Building a Career in Video Games as an Artist

In video games, coding ultimately tells the story. But while programmers ensure that games actually work on your PC or mobile device, it also takes a host of creatives—including visual artists, writers, and composers—to ensure that the game actually looks and sounds enticing to gamers.

Indeed, video games are one of those realms where the arts are totally entwined with technology. But for creatives, the path to a successful career in video games is often an uncertain one, and the money is sometimes not that fantastic.

This creative part of the video-game business is largely freelance. Work leads to more work; but you have to get that initial bit of work first, and no two career paths are alike. “You can make a living out of being an artist in computer games, certainly. But it’s a long hard road to get there, and it isn’t easy.” said Wayne Robson, a digital artist.

Art Comes First

“I got into 3D art by accident, but it turned out I wasn’t too bad at it so I stuck in and worked my backside off learning all I could originally as a 3D modeler/digital sculptor. Originally I did it purely for fun and relaxation; it wasn’t until later that it turned into my job,” said Robson, now an external contractor for Chaos Group.

Before any creative person works on a video game, they have to really want to do their thing. Art, music or writing has to be your life before it becomes your livelihood. “Telling stories for me started when I played imaginative games with my sister when we were kids,” said Brooke Maggs, a writer who has worked on “The Gardens Between,” “Paperbark” and “Florence” games. “I did amateur theater for a long time before I started writing games with friends and then studying creative writing as an elective at university.”

Neil Davidge, composer for the blockbuster “Halo 4,” had a very busy music career prior to video-game work, being the co-writer and producer for the band Massive Attack. That meant getting any work possible, from composing for film and television to producing others. His advice: make yourself useful.

To Find or Be Found

In terms of breaking in, Maggs went the fan route first. “I crossed paths with the video game industry at a game convention where the writers of ‘Bioshock’ were talking on a panel. I loved the game so I went to the panel and, afterwards, asked them how I could get into writing for games. Their reply? Be a writer.”

In other words, get good at writing and learn the craft. “Fast forward to me teaching games studies and using that to supplement a second qualification, a diploma in professional writing and editing,” Maggs added. “I wanted hands-on skills, and we learnt screenwriting, fiction, editing and short story writing. All of which have helped me in my career as a writer and narrative designer.”

In Davidge’s case, Microsoft sought him out because someone on the “Halo” team liked Massive Attack’s music. That manager connected with Davidge’s manager, and Davidge was on a plane to Seattle.

For Robson, working on visual effects brought him into contact with the gaming business. “I’ve managed to juggle working either as a games artist or in visual effects, depending on industry demand and what interested me the most at the time,” he said. “If I felt visual effects were going to be a bit quiet for a few years, I’d work in games, and visa versa.”

Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate

Creatives don’t need to code in order to work on video game projects (though having some software knowledge helps). They do have to work as part of a team, despite the fact that they sometimes do their work solo.

“Many parts of the process are extremely painful,” Davidge said. “There is a lot of frustration, not finding the right idea. On a few occasions, I’d go into the writing room, come out a couple of hours later swearing, saying things like, ‘I can’t do this.’”

Then Davidge would go back in, work on things some more, and come out with something. “I’d work out seven hours of music [for ‘Halo’]. That’s quite a lot,” he said. “I think they used about four hours of music.”

Regardless of whether the art is for a game, movie or Web series, it always pays to be collaborative and helpful, Davidge stressed: “You are supporting something bigger than yourself.” Remember, soft skills such as collaboration can be learned.

“I did computer science subjects [for] my bachelor degree. I was terrible at programming but having a basic understanding really helped with my game-writing career,” Maggs said. Coding provided insight into “how the other half” worked: “I act as the conduit between narrative and gameplay, so much of what I do is evaluate those two aspects and see how they’re working to reinforce one another.”

The first game that Maggs worked on, “The Gardens Between,” had no text or speech because the creators wanted the game to be widely accessible; in addition, the dialogue systems would have been time-consuming to build. “I collaborated with the artist and animator to work out what we could do to tell the story regarding character’s actions, poses, and colour schemes to convey different moods,” she said.

“If it’s a freelance gig on character creation, it can be anything from detailed character sheets to just a vague idea. Sometimes people know exactly what they want, other times they aren’t sure until they see it,” Robson said. “Knowledge of coding isn’t necessary, although I find from a purely personal point of view that coding or being able to write a script or plugin is an excellent skill to have, and can make you more useful in a team.”

Robson has worked alongside artists who have been at the same game studio for 15 years and never written so much as a line of code. “So it’s possible to work in the art side of games without programming knowledge.” But you need to develop your artistic and communication skills, first.

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