Game Art – Advice From Someone In the Industry
So, you love playing games and you love art. You’ve got a sketchbook full of ass-kicking robots, and you’ve 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 monster’s teeth. And maybe you’re looking at college, or maybe you’re in college and looking at the end of college. Or maybe you’ve been out of college for years and you’re looking for a change. At any rate, you’re 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 I’ve thought of the perfect nugget of wisdom to share only eight hours too late, when I’m in the shower and the conversation is long over. So I figured, why not dump it all somewhere here on Concept Art? I’ll 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 – Monsters and Concepts
#2A - extra credit
#2B - more extra credit
2D Versus 3D
Assignment #4 – Draw a Chair
Simplicity from Complexity
Assignment #5 – Carousel
Photo Realism – Where to Begin?
Assignment #6 - Photorealism
Assignment #7 – Composition
From Observation to Concept Art
assignment #8 – From Observation to Concept Art
Assignment #9 – Game Mod
Assignment #10 – Rocky Environment
#10 Extra Credit
Assignment #11 – Low-Poly Doo-Dads
How to make the most of your (lousy) education
Assignment #12 – Make a Dull Assignment Fun
assignment #13 – Paintover
#13A – Drawing in Perspective
#13B – Paintover an Existing Game
Environment Art: Dungeons
assignment #14 - Modular Dungeon Pieces
Assignment #15 – Trees
#15 A – Concepting for Trees
#15 B – Modeling and Texturing a Tree
#15 C – Expanding on What You Have Built
Rambly Rambles about College
The Process of Working with Concept Art
Two-Year Schools and Technical Artists
I’ll chime in about exercise, too. . .
More on an Art Education Versus a Tools Education
Having a Tough Time Getting Hired as a Concept Artist?
Jhartford’s 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
ConCrete’s link to game mod stuff
DoInferno shares more on Pixel Art
Djobuk on Paintovers in Concept Art
Chirp Chirp’s Tips
More from Chirp Chirp
Chirp Chirp on Normal Maps
Loads of Useful Links! Thanks Chirp Chirp!
Chirp Chirp’s Book List
Maurice on Moving to Where the Jobs Are
Game Dev Mapper Link
DeBlackKnite on Indy Games
What makes an art department?
Masque’s 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.
Last edited by Seedling; May 30th, 2007 at 09:01 PM.
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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 can’t 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 “we can make either the shiny rock-things or the trees, but not both. Pick one.”
*****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*. Don’t 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 isn’t 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 – especially the boring bits! Grass is one of the most important and challenging textures that can go into a game’s environment, so give it lots of attention.
If you are wondering why I’m suggesting you pick a game that isn’t pushing the envelope with its art, it’s 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 – just try drawing an egg to find that out.
Now, with your new knowledge of how the environment in your game are put together, it’s time to have fun. Break out Photoshop or the pencils and go design a new environment for this game. Draw draw draw! If you’ve been looking at a snowy landscape, design a tropical landscape. If you’ve 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 – the same number of objects, the same number of textures. If one drawing doesn’t get across your idea, then do two, or five or ten. I’m 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 – or, using the same technical limits, make it a completely new art style. However, don’t try to emulate the existing art style and then change your mind halfway because it’s 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.
Last edited by Seedling; October 7th, 2006 at 10:19 AM.
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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 I’m glad I didn’t go that route. A traditional fine arts education is necessary as a game artist. It doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 – it doesn’t 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 it’s UI that floats your boat, graphic design classes would help you more than illustration courses.)
Colleges are beginning to catch on that A. there’s 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 can’t realistically learn how to be an artist on the side.
I don’t 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 bachelor’s in fine arts. That would be cool, because the downside of a traditional fine arts education is that it’s 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; it’s 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.
Last edited by Seedling; October 7th, 2006 at 10:20 AM.
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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:
“Where is the creativity in working from concept art? Doesn’t the concept artist have all the fun? Isn’t building someone else’s idea just tedious technical work?”
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 “we need a monster with five heads and two tails, riding on a purple motorcycle and dressed in a toga.” It’s 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 “look, this is a beautiful idea, but if we’re going to pull it off I’ll have to shrink it to a third of the size and leave out this part. And what’s 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 we’ll have a whole set of thingies.”
