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  • Excerpt: How to Become a Video Game Artist

    - Sam R. Kennedy
  •  [In this excerpt from How to Become a Video Game Artist, Sam R. Kennedy outlines industry basics and gives tips for newcomers wishing to work in the field of the visual arts.]

    This book is for anyone who wants to do art and get paid to do it. Specifically, it is about working successfully as an artist in the video game industry. I wrote this book for those artists out there who, like me, love to draw and paint and animate and either have or would like to have a video game career. You may not be a working artist right now, but if you read this book you will learn how to become one. If you are already a professional, I'll tell you how to break into video games or how to move to your dream job if you've already broken in.

    Video game art is like no other art form. Like movies, video games demand excellent visuals, interesting stories, and compelling animation. Unlike movies, however, video game art is interactive and intertwined with complex and changing technology. A movie audience sees only what is in front of a camera, whereas a video game player is free to walk around the set. Video game artists have to build an entire world for the player's character to live in, not just a set that looks realistic from one angle.

    Video games are engaging to play and amazing to watch, and it takes many talented artists working on many different aspects to create each game. There are even artist tech jobs that don't require you to have strong drawing skills. If you are determined and work hard at perfecting the right skills, there will be creative roles you can fill in the industry.

    How I Became a Video Game Artist

    When I was a child, I thought the only artists out there were Disney animators and the starving variety. But when art-heavy video games burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s, I realized there was a whole new art world out there, one with thousands of new jobs.

    I was in college at the time, struggling to learn to become an illustrator. Though video games had been increasingly popular since the early 1970s, when Pong swept the country, they didn't become art-heavy until the mid-1990s with games like Warcraft II, Abe's Oddysee, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six.

    Simultaneously, 3D arrived. The enormous worldwide success of the movie Toy Story (1995) proved that audiences would embrace 3D, and shortly after that video games began to move from 2D sprite animations (series of pictures of characters or objects on the game disk that are played when the player inputs the right combination on the controller) to real-time rendered 3D games (the video game itself renders the images on the screen as the player sees them, called rendering on the fly.) This move from 2D to 3D triggered a huge upsurge in the number of artists needed to create a video game, and as 3D art has become more sophisticated, the number of artists needed to produce it continues to increase.

    Screen shot from Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, composed and edited by Sam R. Kennedy, using game assets created by Ubisoft and the Red Storm development staff.

    3D games feature virtual worlds with three dimensions (length, width, and the illusion of depth) that allow the player to move in multiple directions-forward/backward, up/down, side to side, and in front of and behind scenery and objects. In this screen shot, because this is a 3D game, the player can run anywhere in this environment, including behind buildings and from ship to ship, and enemies can ambush the players from rooftops.

    Getting My First Video Game Job

    I was lucky enough to be exiting college when simply knowing some 3D applications made you highly employable. After I struck out trying to get an animation job, I was offered a job as a video game production artist. (Production artists are the artists who do the mucking-out jobs. We were called pixel pushers back then, because we literally changed the colors one pixel at a time.)

    I wasn't a very strong artist when I started pushing pixels, but I was making money and focused on learning what I could from the better artists around me. After some outside workshops in 3D, I went from pixel pushing to creating cinematics for PlayStation's Animaniacs Ten Pin Alley, a wonderful job where I got to model, rig, animate, light, and render complete scenes in 3D.

    But I still liked animation the best, and in my down time I taught myself character animation. I landed an animation gig at Saffire, Inc., where I was a principal animator for a Soul Calibur fighting-style Xbox game and also rendered concept art and pitch art. When the studio lost its funding, I became an animator and concept artist at a new studio, painting in my down time. Our game didn't have a marketing artist, so I tried my hand at that too. Later I took a marketing artist position at Ubisoft, where I was privileged to work with some great people on brand name games like Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

    What's a Pixel?

    A pixel is a tiny square of color. Digital art is made up of hundreds of thousands to millions of individual pixels. Each pixel is a combination of three colors (in the RGB system: red, green, or blue). By mixing these three basic colors you create all the colors in the art. The more pixels there are in a digital artwork, the sharper and crisper that artwork is. If you don't have enough pixels to create smooth gradients across your picture, it is said to be pixelated (because you can see the pixels themselves). Usually a printed digital art piece will have 300 pixels to an inch-long row. Computer monitors are flexible with their display rate; however, 72 DPI or dots per inch can be thought of as average. (In the phrase "dots per inch" pixels are referred to as dots.)

    2D and 3D

    In the video game world, the terms "2D" and "3D" are ubiquitous. 2D refers to two- dimensional images that have the dimensions of length and width only, while 3D (three-dimensional) images have depth in addition to length and width.

    This marketing artwork for Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 was composed and edited by Sam R. Kennedy, using game assets created by Ubisoft and the Red Storm development staff.

    Isn't this fantastic?! I started off working the somebody-has-to-do-this jobs but ended up creating exciting images like this when I began working as a marketing artist.

