Enhancing your portfolio and advancing your career
My journey into game development started back in 2001. I hadn’t thought about a job in games before my first role – I’d played plenty of them! – but hadn’t thought about working in games at all until I saw an advert for a UI artist with graphic design background for Studio 33 in Liverpool. I qualified in graphic design from university, worked at a couple of graphic design places and did some freelancing before starting at Studio 33 where my gamedev career path began.
I started with 2D work on titles for PlayStation 1 and 2, logos and UI for a game called Formula One Arcade and then Destruction Derby Arenas. It was while I was there that I became aware of the role of vehicle artist. I’ve always been fascinated by hard surface; ever since being introduced to architectural drawing in school, I’d developed a real love for engineering and the mechanical side of art at A Level as well as always having a passion for cars. I knew this was a direction I wanted to explore, and a skill set I wanted to develop further. With the team’s tight deadlines, however, there was no time for learning in house, so I spent about six months solid at home, the majority of days learning Maya inside and out for modelling. The best processes, vehicles, tutorials, and finding best techniques. This helped me slowly merge into the vehicle team around the same the same time the studio got purchased by EA, becoming EA North West. My role as a vehicle artist progressed each year until I became lead vehicle artist at the studio. I also took on some environment work on the studio’s Battlefield Modern Combat titles at the time with the DICE team as well as covering vehicle work. This was a defining part of my career as I worked down in the incredible EA Chertsey, Norman Foster building as well as being lucky enough to go over to the DICE studio in Sweden. I took on a lot of responsibility balancing the vehicles of both the single player and multiplayer assets so they were aligned for the game and I evolved a lot as an artist learning to work collaboratively with a lot of different departments in multiple studios.
I’ve worked with some incredibly efficient and talented teams in both hard surface and environment senior roles across a number of projects including Battlefield Modern Combat, James Bond Bloodstone, The Club, Blur, Driveclub (including Driveclub Bikes and Driveclub VR), and the early development of Dirt 5. I have been fortunate enough to work for some large industry names such as EA, Bizarre Creations, Activision, Evolutions Studios and Codemasters before joining Firesprite in June 2019 to work with the Cloud Imperium Games team on Star Citizen in a lead role on the environment team. After this I had the opportunity to progress to an Associate Art Director role. Along with the opportunity to help shape the artistic vision of projects this has also allowed me to further develop the other element of my job that I’m truly passionate about - leadership and mentoring. I’ve been lucky enough to see hard work and passion pay off as I then progressed to my current role of Art Director at Firesprite.
I have held multiple lead and senior positions in both vehicles and environment roles over the years and have hopefully learnt a few things along the way that I would like to share. How to make your portfolio stand out especially for environment and hard surface roles, and on team management and progressing to a leadership or senior position.
PORTFOLIO AND SKILLSET
There are elements of hard surface and environment art which are fundamentally important, and for any aspiring artists out there looking to refine their skills in these areas, here are some of the things I’ve learned throughout my career that I’d like to share, and things I personally look for in a portfolio:
There’s No Hiding in Hard Surface
There is an exactness to the way the light flows over any hard surface and the importance of proportions of an asset. Where we can get away with a bit of crude modelling with more generic items such as rocks or more organic assets, everything must be exact when we’re developing hard surface assets. Whether it is a vehicle, a weapon, or a piece of machinery, if it’s not exact, people will notice. The key to good hard surface design is if players don’t even notice. If players are commenting that something feels off, wrong, or just not quite right, then the design is flawed.
With the ever-increasing power of graphics cards and engines, the focus on good topology is something that is falling away as people believe that it isn’t that important. However, I strongly disagree and although more polys are becoming easier to deal with, the way those polys are utilised is still immensely important. The way edge lines flow across the panel of a vehicle or the accuracy of curved areas of geometry on an asset make a big difference. Also, regardless of how many polys the engine can handle, the more efficient every mesh is, the more likely it is that the overall game will be more efficient. Look to always balance your models so that your wireframes show good clean poly distribution.
Allow the Eyes to Rest
What we used to say in graphic design is “it’s not only what you do with the space, but also what you don’t do with the space”. Remember open space is just as important as occupied space. The same is true when creating a 3D environment or a fictional sci-fi spaceship. It’s beneficial to avoid too much noise and instead using distinct cues to guide a player through the game world or allow the users eyes to notice interesting detail that stands out from more subtle parts of an asset or world. Whether you are watching a film, looking at a painting, reading a book or playing a game, peaks and troughs of interest give the user time to feel excitement which is further enhanced by the opposing areas of rest.
Whether you are creating a whole environment or a single asset, it is so important to think about the story behind the art. What happened in the timeline leading up to this point in time. What effect did any big world events have on the aesthetics of the world or asset. Has the environment been affected by rain, sun, or extreme temperatures and what has this done do the materials of the asset or areas of the world. If it is a sci-fi or fictional piece, then try to base it on plausible technology. Do research into technology that could be used or makes sense. Believability is what makes the art immersive and compelling and what subconsciously allows the user to feel at ease with what they are looking at.
Understanding the Fundamentals vs Understanding the Tools
With the recent progression of tools like Unreal, Substance Painter and Designer, as well as Maya and all other 3D creation software and their now extensive libraries and plugins; a trend I’m noticing these days is the distinct difference between understanding the fundamentals of 3D shape, form, weight and balance of the art, versus only really demonstrating an understanding of how to use the tools.