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 “you’ve got some good ideas. Go start building, and do what you think will be best!”
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 – 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. “Argh,” says the 3D artist; “there are so many doo-dads on this character, and he is only going to be three inches high on the screen! And I’ve only got until Friday to finish making it. There isn’t any wiggle room for me to make decisions or simplify, so I’m going to struggle with the technicalities, and as a result the final art isn’t going to be as pretty as the concept art, and that makes me sad!”
So, that’s what the process is like. It’s full of happy mediums and little frustrations. I enjoy it – it’s 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 – 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 isn’t humanoid, just get it in as neutral a position as possible. No action poses.
Now swap drawings with your buddy. You must build each other’s monsters. If your buddy’s concept art doesn’t communicate to you what you need, then you will need to ask for clarification – 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 wasn’t 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, it’ll 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********
You’re still standing? Good. Let’s 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. Don’t 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!
Last edited by Seedling; October 7th, 2006 at 10:22 AM.
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Hurrah, I've been hoping for some game oriented talk on CA for some time now. Thanks for doing this Seedling, I will definately keep an eye on the thread. I'm trying to post in my sketchbook most of the art Westwood is making me do for their game art and design degree. I think you have made me decide to turn it into a student's experience journal. I feel a bit like a guinea pig, since I jumped into it without checking the water temperature...no one was talking much except that certain schools sucked. I just picked the most expensive and oldest that had a game art course.
I had the opposite problem you see...realistic fine art training while looking like a complete neophyte when staring as blankly as a headcrab at the Blender or Maya interfaces.
In your opinion is it important to know 3D and 2D at once, even for large corporations? (I know how to sculpt, I just don't know how to use 3D programs to do it)
It's a really big world out there and a few pointers can save someone from going mad!
This is getting printed out and stuck on my wall - thanks again
Oh, and a good point on the 3D side. When I was at uni we had the option to do 2D or 3D animation. I chose 2D because a) its what I wanted to do, b) the tutor's degree was in fine art and had ironically never animated in her life, c) she was reading from a maya book & she didn't have a clue and d) I fell behind due to an inner ear infection and decided 2D was a good option!
I don't regret not learning Maya - as I have found that (in my experience) game co's tend to use 3D Max (shoot me down if i'm wrong here). Would it be advantagous to learn a bit of Max or stick clearly to the design strategy & maybe team up with someone who knows Max - or would a knowedge of Max be a mandatory requirement?
Also should one focus on the drawing side BEFORE one ventures over to the dark 3D side or have a go at both at once?
Last edited by wanwan; September 9th, 2006 at 06:34 PM.
Two-Year Schools and Technical Artists
Thanks guys! I’ve – yoiks – already been getting questions from folks in my PM inbox due to this thread. I’m going to try and address all questions here, because otherwise I’ll have to give up sleeping or eating, and I happen to like those activities.
Somebody PM’ed 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 don’t know.
The longer answer: I am only somewhat familiar with one two-year games-oriented school – 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 I’m not mistaken, all of them are Full Sail graduates. But I have never met a concept artist or modeler/texturer who graduated from FullSail – 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 don’t 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 isn’t 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 don’t know what is in a “media design” education, but it may be closer to what you need.
Last edited by Seedling; October 7th, 2006 at 10:23 AM.
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I fully agree about where to start. The best game artists have fundamental art and design skills. Don't even think about picking up a 3d Program before drawing from life, understanding color theory, design, composition, etc. Working on mods is a great way to get your foot in the door once you have the art background also.
No matter what school you go to, you will get out what you put in. A good attitude, and a need to do art as strong as breathing are what I recommend.
Great excercises you have there. If anyone would like to get in on the creature modeling with me, pm me.
i was the one who pm seedling those questions! Thanks for you help, these are also the thoughts i had. tomorrow i'll apply for the game-oriented school and talk with the teacher about this! don't know whether i'm going to be accepted.
the problem of the other school, where i can study mediadesign, is that i only can apply between may and june every year and it's very difficult to be accepted! especially because i have no time to make a portfolio for this school because i have to learn for my school leaving examination at this time!
this means i have to wait one year, but could make a portfolio. but if i don't pass then i loose much time!
don't know exactly what to do next!
