Game Art Ė Advice From Someone In the Industry
So, you love playing games and you love art. Youíve got a sketchbook full of ass-kicking robots, and youíve got an idea in your head for a whole computer game, right down to the shape of the swords and the bone-chips stuck in the monsterís teeth. And maybe youíre looking at college, or maybe youíre in college and looking at the end of college. Or maybe youíve been out of college for years and youíre looking for a change. At any rate, youíre probably unsure of what to do next.
Perhaps I can help you. My name is Michelle Clay, and I am a modeler/texturer/environment builder at a company called Turbine. My specialty is environment art, and I like helping aspiring artists figure out where to go next when they want to be where I am.
I give out a lot of the same advice over and over, and all too often Iíve thought of the perfect nugget of wisdom to share only eight hours too late, when Iím in the shower and the conversation is long over. So I figured, why not dump it all somewhere here on Concept Art? Iíll just throw it all out in one disorganized heap, and by golly, if anyone thinks its important enough they might actually sift through and find some words to help them on their way.
So, anyway, here goes. The following includes rambles from me, and from other folks in the games industry who have been kind enough to share some of their knowledge, and some highly unorganized assignments at various levels of difficulty. Please feel welcome to join in the discussion!
Table of Contents
. . .because this mixed-up mess of information has grown very large. . .
Concept Art for Environments
Assignment #1 - Analyze a Game Environment
Process of Working with Concept Art
Assignment #2 Ė Monsters and Concepts
#2A - extra credit
#2B - more extra credit
2D Versus 3D
Assignment #4 Ė Draw a Chair
Simplicity from Complexity
Assignment #5 Ė Carousel
Photo Realism Ė Where to Begin?
Assignment #6 - Photorealism
Assignment #7 Ė Composition
From Observation to Concept Art
assignment #8 Ė From Observation to Concept Art
Assignment #9 Ė Game Mod
Assignment #10 Ė Rocky Environment
#10 Extra Credit
Assignment #11 Ė Low-Poly Doo-Dads
How to make the most of your (lousy) education
Assignment #12 Ė Make a Dull Assignment Fun
assignment #13 Ė Paintover
#13A Ė Drawing in Perspective
#13B Ė Paintover an Existing Game
Environment Art: Dungeons
assignment #14 - Modular Dungeon Pieces
Assignment #15 Ė Trees
#15 A Ė Concepting for Trees
#15 B Ė Modeling and Texturing a Tree
#15 C Ė Expanding on What You Have Built
Rambly Rambles about College
The Process of Working with Concept Art
Two-Year Schools and Technical Artists
Iíll chime in about exercise, too. . .
More on an Art Education Versus a Tools Education
Having a Tough Time Getting Hired as a Concept Artist?
Jhartfordís take on Internships
Game Industry Salaries
Maya Versus Max Versus Other
Portfolios, Reels, Resumes, and Cover Letters
More on Portfolios
Tips from Dr. Memory
Qitsune on Pixel Art
ConCreteís link to game mod stuff
DoInferno shares more on Pixel Art
Djobuk on Paintovers in Concept Art
Chirp Chirpís Tips
More from Chirp Chirp
Chirp Chirp on Normal Maps
Loads of Useful Links! Thanks Chirp Chirp!
Chirp Chirpís Book List
Maurice on Moving to Where the Jobs Are
Game Dev Mapper Link
DeBlackKnite on Indy Games
What makes an art department?
Masqueís UV Tutorial
Games versus Movies
By the way, the thread in the Communities Activities forum that goes along with this thread never got off the ground. Oh well.
