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Game Artists: The Three Cardinal Rules

What guidelines do video game artists need to follow to succeed? Volition manager Self-Ballard draws from his experience to suggest three key traits of the best game art creators.

Keith Self-Ballard, Blogger

March 12, 2009

20 Min Read

[What guidelines do video game artists need to follow to succeed? Volition manager Self-Ballard draws from his experience to suggest three key traits of the best game art creators.]

Last year, I was contacted by a professor from my alma mater, Purdue University. This professor asked me for "five tips for artists" that could be shared with the student body. Purdue has a Computer Graphics Technology department, and I serve on the Industrial Advisory Board.

I and many other alumni have entered the gaming industry since graduating from the department. Thus, the faculty shows a great deal of interest in what its students should know.

This is a topic that has interested me for many years now. Over a decade ago, I started in this industry with admittedly very little understanding of the expectations in place for professional artists in our industry.

As I learned new tools and techniques, I also developed an understanding of how to collaborate with peers and leads, resolve issues during production and work with a wide variety of truly unique individuals.

At the same time, I also made mistakes in conducting myself professionally. We all make mistakes. Thankfully, mine were not so egregious that it resulted in my termination. I would argue that most mistakes that people make when they're new to this industry are more like your common workplace pitfalls.

In the intervening years, I've continued to be vigilant for these behaviors, both in myself and in others. And I have continued to observe them and their impact.

The impetus behind all of this analysis revolved around a personal career change. Roughly two years ago, I moved from my position as a veteran production artist to a studio management position at my current employer.

This prompted a change in my priorities, and I found myself in a position where I would be addressing issues of staffing, hiring and personnel performance as they related to artists. As such, I desperately wanted to identify common expectations for professional artists.

To those ends, I began doing research into established expectations that our industry holds for artists who work in this field. I ultimately wanted something concrete that I could share with artists and use as a coaching tool for employees who are coming straight from educational institutions or other industries and have no clear understanding of expectations.

To my surprise, I found very little on this topic. Most of the articles I did read were either too broad or too focused on the details.

In the absence of a substantial amount of written research on the topic, I had to turn to alternative means for establishing these professional practices. Beyond just my personal experiences and observations, I solicited input from professional colleagues.

I spoke with art directors and producers from other studios. I spoke with faculty from different educational institutes. Finally, I discussed these topics with senior artists from outside the gaming industry, all in an effort to identify consistency in these practices or lack thereof.

Returning to that professor's original request, I sent him the following off the top of my head:

  1. Don't wrap up your ego in your artwork. People are going to criticize the work you do. Learn from those people.

  2. Engage your peers and learn from them. Every artist knows something you don't. A tool, a tip, or a technique. You only have a limited amount of time to learn these things from them (before you graduate, one of you changes jobs, etc.) The best way to learn these things from others is by sharing what you know. Don't hoard.

  3. You can only grow so much through school and work. The best artists hone their skills outside of school and outside of work. They keep creating even when they're not "on the clock."

  4. You will not enjoy every task/assignment you are given. Some you will like. Some you will hate. As a professional artist, you will be gauged on your ability to execute both types with the same quality, efficiency and dedication. Half-assed work, regardless of preference, is still half-assed.

  5. Learn to communicate with others proactively. If someone tells you what they want, and they walk away without you having enough information, it's not the other person's fault. If there is information you need, it is your responsibility to obtain it. If you start working with incomplete or inaccurate information, you're probably going to end up doing the job twice. Ask the questions you need to ask. The flipside of that argument is true as well. If you foresee a problem or think that a peer or manager doesn't have enough information, then it's your responsibility to voice your concerns.

Candidly, my original list in preparation for this article enumerated over 30 professional practices. These were condensed through my discussions with others.

While this article does not cover all of my thoughts and research on the topic, my goal was to highlight three of the most consistent, high-priority practices that were validated by others. It is my sincere hope that this can be used as a guide for new and aspiring artists, and also provides food for thought for the veteran artists as well.

1. Managing Your Ego

This was the number one topic in my original e-mail, and I still feel this should hold the highest priority in any discussion of professional practices for artists. Ego is a complex topic and truly functions as a double-edged sword when it comes to an individual's career -- regardless of profession. I feel that artists are uniquely susceptible to its effects.

