I was asked by an aspiring 3d artist who was about a year from actually attending college, for some advice about the gaming industry and this is what I had to say to her. She was specifically thinking about going to Digipen, which is the same college I went to. But the advice applies to just about any school that offers a program in "video game' 3d art.
Well, there are a few things I'd suggest you do, if you have the goal of being a 3D Artist in the gaming industry.
First off, you need to really decide if you want to aim for the gaming industry or production film 3d.
Most schools that offer degrees in 3D Animation could go either way. The big animation projects that they all have you do are big prerendered, storyboarded 3d animated sequencees - which is obviously much more along the lines of film production. The limitations and techniques used in a planed out, storyboarded 30sec/1-2min animation are entirely different from the limitations and techniques used in real-time game art.
While these sort of assignments can still be valuable in teaching you different, important, techniques, they do literally nothing to prepare you for actual game industry work flow.
This means that you will need to do a little self-imposed focusing.
In the actual game industry, most people are fairly specialized into at least a couple smaller niches. There are overall generalists, as well, and they're still valuable, but being specialized in a specific area, and then a generalist in several others, is usually more valuable.
From my time in school, I remember it seemed like everyone wanted to make characters. I think that's just a big thing for school-aged kids. The idea of making the characters seems cool.
Problem is that there are very few character positions, and it's very hard to get good enough at it to be competitive - especially when you're first trying to break into the industry.
At our studio, we have 8 level artists, and 1 character artist. I'm the studio's character rigger, and terrain/prop generalist.
So if you want to go into characters, realize that you'll have to get really effing good at it, to compete.
Terrain/Environment/Level artist positions are way more plentiful. But again - making environment art for a video game, and making it for a production animation are VASTLY DIFFERENT. When I was in digipen, it was back before they offered the BFA program, so I was in a 2-year associates program. We only had TWO assignments, my entire time there, that specifically involved video game terrain art. The rest were much more like production-animation type projects.
If you really want to get good and be really competitve when you start job hunting, you'd probably be best served to self-impose some additional work on yourself, or bend some of the class assignments to allow you an opportunity to practice your desired specialty.
My husband Justin, went to Digipen too, and he currently works in the industry as an effects/particle artist. Obviously there were no effects or particle assignments the entire time we were at digipen. But he knew that's what he wanted to do.
Every assignment we had, he would find some way to squeeze in all these extra crazy effects, or reactor/havoc objects, or he'd have burning torches, or simulated water or SOMETHING, going on, in the background. He didn't need to do it to get the assignment done. But he wanted to get better at that specific thing, so he always squeezed it in.
It's made him really valuable too, because no one really focuses on things like that when they teach 3d classes, so no one focuses on learning it while in school. There aren't a lot of 3d artists who know how to use reactor, or havoc, or particle flow, or voxels, when they come out of school. Even 5+ year industry veterans usually don't know shit about those things. So he's really valuable to a studio.
I learned complex rigging things and it's made me valuable. Rigging, in most studios, is not a full-time job. There isn't usually enough work to keep a rigger busy full-time, so it's important that I can also generalize in other fields. But no one else here, knows how to do, what I do, with the rigging. Even our lead character artist really sucks at skinning (Although he's a fucking god with zbrush). So I'd say, my best advice, is to spend some time trying out a lot of different things, early on, and try to pinpoint one specialized thing that will set you apart from the other hordes of experience-less grads, and spend your time at school intentionally getting really good at that one or two things.
Specialize in terrain. Specialize in character modeling. Specialize in character animation. Specialize in effects. Specialize in object-animation. Pick something and get really good at it, and learn the basics of as much of the rest as you can manage.
As a final bit of advice - learn either 3dstudio max, or maya, or both. Digipen will cover both, in separate years. It's really REALLY good, to actually be able to use both apps, because you never know which the studio you go to will be using.
If you aim for character animation, you might want to learn SoftImage XSI, or Motion Builder.
Do Not bother with blender. Yes it's free. Yes, it's actually a really decent 3D app, especially considering it's free. But it is not used by anyone in the industry.
Learning that specific package will not prepare you for working in an actual studio. Get the student versions of 3dsmax and Maya. You can get both of them, fully-functional and legally for THREE WHOLE YEARS under the student learning license. IT'S FREE FOR THREE YEARS. There is NO REASON not to get them.
