I get emails from people every once in a while, asking about artist jobs in the game industry. Since I frequently am more or less repeating myself with the same info in separate email replies, I thought it would make more sense to write a short article about getting a job as an Artist in the game industry, what's involved, what you might want to think about as far as schools and your portfolio, and some things you can do in the meantime, if you're not quite ready to apply yet.
The views I express here are all based on personal observations I've made over the 16+ years that I've been working for game companies. (I worked for Westwood Studios for ten years starting in 1992, and have been working for Insomniac Games for the last five years, with some freelancing in between.) While working at Westwood, part of my job was to occasionally view artist submissions and demo reels in the process of looking for new artists to hire. I've also taken some of the questions I've received from up-and-coming artists and answered those the best I could, so there's bound to be some info in here somewhere that should help…so let's get started!
Ok, but what kind of game artist? One of the first things you might want to think about is what area you want to specialize in. Is specialization absolutely necessary? No, it's not…in fact the smaller game companies will probably be looking for artists that can do a lot of different things. If a small company has say, two artists, those artists are going to need to know how to do a lot of various art related tasks. But as companies get larger and have say, 20 or more artists, there's probably going to be more specialization going on.
So that's probably a good place for us to start…let's take a look at the different types of game art specialties. These are some of what you'll frequently see listed at game company websites under the Now Hiring or Jobs Available sections.
The concept artist is responsible for just that: creating art that helps to flesh out the visual concepts of the game. Their work helps establish for the rest of the team the visual direction the game will be taking. Traditionally, concept art is more about illustration than 3D work, in fact, a concept artist may not know much about 3D programs at all. Some however, like to block out some rough objects in a 3D program, and do a simple render to establish perspective and maybe even some initial lighting, and then paint over it…that depends on the artist.
Concept Art requires a good, thorough understanding of composition, color, depth, lighting…the same stuff you started learning about in art class. As a concept artist, you might be called on to do concept sketches of environments, characters, vehicles, weapons, costumes and anything in between. Sometimes concept artists will even specialize in one of those areas. It wouldn't be that unusual to find, for instance, a concept artist that does awesome character and costume sketches, but might not be that great at architectural environments, or vice versa. A really good concept artist will be able to do just about anything well.
A 3D modeler creates the actual digital "objects" of the game, including buildings, vehicles, landscapes, characters, weapons and well, everything. If it exists in the game as a 3D object, it was built by a 3D Modeler. For this, you'll be working every day with a 3D program, frequently building objects from the sketches that have been done by the concept artist. You'll also build objects from simple descriptions without any previous sketches having been done. You might simply be told "we need some funky, dilapidated buildings that show a lot of damage" or "we need a lot more unique trees and shrubs to help fill this outdoor area". 3D modelers frequently use a lot of photo reference as they build.
You'll need to have a good understanding of whatever 3D program you're working with. (More about the different programs later.) There are a couple of things you could learn that might help prepare you for 3D modeling, sculpting comes the closest, since you're forming shapes out of nothing. I found that the time I've spent doing carpentry helped as well, since it's building things out of initially simple shapes. But the truth is you're going to have to jump in and start modeling on your own and building as many different types of objects as you can. Lots of practice!
An environment artist is someone that specifically works with the environment (the world itself), as opposed to the characters. It's more of an artist category than an actual work type, as environment artists may do 3D modeling, texturing, work with creating complex layered shaders, and on occasion do some simple animations. A large part of their work however, is the actual level layout…they take all the 3D objects that have been built and textured, and basically build the world. Exteriors, interiors, roads leading to bridges, giant elevators, rocky hillsides, deep forests, etc. etc. If you loved playing with train sets and building the landscapes around them when you were a kid, you might consider environment art.
The texture artist is a Photoshop expert. Much of the time the same artist that builds the 3D model will also texture it, but in larger companies the texture artist is a specialization. Some like to create textures completely from scratch, while others like to start with photos and manipulate and layer them to create their textures. Regardless of workflow, these textures are applied to the 3D objects and breathe life into them. You'll need to have a good understanding of UV layout and will probably need to have at least a basic understanding of 3D modeling as well. Good textures make a huge difference in the look of the game. Imagine playing a game where all of the objects were the same solid shade of gray. Ouch.
