Crystal Clear Entertainment(2002)
What are the traits of a good GAME ARTIST?
During the past 2 and half years of game development experience in Tencent I have been thinking about talking about this subject but unfortunately I simply just couldn’t get a chance to do it due to the continuous overtime ever since I have joined Tencent. Sad but true. Even though I did a couple of lectures about Blizzard project related stuff and some specific art demonstrations I always thirsted for talking about this question. This article completely based on my “personal thought” from over 10 years of game development experiences including Blizzard and Tencent’s latest release which I was in charge as an art director. This is also for sharing my thoughts with those who have the same questions so it doesn’t necessarily be suggestion or guideline to follow. I also don’t want to generalize any situation we currently have here in Tencent now and neither compare with any other specific companies with Tencent. Now I finally have a little bit of time to write this article on warm tropical Christmas of 2015.
Let’s look back
The impression I get from artists here in Tencent is very simple. They are incredibly talented, hard working and open to feedback. There is no doubt. I still learn a lot of things from artists around me and it is an amazing everyday experience. It is not hard to see artists who can draw, paint, model or animate better than those work for Blizzard. I am not kidding. Then, some may think at this point, “wow then.. we already have the traits of good artist!” I am afraid I have to say “There might some more things we need to consider deeply.” in terms of “good GAME artists”. Again, please don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to judge anything here and I don’t think I deserve to do it. Here are my personal thoughts about good “GAME artists”.
Let’s see where we are.
There must be a lot of restrictions / limitations when we are talking about the “very ideal” situation and circumstance for being good game artists because of the nature of the project cycle, schedule, human resource, financial status of the company and such. In other words, there must be a huge gap between the reality and the idea. However it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are not even allowed to think about how to be a good game artist. It is always worth to think about and share with each other and that’s obviously one of the best way to grow.
More communication is the key
Let’s look around us and see how many artists are actually going to other artists seat or even other sub-teams such as programming, design team to communicate “in person” instead of using RTX? There is no doubt about how great instant communication tool RTX is and I totally agree with it and I use it every day basis as well. However sometimes it is still hard to see cross feedback/critique between artists even in RTX groups. An art director or a lead is not supposed to be the only one who gives feedback/critique even though they are the one that who makes the final decision. When you try to give feedback to someone you are going to find out you need to go through a lot of thought process in terms of art theory, philosophy and other art foundations. This is one of the biggest chance for you to learn as well as you to give feedbacks. To make this whole cross feedback session work the best everybody has to get ready to take feedbacks with open minded and digest them for the growth. Leads should encourage their team members do this more often and constantly and this could be potentially used as an obvious team work factor of individual’s performance review down the road. Communication between artists will prevent any possible production problems as well. If a character concept artist and an animator communicates each other regularly then an animator can give a rough information of animation bone number limit, possible rigging issues with certain shapes and whatnot to a concept artist beforehand so that concept artist can avoid any kind of problematic design in the first place. If you are a tech artist(TA) then you will be the middleman between programmers and artists to bridge tech and art in the production and it will be super communication heavy job. Of course if you are a 3D artist you can also be super active on communication so that you can request specific tool/system for better productivity to TA or programmers and in the end of the day it will benefit the entire production. Let’s go talk to more people around you and you would be surprised at how approachable and kind those people are.
As well as cross feedback and critique it is kind of hard to see artists compliment each other on their good works. Yes, we do compliment each other for good work through RTX but not really do "in person". Maybe it is from the cultural stuff. I am a Korean so I understand this Asian culture of being shy with giving compliment to others even though I spent a long time in US. Sometimes it may make you feel overstepping over someone when you are giving compliments because we automatically worry that compliment is normally the thing has to given by leaders or superiors. However giving compliment each other is one of the greatest way to get everybody keep passion through the rough journey. It will make everybody feel like they are contributing themselves to something special to tell a larger story of the project when it is given "in person'. I still remember one good compliment from my coworker artist when I was struggling with making a small tree in the environment when I just started my career in the game industry. "Hey Jeff, that is one of the best looking tree I have ever seen in my life. Keep up the good work brother!" This could be a small compliment but it sometimes makes your fellow artist keep going with passion and remembered forever. Let's take off your headphone and get off from your computer once in a while and go to your fellow artist's desk and share your ideas, give feedback with compliment, learn from others and mentor each other. This is how we grow together as a team and a company. You can learn not only from your mentor or offline/online lectures but also from your fellow artist around you everyday. Chances are there and it is totally up to you to pick up and make it yours. Let's not limit your communication channel only in the art team. You should go to talk about your ideas and suggestions to other sub-teams more often. Share your ideas about new game play from the game you played last night, fresh game play ideas from the movie you watched, suggest your new tool idea to programmers and tech artists and any team event, production ideas to producers. Let's talk about this part a bit more in the next chapter.