Also, if you want to aim for characters, start to really study anatomy. Like REALLY study.
Get one of those books, like Anatomy for Artists (Good book, will probably be required for one of your classes anyways - it was when I went there) and try drawing a human and animals from the inside-out.
Draw some basic forms of the bones. Don't waste your time and effort trying to draw every rib or metatarsal bone, but get the general shape and mass of all of the big solid bits, and then draw the muscles over top.
Focus on specific areas. Like, just draw the upper-torso and the arm and focus on the muscles of the upper-arm and shoulder as it connects to the chest. Learning this stuff will seriously improve your drawings and understanding of real living creatures.
Also, if you're aiming for characters and creatures, Zbrush is an important tool to learn, but don't try to just jump straight into the surper high poly mesh. Get a very solid, well-proportioned base mesh first and work up gradually. I see so many n00b lumpy red deform-o heads where the person tried to jump into the high detail stuff without getting a solid base structure in first.
For normal map creation on environment art, I recommend you get and try out a program called Crazybump. It's really becoming a standard in the industry and it is insanely helpful and it's even cheap enough that you might not need to pirate it at first. lol.
In response to that I was then asked to go into some more detail on the terrain/level artists job, this was my response:
Every level will have a lead level artist who is primarily responsible for overseeing the whole thing, maintaining consistency and quality, and working with the designer to make it work for gameplay.
On next-gen titles, the level artist will usually have several junior artists working under him/her to help with specific pieces, sections of the level, and props.
In smaller teams, it may just be a level artist who is solely responsible for the whole level, and then pass it off to a junior artist who will do a collision pass.
As a level artist, you literally model and texture the whole darn level. The floors/ground, walls, buildings, fenses, trees, furniture, light fixtures, plants, fountains, cars, whatever, etc. etc.
Most studios will have a repository of objects and props, and often times have dedicated prop artists who will make key objects, and more complicated-reusable objects like cars, and you'll be able to draw from that repository for items so you don't always have to make absolutely everything though.
Also, it's often very very encouraged to reuse assets that have already been created by other people on the team, for the sake of consistency, and saving time. And saving on resources - why make five different brick textures when you can easily get away with two?
The lead level artist will also be responsible for lighting the level and the atmosphere settings. Lighting is done in two passes in next-gen games. The first pass is a baked-in lighting simulation where the lights placed in the level are used to calculate what value the vertexes should be and then those values are 'baked' into the geometry data.
The second pass are the realtime lights that can cast shadows (If your engine and hardware support it) and can be animated if need be (ex. if you have a lamp, hanging on a chain and it's getting blown by the wind - the light is attached to the animated object and moves with it, so that you can get dynamic lighting.)
Now, any objects in the environment that move, react to the player, explode, whatever - are handed off to one of the environment animators once they've been modeled and textured. So you generally don't have to worry about doing that stuff, as a level artist. You still usually have to make it for them, and they may have requests like having you set up multiple states of something if it can get damaged or get destroyed. Make a clean state and then a broken state and they'll transition between the two.
Weather effects, fires, explosions, sparks on electrical wires, etc. - those tasks will go to the effects artist
Water will depend on a few things. If it's just a 'faked' animated-texture water, then the level artist will still probably be responsible for it. Say you're in some jungle setting and there's a water fall. The level artist will probably have to do *some* work on it. But they'll be working closely with the effects artist since they'll still have to add a lot on top of everything. The effects artist may just be assigned the whole darn thing too.
If it's "real" simulated water, especially if it's water that the player can swim in, or interact with, then it will be engine specific. In our games, we have a gameobject called a 'water box' that we place. It's just a reference box and in the software, it looks like an untextured box. But it has custom attributes that we have to edit that get exported. We can set the under water fog color and density. Distance, etc. And we can assign a custom-made ref map for the surface. The engine takes that information and creates the water in game real-time.
These are responses to additional questions I've received:
Q-- presentation to senior high school students a lot of them thought they would spend a lot of their time playing/testing games...
A-- Well, I'll definitely say that in the later stages of making the game, you will still do plenty of playing and testing it. lol. You make an adjustment/bug fix/lighting change, and you have to run the level, run around to wherever the change/fix was made, and make sure it's actually fixed.