Concept Art for Environments
The first thing you have to know is that all games are made on a budget. Not just a money budget, but a manpower budget, and, most importantly, a technical budget. As a concept artist, you canít just draw up ten thousand acre vistas and just hope the artists who build it in 3D are going to be able to pull it off. You need to know that the monsters in your game have a vertex budget, and that certain things, like dressing them up in a necklace of twenty skulls, may be impossible to do within that budget. Textures are also budgeted. The modelers/texturers will have to convert your environment drawings into a few tiling textures, and if you throw too many crazy ideas into your art, they just may show up at your desk saying ďwe can make either the shiny rock-things or the trees, but not both. Pick one.Ē
*****Assignment #1 - Analyze a Game Environment*****
Pick a game with not-pushing-the-envelope art. Examples would be We Love Katamari, Disgaea 2, Diablo 2, or the New Super Mario Brothers game for the dual-screen. For this exercise, the point is mostly just in looking. I want you to study the environment of the game *intently*. Donít worry about the monsters trying to shoot your character; I want you to look at the *dirt*. And the rocks, and the trees; and the architecture and the dungeons. Look at everything on the screen that isnít a player, a monster, and NPC, or the user interface. And then answer the following questions:
What sort of pieces is the environment assembled out of? Is every rock and chair and wall an individual object? Are the same individual objects, such as trees or chairs, used over and over? How many objects are there on screen at once? Is the entire ground and the buildings on it all just one big object? Where are the tiling textures, and how many of them are there?* How does one tiling texture transition into another tiling texture? How large are those tiles, compared to a human? Where are non-tiling textures used, and how often are they used?
Look closely at as much of the game as you can access. Get to know the boring bits Ė especially the boring bits! Grass is one of the most important and challenging textures that can go into a gameís environment, so give it lots of attention.
If you are wondering why Iím suggesting you pick a game that isnít pushing the envelope with its art, itís because there is less going on for you to unravel. It also happens to be more challenging to do concepts for, because there are fewer elements. Simplicity can be really tough Ė just try drawing an egg to find that out.
Now, with your new knowledge of how the environment in your game are put together, itís time to have fun. Break out Photoshop or the pencils and go design a new environment for this game. Draw draw draw! If youíve been looking at a snowy landscape, design a tropical landscape. If youíve been looking at a tropical landscape, design a snowy one. Stick as closely as you can to the technical limits you have observed in your game Ė the same number of objects, the same number of textures. If one drawing doesnít get across your idea, then do two, or five or ten. Iím not going to fuss at you about the particulars of your drawings, because mostly I just want you to look at an existing game, and really see the pieces.
There are two versions of this assignment that you can pick from, too. Either make your environment match the existing art style as closely as possible Ė or, using the same technical limits, make it a completely new art style. However, donít try to emulate the existing art style and then change your mind halfway because itís hard. If you start it, finish it, even if it goes badly.
Good luck! If you try this, feel free to post your results here.
*A tiling texture is a texture that repeats in one or both - like wallpaper.
Some Rambly Rambles about College
I graduated from the illustration department of RISD in 2000. If I had known when I was headed for college that I wanted to make computer games when I grew up, I might have gone looking for a college that had a games department of some sort. And Iím glad I didnít go that route. A traditional fine arts education is necessary as a game artist. It doesnít matter if you get that education from an overpriced school, or piecemeal from community college night courses, or if you are teaching yourself. A diploma doesnít matter. What matters is years spent focused on those bloody boring academic exercises that you would rather rush past in order to get to the dragons and robots. (Not that I didnít litter my own time in college with robots and dragons, mind you *cough cough*.)
Anatomy, perspective, color theory, and above all drawing from observation over and over and over Ė it doesnít matter if you want to be a concept artist or a modeler of monsters or a UI* artist, you will need this stuff. (Okay, maybe if itís UI that floats your boat, graphic design classes would help you more than illustration courses.)
Colleges are beginning to catch on that A. thereís an industry out here that needs artists, and B. there are hordes of artists who want to be making games and who need some training first. So there are new colleges and classes dedicated to getting these artists into those jobs. Buyer beware! A two-year school that teaches tools** is no substitute for four years of fine arts basics. You can realistically learn the tools on the side, but you canít realistically learn how to be an artist on the side.
I donít know much at all about specific schools other than the one I went to, but in time I suspect the new game schools will be a good source of a game-art education. Perhaps the two-year ones will start marketing themselves as graduate programs for those who already have a bachelorís in fine arts. That would be cool, because the downside of a traditional fine arts education is that itís hard to learn enough of the tools! I limped along by wheedling my way into classes in another department, skipping an intro-to-computers course I would have had to wait until my senior year to get into, taking a class at a community college, and messing around on my own.
