While attending Vancouver Institute of Media Arts in Vancouver, BC Canada, one of the first things the faculty told us students of Game Art and Design was not only will you be learning tons of new things from experienced industry professionals, but you would also be learning from your fellow students. Since I moved up there for school not knowing a single fricken' thing about what I was really getting into, it was a blessing to have been seated near my new buddy Brian Donley. You see, I never used Photoshop before nor had I ever heard of a girl named Maya. (Found out later it was a modelling/animation program, psshh, who would have guessed?) Now that I look back, I am amazed at how clueless I really was. But I am lucky enough to have what it takes to learn new software programs quickly, which I did. My first week at school though was so incredibly overwhelming. I seriously questioned my presence there and questioned whether I made the right decision to follow this game career goal of mine. After trying and failing to complete a simple Maya tutorial on modelling a Lego of all things, I became extremely frustrated I wasn't "getting it" as fast as I wanted to. But then I learned these massive software programs take time to get familiar with and soon enough, with the help of Brian and other classmates, I realized we were all in this together.
What is your educational background and why did you decide you wanted to make games for a living?
Back when I was in high school, there were maybe only a handful of trade schools teaching game design (Digipen is actually the only one that comes to mind but I’m sure there were others). Back then it was considered one of those professions that was only for computer nerds who already knew how to do this stuff anyway. So the logical choice for me was college. Knowing what I know now, I probably would have just gone to a game school right out of high school though. Fortunately for me I didn’t know then what I know now. I’m gonna caps lock this ‘cause it’s important: GO TO COLLEGE. Although in today’s game industry college is not a pre-requisite or even a guarantee of success, in my opinion it is the most valuable learning experience of life. College is the perfect bridge between the carefree, amniotic womb that is high school and the harsh, deadline-filled, cut-throat reality of the “real world.” A good example of this came at my graduation for game school, where only one of the seven teenagers right out of high school had quality, polished demo reels to show; they simply weren’t ready for the real world.
I grew up loving and playing video games, but I must admit I wasn’t one of those people who always knew they wanted to make games. I kind of fell ass-backward into this career. So much so that if you would’ve told me just three years ago that today I’d be an Environment Artist on Resistance: Retribution for PSP and getting paid to make video games, I would have laughed, then ridiculed you for being an idiot. I guess I really knew I wanted to make games around winter of my junior year at the University of Oregon. I was majoring in Digital Art with every intention of becoming a Graphic Designer or some variation thereof, when I came across an ad for this game school in Vancouver BC. Little did I know how drastically that ad would change my life. I applied (by which I mean I wrote them a check) in January and was accepted (by which I mean the check cleared) by February. So in September I packed up and moved to Canada on a student Visa. I basically said to myself, “I’m gonna put everything I have into this, and if it doesn’t work out I’ve always got a degree to fall back on.”
What is a contract artist and what is it like getting your first paid position in the game industry? Any interesting stories on your path to getting hired?
Simply put, a contract artist is just an artist who is not a full time employee. It’s perfect for someone just starting out in the industry for this reason: there’s a ton of work that needs to be done on a game and a lot of it isn’t glamorous. Basically I’m a grunt; I do all the boring shit work none of the senior guys have the time to waste on doing. This is not to say what I work on isn’t important, after all, without proper collision your character would fall off the edge of a world or pass through walls. Also it is good to have a solid foundation in all of the aspects of games, so even if all you really want to do is model characters, it really helps to know a bit about rigging, animation, collision, etc. so you’re characters will implement better.
Getting this job was a dream come true. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. Not only are we currently in the worst economic time (in my short 27 years) to be looking for a job in any field, but to be looking to break into a highly competitive industry for your very first job is even more daunting. One quick side note: of the nine students I graduated from game school with, I am the only one working in the industry (sorry to bring it up B) and it’s been over a year. This is NOT because I’m so great and they suck. It was purely coincidence and luck. As anyone who’s tried to break into a new career can attest, you ask everyone you know to ask everyone they know if they know anyone who might know anyone who will hire them. After about six or seven months of working every day sending out emails and demo reels, researching companies, continuing to produce work, etc., I caught a break. (This part of the story always makes me smile) One day my mom happened to call and mention she had lunch earlier that day with a woman’s group she’s involved in. During the lunch she found out that one of the other women’s son worked for Bend Game Studio. My mom called his mom and got his number and before you know it I had his email address. Now, if you’ve ever tried to get a job in the game industry, you know that there are many filters to get through before your work is even seen by an art director. I was able to bypass all of the filters and communicate directly with the art director. They liked my demo reel, so I bought and learned the software they were using and was hired just like that.
What is it like working for Sony and specifically working on a new Resistance PSP title? Is it everything you expected and more? Or are there some things about game development you're disappointed with?
I honestly had no idea what to expect when I came to work for Sony. I guess I just pictured Grandma’s Boy or something. But the reality was much different than that movie displays (at least compared to a studio our size). All the people working here are amazingly talented and driven and there are very few, if any, late-night karaoke parties with octogenarians. However Sony is a great company to work for, as they treat their employees (and even lowly contract artists like myself) very well.