在交叉反馈的过程很难看到大家互相的赞美，我们也许会通过RTX来表达但是很少面对面。可能是因为文化差异的关系。虽然我在美国待了很多年，但是我本身是韩国人，可以理解亚裔文化里面羞于互相赞美的这一面。但是在项目进行过程中互相赞美对于在艰苦的研发过程中保持激情有着很大的帮助。项目成员会感到自己对于整个项目的大目标尽己所能有所贡献。我还记得我曾经听到过的一次很棒的鼓励，那是在游戏开发生涯开始的时候，需要设计场景里的一棵树，这事情很小，做的也很纠结。我的同事跟我说“Hey Jeff，这是我这辈子见过最棒的一棵树，继续加油！” 这也许是顺口的一句赞美，但是对于当时的我来说确实是莫大的鼓励，感到自己不是在做微不足道的事情。或许你的一句无心的赞美就能对于周围的同事产生很大的影响，给他们打足鸡血，甚至会记在心里很久。让我们摘下耳机，偶尔离开自己的工位到周围的美术师那里串串门，互相交流赞美，一起学习，这是团队发展、公司发展的基础。除了公司提供的导师和线上线下的课程，我们同样可以在日常工作里与周围的同事互相学习。机会就在那里，能不能伸手抓住为己所用完全取决于自己。不要将自己的沟通渠道仅限于美术组内部。同样你应该跟项目其他成员多沟通，分享你昨晚刚玩到的一个新游戏，看电影灵机一动想到的新玩法，对程序和TA提出对工作软件的改进，和制作人交流组内活动和开发流程的一些想法。我们下一节进一步聊。
Let’s get involved in game design a bit more
Let's look at yourself how you start to work on your task as soon as you get a task from your leads or TAPD system. Under the premise of you get the prefect design document you probably start with reading a request from design team and think about how you are going to tackle the task. The most important thing to think about first at this moment is "how your artwork is going to support the game play". This is also the best timing to double check design document from designers and ask them if there is any not enough or unclear information for you to start with. Of course this is also the great time to suggest your own game play ideas and discuss it with designers and this is the moment you need a communication with designers in person. In other word, you don't want to limit yourself too much to the design document given to you. If you are an environment concept artist and you are asked to do the new zone concept art from design team then before you start your work you must make sure the exact size, specific game play in there, number of characters and kinds, background story, walkable and non-walkable areas, height changes, weather changes, day and night cycle and whatnot of the zone with designers before you start to sketch out the zone. If you are a character concept artist you have to make sure what kind of role this character will take, attack pattern, specific game play related behavior of the character and whatnot. If you are an animator you definitely have to check out the charactor's behavior pattern and how your animation will interact with given environment and most importantly ask designers for the complete animation list. You should take enough time to think about these things which are directly related to the game design instead of just jumping into creating art work. This will solve a lot of struggles and problems on both game design and art side. When you have a controversy over which color is better for your art then there is only one thing to think about. "Which color will support the game play better?" It doesn't mean that artists always have to sacrifice their art decisions according to game design. A solid game design is always a good base to start with and it should be the number one thing to reference off of. In other word, if the game design doesn't look that solid enough artist also should take a responsibility of finding solutions actively with designers. This is what we call the real teamwork and this is also how we grow together for the better result and ultimately make the game that people will play for many many years after it is launched.
The one rule never changes. "Game art has to support game play all the time." In other word, "Good game artist creates art that supports game play." Form a small task force team(or strike team) for the certain game play or game design and trying to lead that small group as an artist could be a good way to learn communication skill and problem solving method as well and ultimately key to improving yourself as an artist who see a bigger picture.