Wherever you go, take charge of your own education. Identify what it is that you need to learn, and then make sure you learn it, even if it means taking courses for no credit or teaching the dang teachers what it is you are doing. Because, by golly, sometimes the teacher is wrong, and sometimes the institution forgets that it is there to be the tool by which you get the job that you want.
Anyway, rant over; more to come later.
*User Interface: all the buttons, text, pop-up windows, inventory panels; itís the means by which you interact with the game.
**A 2D or 3D art program, no matter how many bells and whistles it has, is just a tool.
The Process of Working with Concept Art
When I talk with college students about the possibility of becoming a modeler/texturer in the game industry, usually the first concern they express is this:
ďWhere is the creativity in working from concept art? Doesnít the concept artist have all the fun? Isnít building someone elseís idea just tedious technical work?Ē
And very good questions those are. However, this question springs from the very flawed assumption that the concept artist has carte blanche to draw whatever she wants for the game. The truth is that the concept artist, like any illustrator, is there to provide images for someone else. The art director or the design director or some other person on the top of the food chain is going to say ďwe need a monster with five heads and two tails, riding on a purple motorcycle and dressed in a toga.Ē Itís up to the concept artist to fill in the details between those words, and then to start over or revise when the feedback rolls in. Then, it is up to the 3D artist to fill in the details between those details.
I have worked from concept art that is crazy-super-specific and detailed, and concept art that is crazy-super-vague. There are advantages and disadvantages. Vague concept art can leave a lot of room for creativity on my end. But it can also mean more problem-solving on my end. Vague concept art puts in my hands the responsibility of going back to the art lead to say ďlook, this is a beautiful idea, but if weíre going to pull it off Iíll have to shrink it to a third of the size and leave out this part. And whatís supposed to fill up this giant space? I could fill it up in this manner. Or I could take this part and break it up like so, and then instead of one thingy weíll have a whole set of thingies.Ē
The above conversation can lead to an annoying number of back-to-the-drawing-board headaches; or it can also lead to everyone turning to the 3D artist and saying ďyouíve got some good ideas. Go start building, and do what you think will be best!Ē
Specific concept art can reduce the need for that discussion, and the reworking of concept art that can follow that discussion. Specific concept art can make building a beautiful object swift and fun Ė you, the 3D artist, get to start with a rock-solid idea and turn it into a very tight finished product that will look good in your portfolio and will bring smiles to the faces of everyone who has had creative input in it. But specific concept art can also lead to its own frustration. ďArgh,Ē says the 3D artist; ďthere are so many doo-dads on this character, and he is only going to be three inches high on the screen! And Iíve only got until Friday to finish making it. There isnít any wiggle room for me to make decisions or simplify, so Iím going to struggle with the technicalities, and as a result the final art isnít going to be as pretty as the concept art, and that makes me sad!Ē
So, thatís what the process is like. Itís full of happy mediums and little frustrations. I enjoy it Ė itís teamwork. But to really find out if working from concept art or as a concept artist is something you would love or hate, you should try I yourself.
*******Assignment #2 Ė Monsters and Concepts*******
Grab a buddy, because this assignment requires two people.
You are going to design, model, and texture a monster. First, each of you must produce concept art of a monster. Each of you needs to do quick sketches until you settle on a design that you like. Then, do a drawing of the monster from the front, and another of the monster from the side. If it is humanoid, draw it with its arms sticking out like it is flying. If it isnít humanoid, just get it in as neutral a position as possible. No action poses.
Now swap drawings with your buddy. You must build each otherís monsters. If your buddyís concept art doesnít communicate to you what you need, then you will need to ask for clarification Ė either verbal or drawn. If the concept artist feels that the 3D artist is doing it all wrong, then you need to talk about why.
The purpose of this assignment is to learn about how to effectively communicate to another artist through drawings and through talking, and to learn what it is like to be on the receiving end of this communication.
*******#2A - extra credit******
So that wasnít enough work to keep you happy, was it? Try this: do the assignment with technical limits. Make your monster with a maximum of 1000 vertices. Use a texture space that is 1024 by 1024. Within these limits you should be able to wrangle up a monster with four limbs and one head fairly easily. With more limbs or heads, however, itíll get very tricky. The 1024 texture will give you lots of room to paint in details that are too small to model, so take full advantage of that.