Hey, that's me! The lighting artist does what the name implies…lighting. We are the equivalent of the DP (Director of Photography) in the film world. When we start with a level, it's monotone. We create and place all the lights in the game levels adjusting color, intensity, and falloff in an effort to both make the world more realistic and help create the mood. Lighting makes a big difference and can be effective at portraying any given area as either bright, colorful, and happy, or dark and frightening. To see what a difference it makes, check out my article on Lighting Resistance: Fall of Man.
You're playing a game, and you're running down a street where explosions are going off in the distance. You're dashing across a courtyard trying to make it through an open doorway, but just before you do, an enormous explosion goes off right next to you. You've lost a lot of health, but still find yourself saying "THAT WAS AWESOME!". Odds are good that an effects artist was at work here, doing their best to knock you on your ass in the most visually flamboyant way possible. The flash of light, the dirt column explosion, the fireball , the resulting fire and smoke were all put together by the effects artist. Working with a combination of 3D and 2D tools, particle systems and lights, the effects artist has a lot to do with bringing any area to life. As an effects artist, you'll be called on to create muzzle flashes, weather effects, sparking wires, water leaks, smoke, blowing dust, steam vents and anything else required.
Imagine watching a horrific creature in a cave. It turns to run, and STAYS IN THE SAME POSE the whole time it runs away. Lame! Who brings the characters to life? The Animator. Using 3D programs, the animators have the job of making any character in the game move with as much realism as possible. Your life will be filled with key frames and motion graphs, posing the characters and animating them through all the moves they'll be required to make. It's much more than just rotating joints from point A to Point B…a good animator has a firm understanding of anatomy, balance, anticipation, lead-in and lead-out, subtle facial gestures, and a lot more. You'll need to have a good sized mirror nearby and watch yourself and others move. Why does a shoulder lift the way it does in a shrug? What happens to the forearm muscle when you rotate your wrist? What does your mouth look like when you say the letter "F"? If you like the idea of bringing characters to life, consider animation.
The Animator frequently starts with a "rigged" character…one that's been set up with the proper skeleton and skinning, and then animates it based on what will be required for the game. But who does the rigging? Sometimes it will be the Animators themselves, but in larger companies this will frequently be done by the TD or Technical Director. The TD helps develop the character pipeline, working with both artists and programmers to balance the output from the 3D application and the requirements of the game engine itself. A lot of prototyping goes on here in the effort to create believable motion that works well within the game. This job frequently involves some programming/scripting experience as well. If you're an artist that likes a technical challenge as well as working with characters, you might consider this job.
Advertising and promotion go a long way in getting your company name out there, as well as getting people fired up about your games. The job of the Video Editor is to create footage from gameplay and cinematics, and then work with the audio department, the producer, the Art Director and the PR department to put together the trailers and demos that will be sent out all over the world. Depending on the company you work for, you'll be working with programs like After Effects, Shake, Combustion, Premiere, Photoshop and the like, and will need to understand both editing and compositing.
So you've got all these different artists creating assets. As you might imagine, artists have different styles and techniques, which could result in a game that doesn't feel visually cohesive. You might say that Art Directors carry the "creative vision", and it's their job to make sure that vision comes across in the final product. The Art Director works directly with all of the different departments, and is heavily involved from the very beginning with the concept sketches, to the very end when the game goes gold and is ready to ship.
The Art Director needs to also be really good at working with people. Artists frequently have a tendency to think that whatever they've created is great and doesn't need to be changed. AT ALL. The Art Director needs to be able to diplomatically convince the artists that there are indeed some improvements that could be made, without resorting to threats and heavy weapons.
So that's a rundown of the main types of game artists. There are others still though, with even more specialization:
Interface Artists: Use 3D programs and Photoshop to create the actual game interface, menu systems, loadout screens, HUD and anything else required.
Cloth Animators: Specialize in animating realistic 3D cloth for characters, such as clothing, capes, etc.
Storyboard Artists: Draw the storyboards that describe the shot breakdowns, sequences, and camera moves, usually for cinematics.
Cinematic Artists: Many games use in-game movies today, where the same game engine that you play the game with is used to create the movies, or cinematics. However, some companies still create pre-rendered cinematics, where the frames are rendered out one at a time (usually with a render farm, a series of computers put together for this task.) This is the same method used for rendering CG movies you see at the theater.
Graphic Artists: Many companies develop their own packaging and ads, so the Graphic Artist will work on box covers, magazine covers and ads, posters, and all other promotional material.