Multi-tasking skill sets
You can easily find multi-tasking artists in Blizzard. A concept artist who can do 3D modeling and texturing by himself, An animator who can do concept design and also rigging or sometimes game designers who can do 3D pretty well so that they can mock up the simple environment test level quick and such. It is really important to seek out variety. In other words, it is totally worth to spend some time and learn multi tasking skill sets as a game artist. Here are the reasons why.
First of all, if you have a multi tasking skill sets you can obviously tackle more tasks by yourself. This means that you can shorten up the production time and also minimize the delay or bottleneck problem by eliminating gaps between different types of tasks. Let’s say you are a concept artist and have a solid 3D modeling and texturing skill sets. Then you can just go directly into 3D modeling phase as soon as you finish your concept work. Sometimes you don’t even have to finish your concept art super tight with every single details or whatnot because you already know which is what clearly so you don’t have to explain it for yourself again. It will minimize the time and possible error often occurs from unclear explanation from concept art when it is being translated to 3D model and texture. On the other hand, if you are capable of 3D modeling as an environment concept artist you don’t have to worry about dealing with perfect perspective of your scene or final lighting result because you can simply model your scene in 3D roughly and test out simple lighting first and then render it out to the base image you can start from. The perfect perspective and overall lighting vibe is already there so you already saved a ton of time plus got rid of any possible errors. If you are a character modeler and have a solid knowledge of rigging then when you doing modeling you can minimize the possible problems from specific joint geometries on your model for character rigging. If you have a simple knowledge in texture sizes and projection as a concept artist you can support texture creation for 3D team when you are in down time. (As we all know most concept artists get into the down time after the pre production is over) If you are a concept artist and capable of making simple models in 3D then when you are dealing with complicated shapes you can simply make those simple 3D models and see it from the 3D view so that you can find abetter structural solutions instead of just thinking in 2D all the time. Recently a lot of concept artists use high end 3D sculpting programs such as Z-Brush or Mudbox because when they need to design complicated creature concepts they can simply sculpt any kind of shapes virtually and quickly. You may want to think about what kind of multi tasking skill set will benefit you the most first if you are willing to be the one.
Multi tasking skill sets will be your ultimate weapon in your long term career path. It is not the best thing to think about but let’s face the reality. Game industry downsizing could happen anytime soon in China as well. Sooner or later this industry will focus on smaller team with maximum efficiency. I don’t really want to use this word but to “survive” from this possible future scenario you need to arm yourself with better value than others. Multi tasking skill set will shine when this time comes. One artist with solid multi tasking skill set would obviously have bigger advantage over others in job market.
Speaking which of shortening production time with multi tasking skill sets it is also a great way to minimize the excessive overtime. The excessive overtime is being one of the biggest issue we have here in Tencent now because sometimes only a small percentage of people need to do excessive overtime just because they are the only people who can deal with certain tasks. If we could have more multi tasking artists who can handle more tasks other than their own jobs we could probably distribute work load a bit more evenly so that we could reduce the overtime rate.
Don’t stay in your comfort zone and never afraid of making mistakes
Besides multi tasking skill sets there is another important skill sets you may want to think about. The ability of dealing with different art styles. This ability will give you essential skills to tackle any kind of task of any projects in the industry. I remember that when we first started the current project it was really hard to find artists who can deal with this kind of military / Sci-Fi FPS game art style because almost all over the studios there are similar themed games going on. Surprisingly it was also hard to find artists who can do military / Sci-Fi style even outside from the company due the majority of games being made in Chinese market were mostly about medieval fantasy or cute styles.
As you may know I worked on Diablo 3 which is purely medieval fantasy themed game for over 8 years. To be honest with you I am a big fan of Sci-Fi and military genre. When I was working on Diablo 3 I never stopped working on Sci-Fi and military stuff after work and tried to take any open opportunities in Blizzard from other projects. I worked for Starcraft 2 Terran unit concept session after work and I also volunteered to help the latest Blizzard title Overwatch concept session while I was working on Diablo in the day time. This was obviously not for the money or anything(and of course I didn’t get paid for those extra credits). I was just happy to do something I was really into and see myself grow.
Don’t limit yourself with your style you feel most comfortable with all the time. Try out different styles and genres you have never tried out before as possibly as you can. This way you can get more variety in your art portfolio and take way bigger advantage over other artists out there along with the multi tasking skill sets. Ultimately you will be a great fit to any projects in the company and have more chances to contribute your talent.
