How to think like a video games artist!

Where do I begin?

Playing video games is really fun, sometimes I can sit playing for hours at a time. There funny, thought provoking, inspiring, challenging and deeply involving. But while skill is required to play video games, as much indeed more is required to make them, in fact it can become a lifelong career. So how do I stop playing video games and start making them instead? Working in the video game industry over time you begin to acquire first hand experience of what it takes to make great video games. You develop a kind of ‘psyche’ for knowing how to approach a task, make best use of your time and how to integrate your skills with the rest of a creative team and a wider development community.
The problem is until you get that lucky break, it can be difficult trying to prove to an Art Manager or Director that you’re cut out for the job. Having a good student portfolio is only part of the solution to helping you start thinking and behaving  like a games artist.


Big vs. Small

The chances are when you do get offered a junior role; you’ll be doing a whole load of different jobs. This is particularly true if you join a medium or small business. There may only be a half dozen or less artists in the studio all tasked with doing a wide range of jobs from design, concept, modeling, texturing, lighting and placing cameras. You may even do all these tasks and more when building one game level. This can be become a very technical process, that requires you to be organized and smart with your time.
As a company grows, each role becomes more and more specialized. If you join a larger business as a junior, does it help to be good at one skill? It can certainly help to be good at one particular area of expertise, such as character drawing, low poly modeling, or texturing, but there’s a great deal to be said for being broadly aware of all the different specialism’s out there. After all if and when you do get that break, being flexible and willing to try many things can make you pretty indispensible. You can always practice your core interest outside of your paid hours, should you find yourself lucky landing a break, but not necessarily doing exactly what you want to do; if you’re really lucky and obviously talented then the chances are you will fast track straight onto your dream job. Either way you’re increasing your chances of getting your foot in the door and ultimately achieving your life time ambition.


Job Titles

There are a lot of different individual jobs in a video games company. Here’s a list of different roles you would typically find in an art studio.


The Concept Artist

Concept art is very much the glamorous  part of the games art industry, embracing very traditional disciplines having a lot in common with industrial, architectural and naturalistic art theory. Put simply you show the team and the publisher who is stoking up the money to pay the team’s wages, what the games characters, environments and other objects and effects will look like in the game.
You may or may not be required to go into great detail, but will always be ready to create the ‘Money Shot’, one or a number of images that will sell the idea. The concept will almost always follow the high level concept and design of the game and it’s at this stage when questions surrounding character and story will be turned into a clear idea.
Concept artists tend to be good at or specialize in one particular area of knowledge such as character, vehicle, or architecture and environmental design. As a character artist for instance you’ll need a sound understanding of human anatomy, understand how the body works externally, fashion and how clothes fit comfortably on the body. You will also have to work quickly and very efficiently. An environment artist for instance may be required to create anything up to six separate detailed images a day, just to sell one scene. It’s all about providing as much choice for the Art Director and head of Production or Publisher as possible.
Sometimes and this is rare, concept artists are good at many different subject matter. Whether you specialize or not it’s important that you know where to concentrate detail, and also understand something of the modeling and texturing process.
Learn from the best currently practicing in the industry by simply looking and studying their technique. Many of these artists promote blogs and free video tutorials. Big names include Dylan Cole, Craig Mullins, Feng Zhu,  Karl Simon Gustafsson and Jason Chan.