    How this Book Can Help You Land a Job

    This book starts off with an overview of the artists who create video games and the workflow of game creation, followed by a tutorial on the fundamentals of drawing, painting, drawing software tools, and basic 3D skills. Next, I cover the most popular art jobs in the industry: concept artist, environment artist, character artist, charac- ter animator, user interface artist, and marketing artist.

    Each job chapter details what the job is and how it fits into the video game production workflow. I cover all aspects of each artist's job, the development and creation process, other artists and technicians the artists work with, and the education and training needed for each job. As a special feature of each chapter, you'll meet a successful artist working in that job providing you with the inside story about the job, along with an illustrated lesson in how to create that type of artwork. Each chapter ends with a typical help wanted ad for that artist's job so that you can compare your education, skills, and experience against real-world standards and learn what art you need to have in your portfolio to land that particular job.


    A portfolio is a selection of examples of your best artwork to show a potential employer your skills, talents, and artistic vision. The artwork can be drawings, digital paintings,

    3D models, animation, and/ or other graphics. Your portfolio should also be available on the web. The work in your portfolio should visually illustrate the skills needed for the job you're interested in and should also show your proficiency in all software programs required.

    Real-Time Console Games: A Unique and Technological Artform

    The jobs covered in this book are for creating real-time video game art. In a real-time video game the characters and world you see on the screen are being rendered as you play the game, or "on the fly." The game engine reads stored information off the game disc and renders the 3D geometry for each character and environment object. This 3D geometry lets you move in any direction in the game's world. Before real-time games, movements were limited for the most part to moving left or right, and they always had a pre-rendered 2D backdrop behind the character.

    As long as the game engine can keep up, the 3D world is rendered at 30 frames per second, but keeping the game flowing at 30 frames per second is a challenge. The game engine has a limited rendering capacity, and the amount of data available to be read is also limited to the size of the game disc and the hardware space available on the console. Game consoles, currently Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo's Wii, also have individual limitations of space and speed. Every final piece of art for video games must be scrutinized to make it as efficient as possible. That is the economy of game art. All elements of a video game draw resources from a single pool. If the environment requires too much of the limited rendering resources, there will less available for rendering characters. It is up to the game designer to decide how much of the resources will be dedicated to the characters, the environment, special effects, and so on.

    A Brief History of Early Video Games

    The pioneering efforts that brought us to today's complex and realistic 3D games began in the 1940s with cathode ray tube beams that could be manipulated by knobs and buttons and early chess games. The 1950s saw the first computer specifically designed to play a game (Nim) and the development of computerized Tic-Tac-Toe and Mouse in the Maze games. Spacewar!, considered the first shooter game, arrived in 1961, and Odyssey, the first game to use a video display on a TV set, debuted in 1966. The year 1971 ushered in Galaxy Game, the first coin-operated game (only one was created), followed a few months later by Computer Space, the first commercially sold coin- operated game. In 1972, with the introduction of Pong, gamers could finally play a computerized game at home (on the TV screen) -and video games haven't looked back since. The 1980s and early 1990s saw an explosion of home and arcade video games, and the mid-1990s gave birth to art-heavy, 3D, and increasingly interactive games.

    The rise of video games and their mass popularity have created a lot of new jobs and opportunities for artists. In the 1980s, someone like concept artist Mark Molnar might have had trouble finding work. However. Mark and other skilled artists like him are in high demand today thanks to video games and of her forms of media. The art needed for video games is very diverse, like these three environment concepts. Every day concept artists are envisioning past, present, and future worlds.

    Working in a Video Game Production Studio

    A video game production studio can be a great place to start your career. Once you get a foot in the proverbial door with that first job, there are numerous opportunities for growth. For one, working with established profession- als provides invaluable experiences that will help you to improve your artistic and creative skills and to navigate the complicated collaborative process of game design. Because a production studio employs every type of artist, you'll have ample opportunity to discover if you have a talent or interest in an area you'd never considered (or even known about).

    I learned so much in my twelve years as a video game artist. As an animator, I learned to dramatically pose 3D figures like these special-ops guys. Doing marketing art taught me how to integrate photos into pictures, like the hands in the nearest figure. Throughout my career, I have used photos to add texture like the dirt and uneven surface on the walls and door. Many artists I worked alongside taught me how to research things like the contemporary military gear that dresses the figures.

    Video Game Jobs Defined

    Here are some of the key players in the video game art creation pipeline. There can be some overlap among these jobs. In smaller studios in particular, the same person may perform more than one role-a concept artist might also be the marketing artist, for example. But large studio or small, it takes a lot of talented people working in concert to take an idea to finished game.

    Producer: The producer is at the head of the game devel- opment workflow and runs the entire creative process, providing direction and feedback to the various teams of artists in the production pipeline. Producers make sure all the artists stick to the game designer's vision, and they set and maintain deadlines and the overall budget. Along with game designers, producers originate ideas for new games, determining how the game will play, what will draw people to it, and what sort of world it will be set in. They are usually not artists and rely on artists to realize their ideas.

