Video games have been part of mainstream culture for 30 years, and in that time the graphical landscape has changed beyond all recognition. In the beginning there was little more than bricks, bats and Space Invaders. People were impressed, 20 years ago, if there were more than eight colours on screen. And even ten years back 3D graphics were still a novelty. Now, with the latest generation of home PCs and console systems throwing polygons and cinematic effects around like confetti, games are capable of immersing us in truly coherent worlds. From comic books and manga to stop motion and cel animation, and even through to the latest Hollywood blockbusters, game studios are now able to draw on any number of classical or pop culture influences when creating the visuals for their latest epics.
Budgets in the millions are now commonplace, which means that publishers can afford to put huge teams to work on a game for months or even years. And with the emphasis as much on how a game looks as how it plays, a sizeable portion of that team is dedicated solely to its artwork. While the in-game content is created by 3D modellers, animators and texture artists, it’s the artist who creates the original concept work that develops the visual language and can ultimately enable a game to possess a cohesive and unique look and feel. With few other jobs offering quite such a potent combination of responsibility and creative freedom, it’s little wonder so many are uncertain whether they’ve got what it takes to make it as a video game concept artist. Kick some ass
“As a concept artist my main goal is to offer to my client the most impressive, original and ‘ass-kicking’ concepts,” says Aleksi Briclot, a concept artist whose designs have helped shape the look of games such as Splinter Cell, Cold Fear and Dungeon Runners. “It’s not just about being able to paint and draw well, it’s about finding the best ideas – the ones that will make the game-playing experience a strong one.”
It’s the concept artist’s crucial involvement during the earliest stages of a game’s development that undoubtedly makes it such an attractive proposition. The game’s subject matter, general storyline and cast of key characters may be laid down in words, but it’s up to the concept artist to bring those concepts to life and influence all subsequent art development for the game. At the outset, at least, they are relatively free to let their imaginations run riot.
“We tend not to worry too much about technical limitations in the very early stage of brainstorming ideas for a new game, but it does become much more important once the platform has been decided upon,” explains Daniel Dociu, art director at ArenaNet, a division of Korean online gaming pioneer NCsoft. “That said, we’re eventually trying to create in-game art that captures the essence of the original concept, rather than produce a very literal, slavish representation.” No such thing as normal
There’s more to the job than filling a book with sketches and then sitting back and waiting for the rest of the team to bring the game to fruition, however. While the games industry has grown, the development process remains a remarkably fluid one, particularly in terms of how teams are structured and the workload is divided. A concept artist might simply be a generalist who also works on 2D or 3D in-game assets, or they might be part of a large team that really does nothing but sketch and digitally paint all day. There simply is no typical job description.
“The roles of games artists are becoming more specialised, but it really does vary from team to team,” agrees Jolyon Webb, creative manager at TruSim, a division of Blitz Games. “At Blitz Games, for example, we work on a large range of styles and game genres and so have a large number of specialist artists who work purely on 2D concepting, with a few working on 3D concept design.”
These artists, says Jolyon, are as likely to be called upon to tackle character concepting as they are vehicle designs or environments, though the studio naturally plays to the strengths of each individual. While it stands to reason that the larger the team the more specialised the role of the concept artist, a lot of flexibility often remains.
Over at Raven Software, senior artist Glen Angus says that the company actively strives to give artists as much opportunity to contribute in different areas of game development as they want to. “Despite having set classifications of what your main area of expertise is, I think it’s a good thing to also be able to get involved in other areas of art production,” he says.
In fact, Glen’s own role highlights how some studios favour a more generalised approach than that utilised at Blitz. During the course of game development on Marvel: Ultimate Heroes, his key role was actually texture creation, primarily working to define the look of each level in terms of surface materials and architectural elements.