Some artists will specialize in just one main area. Some will know how to do a little bit of everything. How you proceed is up to you…there might be one thing that you really love doing, and you want to do that more than anything else, or you might like wearing different hats and doing a little bit in a few different areas.
Regardless of which of these types of art you might want to specialize in, they all share one thing in common; you'll be putting together a submission package that will usually consist of a cover letter, a résumé, and your portfolio or demo reel. You'll be sending these to any game company that you are interested in applying to. Let's take a look at each of these.
The cover letter is basically an introduction of who you are and why you want this job. One of the best things you can do here is take the time to tailor the cover letter to the company you're applying to and the job you're applying for. Instead of "I want to work for a major game company" tell them what it is about their company that you especially like, and why you think you would be an asset to them. If you are using a very generic cover letter, it looks like you're simply spamming all the game companies and can't be bothered to do any research about specifics of the company you're applying to. The cover letter doesn't need to be more than a single page.
Your résumé is a short list of your education and job history. It should be brief, and to the point. It's important to remember that the person reviewing artist submissions is busy, and is probably going through a stack of submissions. Don't go on and on about your theories on education or why you are awesome. You can list skills you feel you have in addition to your job history and education, but it should be short and sweet. If you like, you can also list your salary requirements. When working on your résumé, don't be tempted to exaggerate or twist the truth here in an effort to sound more impressive…just list your history, and make sure it's kept current. Make sure to include all of your contact information. The résumé can be about two pages in length.
Both of these documents need to be professionally edited, and should be organized and attractive. This is your first contact with the company, and it needs to stand out from the hundreds of other applications they'll be receiving. If your documents are sloppy, badly formatted, and full of misspellings, odds are good that people are going to think that you're a dork before they've even met you, so take the time to do this well.
In the old days, everything was done by snail mail. Today, many companies are fine with the cover letter and résumé being submitted by email. Find out which is preferred by the company you're applying to.
Okay, read this part carefully: your portfolio, in my opinion, is more important than anything else you have to show. It's more important than where (or if) you went to school, it's more important than what degree you do or don't have, and sometimes it can even be more important than how much experience you have. In a nutshell, your portfolio is a small collection of the best artwork you have been able to create up to this point in your life.
A lot of questions surround the portfolio/demo reel, so let's break it down to the two types: the portfolio is usually a collection of printed, or still images, and the reel is usually a series of animations. Many times an artist will submit some of each.
Let's have a mini-FAQ:
Q: Can I send original artwork?
A: No. Never send any original artwork. Only send copies, since a lot of game companies will NOT return portfolios to the artist. Even if they do, things get lost in the mail, so don't risk it.
Q: How many pieces of artwork should I include in my portfolio?
A: There's no hard and fast number here, but I think somewhere between 8 and 16 pieces is a pretty good starting point. What's really important here is the quality, not the quantity. If you have only 8 pieces in your portfolio, but they are truly stunning, someone will offer you a job. On the other hand, if you have 30 mediocre pieces, that number won't help. It will be hard to get noticed if the quality isn't quite there.
Q: I do a lot of sketching, should I include any of those?
A: Yes. Feel free to send your sketches as well as the finished artwork. It can help a prospective employer visualize your workflow, and your approach to problem solving and brainstorming.
Q: I do fine art as well, should I send that?
A: No. You're not submitting your work to a gallery, you're applying to a video game company. They want to see what you can do that will fit in with what they do…namely, commercial art as seen in current video games, usually centered around fantasy and science fiction.
Q: I've done some cool flying logos, should I …
A: NO. NO. NO.
Q: What format should the reel be in?
A: These days most companies are looking for a reel in a DVD or CD format. Note: Make sure you're not using some obscure codec that they would have to download in order to view your reel…they usually won't bother. If you have a website gallery with your animations, you can also include a link to that. Make sure that the animations play back smoothly. If they are constantly buffering and hanging when they play back, the person viewing your work may just give up. Some companies actually prefer online demos over mailed submissions.
Q: How long should my demo reel be?
A: Probably not longer than about five minutes. Your best work should be at the beginning, because some people will not watch the whole thing, unless they really like what they're seeing. Again, many companies will not return your portfolio package to you, so kiss it goodbye when you send it out.
Q: What if my reel has some work that was done by others as well?
A: Specify that. In a shot breakdown that accompanies the reel, mention what it was that you did and what it was that others did. On team based projects, it can be difficult to show something that was done entirely by you. Employers know this, and will appreciate your honesty about which part of the project you were involved with. You can also mention in the shot breakdown what software was used.