The 3D Modeler

Every part of a modern video game has been built by a 3D modeler. Each model is built as a static, which then has an animation, effect or physics rig applied to it by hand using a 3D application within a co-ordinate space called XYZ. Every 3D model is constructed using polygons, a flat shaded one sided surface constructed from three edges and joined by three points or vectors. This is manipulated and drawn as a real-time hardware rendered surface in the 3D application and then exported into a game engine. Editable polygons are generally made of four sides, or two triangles connected together along one side to make a four sided polygon with its fused internal edge hidden from view. All games, even modern games are built with a strict limit on the number of drawn surfaces or polygons that can be rendered to the screen. This is because rendering them out is very CPU intensive. Typically a polygon surface will be multi-rendered or rendered many times over 30 to 60 times a second with other rendering effects such as texturing, lighting, bump or surface mapping, detail mapping, and smoothing applied to create the impression of heightened fidelity.
3D modelers should also look out for and be good at looking ahead for other issues such as adding detail where parts of a connected model may move, elbow and shoulder joints on a figure being a good example, or adding detail into a seemingly simple repetitive environment to make it look more natural or interesting. A good example might be a spooky hospital ward and of all the straight tiles on the floor, the occasional one is cracked or coming away slightly from its neighbor. A second example might be a line of trees all repeating but the occasional one being adjusted with a different shape in the branch. Knowing when to apply this level of detail economically is something that has to be practiced and learned. It’s likely that you will be working from a number of resources for inspiration. These would be concept art from the concept artist, photographs of the internet or even photo research that you may have done yourself.
This can be a very technical role which requires both a creative approach and a sound understanding of the software and tools used to create the game model. Learn and practice low poly modeling, at low polygon budgets using the applications polygon counter tool or plug-in. Take a cool design, like an insect, or insect shaped space ship, or bombed out building or vehicle and build in several resolutions. Start with the lowest at say 150 polygons, then 500-700 polygons then several thousand. Experience has shown me that building models at 150 polygons is a real challenge and good practice, and is also largely necessary when creating game models for level of detail variants of the model as it disappears to render efficiently away from the in game camera view.
In the last three years there has been a rapid advance in the visual hi end of game development using tools such as Pixolgics Zbrush, and it's tool subsets such as Decemination, Subtools and UV Master. Although many of the rules above regarding polygon limits still apply, it's also true to say that these new tools allow artists to work at almost limitless levels of fidelity. This is great for artists since they now no longer have to stress about the technical stuff quite so much and can sculpt and build in a much more rapid and organic way. The tools allow for this because the 3D mesh in Zbrush is a consistent subdividing surface that transfers into applications such as 3D studio very easily. It is becoming increasingly commonplace to resolve complex modeling problems in a sculpt tool such as Zbrush and then transfer the detail into a standard poly modeling tool as a reference mesh. Although this is a very exciting area of games development, it's important to that the basic principles of building games in a structured and methodical way is followed.


The Texture Artist

Textures are a 2D image applied to the 3D model of a game using a set of co-ordinates called UVW. These co-ordinates correspond to the local values of the models surface to which they are applied and manipulated within a mapping tool or plug-in inside a modeling program. The UV refers to the 2D vertical and horizontal alignment, and the W (comparable to Z in 3D space) to the unwrapped co-ordinate of the UV relative to the 3D mesh that it is assigned to or from. W. The base texture is a simple square image ranging in size from just 16x16 pixels square right up to several thousand pixels. Typically in modern console gaming a base texture is  generally around 512 or doubled up to 1024 pixels square. The size is generally always proportional doubles up from 16x16, then 32x32, 64x64, 128x128 and so on. Handheld consoles such as the DS and PSP will generally use these smaller ratios.
In modern video games a texture can be applied to a surface in a multi-layered fashion. The effect is to create a high level of real world detail that reacts to simulated environment conditions, such as specular lighting and shadow, and adding increased detail maps called normal mapping to low resolution mesh models. It is becoming increasingly common to use Normal Maps as a way of enhancing a models fidelity.  During the modeling stage a super hi detail model is built and used to create and output Normal Maps which are then applied to a similar low poly mesh with the same UVW mapping. When used together the end result in a game can look close to the hi resolution original at a fraction of the rendering cost.
Creating textures requires good 2D painting and composition skills. It's important to know how efficiently a texture will be used, very often in a number of different ways across a model, or how well it tiles when repeated over the ground or on a building. It should have enough interest and work naturally but also adhere to the games chosen art style and rendering limitations. This is true also for multi layered textures. Some texture artists choose to exclusively paint their textures by hand, others build up huge reference libraries of photographs from the internet or images they have take on location or holiday and then manipulated the image  so that it works correctly. Others still use clever procedural effects within Photoshop or some other application in 3D to create the result their after. Ultimately textures can make or break a good game model  and is possibly the most critical part of a good looking video game.