One important thing here though. Seeking variety genres and styles has to be fun and exciting process rather than painful. “Follow your passion and do what you love but not limited to.”
I am personally planning to do a lecture about Sci-Fi / military design soon so please stay tuned if you are interested.
The last not the least, don't afraid of making mistakes. This is one of the biggest reason why for most of people want to stay in their comfort zone. You need to go through a lot of mistakes until you reach your goal and especially when you are trying something you have never tried before. There is always a steep learning curve and challenge waiting for you. I know it is hard to feel safe to fail and making mistakes in the actual production pipeline and under the competitive situations but this is an unavoidable path to take to grow. I know we always talk about "quality over quantity" as a slogan of the future of Tencent products. We are always seeking for innovation which is also proudly engraved on our badges. Innovation never can be achieved without making mistakes. There is one important thing when we say "safe to fail" though. It is always safe to fail but fail as early as possible because the last minute fail could affect the whole team and entire production.
最后，也是很重要的一点，不要害怕犯错。这也是大家容易待在舒适区的最大的原因。要达成一个目标，你可能需要经历很多的错误，特别是在做从未尝试的新事物的时候。学习总是像爬陡坡，会面临很多的挑战。我了解在实际的开发过程和激烈的竞争环境下对失败和犯错容忍度没那么高，但这却是成长的必经之路。我知道腾讯未来产品是走“精品策略”的，质量高于数量。Innovation（创新）作为腾讯文化的一部分，一直以来都是我们追寻的目标。但是创新不可避免要犯错。我们在谈“safe to fail”的时候有一点很重要就是要尽早尝试尽早失败，不能在最后一秒失败，否则会影响到整个团队和项目开发。
Concentrate on fundamentals and foundation art skill
I was wondering whether Blizzard really cares about fundamental art pieces and foundation art portfolios when they are hiring artists when I was in art school because I heard it was like so from my friends. Yes, it was true and I was also looking for the art pieces which represent candidate’s art foundation from their portfolio when I was hiring people after I joined Blizzard. The reason why foundation art skills are being an important factor for reviewing portfolios even for 3D and effect artists is this. Effect and 3D art is obviously techie. The basic skill sets for these artists are strong 3D skills and tech-oriented knowledge but having a good foundation in traditional 2D art(drawing, painting and whatnot) is what takes you a step above. You will get more in-depth knowledge of skills integral to being a great 3D / effect artist. These foundation art skill sets are more about understanding color, value, saturation, shape language, shape consistency, visual hierarchy, golden ratio, composition and such. (I will talk about how we can apply these fundamental art theory to actual concept design later next time.)
In Blizzard, there are a series of internal art groups actively running officially and unofficially such as sketch groups, figure drawing workshop, sculpture workshop and so on. Even after you joined Blizzard, a group of world’s best artists, you still need to keep up your foundation art skill to grow through your career path so these kind of group activities feed you a career long benefits and chances to be a better artist. You don’t have to go to school or institute to learn these foundation skills if you want to now. Just draw from life. Bring a sketchbook or whatever medium you can draw on with you and keep drawing. Draw landscapes, plants, people, animals, industrial machines, construction sites….. you see it, draw it. Again, this process rather be a fun and exciting than painful. I have been thinking about form an internal sketch group in IEG for encouraging more artists draw in a relaxed and fun vibe. It is obviously not a drawing competition. Just getting together (with beers will be even better) in some place and sketch and have fun. Go crazy with your ideas without any pressure from the real production. We can learn from others not only their foundation skills but also and most importantly “how others think creatively” in this way. I strongly hope I can make this thing happened soon.
Learning the fundamental art theory doesn’t necessarily need any group activity if you don’t have time to join a group or go to school and whatnot. You can go online and look at other artists’ works and analyse them based on art theory. Have a close look to those well designed cars on the street and think about shape languages and hierarchy. While you are taking pictures with your cellphone just spend a couple more seconds to think about the golden ratio of the screen composition before you hit the shutter and try different angle. There are so many great resources and live tutorials around you. Just reach out and make them as yours.
Along with those fundamental art theory and foundation art skills let me talk about a couple of check list you may want to think about before you draw / paint / model something.