********#2B - more extra credit********
Youíre still standing? Good. Letís turn that one monster into a variety of monsters. In the concept art, try changing the colors and markings on the monster to make four or five varieties. Donít change the shape of the monster, because this will be a texture-swap only.
You did work in layers in your 2D files, right? For both these concept art and the texture, you will save yourself hours and hours of work if you work in layers.
Anyway, use that concept art to then make different versions of that 1024 texture your monster is wearing. Or, skip the concept art, and just mess around with the texture. Have fun!
Two-Year Schools and Technical Artists
Thanks guys! Iíve Ė yoiks Ė already been getting questions from folks in my PM inbox due to this thread. Iím going to try and address all questions here, because otherwise Iíll have to give up sleeping or eating, and I happen to like those activities.
Somebody PMíed to tell me that they have already applied at a two-year games school. The school apparently claims that 80% of their graduates get jobs making games. This person wants to know if the two-year school is a better choice than a media design course of study at a large university.
The short answer: I donít know.
The longer answer: I am only somewhat familiar with one two-year games-oriented school Ė Full Sail. My husband is a graduate of Full Sail, and he was hired at Turbine first to be a technical artist, and from there he went on to be an art director for a while, and is now a game designer. Our company has several tech artists, and if Iím not mistaken, all of them are Full Sail graduates. But I have never met a concept artist or modeler/texturer who graduated from FullSail Ė at least not that I remember.
Technical artists at our company are the folks who rig models for animation, maintain the pipeline from art to game engine, maintain file structures, write MEL scripts, teach the artists the more complex bits of Maya, troubleshoot problem files, determine and maintain technical limits that the artists must follow, and other important and bewildering odds and ends. A good technical artist is very hard to find. If you love the tools more than you love making art, then you are a possible candidate to be a tech artist, and the industry could really use you.
FullSail produces good tech artists because it focuses on teaching the tools.
FullSail also, I suspect, produces a lot of artists who are largely unemployable in the games industry, because they know the tools but donít have a solid background in art. Someone who wants a job as a modeler/texturer, concept artist, or animator, but who knows only the tools, is in trouble. I suspect the only way to assure yourself one of those jobs is to also get an education in fine arts or traditional animation.
So, to the person who says they have applied to a two-year school that claims to have an 80% success rate of placing their graduates in games industry jobs, I suggest that you ask the school for a list of those jobs. Those jobs might be as technical artists, or something else that isnít what you had in mind. If you have the option to get an education in illustration, or figurative fine arts, I think that would help you more. I donít know what is in a ďmedia designĒ education, but it may be closer to what you need.
Iíll chime in about exercise, too. . .
Yes, what you guys are saying about exercise is absolutely right. If you are looking forward to a future of making art for games, then keep this in mind: sitting at a computer all day making game art, plus extra hours sitting at a computer playing games or dorking around on the internet, equals a large bottom if you are not conscientious about getting regular and adequate exercise.
I ride my bicycle to work during the warm months of the year, and every other day I work out with a friend - weight-lifting and sit-ups and such while watching episodes of science fiction. Plus most days at work I get out and walk a mile with some of my coworkers. Not only has it kept me healthy, but Iím more alert when I work because of it.
Oh, and having an exercise buddy really, really helps. If we werenít constantly reminding each other to exercise, we would both slack off.
*******Assignment #3 Ė Establish an Exercise Routine**********
If you donít already get enough daily exercise, then try this. Find a route to walk that starts and ends at your home, workplace, or school. It should take you about twenty minutes to walk that loop Ė which would make it approximately a mile. Then, rain or shine, walk this route once every day. In particular, if you get the middle-of-the-afternoon sleepies, or you are thinking of grabbing a soda to wake yourself up, then thatís the time to take that walk. Even better, take a friend with you. You can brainstorm solutions to concept art problems as you walk, or figure out how the landscape around you could be turned into game-art.
More on an Art Education Versus a Tools Education
Darkwolfb87 asked me the following in PM, and (I hope you donít mind, Darkwolf) Iím going to repeat the question here:
ďI am simply following advice I read from somewhere long ago that said to create the best opportunity for yourself in fine arts study and leave modeling and texturing for self-study. My "problem" is that I'm also full-time in college and I overwhelmed even thinking about learning modeling and texturing. I'd really appreciate hearing what you have to say.Ē
It sounds like your only problem is that you are overwhelmed with what you are currently doing! Really, your situation is a good one.