The Environment Artist

Environment Artist is a role within the industry that requires a number of skills including modeling and texturing. Crucially the Environment Artist will have a critical eye for creating good looking scenery, and will enjoy making a natural landscape look natural and an organic or urban city look lived in and alive. Often the artist will be required to take existing elements or units and work into them, placing them carefully so that they look comfortable in a scene, a rock placed neatly at the base of a cliff face, or shrubs and trees placed naturally to the side of a bridge or old building.
A well built environment will abide by the games design and also carefully guide a player in subtle ways along a path to the next area of interest, particularly important in larger locations typically found in first person action adventure games. In car driving games the environment is used to maintain a sensation of speed, the road and immediate track side will be full of incidental detail, that might diminish quickly into a general tree line, with occasional cool points of interest, a lighthouse or sea view at a cliff edge, or deep corner with spectators on the brow of a ridge or hill.
It's important that the Environment Artist has a complete understanding of the levels  design, function and story, since all these issues will determine how the scene is populated and how the player will interact with the world.


The Effects Artist

This is another clear specialism often handled in small studios by a general studio artist with a flair or an interest in special effects or has been simply handed over, a necessary task as the short straw for them  to do.
It's often an area under appreciated on small budget titles, and conversely seen as an important role and even critical to the success of a big action blockbuster game. Sometimes you need the big explosions, columns of smoke and alien weapon effects flashing from a gun. The work requires a good working knowledge of both 3D and 2D applications and how effects are animated over time using framed animation. Effects serve to remind the player of an important event in a game or as a method for creating deeper atmosphere in a games environment.


The Lighting Artist

Lighting dramatically changes the emotional effect of a room. A cosy intimate space can be made to feel threatening and scary. A dismal cheerless space such as an old church can look cosy and welcoming. The colour of a light, it's intensity and position can be used just like texture and shape to create an effect.
There are different forms of lighting. Vertex lighting for example is a coloured light which is pre-calculated and baked onto a textured surface at the vertex point, blending across the surface edge in colour and intensity to the next vertex point on the model. Global and sky lights can be used to establish a common light position such as the sun. Local lights may be emitted from a room lamp or torch and can even be made to flicker with an animated effects model of a burning flame, or even act as a vital game dynamic, hiding the player form a nearby enemy, or to help the player navigate a treacherous space. In the same way that the Environment Artist establishes the look of a scene the Lighting artist does the same. It is simultaneously the first consideration in a game levels appearance and a part of the levels final development, as it reaches testing and game play approval.


The Animator

Being a great animator requires a good sense of timing, clever manipulation of a model, and a solid understand of how everything in the world behaves whether natural or manmade. Not only does it require an understanding of natural locomotion but also how to exaggerate or bring attention to movement in a certain way to make it more meaningful. It's rather like being your own movie director, only your controlling the actor, whatever the actors using and the consequences of its actions. A bouncing ball made of rubber for example will move and react differently than  one made of leather or glass. The bounce can be slowed down momentarily at the floor and then accelerated quickly over time to create more tension. A person walking with a very slight limp, will lean their body in a certain way, or walk with their legs further apart when carrying weight around their waist. This is a subtle craft that takes dedication and research to get right, and is a profession in high demand within the industry.
The Animator also has a very technical role and will understand how to create and adjust Key frames overtime, how to use character rigs, lead in and lead out vectors over an animation timeline, but must also understand many physically and emotional nuances that effect character, gesture and expression.


and the rest...

There a few more roles worthy of mention. The Art Director will bring all of this art activity together, so that the artwork is consistent in style, delivered in time and within system and budgetary expectations. The Art Director also needs to be good at both diplomacy and getting the best from people and liaise effectively with other departments, while being fully committed with a project from the first 'Blue Sky' idea to final delivery.
The Lead Artist sometimes referred to as the Technical Director, prototypes technical solutions and acts a s a kind of bridge between the art team and game engine programmers. A good example would be a character rigged in a certain way to carry a weapon, might also need to grapple a cliff edge. How does the character transition between one action to the next? Is it possible to deliver this feature on time and within budget, or does the weapon simply disappear as the sequence changes? The Lead may likely develop new production techniques, by writing tools or scripts that compliment and speed up the development process used by the rest of the team. Understanding development expectations, time constraints and the technical hardware are critical in a Lead Artists role.
Storyboard and Cinematic artists often assigned in larger development teams, draw action storyboards and create camera sequences that summarize key sequences during the games story. Sometimes a dedicated team will be responsible for developing and rendering cinematic scenes that support the game. 
Finally and another important role is the User Interface and Graphics Artist. This is often two roles carried out by the same person. Typically they will develop the games interface and menus, but will also render out publicity shots and support general promotional activity of the project.  The role requires a an interest in design and making cool interfaces, ideally the candidate will have a strong graphic design background, or have a good design portfolio, but will also have a good basic grasp of using 3D applications to light and render the assets provided to them by other games artists.