Identify what you want to “say” in your art piece. It sets the goal for yourself and task and all the components of your piece are going to serve this statement. If you are painting a poster then you should think about what is happening, what just has happened or something is just about to happen. You need to paint the “moment”. It will put an extra layer of depth and story in your poster painting. If you are designing a Sci-Fi weapon concept then you need to think about what is the “main” trait of this weapon first. This will be the main story of your weapon you want to talk about the most and also this will be your “dominant” shape. This is really important because it is also directly related to the rule of “concentrated coolness” This will also set your blueprint of what will be the dominant and minor shape of your final design. And then think about how it is being built for what, timeframe when it is built, who are using it and whatnot. This is really cool things to think about. You are basically creating your own story on your work and you are the greatest storyteller at this moment. (In the production it will be mostly driven by design document from design team).
What is the statement you got from the story? Should the shapes be calm? Aggressive? Soft? Funny? If it is shaped both round and angular then how are you going to blend them together? Are there any shapes don’t sing together?(Shape consistency and echoing shapes) If you look at those bad ass concept artist’s works they are using shape language really well and it totally separates them from other artist.
Overlapping shapes, perspective and structure
Perspective is not only for making shapes look right in your scene or characters or whatnot but also it is for directing audience’s eyes to the composition of your art. Overlapping shapes is not only for separating foreground, middle ground and background but also is for making people sense the 3D space in your art. Structural thinking and approach is also really important with right perspective and overlapping shapes because especially when it comes to 3D model from 2D concept. Again this is another reason why simple 3D modeling skill is essential for 2D concept artists especially when they need to design structurally complicated shapes.
Value, lighting and color
Even though it is the same design it will look completely different under different light set up. These 3 principles here(value,lighting and color) should be set up based on your “story”(See number 1). Lighting and value will create the overall mood of your art and you can even play around the shape, length and softness of the shadow to give the extra vibe on your art. Color is for the complete emotional reaction. Go bold first and then fine tune it later.
The golden ratio. A mathematical concept nature obeys and that we humans subconsciously recognize as an expression of perfection.
Surprisingly a lot of artists do not think about it or even subconsciously ignore it even though they all know what golden ratio is. Of course not every cases will work perfectly with golden ratio rule but at least it is a good starting point and also great problem solver when you have an issue with composition, coloring and even mechanical design not to mention of U.I interface design. Applying this rule will be effective to almost every art assets you create. This is also related to content clustering and separating primary and minor shapes. However, golden ratio is not the ultimate answer all the time so you should use it as a guideline and reference.
Get off of the computer
I know we all need to sit down and staring at our monitors more than 10 hours a day mostly (Sad but true) but I still ask people to get off of the computer and go out, meet up with other real people(not through WeChat of Facebook), experiment worlds and try out a lot of things around you. You don’t want to trap yourself in the world in your monitor or cellphone screen. No matter how your screens are super HD nothing could even get compared with the “TRUE HD world” around you. Head up when you walking on the street and look around how world is turning around you. Feel the surfaces with your hand. Feel the real metal and leather surfaces. Look how they react with lights around them. See how animals behave in the zoo. Try as many sports as possible and feel it with your body and find what makes you feel excited when you are playing that sports. Try to go deep into your hobbies and share the experiences with others. Life goes fast and you start to have a family and kids and all of a sudden you realize there is no time to do your own things anymore. Put these list on the same level as eating and sleeping. You need to find and experience what you love and have been wondering about as much as possible because there are so much things you cannot learn from video tutorials or books.
Make connections(Not political connections) with other artists around you and make them as your friends. Try to be outgoing and collaborate with others more. These people around you will go on to be lifelong professional contacts and will be the source of new opportunities for you throughout your career and of course they are the true living mentors totally reachable anytime.
While I was closing this article I still hesitated to get this article published because I couldn’t stop worrying about whether I was being presumptuous or not. I especially needed a huge gut to list out those issues we might have and had to spend a long time to think about the best way to express suggestions because this article is going to be translated in Chinese later on. (Again, big tanks goes to Tina!!!) I truly hope there is no misunderstanding and hope this article gives a little bit of chance to everybody to think about what we have been missing.
Again, it has been my great honor to work with amazing artists around me and I get always excited to get inspired by all of you.
Let me finish this long article with one of the greatest quote for us to keep in mind.
"If it doesn't challenge you it won't change you." - Unknown
“没挑战的事情就不会带来改变。”（If it doesn't challenge you it won't change you.）-Unknown.