When you're working on one specific level for weeks, the background music to that level is like, embedded in your brain. Especially since it'll remain paused, on the dev station in your office for hours and when you're going back and forth over and over you can't really shut it off...
But this is usually just the level geometry without the actual NPC population. So it's not like you're 'playing' the level. Just running around in it to check stuff.
Now if they actually want to be testers, there are still plenty of those jobs, but its far from glamorous. The pay is fairly low, and the hours SUCK. I'm talking about some serious overtime, and working weekends and holidays if a big deadline is coming up.
Q-- I'm fond of thinking about plots, gameplay, how to do this..
A-- Plots and gameplay are things that designers deal with. Designers arethe ones who figure out how the actual game play is going to go, and the lead designer might be partially responsible for helping to come up with the story and possibly some actual writing. It'll depend on the studio. Some studios hire actual writers, like, legitimate authors. In some places, the head of the studio may be primarily responsible for coming up with the story.
Designers have to deal with a lot of technical scripting, but not actual programming. Again, their duties will depend a lot on what studio they're working at. A lot of studios have complex, fancy, level editors and the Designers will work in that, setting up nodes and scripting events.
Q-- How much do you interact with your programmers? Who writes shaders: artists, programmers, or a mix of both?
A-- In our studio we have a technical artist who is primarily responsible for writing the shaders, but he works closely with one of our coders. He and the programmers do a lot of work together. He sort of acts as the bridge between the art and code department.
There are two programmers at our studio who are both assigned to working out the character system - One is working mostly on the character animation and traversal system, and the other one is working a lot on the combat system, and they've both had to come to me fairly frequently so I can set up files for them to test with. For the combat guy, I'm always having to work on the 'hardpoints' (the dummy objects that are exported with the character that define where the weapons and accessories appear on the character).
So it really depends on what that programmer is working on, as to who they interact with in the art team.
Q-- I'm going to tell you point-blank that I love Blender.
A-- I never claimed that it's not a perfectly good enough 3d application, and you can certainly make some great stuff in it. However you will never get a job at a real game studio and use it. No one in the industry, unless they're indie, uses blender. Coming to a studio that uses Maya when all you know is Max is challenging. Same as vice versa. That's why it's best to learn both. At least, get really good at one, and know the general use of the other. At least if you learn one of those two applications, you've got basically a 50/50 chance of knowing how to use the software that your employer will need you to know. If all you know is blender there's like a 2% chance you might get a job that uses that package.
No one uses it. If you're going to spend months learning to use a package, its a much better use of your time and effort to learn a package that will be used in your future job.
Q-- any idea on an average pay? i mean i'd love to model stuff but i still gotta feed myself. i am guessing its pretty crap for first starters...right?
A-- My first job in the industry was as a contract artist. I was paid hourly and I got $12/hr. After 3 months I got a raise to $15/hr. At 9 months I got hired on salary. I started around $32k/yr. Every year I've gotten a raise. I'm now sitting at 5 years experience and I make $45k/yr.
The pay is also representative of where you live, though. I'm in central Oregon and the cost of living is lower here than in Cali or the Seattle area. If I was working at a studio in Seattle, I'd probably be getting a fair bit more than that.
But it costs a lot more to live there too. So it's variable.
Q -- What about breaking into Video Game Concept art?
A -- The concept artist has to be really really effing good. They have to be fast. They have to be diverse. They have to be good at drawing and painting from scratch, and be good at paint overs. They need to be able to do environment art as well as characters. In fact, the environment art is going to get a lot more use. Our concept artist does almost all level paint-over and level concept stuff.
His stuff is for lighting and atmosphere reference too. He helps set the color and mood that we use for a level.
He does paint-overs of the layout stage art to give us direction.
I think to get a job as a concept artist you just have to have an epically baddass portfolio and be able to demonstrate that you can be really fast when needed.
Q -- What is the industry like in other countries?
A -- I'm afraid that I have no idea. I've only ever lived and worked in the United States, and that's as far as my experience goes.
Q -- How best to break into the industry?
A -- This is probably the hardest part for a new grad. Actually getting that first job.
The biggest reason its so hard is because most studios won't even look at someone who has no previous experience.