OK so I understand there are a lot of different roles, but which is right for me?

It's clear that making games is a complex business that requires huge effort from many different talented people. But which role do you choose?
Play to your strengths, think carefully about what you enjoy most when being creative. What really turns you on.
If you love technical stuff and computers, and enjoy the odd bit of code with your art, then consider being a Technical Artist. If you prefer to paint detail, then Texturing would be a safe bet. Perhaps you love drawing fast and quickly and have a Fine Art flair, in which case practice your Concept Painting skills.
Create a vision of yourself in five or ten years time and try and imagine where you want to be. Thinking about your career and the choices you make, especially in an industry like this is important. It's rather like seeing a destination way of in the distance with multiple paths to get there, but which do you take? Should you take time off to work on your portfolio, or promote what you've got and go for the first job your offered even if it takes you of the main path you've chosen.
Joining a development community such as CGSociety or Deviant Art can help enormously. They have many talented industry artists that like sharing their experience and offer good advice for those starting out. Create a blog with daily, weekly submissions, get as much feedback as possible from artists you admire and not from friends or family, who are likely to be more positive than critical. Look at the absolute best out there, who work for the likes of Activision, EA, Bioware, Bethesda and Sony for example and compare your efforts against theirs. This can be tough, but we all start from something small and with time, a thick skin and a determination to get there, have a decent chance at success.

Being a good games artist doesn't necessarily require a complicated approach. Like most forms of modern media, your simply required to know what's fashionable and what sort of simple ideals and influences most people like. Make your cool characters look smart and pretty, your villains and monsters extra evil, as a comic book artist would do. Once you've got this nailed down and your more widely accepted by the industry there is a greater likely hood of properly fulfilling your potential.
Ultimately there is no right or wrong decision, although it is important that you stay true to what you know works for you. Trust your instincts.
Above all thinking like a games artist, is about thinking in much the same way that any dedicated artist will do. It's said that it's easier to turn an artist into a computer operator that draws with a computer, than it is to turn a computer operator into an artist that can draw. Don't be too impressed by all the technical stuff and style. Copying the latest cool thing, doesn't make your thing anymore cool, just a pale imitation.
Keep a regular sketchbook with cheap paper, and draw everyday! Start by observing everyday life around you, how people move, the complex mass of their faces and bodies, look at how you would simplify what you see and how it might appear recreated as a sketch, or even developed into a simple 3D model. When you're out in the street look above the dull ground floor buildings and take in the detail of a streets second and third floor architecture, look at the roof lines and how parts of a building interact each other. Study animal anatomy and nature, this is a limitless resource for the imagination. All the great monsters and aliens we know today are inspired in some way by nature.
Do this and you'll find you'll have less and less time to play video games because there simply isn't enough time in the day to think about making them!

Useful Resources:


Autodesk 3D Creation Kit (3DS Max, Maya, Motion Builder, Mudbox, Softimage, Face Robot)
CS5 Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash)
Freeware Learning
Ahead of the Curve Student competition:
ArtRage Starter Edition:
Art of Illusion:
Google Sketch Up:

Web Links


Bridgman's Complete Guide to Drawing from Life
ISBN-10: 1402766785

Force: Dynamic Life Drawing for Animators,
ISBN-10: 0240808452
Dynamic Figure Drawing: A New Approach to Drawing the Moving Figure in Deep Space and Foreshortening
ISBN-10: 0823015777
Art of the Mass Effect Universe
ISBN-10: 1595827684
The Animator's Survival Kit
ISBN-10: 0571238343


3D Artist
3D World
Edge Magazine
Advanced Photoshop
Creative Review

Inspiring Talent

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