD Projekt Red reached out to me to create hair for Cyberpunk 2077. That was my first role in the industry.” Being approached directly by studios happens more often than you might think and keeping an up-to-date portfolio is key. Agencies and internal studio recruiters often use sites like Artstation and GitHub to recruit, so your dream role might come to you. Ensure your work is representative of who you are as an artist right now, not two or three years ago. Aim for quality over quantity and try to show a variety of different styles that would appeal to a number of studios. If you specialise in realism don’t be afraid to say so, but also having one or two stylised pieces will show your versatility.
The idea of working as an artist in the games industry is amazing, but once you’ve broken into your desired role, what will your day-to-day actually look like? It’s a simple question, but not one that you might know the answer to just yet. “As a Material Artist at Frontier Developments, my day-to-day role involves creating a variety of materials and surfaces for the game or even other art departments. I also maintain the library and ensure all of my materials are clean and easy to navigate,” says Stefan. “I monitor which assets have been added to the game and ensure they follow correct PBR guidelines, material response, texel density etc, making sure that they all fit the art style of the game.” Dependent on your level of experience and seniority, after a few years you might find yourself passing on what you know and mentoring other members of the team. Being able to easily communicate your process and ideas is vital if you want to make an impact on those that come after you. “My current role involves me creating real-time hair for games and helping to teach junior artists that process,” adds Jansen.
You might be asking yourself; how do I actually get the role I want? What do studios value and what are they looking for? If so, you’re asking yourself very good questions! “Having a broad knowledge of the most common software and workflows in the industry is becoming a standard. Most employers expect you to know what they are and how to use them. Additionally, having some technical knowledge can really go a long way. Especially in the case of Houdini, Pixel Processing in Substance, Mel/Python or blueprints in Unreal Engine 4,” informs Stefan. Ensuring you’re not only a good artist, but someone who also has the technical knowledge to implement your work, will go a long way. It shows that you understand the theory behind it and your work will be better as a result. You’ll appreciate how the assets you make work in tandem with animation, code, and the game engine.
On top of the software skills you’ll be expected to have, be sure not to skimp on those soft skills! “Showing an eagerness to learn and improve are very important. Being able to break down your process also helps you stand out and shows an eagerness to help other artists improve as well. Personality, for me, is the most important factor though. You need to be nice and treat others with respect. This will be shown in the way that you interact with others both in person and online,” says Jansen.
Having gone through the process and honed their crafts, becoming working game artists, both Stefan and Jansen reflected on what they wish they’d have known before they started their journeys. “If I were to go back to my final year of university, I would really make an effort to learn the more extensive side of workflows. At the time, I didn’t learn about trim sheets or mesh decals, which come into practice quite a lot now. I would have devoted more time to learning the foundations of composition. It is only since practicing the Rule of Thirds, understanding negative space, black/white contrast, and the basics of photography that I’ve managed to achieve harmony in my work,” informs Stefan. A good foundation with how natural scenes look can help take your work to the next level and add a sense of believability to your portfolio. Take into account how depth of field is represented within engines like Unreal and combine that with what you already know about scenes and framing.
Jansen’s thoughts were much more focused on wellbeing and mindfulness. “Take regular breaks, look after both your physical and mental health.” The importance of this cannot be understated. As much as you desire to work in a fantastic industry, don’t burn yourself out needlessly. You’ll get there. Remember to eat, play, and sleep. Be kind to yourself and take some time for you.
Learning about the career progression and experience of artists can be enlightening, allowing you to learn from their successes and mistakes. Advice can go a long way, especially when it has been hard earnt. So, what one key piece of advice would successful artists provide to those just starting out in the games industry? Network. Grow by learning from others. “Join Discord communities such as EXP and Dinusty. They are honestly invaluable and full of really talented, helpful people that have a wide range of skill sets and backgrounds. Forget the days where you post your work on Polycount, wait a few days, and only get one reply. Within a few days of engaging with these communities and seeking out learning opportunities, your confidence will grow, and your work will improve,” says Stefan.
If you’re currently in university and are looking for more tailored advice, from CV and portfolio tips to interview guidance, please speak to one of our recruitment specialists directly, and get personal feedback, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.