Q: Should I send any actual files of 3D scenes or models I've created?
A: You can if you want. Whether or not they get viewed is another matter, but it can't hurt. Including a CD with some 3D files lets the employer look at how you put things together, how clean your models are, how organized you are, etc. Bear in mind that again, things get lost in the mail, and even lost at some game companies, and there's always a remote possibility that these files could end up on the internet somewhere. So you might not want to send anything that's near and dear to your heart.
If you do heavy layering and advanced masking techniques and such in Photoshop, you could also send some .psd files from Photoshop for things like concept art and texture art.
Q: Should I add music or a cool soundtrack?
A: There's nothing wrong with adding a soundtrack, but I wouldn't sweat it too much. You're not applying to the audio department, you're applying as an artist. Don't make the mistake of thinking that a really cool soundtrack will help make up for mediocre artwork. Lots of people will turn the sound down anyway if they find your version of "Mortal Kombat Remix" to be annoying.
Q: Should I have a website with an online gallery of my work?
A: Yes, you should. Websites are becoming more and more acceptable as a means of showing your work to prospective employers. I've even seen a couple job ads that say "Don't apply unless you include a link to your online gallery". It's not that hard to put a website together, so yes, you should seriously consider this.
Q: Is it ok to steal the work of others and pretend it's mine?
A: A stupid question to be sure, and I only bring it up because I've seen it happen. Plagiarism is pretty much the worst thing you can do as an artist. It's a multi-layered failure; you fail because you're saying "My work is so bad I had to use someone else's" and you also fail for saying "Oh yeah, and I'm a thief too." That's not going to move you to the top of any lists other than the Massive Fail list, and you don't want to be on that. People will figure out what you're up to, and you'll be blacklisted. Don't even think about it.
On choosing which artwork you should add to your portfolio:
Ever heard the saying "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link"? The same is true of your portfolio. You should only add what you feel is truly your best work. Don't pad it out with images you're not crazy about to make it look like you've done more work than you really have. If I see six good pieces and one that's kind of bad, I'm going to be thinking "Why did they include this when it's not up to par with the others?" That bad image is going to be sticking in my mind.
Try to include pieces that are specific to the job you're applying for. If you've decided that what you really want to do is character animation, and that's the job you're applying for, don't send architectural renderings and examples of your vehicle concept sketches. The person that's viewing reels is going to want to see your character animation skills above all else. There's nothing wrong with including sketches, models, and texture examples (in fact that's a good thing, as it shows you can take an idea from initial sketch to finished rendering), just try to show you are capable of providing work that's specific to their current needs. You might think that's obvious, but you would be amazed at how often people send in work that has nothing to do with the job they're applying for. (Did I mention flying logos?)
Here's why the portfolio/demo reel is so important: when I would view demo reels at Westwood, the process usually went something like this:
What's important to note here is that the cover letter and résumé wouldn't even be looked at, if the work on the reel wasn't very good. Why? Because it doesn't really matter where you went to school, or what your objectives are at this point. You could have a PhD in computer graphics, but if your artwork isn't that great, you probably won't be hired as an artist.
On the other hand, on those rare occasions when a really excellent reel would come through, we would be scrambling to contact the artist. Our main fear at that point was that somebody else had probably already hired them. That's how important your reel is.
Ok, so here's the part where I get to play your grandfather: "When I was your age, they didn't have fancy schools about gaming and computer graphics! We learned everything ourselves, and that was good enough for us!" Grandpa Mode Off. Today of course, the popularity of computer and video games has caused the emergence of all kinds of schools that either include some game art classes or actually cater directly to the aspiring video game artist. So, should you go to an Art school? If so, which are the better schools? Can you even get a job in the industry if you're unable to go to school?
In my mind, it works like this: if you want to go to school, and you can afford it, then by all means go. I would never tell someone not to go to school. Having a degree can definitely be a benefit when it's time to start job searching. A lot of job listings will ask for a degree, so having one can give you a slight edge when the time comes for an employer to choose between artists applying for a given position. In addition, a degree demonstrates that you were able to follow through on something…you stuck with it and finished it, which shows determination and a will to complete what you started, which is a good sign.