I see a lot of younger artists getting caught up in presenting their understanding of software, when what I’m really looking for is someone who understands shape, weight, form, colour palettes, lighting, layout, feel and tone. Understanding the tech is important, don’t get me wrong, but understanding fundamentals - that’s what really matters. If an artist knows those things, you can teach them everything else. Remember, software will always be replaced by something new, fundamental art skills wont.
A lot of portfolios now will include relit scenes for example, or demonstrations of using asset libraries with very little being originally created. Regarding graduate portfolios, what’s really exciting to see, and what really stands out for me, is when their university work is the least showcased. It is fantastic to see pieces in the portfolio that a student has done in their own time. There is nothing wrong with having university work you are proud of in your portfolio, but it shouldn’t be all there is. Showcase your interest. Make sure the focus of the portfolio is the area you want to head in to. It is good to show variety, but it should be obvious to the person reviewing the portfolio what area you are most interested in.
Finally make sure you are proud of the work you are showing. If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be showing it! If you are proud of it, then talk confidently about it. Explain why you did the piece and what you felt went well and never be afraid to say what you feel could be improved upon if you were to do it again now that you have learnt more. No one’s work is perfect!
LEADERSHIP AND CAREER PROGRESSION
I pride myself on team management. It’s something I thoroughly enjoy doing. It’s not for everyone, but I do really enjoy the people management side of things. I find it very rewarding to mentor people, helping to push their careers forward and develop their skill sets as well as build dynamic teams that work well together. I’ve also spent time in the past helping students who reached out to me looking for advice, and it’s fantastic to see them flourish. Below are some things I try to do as a leader that I feel are important for anyone looking to progress into this type of role.
Everyone is Different
One of the key aspects of effective leadership that I’ve seen some leads struggle with throughout my career, is the ability to alter the way that they talk to someone based on their personality. Some people thrive with a very direct and harsh critique, whereas others respond better to a gentler approach. It’s important to understand how to get the best from your team, and so much of that is respecting and understanding their individual personalities and how to work together in a way that works for them.
Building Great Teams and Team Dynamics
Great teams aren’t just about talent, it is about team dynamic as well. When I’m hiring for a role, I look at the key applicants who are not only good, but also compatible in attitude. When I’m interviewing for junior positions, I’m looking for that passion and a willingness to learn. The principal, they need to be technically sound, obviously, but that alone doesn’t work unless the team dynamic is right, so I think it’s important to factor in personality as well. And when interviewing for a lead position, it’s vital to understand how they navigate people management. If I’m looking for a lead that I might mentor and who will in turn mentor others, I need to be confident that they care about the wellbeing of a team and that they have the ability to find out what might be troubling someone and find ways to sort any issues to make them happier.
The Evolution of an Artist from Junior to Mid, Senior, and Beyond
I’d like to touch on career progression, as I think too many people think it’s a time served thing, when really, time or experience are only one factor. Someone could go from graduate to junior to mid in eight months or a year if they have the drive whereas others may not progress for many years. If you’re keen to progress to the next level of your career, here are some pieces of advice I always offer my teams:
Every single thing you do that you think is noteworthy - write it down. Literally everything. Have a notepad to the side of you and you write it down. Date it. Write what you did and why it was noteworthy. It might sound like a hassle to do that, but it’ll only take 5 minutes of your day, and when it comes to review time, you’ve got a wealth of information you can lean on that’s all factual and dated. Evidence of going above and beyond does not mean extra hours! Too many juniors in particular think doing a tonne of hours translates to extra commitment. Look after your wellbeing and finish your day on time, but in your day do great work. Evidence of passion and drive to progress for me isn’t extra hours, it’s demonstrating a willingness to develop skills, work hard in the work day hours, get involved and show interest and listen to feedback.
Are You Ready for a Lead Position, and Do You Actually Want It?
First and foremost – is it a lead position you really want to work towards? People still tend to misunderstand the difference between lead and principal and see lead as ‘that’s where I’ve got to get to because that’s my next step of seniority’.
In a principal role you can still mentor, you can still be at the same level and at the same pay, and you can still progress to art direction from principal. Principal suits people who are still keen to be more hands-on in their art and be an expert in their field without additional time spent on people management or expertise required for that side of the role.
Lead roles really require a genuine interest in managing people and team dynamics. The individual should care about building relationships, building teams, and understanding what motivates people. You need to care about keeping morale up and putting the effort in to understand people’s personalities so you can be acutely aware of when something may be troubling them. It’s not a counselling service, don’t get me wrong, but about finding ways to get people to feel comfortable opening up. What are they passionate about? What’s holding them back? What have they been disappointed about in the past and why? A lot of lead work is communication and letting people know they can be their authentic selves.
Finally, and most importantly be humble! It is not a sign of weakness if you take a junior’s idea or use a technique you have been shown by a new artist. The aim for any Art Director or any artist is for the final style, environment, or asset to look as good as possible and to resonate with the target audience in the best way possible. A great idea or technique is still great regardless of where it originates. Always utilise the skills of the team around you!
Thank you for taking the time to read the ramblings of an aging game developer and I hope that some of it has been of interest!