6 min read

Tips for game artists, from Rockstar's former art director

Ian Bowden is one of the most experienced artists in video game development, and his work is among the most influential. Here are some tips that helped him in the course of his career.
Ian Bowden is one of the most experienced artists in video game development, and his work is among the most influential. Bowden (self-portrait above) is formerly of Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games, where he was art director for almost 10 years, based out of Rockstar Leeds. Recently, he left that position -- considered a dream job by many -- to head to Gameduell, a mobile and social game company based in Berlin, Germany known for games such as Little Diggers and Maya Pyramid. "People would say to me, 'can we come and see your office?,'" says Bowden about his time at Rockstar. "I think they really expected it to be like Willy Wonka's factory, with games flowing in a big river," he laughs. "But it's not like that -- it's a job. … Sure, we'd enjoy ourselves, we'd play, but most of the time, it was a job, and people don't get that." Bowden, who has been in games for 20 years (he has a Space Invaders tattoo to commemorate that milestone), wasn't planning on staying in Yorkshire for nearly his entire career -- maybe two or three years, then move to California, where he had a job offer. But in 1997, he had co-founded a game studio, Mobius Entertainment, which was destined to be acquired and become Rockstar Leeds. It was there he stayed all this time, working on one of the biggest franchises in games. "At this point in my career, I had just come to that 20-year point, we'd just completed GTA V, and that was a big, big job," he says. "The guys at Rockstar, New York, Edinburgh, and London were incredibly supportive. They made my transition to Berlin a real joy. … I have incredible pride in what we did."

Advice for budding and experienced artists

Bowden might be moving from the biggest triple-A franchises over to games of a smaller variety at Gameduell, but even though there's a difference in project scale aside, an artist is an artist. He offers a few pointers that have worked for him.

Watch the trends, but be original

So how does an artist operate in a commercial environment such as the video game market? "You could follow what everyone else is doing, and you see this in video games -- a big video game comes out, and everyone wants that 'look,'" says Bowden. "It's very much the same in movies -- a little trope becomes flavor of the month. That's the way to make art that is just simply commercial." He doesn’t just follow visual art of video games, but also movies, art, advertising, and beyond. He keeps an eye on new logo treatments, new colors that are becoming fashionable, new ways to treat images. Bowden emphasizes repeatedly to keep a trained, artist's eye on details, all around you. Absorb the details, use them as reference for your own style. "You don't want to copy," he says. "[That's] not the way to make good art, it's not the way to make anything different or unusual and better than anyone else's. You hold these [influences] in the back of your mind, but you steep yourself in them." "The whole world is changing, the whole world is developing," he says. "We have to look at that rather than what other people are doing, and slavishly copying that." As video game artists have drawn inspiration from outside of video games, video games have been informing and inspiring other media. Through uniqueness, video games can become more culturally relevant, he says.

Don't skimp on visual quality on mobile games

The quality needs to stay at the same high level even though they're for a smaller screen. "You need to approach it with the same amount of attention to detail, the same quest for perfection," he says. "Search for what's perfect for the game itself, perfect for the project. "Small screens don't mean you can skimp on the quality. A lot of these games live and die on the visual quality," he says. And "visual quality" doesn't mean ultra-realism or lots of polygons. For example, Flappy Bird's visuals are simplistic, but there is a charm to it. "Graphics like that can really hook the imagination," says Bowden. A mobile game's visual appeal goes even outside of actual in-game assets. With so many apps and games vying for attention on mobile storefronts, even that tiny app store icon has to be as perfectly appealing as possible to the average app store screen-swiper. "If you're going to make money at this game, you've got to maximize the amount of people who come in," says Bowden. "And that's why making the most attractive little icon, and most attractive first experience is so important. You need detail -- you can't just bang this stuff out."

Carry a sketchbook

Always be ready to examine your surroundings -- be observant, and be diligent in practicing your art, says Bowden. "I carry a sketchbook wherever I go," he explains. "I jot down little details, notes, small drawings, I keep this as a visual record. Looking at details, it fills your mind with a reference library of images and details -- peoples' faces on the tube, cracked pavement slabs, leaves, fabric folds. It helps you concentrate on light and shadow, form, volumes. These things cross over from 2D to 3D art. Rockstar and working on GTA taught me this: It's all about selling the thing on the detail."

Experiment with new ideas

The best way to expand your horizons is to try new things, says Bowden. "If you get caught up in one way of doing things, that's all you'll be doing. You'll never get out of that rut. You need to experiment, you need to look for solutions -- usually the simplest solution is the way forward. But look around, experiment, because there may be something better."

Always be humble

"Be open to the idea that there's always someone better than you," he adds. "You can always learn from something -- whether it's some guy on a forum, or from another game or other medium, or if you just look out the window at the world."

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