But which school? A Google search will show an overwhelming number of choices…where do you start? My advice is to do some research at online forums where artists hang out in an effort to narrow down your choices. A good place to start would be cgsociety.org, in the forums section. The problem is that if you contact the schools directly, all they're probably going to do is blow sunshine up your skirt and tell you how great they are. You need to talk to the artists that have gone to these schools, and ask them what they think about the places themselves. Ask about what art schools they would recommend and which they think should be avoided. After you've got the names of a few places, you can contact the schools to see what they offer specifically, which should help you decide on one. Some schools even make an effort to help you land a job after you've graduated.
The most common degree listed as either a requirement or added "plus" is a Bachelor of Fine Arts.
I won't be able to personally help with this, because I didn't go to Art School. I went to Photography School in 1978 for an Associates Degree. In all the years since, no employer has even asked to see it. So yeah, I'm kind of old school.
But what if you can't afford to go to school? If you can't get a school loan, can't get a grant of any kind, and simply can't go to school at all, does that mean all is lost? No, it doesn't. I'm going to let you in on a little secret: if your portfolio is awesome, if your artwork is really, really good, most game companies won't care if you've got a degree or not. Why? Because these game companies are looking for really good artists, and how you got there isn't as important. I still think school is a great way to go if it's something you have the opportunity to do, but you are still employable without that degree if your artwork kicks ass.
That's why you'll see job listings that say things like:
Did you notice the repeated use of that magical word "Equivalent"? In this case, that word means "if you're really good, we don't care if you have a degree or not."
Also, you'll notice that some companies don't even mention education at all, and are just looking for those with experience.
Okay, so you've put together your reel or portfolio, you got yourself a degree, and you've sent your submission package off to dozens of game companies, and nobody has even responded. Or, they've responded with the dreaded rejection letter. "Thank you for applying, but your work is not what we're looking for at this time." So what to do? There are a few reasons this could be happening:
Here's the blunt truth: if your artwork is really good, somebody, somewhere, is going to want to at least talk to you. If nobody is responding to your work, it's probably not as good as you were hoping it was. You need to become a better artist.
But how can that be? Your Mom says you're great! Your friends say your artwork rules! Unfortunately, your Mom and your friends don't count in the searing bright light of cold reality. Your best bet is to contact other artists, people in the industry, and even (gulp) submit your art to online galleries/forums where you run the risk of being dissed and publicly humiliated. But what you really need now is honest criticism. This is the part where you need to start to develop a thick skin, and not take criticism personally…which is a hard thing to do. We tend to be proud of our work, and usually view criticism as something bad. The best thing you can learn to do at this point is listen to what's being said about your work, and think about ways you can improve it. As an artist, improving your artwork is something you'll be doing for the rest of your life, so you might as well get started now!
It would take an entire book to fully go into improving your art, (in fact, there are lots and lots of them out there) so I'll keep it brief with a few things you can do:
It's important to understand that you need to have a solid foundation in the traditional art skills. The more you can do with drawing, painting, sculpting, and the more you can gain understanding in perspective, anatomy, form and color, the more you'll be successful at using these skills in the digital realm. I have often heard it said that it's easier to teach a good artist how to use a computer, than it is to teach a good computer user how to be an artist. And it's been said a million times, but it's true: the computer is just a tool.
You'll need to learn how to use various software programs, but don't let your basic art skills wither.
For starters, you should learn Photoshop. It's pretty much the industry standard for 2D artwork. Some artists may prefer to use Painter, especially for concept art. Knowing both couldn't hurt...you might want to check them both out and see if you have a preference. As for the choice in 3D programs, it's a little more complicated; there are a lot of 3D programs out there. The simple answer is "Learn the program that's used by the company you want to work for". The problem with that answer is that you may end up being hired by a different company, that's using different software. You might spend years learning how to use 3DS Max for instance, only to be hired by a company that only uses Maya. Obviously, things work out best when you already know the software that's used at that company, but it's not always a deal-breaker if you don't. Many companies will be willing to work with you if they really like your portfolio, and may be willing to give you a chance to "catch up" to learning the software they use. This is not always the case though.
At the time of this writing, the two programs that seem to be used the most in both games and film are Maya and 3DS Max. Learning either one of these would be a good idea. Even better, learn a little about both of them. Softimage|XSI is another major 3D app used by some companies. At a quick check at the job board at cgsociety.org, the list of application specific jobs and the number of each was:
These numbers will vary over time, but show an average cross section. It's not uncommon to see listings that say things like:
So it can really depend a lot on the company you're applying to. If you're an absolute beginner to 3D and don't know a polygon from a hole in the ground, you might want to start out with a free 3D program to get started with the basic concepts. Two programs that come to mind are Google SketchUp and Blender. Once you've experimented with these for a bit, you can get demo versions of all three of the main 3D apps, Maya, 3DS Max, and XSI. From that point forward, it's practicing. A lot.