Getting to work on a game like Resistance: Retribution for my first job in the industry is somewhat atypical. It is rather rare that someone with no actual industry experience would be hired to work on such a high profile title. Lucky for me the guys (and gals) here at Bend Game Studios liked my demo reel and were really great about helping me to integrate into the pipeline. There are A LOT of things that you just can’t learn in school; things you can only learn once you actually start working in your field of study.
I would say that in working on R:R, I got to do much more than I expected. I kind of assumed I would be doing a lot of little stuff that would be behind the scenes and not be featured much in the game. Instead they had me working on important pieces right away, and I must admit I didn’t think I was ready. But as usually happens in life I was more prepared than I thought I was and came through just fine. In fact I recently finished work on a rocket launcher turret than is featured in a very prominent scene in the game. It’s very exciting and rewarding to see your own contributions implemented in the game.
I can’t think of any aspects of this job that I’m disappointed with. There are definitely some parts that are not as fun, like collision where you basically go back over all the terrain someone else already built and put in the floors, walls, boxes, etc., that the player actually walks on and runs into (if you’ve ever walked through a wall or started falling through the infinity below the ground, that was most likely a collision error). However even when I’m working on collision and I know it won’t be seen or even appreciated unless I made a mistake somewhere, I also know that the area won’t play right if I don’t do the best job possible. The key is to remember that every little detail needs just as much attention as every big detail.
Tell me about the lifestyle of working at your game studio and what a typical day is like. Hectic hours? Overtime? Casual attire? Company parties? Also, what do you like most? What do you dislike most?
The best part about this industry is the flexibility you have with your hours. I am a young guy who likes to go out late and sleep in late, so I come in a bit later, usually around 10 or 11 am. Some of the older guys have families though, so they come in much earlier in order to spend the evenings with their families. My typical day starts at 9:30, I get up and head to the studio. First thing when I get in I sync my work PC to the network’s head revision, basically updating all my local files to the most recent network ones. Then I check my inter-office email for any new work any of the leads might need done. If there happens to be a lull and there’s nothing to work on at the moment, I have a PSP dev kit at my workstation so I can pull up any level and play through it and look for bugs.
Since I’m a contract artist, there are a set amount of hours a week that they’ll pay me for, so as long as I don’t work overtime I can pretty much work the hours that I want. However the full time employees have much more hectic hours, especially since we are almost at our Beta deadline. Some are here as much as 14-15 hours a day, seven days a week. As far as attire there is no real policy; you can pretty much wear whatever. Sony is great about company parties. We actually just had our Christmas party last weekend, all paid for by Sony. They give us tons of shwag too, like cloths, hats, jackets, even games like Resistance 2 and Little Big Planet for PS3.
I would say the thing I like most about working here is the people. It is a very small studio so everyone spends lots of time with each other. Everybody here was really friendly to me when I came on board and they are all a lot of fun to work with. Most days we all send around spam emails to each other with funny YouTube videos or Photoshopped images, usually of a fellow employee in a compromising image (compromising image not include). Every Thursday whoever can make it goes to a specific bar in town for drinks and apps. It’s definitely like a family, dysfunctional at times maybe, but always fun.
The only bad part about this whole experience was that I wasn’t hired until the game was about 2/3’s completed, so I came in late not knowing the characters, the story, the style, the level names, the naming conventions, etc. It took a while to catch up and get the hang of things. Hopefully Bend Studios will hire me back for their next game and I can come in and work on it from the very beginning.
How much room is there for a contract artist to move up in the company? Are there opportunities for job progression and full time status?
Being a contract artist is awesome for a first job, but I definitely want to move up and do other, more important jobs in the game industry, like be an environment lead or team lead. Obviously if they do see some potential in me there is definitely the opportunity for me to get hired on full time. The great part about working for such a small studio is that you really have to be multi-talented; one day you might be modeling, animating the next, collision the next, and so on.
What one mistake did you make on your way to becoming a game artist that you feel others can learn from? (If you made any of course.)
Well, one thing that comes to mind is the mindset I had while I was in school. While I was in school, I definitely worked hard, but I didn’t have that attitude of getting as much done as possible. I guess at the time it just kind of seems like school will last forever. Then suddenly you graduate and it’s like, “Whoa, ok, time to get a job…” but you feel like you’re not ready. Maybe you don’t think you know enough or your skills aren’t very refined. The key is to push through those mental roadblocks and keep telling yourself that if this is what you really want and you keep working hard, everything will work out in the end.
What advice do you have for potential game students who are following a similar path to yours and for students who have completed their education and are currently seeking a position at a game studio?
Potential game students should spend as much time as they can refining their traditional art skill; drawing, painting, sculpting, color theory, design, composition, etc. You’ll find that once you really begin to work in game design those art skills are really invaluable. If you already have a solid background of knowing how to create dynamic, interesting compositions of form and color it will bleed over into your game work.
For those who are currently seeking employment with a game studio I think the most important thing is not to let your skills become obsolete. Software moves so quickly that if you don’t stay current you will have to relearn everything. If you can’t afford the high end software, there are plenty of free 3D apps online as well as trial versions. Just so long as you're constantly trying to improve and not standing still, you’ll always be valuable.
You can view some of Brian's work from his student demo reel here or you can visit his website.