You know the routine: there’s this job you really want but you don’t have the experience. You could pretend you did but then they want to see your portfolio and odds are you probably haven’t finished it (or even gotten around to starting it.) Does this mean that you’re doomed to sitting in front of your monitor dreaming about a career as a Game Artist?
Put down the game controller and pick up that stylus! You’ve got a ready audience for your work—all you need is a website and some determination. (Oh, and maybe a class or two if you’re not up on the latest game art programs, but it’s easy enough to get going on that.)
Instead of wishing for a job, it’s time for you to make it happen. . .
The Art Stuff
If you’re serious about working in the video game industry, you need to get serious about your job hunt, and that includes creating your demo / portfolio. Here are a few pointers whether you’re doing one for the first time or updating the one you have:
If all you have is art completed for coursework, don’t submit your resume (yet). Competition for these jobs is pretty fierce so you have to have an established career or be a complete (if undiscovered) superstar. A degree doesn’t prove your ability and does not entitle you to a job, it just equips you with the core skills you need to perform in the job and to build your demo / portfolio. Apply the knowledge you learn in school and continue to create art assets. Keeping pushing yourself to increase your skill level. That said, if you have an opportunity to get your portfolio reviewed, do it! Practice makes perfect.
It really helps to have a well-maintained blog with interesting articles showing your experiences with game development and game art. What if you can’t post anything from your current game? It’s ok to explain that you can’t show anything from the game-in-progress but you can clearly demonstrate that you know how to use the tools. (If you’re working on an indie game, creating a production blog is a good way to create some buzz.) Just remember that you’re trying to build a career here so don’t use the blog for political rants or questionable art.
Avoid fan art in your portfolio (unless it was commissioned by the show and / or the author, and you have permission to show it or link to it.) If you want to join LucasArts to work on the next Star Wars game, don’t re-create Darth Vader or any of the original characters. The hiring manager is trying to assess not only your skill but also your creativity, so design original assets that could be used in a Star Wars game. (It’s also a chance to show your knowledge of the IP as long as you don’t get too geeky.)
Be sure the art in your portfolio is 100% yours. A candidate who went for an interview at a big company included some gorgeous screenshots in his portfolio from a well-known game. The interviewers were very familiar with the game, and queried him about that art. It turned out that those were shots of levels he’d played in the game, NOT levels he’d created! Needless to say, he didn’t get the job.
The Technical Stuff
Today’s game industry artist needs to be specialized and technical. Showcase your strengths. Is it 3D? Create some strong environment pieces: one natural, one man-made, maybe something futuristic or fantasy but always totally original.
Character art is harder to break into but not impossible. Maybe show a progression of how you got from sketch to character with brief explanation (probably in a blog) about your inspiration and your tools.
Thriving platforms include Steam, XBLA, PSN, mobile, and Freemium. (Yes, there is a definite bias towards social games.) With the shift towards social and casual, you should know Flash, especially with recent announcements by Epic and Unity about their in-engine support for Flash11. This requires strong 2D skills and facility with a Wacom tablet.
It (almost) goes without saying that every artist needs to be good at drawing if for no other reason than you can illustrate feedback or suggestions to others–look good doing it. Split your time studying from life and drawing and painting from imagination. You might even try doing master copies of great artworks (that’s how students back then learned), studying human and large animal anatomy, and knowing key artistic foundations like perspective, color and composition.
Study the path of those whose work you really admire. You’ll be amazed at some of the secrets you can pick up from doing a little research.
Pointers for Specific Specialties:
- Modelers: No Moving Videos. Show still images from different points of view. Show wireframes, unwraps, normal maps, spec maps (all as separate files). Hiring managers wants to see the modeling decisions you have made. Stick to Modeling; we see way too many demos where the modeler is also showing animation or special effects and this gets confusing. Focus on what you do best and show only the best work within that piece, whether it’s Characters, Weapons, Apparel, etc.
- Concept Art: It’s really hard to break into the games industry as a concept artist. Hiring managers want to see a lot of early and quick exploration of rich strong shape design, good understanding of color and color theory and the ability to render—all of which their current art department already knows how to do. That said, if you can do amazing concept art AND have an equally good specialty, you might be able to show your creative process through a progression.