First, I should clarify what I mean by "ego". In a professional sense, ego represents the identification with one's work, the care an artist has for his or her craft and, for some, the motivation to continue to grow one's skill and aptitude. In this way, ego can function as a positive force for both motivation and inspiration -- impacting both yourself and others.

However, ego does need to be managed. Left unchecked, ego can have an equally poisonous influence on yourself and your work environment.

Pride in one's work can migrate over time into personal pride or a sense of entitlement. This personal pride really has the most destructive impact on an individual's working relationships.

Personal pride is the slippery slope that can lead an artist to view their peers as less valuable and/or less talented. As such, they stop considering constructive feedback (crucial for any growing artist) from any person deemed to be of less worth.

In over ten years of working in this industry, the most talented and most successful artists I have known did not allow ego or entitlement to jeopardize their talent and artistic growth in any way. They took great care in their artistic craft.

However, they never allowed their considerable talent to get in the way of openness to input from others, regardless of experience. When their artwork had to be altered (or cut), they accepted the changes that needed to be made -- even if they didn't always agree.

This observation suggests two possible outcomes of failing to manage one's ego as a professional artist. One, artists who are unable or unwilling to manage their ego will rarely achieve their highest creative potential. As their attitude runs the risk of alienating others, they close off avenues of creative input which limits their potential and growth.

Alternately, the gaming industry may slowly weed these people out over time. As large as our industry is, it is well-connected and always communicating. An artist who doesn't manage their ego also runs the risk of damaging their own reputation and, ultimately, their own career. Although this is the more disturbing conclusion to draw, it does bear consideration.

2. Professional Communication

The relative importance of professional communication should be easy to understand. As the products we create increase in scope and complexity, so do the size of our production teams. Proactive communication has a direct and immediate impact on the effectiveness of these teams.

By comparison, failure to communicate effectivelycan be the most expensive. The effectiveness of your interaction is the key point, as many are quick to point out that the style of your communication should change depending on your target audience. These next few sections address ways in which these audiences can differ.

Communication with Peers. By "peers," I specifically mean other artists. The simplest examples of artist-to-artist communication are learning and teaching. They are also often the most difficult to maintain, as they require constant interaction and prodding.

Most of the time, the weight of deadlines and scheduling get in the way of these productive exchanges. They do not, however, wane in importance.

The first step in maintaining these channels of communication is through sharing. Most artists know there is more than one way to achieve the same goal. Different tools. Different techniques.

Even simple things such as hotkeys are often overlooked, but can have an immediate impact on the artists around you. Strong art cultures are built around this level of engagement.

The reality, however, is that the impetus is on the individual artists themselves. Managers or leads cannot create this environment if the artists themselves are not committed to it as well.

Realize also that you only have a limited time in which to learn from someone you work with today, whether you're a student or professional. Your colleagues know things that you don't, and the reverse is also true.

Be mindful of this. Share what you know and learn from others. This exchange is vital to your growth as an artist. Much of this will come through the natural process of artistic review or constructive criticism. More of it simply requires dedication on your part.

Communication with Managers and Leads. As a manager, it would be irresponsible of me not to admit to a slight bias in this section -- but I also understand it from both sides. As I touched on earlier, production teams are growing in size; that means more capable managers are required. If management is growing, then it is almost certain that you will be required to interact with your leads and managers more frequently.

The organizational structure of any team differs from one studio to the next. One common thread I've identified is that people seem to operate as if managers and leads are infallible. They never say that -- sometimes the exact opposite -- but often their actions suggest that mindset.

A simple truth is that you're not going to agree with every decision that your manager or lead makes. That's okay. What is unacceptable is that people assume they can't speak up when they see a mistake or a problem on the horizon.

I call this a "code of silence" environment. It can derive from any number of factors, including fear of being dismissed out of hand, or some form of retribution for pointing out the problem.

Unfortunately, the results are the same. The production artists, the people who are doing most of the day-to-day work, become disengaged from the decisions that are happening around them.

They can foresee the problems, but choose not speak up and voice suggestions. In this environment, those individuals are just as culpable for the failures that arise from their own inaction.

The truth is that managers and leads rely on input from others to make their decisions -- or at least they should. As such, it is the responsibility of the production artists to help identify problems. Taking proactive steps to identify problems is far more beneficial than reacting to the problems after the fact.

