Becoming a games artist

Despite my very best efforts there seem to be a fair amount of people who still want to enter into the game industry, if e-mail correspondence is anything to go by. I try to answer my e-mails as much as I can but this question seems to crop up quite often, so I thought I’d dedicate a post to it.

So you’re young and stupid and have the dream of becoming a games artist, what to do? Well, knowing what you want to do is a big step in itself. If you’re absolutely sure you want to be a game artist then prepare yourself for a little struggle to get your foot in the door followed by years of mounting stress and depression. Still interested? Oh, I give up. Okay, read on.

Step 1: Get an education
This topic often gets addressed in industry forums and usually ends in a heated debate with a rough 50-50 split as to whether a degree is necessary or not. To be fair, at its basest level none of the work you’ll be doing requires a degree, but simply talent and perseverance.
However, there are benefits to be had from an education. For starters, why rush into a life of servitude? If you’re young and you can afford it spend some time at college or university. Make friends, have precarious sex, get drunk and high, do studenty things. Also, you may actually learn useful stuff. Things like colour theory and composition have held me in good stead over the years. For artists a basis in traditional art and design is a good thing. And depending on your school you may also have the opportunity to learn to use decent hard- and software.

On top of that a lot of companies use degrees as a primary applicant culling device, which may be false but it’s certainly a way to whittle down the heaps of applications to a more manageable amount. It also shows you have at least some track-record in finishing something you’ve started, which in this industry is valuable.
And if you plan to ever work abroad, some countries require degrees for Visa applications. There are ways around this, apparently, but why make things difficult for yourself?

Step 2: Learn the software
This industry isn’t known for its training schemes; everything you will learn will probably be taught by trial by fire. The more you know before you enter that door the better you will fare. A few companies offer free educational, though slightly crippled, versions of their major software packages. Download these and study them! Programs you should be comfortable in eventually are at the very least Adobe Photoshop, and maybe Adobe Illustrator if you’re gunning for graphic and 2D design, although Flash is also sometimes used. For 3D focus on the two main players, Maya and 3DSMax. In Japan, for example, Maya is the standard, more or less, but that may differ locally. An understanding of how 3D creation works should be enough, as both packages basically do the same but in slightly different ways with differently labeled buttons. You can probably increase your chances if you study next-gen technologies, such as shaders, fairly high poly modeling, normalmaps, etc., so packages like Mudbox or ZBrush can also prove beneficial.
Very few companies use 3D packages other than the big two or three, so learning to use cheaper alternatives probably won’t be too useful, even if they do teach you about modeling in general.

Step 3: Pre-work experience
Experience is valuable both for building up your skills and getting that first job. The typical Catch-22 can be found in the game industry too; companies would prefer experienced employees but you can’t get experience without getting a job first. Or can you?
Working in the lively modding scene or creating some homebrew games can teach you a lot about some of the pitfalls and practices of game development. Technical limitations and drudge are things you are going to have to deal with and showing a potential employer you have actually created, and finished, a game already only speaks in your favour. Do finish something, though. Uncompleted projects don’t impress anybody; there are plenty of those to go around already.

Step 4: Keep on trying
You may get lucky on your first try but it is more likely you’ll get rejected by quite a few companies before you get your foot in the door. Just keep sending out those resumes! I won’t go into portfolios, resumes and interviews as they’ve been discussed at length both here and on many other websites. The short version is: make sure your portfolio and resume are good, duh.
Though you’re inexperienced you have at least one thing going for you: you’re young, stupid and keen, which means you’ll want to work long hours for little pay for the privilege of working in the game industry. Or so many employers think, anyway. You may have to compromise on your first job, just taking what you can, but once you have finished a few projects and get some real experience behind you you are in a better position to pick and choose.

If you have the drive and ambition there is nothing much that can stop you. I mean, if someone like me can do it pretty much anyone can. I mean, look at me! I’m a disgrace! You’e better than this, aren’t you? Sure you are. Go get ‘em, tiger!


  1. Your griping really does cast a grim pall over the profession, but how about before coming to Japan? Was working as an artist in the UK similarly dissatisfying? The pay and the hours were better, no?

  2. Before coming to Japan I was still too young, abrasive and agressive. If I were to work in the UK right now, with my age and experience, I'd probably not be quite so negative. Most of my griping these days comes from the ineffeciency of the Japanese system.

    Mostly, though, people need to realise it's hard work. It's not all fun and games, nerf wars, free pizzas and a garage full of Ferraris. The idea it's a "dream job" is still rife. Sure, it's a better job than manual labour, but people need to set their sights realistically. If you join the industry with that in mind you won't end up as embittered and cynical as, well, me.

  3. My goal in life is to "not be a game artist anymore".
    More than 10 years doing that in 3 countries, and it's enough. I love making games, but this industry is so inefficient and immature... The first game everything goes wrong, but it's ok because the team is young. The second time, in another company, you try to tell everybody : "don't do this or this, i didn't worked well for my previous game" but nobody's listening. The 3rd time, you begin to be angry, bored, surprised by the fact that everywhere everybody does the same mistakes over and over, starting at zero at each project...
    And i'm not even speaking of the joy of texturing a breakable crate for the 350th time...
    Sometimes i think that all this negativity is a way to protect oneself. I mean, at the end, each project is a disappointment, so it's better not to be too much motivated...

  4. I expected this topic to come up one day...

    Yea, the industry is not all it's cracked up to be. Still, it can be fun sometimes, too.

  5. There's another big advantage of going to school. At least, the right school for becoming a game artist: internship placement.

    I can only speak for 2 school in San Francisco CA, but they place quite a few interns in dev houses around the city so you *can* get relevant pre-work experience in.

  6. I agree with JC, education is important because is going to teach you the fundamentals of art, which you'll be using almost every single day once you become a games artist. What nobody is going to teach you is all about politics, inept people, brown noses and the like. This fauna exists everywhere and you will have to learn how to coexist with them.

    One thing it has help me a lot to deal with company's stupid polices and useless people is to stop being emotionally attached to my work. This might seem difficult but being in Japan has been the best way to get along with my work and life. It's not perfect but it has helped me a lot to deal with all the nonsense it goes around in here. I have seen my bosses making really stupid and completely illogical decisions and even though I told them that wasn't going to work for obvious reasons, they didn't listen. After a while, I learned to stick to my own work and make sure no one's mistakes are passed upon my shoulders (extremely common practice in the Japanese games industry). Don't get me wrong, if I still see something out of place, I let the people in charge know about it but from then on it's up to them to decide what to do. I just want to make sure they know I know.

    If your bosses don't really care about doing things right, don't try to fix their mistakes because you won't be able to. Your bosses are above you in the chain of command, that's why they are bosses, and you most likely won't have the power to do anything, not to that level anyway. Sometimes it feels like pissing against the wind.

    The good thing is that if you manage to deal with these problems it will make you a much stronger person. I'm still getting there though, :)

  7. Anon is right, of course. The biggest killer for new industry applicants is that they believe they'll get a LOT more creative freedom and influence than they are ever likely to get. If you know this before entering you should be fine, but if, like a younger me, you think you're going to ROCK the gaming world...well, you're not.