For anybody considering a career as a concept artist in the games industry, the first thing
to consider is the state of the job market. Jolyon Webb says artists looking for a break are likely to find things competitive: “It’s fair to say that there are many more job applicants than there are positions available. That said, the games industry is always extremely keen to see good artists, and it’s always expanding.”
While some technical appreciation of target platforms is ultimately required, lack of technical knowledge is rarely an issue at the outset. And while it’s generally accepted that an artist will be handy with Photoshop as well as pen and paper, Jolyon says it’s not even necessary for newcomers to be particularly adept at using the latest hot 2D or 3D packages. “Talent is the key,” he says. “At Blitz Games, the underlying art philosophy is that we need people who are artists first and digital tools users second. If you understand form, colour, composition and lighting this knowledge of fundamental principals will stand you in good stead whatever the media you work in.”
“The one quality we look for most is proven traditional art skills,” agrees Daniel. “Proficiency in state-of-the-art software is of secondary importance to a solid background in traditional art.”
What employers do look for, says Daniel, are well-rounded artists with a wide range of interests. Given that they can be called upon to develop ideas in any style or genre, concept design work isn’t an area suitable for artists with just one stylistic string to their bow. It’s not suitable for prima donnas, either. While the job can offer a good amount of creative freedom, projects are designed with profits in mind. “You are just a small part of a huge process,” says Aleksi. “You’re not doing exactly what you want to, and sometimes will be asked to create designs you don’t necessarily think are good for the project.”
A talented artist who sits mute in the corner is no use to anyone. “The ability to communicate verbally, not just visually, is also paramount, as they’ll need to interact with the whole design team,” says Daniel.Visual dynamite
The challenge for newcomers looking to work in the games industry is that any time a studio advertises an opening they’ll receive a good number of applications from more qualified artists. Yet Webb says this needn’t be such a huge obstacle: “We always look at portfolios first when judging whether someone has potential to work on our games. People gain their first job on their talents as an artist, and so are not penalised for lack of experience. And while a degree does show you are serious and can be very helpful as you progress through a career, it’s not absolutely essential. If you are ‘visual dynamite’ then that’s really what we’re after.”
When it comes to putting together a portfolio, Webb says to keep things professional and to the point. And remember that the covering letter also contributes to the vital first impression. “Clean and simple is always the best way to go,” says Webb. “When I see swooshes and Photoshop lens flares around the border of your pages, it’s hard to take seriously.”
As for getting that first foot in the door, there are two options: either find out what job positions are available, or put together a portfolio or showreel and just get it out there. Job ads are placed in many of the finer video games publications, including ImagineFX’s own sister magazine, Edge. Websites such as www.gamesindustry.biz and www.gamasutra.com also host job ad sections.
While waiting for a suitable ad to appear may sound like the sensible option, sending your work to other studios doesn’t have to be the shot in the dark it appears. It pays to do your homework, finding out which development teams are on the rise, which are likely to be expanding soon and which are most likely to provide the best fit for your talents. Studios will, by and large, welcome unsolicited portfolios. It’s unlikely to yield an instant job offer, but your work is likely to go on file for consideration when the studio is looking to take on a new artist.
As effective as unsolicited mailouts can be, it does also pay to make friends and influence people. “Exposure and contacts are really important, and with the internet it’s really easy to connect with people and companies,” says Aleksi. Become an active part of the community, chatting, critiquing and posting your own work at forums, such as the one at www.imaginefx.com, as well as those at places such as www.conceptart.org, http://forums.cgsociety.org/ and www.cgchannel.com. As well as raising your profile and receiving constructive criticism from peers you’re all the more likely to get noticed by professionals in game studios.
Ultimately, if the quality of your work is good enough and it gets seen by the right people, then there’s every chance of making it. And then the real work begins.With thanks to...
Aleksi Briclot www.aneyeoni.com
Glen Angus www.gangus.net
Jolyon Webb www.blitzgames.com/www.trusim.com
Daniel Dociu www.arenanet.com/www.tinfoilgames.com