However, there is a caveat to this statement. Pointing out problems is easy, but there's no guarantee that managers or leads will agree with your analysis. The most important ingredient of identifying problems is recommending reasonable solutions. This is the most difficult step for many artists. It's simply not enough to say that something is a problem. Managers and leads may agree.

However, in the absence of more effective options, that problem may have to stand in the interest of meeting the goals of the project. Therefore, if you're going to actively bring a problem to the attention of others, then you should also be ready with options to discuss.

How do you intend to circumvent the problem? What are the benefits/risks of your alternative? Is it a reasonable plan? This is a dialog that needs to occur between yourself and whoever the decision-makers may be.

The other caveat is the manner in which the problem is discussed. Some individuals feel that they can either be honest or nice. Imagine a frustrating personal or professional problem at work --which goes ignored for too long, because it's not "nice" to talk about it.

Eventually, someone's frustration comes out in a caustic or accusatory manner. As expected, people don't respond to the input, leading to a feeling that the only option was to be "nice" and ignore the problem.

What is periodically overlooked is that "honest" and "nice" are not mutually exclusive concepts. A professional can be honest and still be respectful, too. Respect is the key component when discussing a problem with a peer, a lead or a manager.

I've mentioned "problems" a lot, but let me clarify: problems and mistakes are not the same as failures. Mistakes are made in many aspects of game development; it is expected and understood as the normal practice of learning and experimentation.

However, mistakes still do carry the weight of cost. The most obvious cost is time. That loss of time could have a direct impact on features or assets that you, as an artist, deemed important or valuable. As such, it is in your best interest to be as proactive as possible in communicating with the managers and leads to whom you report.

Communication with Others. By "others", I mean non-artists. This section is addressing the importance of proper engagement with peers in other departments, such as programming or design.

Simply put, artists should use different approaches to collecting information from (and presenting it to) the various groups involved in game development.

In my experience, it's pretty easy for each group to become frustrated with the others. Almost all of these situations derive from problems in communication.

The fault, in most cases, lay not with any one group. In the majority of cases, both parties failed to provide or collect the information they really needed. More directly, they failed to "cater their message to the intended audience."

This should come as no surprise to anyone, but programmers often prefer that information be detailed and precise. By comparison, artistic analysis is much more fluid and subjective. As such, it usually requires more time and more thought to be put into communication between these two groups.

Numerous times, I've heard the comment from programmers that "artists don't know what they want." As an example, this scenario could derive from repeated or failed tool creation or feature modifications.

Understandably, both groups are frustrated by this situation. Programmers are frustrated because, from their standpoint, they've already spent time building something that isn't usable or desirable. Artists are frustrated because, from their standpoint, they've requested something that programmers haven't delivered.

So, what happened? When requesting tools or features, the conversation usually centers more on what the artist wants, rather than the goal that the tool/feature is expected to achieve. The end result may be what was requested in some sense, but not what was truly desired.

Occasionally, requests are too vague, or easily open to misinterpretation by non-artists. It is far more effective to clarify your goals. I regularly encourage artists to provide reference, or some form of visual indicator that explicitly communicates what you want to achieve. This is how you clarify the object of your request.

The next important component of tool or feature requests is how the request is presented. The common mistake is an artist asks, "Can we have feature x?" You've effectively asked someone a yes/no question as to whether or not they want to do more work.

What kind of answer do you expect in response to this situation? A much more effective question is to ask, "What would it cost to get feature x implemented?" For one, it addresses another frequently-heard comment from programmers that "artists just want everything."

This type of question opens a dialog on what a feature costs. Maybe what you're asking for will require sacrifices, but you won't find that out if you don't ask the right way. Your most recent request might just be worth the sacrifice.

If nothing else, the programmer will still have gained a greater understanding of your priorities, which may help with future decisions. Programmers are willing to work with artists to support their goals -- if they're willing to discuss options and alternatives.

In comparison, the inverse is more common when it comes to communicating with designers. When designers make requests of artists, it is most commonly in support of gameplay changes. In my experience, artists frequently complain that designers are too vague or don't know what they want. Sound familiar?

However, precise design is difficult to achieve early in development; good design often requires iteration and experimentation. As such, changes are to be expected, and artists need to be aware that they are part of this iteration process.