    Head Game Designer (Game Designer): Sometimes the idea for the game is the designer's; sometimes it's not. But whoever has the original idea, it's the game designer who has to envision the entire game and then create a detailed design document to guide the various art and technical teams executing the game. (A design document is several hundred pages long and specifies gameplay, settings, characters, weapons, vehicles, story, and functionality.)

    Art Team(s): The art for each stage in the pipeline is developed and reviewed by a team that includes some combination of artists, game designer, producer, and art director, and sometimes chief engineer and level designers.

    Art Director (AD): The art director is the top artist on every team and works with the producer and game designer to keep the various artists on track, on vision, on budget, and on schedule. The AD coordinates the look and style of the characters, environments, and props to ensure that all the different artists work in a common style and that all aspects of the game's look are compatible and work together to deliver a consistent experience throughout the game.

    Chief Engineer: The chief engineer sees that all the nec- essary programming code for each gaming feature is developed on time and works smoothly. He manages the Software Engineers, who write the programming code that makes the game run and function.

    Concept Artist: The concept artist is the first artist to execute the characters, creatures, environments, and objects the design team has dreamed up; what the concept artist draws and paints is the basis for the art from all the other artists in the pipeline.

    Environment Artist: The environment artist models and textures all the 3D objects (except characters) you see in the game, like backgrounds, props, vehicles, and buildings.

    Character Artist: This may well be the most desirable art job in video game production because character artists get to build the 3D models for all the characters and creatures in a game. 

    Character Animator: The animator makes the character move-every single motion a character makes: running, walking, throwing, leaping, shooting, and fighting.

    FX (Special Effects) Animator: Although I don't devote a chapter to this job, FX animation is an employment option you should know about. FX animators create the FX (special effects) in the game, things like explosions, muzzle flashes, bullet hits, and so on, and consult on the integration of the FX into gameplay mechanics. Like all game art, the FX must reflect the look and style of the game and the aesthetics and qualities of the game art. Game FX are created with specialized software like 3ds Max and Maya.

    User Interface Artist: The UI artist works with UI engineers to allow players to navigate through the setup screens and also creates the vital icons and meters that feed a player important information during gameplay.

    Marketing Artist (MA): A marketing artist creates art (or adapts game art) that introduces and sells the game to the buying public. This can include everything from the game's packaging to print and online advertising to animated trail- ers and commercials.

    Level Designer: A level designer blocks out the playable levels inside the game and, when environment assets become available, inserts them into each level.

    Testers: Testers play the game for several months looking for and tracking problems, called bugs. The bug list is handed back to the appropriate department for resolution.

    The Studio Environment

    The personality of a studio will vary, but in general it is a very relaxed work environment. Most offices do not enforce a dress code or have a standard office look. In fact, most video game office spaces are stuffed with toys, posters, and one-of-a-kind novelty items that make one wonder, where on earth they came from.

    On average it takes about 125 artists, producers, designers, and engineers two to three years to make an entire console game, though the timeline can vary. In a perfect scenario it would take eighteen to twenty-four months to make a game, but there are always changes, setbacks, or unforeseen obstacles that arise. This unpredictability means that there will be unavoidable crunch times when your team has to work weekends or late into the evening to meet a deadline.


    Job security in a production studio is only as good as the success of the studio's most recent release. If the game doesn't sell well, the company may have to lay off employees. And, while a successful franchise of games can guarantee an artist's job long term, continuing to work on the same characters, environments, and gameplay can eventually drive you to look for new and fresher challenges in another job. From my own experience and observation, it is rare for an artist to be at a single studio for more than five to seven years, and many stay less than three.

    Some Key Game Creation Terms

    There are a lot of standard terms used in game design. Although they are explained throughout the book as they appear, some terms are used again and again, and rather than describing them each time, I've defined them here.

    Character Model (Character Mesh): A model (or a mesh; the terms are used interchangeably) is a 3D structure of a game character, which has height, width, and depth, and is created in programs like 3ds Max, Maya, and ZBrush. The mesh has the character's shapes, forms, proportions, and body structure.

    3D Model: Any object created in a 3D program and that has height, width, and depth. Modeling is the action of creating a 3D model.

    Game Assets: Game assets (which include environment assets) are all of the 3D models for characters, props, accessories, and environmental objects that are used in gameplay.

    Platform: Platform refers to the hardware on which the game is played; most come from companies like Nintendo, PlayStation, and Microsoft.

    Rigging: Rigging is placing a system of bones (skeletal structure) and handles (access points to the bones) in a character model, which allows an animator to create natural movement.

    Scripted Event: A scripted event is something that happens when the player performs a certain action. For example, if the player takes a character into a forest and passes the third tree, then six zombies will spawn behind the fourth tree.

    Texturing: Texturing is using software (like Photoshop or ZBrush) to color the surface of a 3D model and describing how that surface reacts to light. It can also mean creating more detail on the surface through normal maps.

    Normal Map: A normal map fakes the lighting of bumps and dents by remembering depth information of a similar but higher poly-count model. A low-res model with a normal map on it will appear to be much more detailed.


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