Hey - well I just did 1 yr foundation art at college, then did a 1 year basic art course then 3 years animation and electronic media - 5 years to get my degree - phew! I can say that it was actually one of the best courses out there - although my only qualm would be the fact that it was a bit too general and one never got the chance to focus on anything.
Thankfully because there was a range of people in there, from people who created amazing backgrounds to those who woke up with a blue pencil in their hands to people who just knew how to model we all rubbed off on each other & now I find myself wanting to do art for games + film! (my original intent was just to become an animator!)
So although I would say that definately look for the right course, but make sure there is a good balance between the technical side & the artistic side. We had mandatory life drawing once a week from 1st yr at uni til the end of 3rd year and I wish we'd had it in forth year.
So in a nutshell my advice would be - find a good course & somewhere you'd feel comfortable going to - if u dont want to leave eg Canada - don't! If your mind isn't comfortable - its hard to concentrate. If the course doesn't tick all but most of the boxes and u have a gut feeling about it - do it. Remember that a degree will NEVER guarantee you a job - it's what you do while ur at uni and after uni that counts. I'm only out of uni since May, and I knew that fact years ago - I didn't get as high a mark as I would have liked but what it did give me is a bit of focus on what I wanted to do & gave me some confidence that although my 1 1/2 minute film wasn't academy award winning - I got some satisfaction from the fact I did 90% of the work myself and the fact that it was finished - which was the main criteria of the brief!
Personal work has been a little slow - but it has been a shock to the system since this is the first time since I was 4 that I haven't been in education (22).
Good luck with what you do - It's not always what's written on the paper - it's something that comes from deep inside you that'll make you who you are
If you make a portfolio you won't be losing time. In fact that's probably the best idea tbh. You say that you have exams to pass - I am by no means saying they are not important but they are. Life is about balance, if one day it's not exams that's in the way, it's driving test, or you need to go to France to some...thing - basically what I'm saying is that if you want to do it - you'll do it.
If drawing is something you want to do and enjoy - do it in a break while u study - no one is a machine and the human body can reach a saturation point of knowledge - you can only study for so many hours. I dunno maybe say - every day I will draw/work on/write a brief for something to work on and do it. Maybe take every Sunday off, or 2 afternoons in the week to stop you going crazy!
Even set yourself a challenge of 1 piece of finished art per week - or while u study, every 2 weeks.
If your future is in game design, I'd go for it - if you can even show the college/uni what your working, even if its nowhere near finished that'd be great - they'll like that as it shows enthusiasm - but of course your studies come first, atm! (they will understand that!)
On top of what wanwan said about studying hard, please take care of your body! I don't think it's mentioned enough (if at all) when people are talking about thier education. I find it necessary to set aside 3-5 hours a week getting some fresh air or an intense workout, as well as being conscious about what you're eating. If I don't it usually becomes the cause of my laziness, lack of motivation, and physical and mental fatigue.
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yeah definately excercise! during my honours year i forced myself to go to the gym every day - & i can honestly say it's what stopped me going mad @ after effects (& everything else!)
and if you cant think - go for a walk , if your getting agitated with working on something, take a break - get the hell away from it!
the temptation to sit in the same spot at ur PC/mac and think oh ill have a break now, ill play battle for middle earth 2 for a bit is HUGE!
Don't do it - it's naughty! get away from the pc, have a walk, go for a shower, sit and read a book - ESPECIALLY if it's got nothing to do with what ur doing!
Don't let yourself get bored. Ever sat at a drawing thinking "wow this is looking really great" - then all of a sudden, bam, everything u do is a mess?
Seriously fresh air rocks. Take a bottle of water & ur mp3 player & go out for a walk. Obv be careful at night or in a strange area! if you dehydrate by as little as 5% your concentration can go - I sit with water next to me ALL THE TIME.
I don't want this to turn into a health lecture, but when We, as creatives, spend so much time on our asses at tables, at computers - I think it's an important step and to make sure people keep their body and mind healthy.
Time to follow my own advice
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I’ll 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 I’m more alert when I work because of it.
Oh, and having an exercise buddy really, really helps. If we weren’t constantly reminding each other to exercise, we would both slack off.
*******Assignment #3 – Establish an Exercise Routine**********
If you don’t 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 – 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 that’s 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.
Last edited by Seedling; October 7th, 2006 at 10:25 AM.
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