A good example of vague level design direction might be "please make the room bigger" or "can you add more furniture?" Some artists will just take the vague direction and make changes.

They may complain that the direction is vague, but take no steps to clarify the information. The end result is that the artist and designer will likely have to revisit this request multiple times. As with programming, the problem is that the features have been explained -- but not the goals.

My recommendation is to -- carefully, and respectfully -- ask why requests are made. Maybe the designer wants a bigger room so that they can add more enemies. Maybe they want more furniture to create additional places where the player can take cover. Once the goal is known, the discussion can focus on options and alternatives, some of which will save both time and effort and may avoid eliminating artwork that has already been completed.

3. Diversification

By "task diversity," I am specifically addressing how an artist responds or reacts to a wide variety of assignments. An artist's approach to task diversity affects both their career growth and their artistic development.

In my experience, this is a challenge that is more common among junior artists. In the worst-case scenario, an artist complains or refuses to do work that they deem "beneath" them.

This can happen for any number of reasons, but the most common complaints are when the work isn't creative, inspiring, or engaging enough.

The ego element is relatively easy to identify -- the artist has now applied a subjective value judgment to the work. The challenge lies in recognizing that the work still needs to be done by someone.

As a professional artist, you are expected to execute to the same level of quality and commitment regardless of personal preference.

The mindset is understandable. Personally, I believe that every artist delivers his or her best work when they are passionate about the work they're doing. Arguably, that artist could be right, and may deliver lower-quality work on the less-desirable assignment.

Strong leaders are capable of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the people around them. As such, most managers and leads do try to distribute the workload with this in mind... but there are no guarantees.

The easiest way to deal with these types of assignments (and you will get them) is the manner in which you approach them. Even if you may not enjoy the specific work, it can represent an opportunity for personal growth:

  • Technical Tasks. Some artists are put off by technical work as they feel that it disengages them from pushing their own creativity. However, technical work usually provides the artist with more exposure to the systems that drive the game.

    In addition, this work can often show an artist how content is functioning "under the hood." Gaining a greater understanding of the technical limitations also means that you can make better decisions and stronger recommendations on how to push the visual quality of your project.

  • Organizational Tasks. Scheduling and workgroup management are something that most every artist will have to tackle at some point or another. In addition, the growth of outsourcing within our industry has clearly expanded the need for artists who are capable of tracking volumes of assets and directing counterparts overseas. 

    Again, it's easy to see why an artist would be more interested in building art content than creating tracking lists of content that needs to be created. At the same time, this level of planning experience is critical for any lead-level position. If you hold aspirations of art directing projects in the future, then these tasks can provide you with solid experience at how to manage vital elements of the production schedule.

  • Team Value. Artists who are capable of tackling a wider variety of issues are understandably more valuable to their team as those individuals can have greater impact.

    As such, these artists frequently reap career benefits more quickly than their peers who may choose to carve out a very specialized niche for themselves. Please don't misunderstand; specialists are valuable to the projects as well. However, projects are always hungry for people who can problem-solve in a variety of areas.

In summary, we've looked at just three facets of professional practices for artists. There are many more that can be discussed, but these are the ones that have really stood out to me over my career thus far.

This is by no means an attempt to call to light the worst part of being an artist in the gaming industry. Being an artist in the gaming industry can be a very rewarding career path.

However, these are the things that challenge us all as artists, and these are also things that those of you who are interested in pursuing a career in this field will likely encounter and should keep in mind.

I wrote this article to kick off what I feel must be a broader dialogue. There are other aspects of this topic that I would like to write about and discuss, but I am genuinely interested in hearing more of your thoughts and opinions on these topics.

Last of all, I really need to recognize and thank the large number of individuals who discussed this topic with me, shared their opinions, and ultimately provided a lot of input and feedback as I was writing this article. They are too many to name, but their contribution is no less appreciated.

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About the Author(s)

Keith Self-Ballard


Keith Self-Ballard is the Studio Artist Manager at THQ/Volition Inc., located in Champaign, IL. He is a ten year veteran artist of the games industry. In this time, he has worked on a variety of PC and console titles including (but not limited to): Myst III: Exile (PC), Whacked! (Xbox), Lords of EverQuest (PC), as well as Saints Row and Saints Row 2 (Xbox360/PS3).

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