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Concept artist and comic strip creator Victor Lahlou shines a too-familiar light on common game development gripes.
December 12, 2023
7 Min Read
Image via Victor Lahlou.
When you think about game developers venting about the trials of game development, you usually think of conversations that take place in the studio, the back halls of GDC, or maybe the months after release on Twitter. While the game-playing public worries about the quality of water puddles, developers sweat at the thought of closing their Jira tickets.
It’s those highly niche problems that concept artist and comic strip creator Victor Lahlou has elegantly captured in his online comic strip Devteamlife. In Devteamlife, a self-insert version of Lahlou (who works at Montreal-based Invoke Studios) weaves his way through life at a game studio while sporting an eye-catching yellow flannel and getting caught up the hijinks of his colleagues.
The comic balances elbow-ribbing humor with a mix of affection for the craft of making games and a healthy amount of self-awareness. Lahlou’s character isn’t there to be “the only sane man” in the game studio, he’s just another developer bumping along and not naming his file formats correctly.
I thought when I stumbled on Devteamlife that I’d found some hidden gem. But as Lahlou explained to me in an e-mail interview, his comic’s been around for a hot minute and picked up an international audience. He described being recently thunderstruck at the realization that his silly game development jokes helped him make it all the way to Tokyo.
Developers of all stripes have a lot to learn from Lahlou’s experience—it’s a tale about how the common struggles of the game industry can bring workers together, even in a business where NDAs do all they can to keep them apart.
How does a good Devteamlife strip come together?
“Often, I start a conversation with my colleagues by saying ‘I have a joke! Hello, by the way.’”
Much of Lahlou’s humor is brewed in the office at Invoke Studios. He has a knack for spotting silly moments in conversations or while lurking in the company Slack channel. He’ll sometimes draw on game industry news coverage and chats with fellow developers on social media, but he explained his strips still get routed back through his coworkers in the office.
“As a concept artist, I consider myself one of the least technical [employees],” he said. “I don’t know everything from our pipeline, so I always create a first draft and ask for feedback to have the most accurate dialogue—especially to get all the technical terms right. It’s collaborative writing.”
This can be a tricky process for Lahlou. After all, if you have to explain a joke to your colleagues to ask for the right terms, they’re less likely to laugh at it. “When it comes back in cartoon format, people get it and laugh,” he noted.
Image via Victor Lahlou.
The fictional studio in Devteamlife is populated by a beautifully diverse cast of characters—which Lahlou said was inspired by childhood travels to various African nations (his father is an urban planner specializing in African cities). Lahlou was enrolled in various local schools and grew used to racially diverse environments. He said that when he returned to France for his university-level studies, something was missing from his new group of friends: diversity.
He was aware of that shift when he started Devteamlife, but as he grew an audience, he became more conscious of the lack of racial and gender diversity in triple-A game development. Adding more characters from varying backgrounds became a much more deliberate choice.
“Representation matters,” he wrote in our chat. “I want more diverse people to feel welcome in the [triple-A] industry, because I know I’ll learn a lot with them.” He champions the idea that inviting in people from more backgrounds will give players more great stories to experience.
Juggling concept art by day and cartooning by night
Lahlou explained that he sees his cartooning style as being inspired by Belgian artist Andre Franquin. He fills his work with an elastic aesthetic with “dynamic and thick lines” always made up of curves. Devteamlife is a mostly black-and-white comic because of Lahlou’s affection for Franquin’s comic Last Laugh.
He noted it’s a stark contrast from his day job in concept art, where he designs realistic worlds with complex lighting and texture. “They’re two absolutely opposite approaches, and they bring me different kinds of satisfaction,” he said. “One is instinctive, the other is [about finding] the same dynamism with more tools such as composition.”
Image via Victor Lahlou.
He rattled off a number of concept artists that inspire him in game development— Raphael Lacoste, Jung Gi Kim, Craig Mulins, Pascal Blanche, Marc Simonetti and Karla Ortiz—but he gave a special shoutout to fellow Invoke Studios artist Nicolas Ferrand. “I had no idea about his name when I put some of his artwork on my wall in 2014, and he’s now my colleague I’m learning a lot from,” he said, before offering a message for his coworker: “You’re old, Nicolas.”
Lahlou’s game development inspirations bely what makes his comic so fun. He discussed being a fan of prominent games figures like Tim Schafer and Hideo Kojima, but he rejects the idea of the “rockstar, [triple-A] auteur story” that surrounds some such figures. “It is a dangerous narrative in this industry, and I have heard enough war stories to know behind a really particular [visionary], there are talented men and women crushed by [them]."
Lahlou’s chaotic path into games is one most developers can relate to
Here is where Lahlou’s cartooning gets a bit of a bite. One of his other comic projects is called “The First Damn Job,” a comic about a young artist struggling to get her first job in games. The story draws on Lahlou’s struggles to find stable employment: an internship at Ubisoft Montreuil in 2012 didn’t lead to stable work with the publisher, and he spent three years with an indie team before exiting to be a freelancer.
It wasn’t a stable life. Somewhere around this point in his career, Lahlou found himself laying on the floor of his Paris apartment having something of an existential crisis. It didn’t help that he never “felt at home” in France. Fortunately, a friend in Montreal convinced him to file for a work permit visa and try his hand out in the Canadian wilderness. He landed a gig at CG studio Meduzarts but was laid off when it was acquired by Digital Dimension. Three months of job hunting eventually led him to Tuque Games, today known as Invoke Studios.
Image via Victor Lahlou.
“For five years, I struggle to find a stable concept art job,” he said while describing the journey. He described himself as “too stubborn” for his own sake and threw himself at application after application, only to be rejected.
He’s been watching other game development juniors go through the same struggle, made only more onerous by a brutal year of industry layoffs. He hopes juniors who read his comic and empathize with it don’t make the same mistake he did—to take time to build their portfolio at their own pace and make time to live their lives.
With vulnerability comes sharpness, however. “This industry needs to stop seeing juniors as a waste of time and money,” he wrote bluntly. "Studios don’t see the long-term investment in juniors. Budgets [get] bigger, production cycles go longer, each new project is a bigger financial risk. So they want to limit the risk by hiring experienced [developer] working fully on the project.”
He’s watched senior developers impacted by the layoffs of 2023 leave game development in search of more stable industries—leaving massive gaps that can’t be quickly filled. “We need to think long-term and renew our talents before going into a senior shortage,” he advised. “Studios should include junior training in their overall budget, and [integrate] it organically into seniors’ schedules."
Slice of life satirical cartooning (like the kind still nestled in your local newspapers) can lose its edge when creators only have cynicism and snark to offer readers. Luckily, Lahlou has more than snark: when you read his work you can feel his love for the art of game development and his admiration for his peers.
It’s those two elements that make his occasional pivot to criticism feel less like generic snark and more like a rebuke of the game industry’s terrible practices.
Update: This story previously stated that Lahlou interned at Ubisoft Montreal and identified the protagonist of "The First Damn Job" as "he." We've updated the piece with the correct information.
About the Author(s)
Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com
Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.
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