- Animators: Focus on a couple of high quality moments of animation in your demo and really pay attention to weight, push / pull tests, and fluidity. You’ll get hired on two seconds of push / pull rather than an entire unfocused demo. Study the basic motion loops needed for the genre of games your target company publishes and prove that you can do that.
- VFX: Show quality in-game effects that make sense and fit the genre. Understanding the Unreal and Unity Engines and their related particle effects systems is a big help. Innovate, don’t imitate.
- Technical Artist: Understand Unreal and Unity, specifically their scripting languages (MEL and MaxScript). Learn Python. Show examples of your scripts (code), along with little movies of the scripts in action.
- About Unreal:
- If you’re an awesome modeler who can do awesome textures, everything needs to end up in Unreal—and it needs to work.
- If you’re an animator, make sure you have some Animation Tree going shoe me what your animation. Show me what the animation are doing to textures and your assets in Unreal. Take everything you know about art and apply it in the engine.
- If you do Visual Effects, designing particle effects and coding Cascade (using Unreal’s Particle engine).
- About Engines in general: Plain and simple: demonstrate a mastery of your craft and knowledge of the engine your target game company is using.
The Networking Stuff
Regardless of your area of expertise and / or interest, you need to network. Join one of the Social Game Developers groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. It’s ok to read and “listen” for a while. Find the sweet spot between total n00b and flashy know-it-all.
Online Art Community and User Groups
- Digital Art Groups
Online Resources for Artists
There are a lot of sites out there that provide all kinds of helpful information. Here are a few of the bigger ones:
- www.CGSociety.org (www.CGTalk.com is the site’s forum)
- www.3DTotal.com (3DTotal was founded in 1999 as a simple 3D resource website. Over the last decade the site has evolved into one of the premier CG art websites.)
- www.PolyCount.com (Polycount offers 3D videogame artists news, resources and a forum)
- www.DominanceWar.com (The website of a massive annual game art competition)
- www.ConceptArt.org (Offers a forum, news, information about a variety of classes, and contests)
- www.visualliteracyprogram.com (The Visual Literacy Online Program is for both the serious student of any age and the professional artist.)
- http://www.unrealengine.com (If you don’t know what this is, don’t apply for a job until you do!)
- www.design3.com (This site has over 1K amazing demo’s to teach you 2D and 3D art skills.)
If you’re just starting out, even if you have a degree but you haven’t landed your first job, keep applying to the smaller studios. It would be exciting to claim Bungie or Blizzard as your first job but you’re up against a lot of “veterans” who are already making gorgeous, cutting-edge art.
Apply directly! A seasoned recruiter will rock your world once you have at least two professional games sold on the market. Prior to having professionally published titles the best way to succeed is by directly applying for a job yourself. There is no magic bullet or easy way to skirt around the job hunt.
Stay current on big games or AAA tiles, especially the ones that use the Unreal and Unity engines. (This does not mean be obsessed because you need time to work on your portfolio!)
Creating a Killer Demo
Find other people who also trying to break into the game industry. (See Networking above.) There are plenty of Programmers; Game Designers, and Web Developers who also need a demo. Combine your skills and create an online demo that rocks. Create mini games that are a logical extension of your favorite games (or the games of your target hiring company).
Customize your demo for your target audience. If you excel at sci-fi images, approaching EA Sports probably isn’t the best career move. Unless the game involves some kind of futuristic sport, they probably don’t care that you can do a spectacular rendition of Fenway Park or Tom Brady throwing a perfect spiral pass.
- Keep it simple and easy to navigate.
- Customize and target your work for the interviewing studio.
- Create original assets.
- Never force downloads to view assets.
- Create a “brand” for yourself and manage it via social networking sites, etc.
- Pay attention to poly count and use it as a measuring stick. Hiring managers want to see how well you used polygons in the art asset itself.
- If you are showing your senior project from school, make sure it’s finished. Often senior projects are too ambitious and don’t get completed so scale it back to reality. Managers hire folks who can complete things.
- Show both low poly and high poly work. Tag each image with brief info; the 2D or 3D software you used and how many pixels is usually enough.
- Show only your best work. Less is more!