Two other programs you might want to consider if you want to do a lot of 3D modeling are ZBrush and Mudbox. Both of these are modeling programs that are more like sculpting, with tools for creating very fine detail that would be almost impossible in standard 3D apps. These programs are starting to show up under the "Working Knowledge is a Plus" sections for 3D Artists employment opportunities.
Most of the major 3D apps have downloadable demos and/or educational discounts for students.
I've mentioned the main off-the-shelf applications here, but the odds are good that you'll also be working with proprietary software written by the programmers at the game companies themselves. There's no easy way to prepare for that, but it could help to take a look at some of the different world editors that come with various games and get the hang of how they work.
Keep working on your traditional art skills, and keep learning the software. If you are able to improve your skills, somebody that's hiring will notice...and it will be time for an interview.
It's time for the next phase. You've got your submission package ready to go, complete with new and improved artwork. You send it out and…you get a reply back from a company that wants to talk to you! Woot! So what happens now? Probably something like:
It may be a couple of days to a week or so before you hear back. Don't freak out. You can keep submitting your reel to other companies. The people that do the hiring know that you are probably applying to others as well. If a second company becomes interested in you and makes an offer, you'll have to decide which company you'd rather go with.
So What's All This About a Test?
Not all companies will want you to complete a test, but some will. (Both companies I've worked for did.) The test is just that…a visual test to see how well you would do with something specific. If the job is for a Concept Artist, they'll have you do a concept piece based on something specific to what they're looking for. In a Lighting Artist test, they'll either give you an existing scene to light, or maybe have you create a scene as well. Modelers will need to model something. It probably goes without saying, but this test is really important. If you mess it up or do a lousy job, you may not even make it to the interview stage, so take it very seriously and do the best you can.
So the big day comes. They liked the results of your test, and it's time for an interview. These things are hella-nerve-wracking. Here are a few things you might want to keep in mind to help make an interview go well.
They'll probably have a lot of questions for you. When you answer the questions, try to just be yourself and answer the best you can. Don't try to make yourself out to be a mad genius, but don't downplay your skills out of false modesty either. The reason you're sitting there in the first place is because they liked your work enough to talk to you, so just be normal. Don't give one or two word answers. They're looking for information about you at this point, and also to see how well you communicate, which is important in a team-based environment. On the other hand, don't blather on endlessly once the question has been answered. If you see your interviewer falling asleep, that's a bad sign.
At some point, they'll probably ask you if you have questions as well. If they do, don't sit there looking shell-shocked. You should already have your questions ready to go. If salary hasn't yet been mentioned, don't be shy about asking. You should never leave an interview thinking to yourself "I wonder what that job pays?" Other things to ask about are the benefits package; health, dental and vision, whether or not there's a 401k, if the company pays a percentage of moving costs if you live in another state, etc.
Don't forget to wear some good clothes. Just because most game artists look like they're dressed for summer camp or a day at the beach doesn't mean you can too at the interview. If you're serious about this job, show it. After you get the job, you can bust out the cutoffs and flip-flops. Wearing a tie is probably over the top (unless you like wearing ties) but leave the T-shirts and tennis shoes at home for now.
If the company is nearby (or even if they're not) make sure you know in advance exactly where they are, and get there early to be safe. Nothing is worse than starting off an interview late because you got lost.
If you've never been to an interview (or even if you have) it can't hurt to learn about all the do's and don'ts of job interviews. Do a search on Job Interviews and you'll get lots of information about putting your best foot forward.
If Lady Luck is with you, the first company that hires you will be a really good, successful, stable, well run company. The sun will be shining, birds will sing, and you'll live happily ever after. Or not.
What's more likely to happen is that you'll get hired by a new company, or a really small company, or a company that sort of makes games, but also makes ringtones. Everyone wants to start out at a great company that makes AAA titles, but that's not always how it goes. It's called paying your dues. You may have to work for a few companies when you're first starting out that make games you don't even like that much. Your heart may be set on doing character animation for "Carnage Planet II: Slaughterhouse Thrive" and instead you're making inventory icons for "Suzie's Dream house: The Sofa". The problem is that many larger companies don't want to hire artists unless they already have a few year's experience. This introduces the annoying catch-22: You need to have experience in order to get hired, but you can't get any experience because nobody will hire you. Don't beat yourself up over this. Would you rather be making games that you're not crazy about, or flipping burgers at McDonalds? (I speak from experience…I worked at McDonalds in my youth, and I would rather make icons any day.)