Being overwhelmed by your education happens now and then, and maybe this will help you to fight the panic:
Remember that even though your school had requirements of you, that ultimately you are not beholden to them to meet those requirements. You are only beholden to yourself. Identify what you need to learn, and use your education to get those things.
There are two good ways to approach getting a good game-art education from a fine-arts school. One is to march to their drums. Do everything that they tell you, jump through their hoops. Get your degree. And then spend another year or two at a school like Full Sail, so that you can learn the tools.
Thatís the expensive way. The shorter and cheaper and perhaps more difficult way is to amputate the frills from your fine arts education. Argue your way out of basket-weaving, and replace it with whatever games-relevant education you can squeeze in. If you have to write a paper for some irrelevant humanities course, then convince your professor that you need to either write about games or you need to drop out of his useless class. Take classes in other departments. Take classes at other schools. Donít worry about transferring credits or about grades Ė just get the education. Do independent studies. Educate your professors on what concept art and game art and digital 3D art are. Above all, tell them loudly and clearly that you want to be making games, and remind them that it is their job to help you achieve that.
Along with this, apply for internships every summer. And apply as an intern after you graduate, if you donít yet have the skills to be hired as a regular staff artist.
Iíll write more on internships later. . .
Simplicity from Complexity
What if your boss told you ďwe need a carousel, and we need it completely modeled and textured by Friday?Ē Rather intimidating, yes?
*******Assignment #5 Ė Carousel********
Yup, thatís right. Make a carousel. It has to be entirely populated with horses Ė each of a different color. It has to have a round base with some details around the edge, a column in the middle with a calliope, and it has to have an ornate canopy. It also has to be completed, finished, wrapped up, from soup to nuts, AND it has to be finished in a reasonably short time, so that you donít get frustrated and abandon it halfway done.
Okay, you can stop having a heart attack now. Iíll walk you through it.
Step one: Your boss is leaving the style up to you. This is unlikely to happen in the games industry, but for the sake of the assignment, you get to pick. Since you want to be able to actually get this assignment done in a reasonable amount of time, I suggest you pick a style that is highly simplified and isnít realistic. Low-poly is a really good idea. Sketch it out.
Step two: Model and texture one horse. Do you remember the extra credit from the second assignment? That was where you made one monster and then fiddled around with the texture to make different varieties. You can use that same trick to generate a fleet of horses from only one horse model. You can even rig your horse and pose it into different positions if you want.
Step three: the canopy, center column, and base. Think of it like slices of a cake. You only have to model and texture one slice, if you plan it right. Make sure to get it scaled so that all of your horses fit nicely on it. Throw together some test cylinders before you begin in order to gauge how many cake slices you will need.
Step four: the calliope. After all of that, figuring out a strategy for this last bit shouldnít be so intimidating. Be sure to give it character!
Having a Tough Time Getting Hired as a Concept Artist?
Once a year I go review the portfolios of illustration seniors at my alma mater, and it never fails Ė ninety-five percent of them want to be concept artists. And of those, only a few even have an inkling that there are other types of jobs available to them with their shiny new illustration educations.
Consider this: one concept art can keep a small fleet of modelers, texturers, animators, tech artists, effects artists, and level builders very busy.
Consider this: in some companies, or within the teams of larger companies, the position of ďconcept artistĒ is not full time. Sometimes that role is filled by a freelance artist, and sometimes that role is filled by members of the team who spend the rest of the time modeling, texturing, animating, etc.
Consider this: when you are applying for a job as a concept artist, your competition is not a bunch of kids who doodled in their notebooks during Chemistry. Your competition is illustrators who are well established in the field and who have some very serious fine-arts training.
For these reasons, I advise you to look at what other jobs are available in the games industry before giving up and switching career objectives. Because if you would be happy in some other games industry job for a few years, your chances of moving into the role of concept artist within a company or at another company will be higher.
Here are some other options for you to investigate.