An awful lot of the larger studios out there want to hire people with 3 years or more game experience, so you may have to do this for a while before you can get your foot in the door of a company you really want to work for.
As you gain experience, you'll work your way up. Regardless of what you're working on, keep updating your portfolio, even if it's work you're not all that proud of. Because now you're doing something really important…you're building a portfolio of actual on-the-job game art. I'm surprised at how often people don't do this. The company they work for closes, or they get laid off, and they're like "Oh no! I haven't updated my portfolio in five years!" Make sure it's ok with the company you work for to do this. Obviously, it's not ok to include work in your portfolio that was done for games that haven't shipped yet!
Q: How much money can I make as a game artist?
A: That depends a lot on the company you work for. If you're just starting out and have no experience, a starting salary as an artist should be somewhere around $40,000.00 a year. Animators can make more starting out because of the complexity of what they do (especially good character animators.) Once you've got a few years of experience under your belt, you can start seeing salaries of closer to 55k. As your years of experience increase, so will your salary. Those with over six years experience are getting up to 65k to 75k on average. Lead Artists and Lead Animators can make even more. Once you've proven yourself in the industry after many years and your work is really good, you're looking at 80k to 100k and above. Check out the 2007 Game Salary Survey for more details.
Q: What about getting started in QA? Is that a viable option?
A: Yes. QA (Quality Assurance; sometimes known as Play Testing) is the group of people at a game company that constantly play the game in search of bugs of any kind. Bugs that break the game, bugs that allow exploits, and even bugs about bad art. (I've gotten more than a few of those myself. Heh.) QA for some is simply what they want to do, but for others it's a way to get their foot in the door and move into another area as well. People that have started in QA have gone on to be Producers, Designers, and Artists, and moved to Audio, Programming, and just about any game job that exists. So that's an option as well.
Q: What about Internships?
A: By all means. Working at a game company as an intern is another good way to get your foot in the door. You can contact companies to see if they offer internships. As an Intern, you'll be learning the ropes first hand and be working in the same environment as the regular employees. This can be invaluable, both in terms of seeing how things work in general, and getting to know people in the industry. These same people may be able to help you line up a job later, especially if they were impressed by your work.
Q: Will a company pay for my moving expenses if I have to move from another state?
A: Maybe. Again, it depends on the company. Some will pay a part of it, some not at all. Ask about this at your interview.
Q: What about working remotely, from home?
A: Don't hold your breath. Although it happens (very rarely) the truth is that for now, most game companies want the employees on the premises, in the building. I think as internet speeds increase and more companies experiment with it a bit, it will become more viable. I work from home, but I know of very few companies that do this. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of it in the future, but for now, assume you'll be working at an office, especially if you're just starting out.
Yes, I have a tendency to ramble. I thought this article was going to be about six paragraphs or so, and it's more like sixty. Anyway, that's everything I can think of for now. If you have any more questions that I haven't covered, email me and I'll try to add them to this article.
I've talked about portfolios, and school, and improving your art skills, but I haven't mentioned what's possibly the most important thing, especially if you're just starting out: Determination. As an artist who may be considering Game Art as a career, you've got your work cut out for you. A lot of people want to do this. I believe there are two kinds of people…which is a stupid oversimplification, but bear with me: Those that think game art might be kinda cool to do, and those who want it so bad they can taste it. You know who you are. You love games, and you love art. If you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that you've just got to create, or you find yourself wondering why the light wraps around that tree the way it does, or you find yourself avoiding things like parties, and television because you have a real need to work on your art, you're already on your way.
The hours can be gruesome (especially during crunch mode) and it can be frustrating at times just like any other job, but I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing.
I think you'll succeed because it's something you want so badly, and something you're willing to sacrifice for, that you won't have any choice but to succeed because you refuse to ever give up. No matter how many rejection slips you get, no matter how often you're discouraged, you'll just keep getting back on that horse.
So here's a toast to all you crazy new artists, regardless of age, that decide to latch on, and not let go.
Enjoy the ride!!