Low-Poly Modeler/texturer. This combination is the meat and potatoes of any art team. Some teams do have artists who do only one or the other, but it is the artist who can do both of these things who is the most likely to get a job. There are two basic subsets of this job:
Low-Poly Modeler/texturer of Characters and Monsters Ė The competition is higher in this group.
Low-Poly Modeler/texturer of Environments Ė These folks make architecture, landscapes, rocks, trees, furniture, even whole game levels. Because there is less glory in saying ďI made a buildingĒ then ďI made a three-headed dragonĒ, there is a need for good environment artists in the games industry. I will write more about this niche later.
Tech Artist Ė I wrote a bit about tech artists a few posts back. Basically, these are the folks who rig models for animation, maintain the art pipeline, enforce technical discipline in the artists, and lots of other technical stuff that I barely understand. If you love and know the tools well, and arenít so wild about making art, you might be a good candidate for this job. Tech artists are always in short supply.
Effects or Sprite Artist Ė I know very little about this position, except that it can be technical enough in nature that several of the tech artists I have known have spent time in this role.
UI Artist Ė Have you spent time as a graphic designer? This might be a job for you. The User Interface artists make every button, slider-bar, and pop-up window in a game. UI artists are always in short supply.
I hope this helps in your quest to get the job you want. . .
Photo Realism Ė Where to Begin?
*******Assignment #6 - Photorealism*******
So, youíre on a team thatís making a game with a steampunk theme. The style is already established, and itís a dark, grimy realism, full of rust and peeling paint and dirt-in-the-cracks. And your art director wants you to make an old junker robot thatís been rusting in an abandoned lot for the past several years. Since it is an old robot, it needs to have especially quirky bits that are made out of unusual materials, like for instance wood or leather. And, I donít know, maybe itís even grown some moss, or been graffitied, or something.
This assignment assumes that you have three things: a 2D art program (with tablet Ė that always goes without saying), a 3D art program, and a camera. Yes, a camera. Digital is preferable, because if itís analog youíve got, you will also need a scanner.
Step one: go forth and photograph textures. Yes! You must leave the safety of your womb, er, room, and you must go on a scavenger hunt. Look for the following:
Tasty delicious metal! Try to find a minimum of at least a dozen samples of different metals, because, after all, metal is what robots are made of.
Wood. Look for old, weather-beaten samples. You get bonus points if you can find an antique shop that displays its wares out on the sidewalk in sunny weather.
Peeling paint. Mmmm, peeling paint! Donít actually eat it.
Dirt. Very useful stuff, that dirt.
Anything else that strikes your fancy.
By the way, the best time to photograph textures is on a bright but overcast day. Direct sunlight is no good, because all the little bumps and bits will cast shadows that become frustrating to work with. Make sure the resolution is set to high on those digital photos.
So, you have your very own texture library. Pop Ďem into Photoshop or your Photoshop substitute, and see what worked out best. Then draw yourself a robot designed specifically to use these textures. You can even slap those textures right into you concept art, to test out how well they work together. But donít fuss over it too much. It is, after all, just a sketch to help you figure out what the 3D version will look like.
Next, build your robot! If you want to really practice for the games industry, then keep the poly count low. Say, 2000 or less. The less, the better. Only add geometry where it is needed.
Lay out the Uvs in a 1024 x 1024 square, and then start adding textures from your brand new texture library. Always always always work in layers.
Iím assuming for the time being that you have never made a photorealistic texture before. Using layer effects and photos and your drawing skills, you can make a fantastic array of textures from other textures. For instance, I took a picture of the ice on the Charles River from the top of the Hancock tower, and later found that it made a wonderful base for creating monster skin when color-changed and combined with a lot of hand-drawn wrinkles and things. But for now, just mess with the colors and brightness to get the different textures to look like old friends. Draw edges, draw cracks, draw bolts and weld-joints and jazz. Put dirt in the cracks.
A long time ago I exchanged some e-mail with an artist at Cyan. I had just barely begun to make 3D work, and what I made was all glossy and plastic-looking. I stank, and this guy took the time to give me some feedback on my work. He told me to put dirt in the cracks, and by golly if that bit of advice didnít make all the difference.
If you are reading this, you whose name I have forgotten, hereís a big belated THANK YOU!