It's like they've got someone in human resources who sifts through the initial applications and on their first pass they just go through each and everyone and so "Any experience? No? Trash can." The second question they ask is "A degree? No. Trash can." And this is before they even look at your portfolio. The HR person might not actually look at your portfolio at all - they're just there to narrow down the list before it gets sent to someone who actually WILL look at your portfolio.
So how do you get around this?
Well, you just apply to every freaking job you can stumble across, and send your portfolio and resume to every studio's email@example.com address you can find. Chances are that this won't get you very far, but do it anyway.
Honestly, the best way to get a job is to know someone who is already on the inside.
Networking is a HUGE part of getting a job in this industry.
Whenever we have had an open position, long before any notice is actually posted online, the art manager will ask us all in some art meeting if we know anyone who would fit the job. We throw out some names, send the people we know a line and see if they're looking for work, and anyone who is, will send back their samples.
We usually hire someone without ever even posting the job listing anywhere on the net.
So... that sucks for you.
But all the more reason to send your stuff -again and again- to every studio you find, even if their site doesn't list that they're hiring. Just because it doesn't say it, doesn't mean that they really aren't.
And just because you already sent your work to Naughty Dog doesn't mean that you cant send it again in another month. I'm not telling you to spam the living shit out of every studio - try to space it a month between your emails, but keep at it. You have to be really persistent, and while you're job hunting, keep working on improving your portfolio.
It took me 9 months after graduation to get my first job. Some people take way longer than that. Just don't give up, and realize that you will probably have to be willing to move. There is no guarantee that you'll find a job in your ideal city. You have to go where the job is when you're still a n00b and desperate for experience.
Q-- what would you recommend someone to focus on who is wanting to do animation for videogames and currently pursuing a degree in animation?
A-- We have our character animators who deal with the mocap, and deal with creating and managing the animations for the cinematic sequences, as well as preparing and exporting the animations so that the coders can get all of that working for traversal and combat, etc. The character animator is pretty much swamped with what he's got going on.
The object animators deal with all of the environment objects that move and change. Even something as simple as 'the player walks over and rolls a barrel over to get to a hole in the wall behind it'. That barrel's path has to be set up by someone, and that someone is one of the object animators.
Of course it also applies to really complex things like Helicopter flying in the sky getting shot down and crashing to the ground. The effects artist will also play a big role in something like that since there will be fire and explosions and such, but the rotating blades, broken pieces, things flying off, and the actual collision with the ground - all animated by someone.
Q-- How far does your rigging go? Adding the skeleton and weighting and the face modifiers? or is there more than that?
A-- This is the answer for the studio that I'm working at right now, however this is not how it will work everywhere all the time. The characters that go directly into the game are simply skinned to a skeleton. The skeleton doesn't even have IK or anything attached to it. It is simply a hiarchy of bones that recieve animation data.
The characters that I hand off to the animators are actually set up for a program called Motion Builder, which is the animation software that we use to create our animations. The animators import in the motion capture data that we've had made, and then they clean it up and make adjustments, or use bits and pieces and then hand-animate what we need in addition to it.
I set the skeletons up with FBIK (Full Body IK) before I export it out of Maya and into motion builder. In there I set up a lot of controllers, and custom drivers to make working with the rig easier for the animators.
When they're done in motion builder, it takes all of the data and keys from the IK and controllers and bakes it into the bones so that when it goes into the engine it drives the skeleton properly.
Q-- What is zbrush? you've mentioned it a few times and I don't remember seeing anything called specifically zBrush in maya.
A-- Zbrush is a stand-alone package from a company called Pixologic. --> http://www.deviantart.com/users/outgoing?http://www.pixologic.com/home.php
Zbrush is used for 'sculpting' incredibly detailed, high poly meshes. Most everyone in the industry uses it for character creation. They create the super detailed high poly mesh in zbrush, and they use it to create a normal map that is applied to much simpler, lower poly geometry.
Q-- A few of my teachers have mentioned art tests. What do they entail exactly?
A-- This will depend a lot on what studio you're applying to, but generally speaking, they will give you a specific task and a time frame to do it. Depending on the position you're applying to, it could be a specific building, a room, an animation, or a character. They will probably provide you with some reference or concept art and a list of restrictions that you have to work within.
Q-- So I've decided to specialize in Prop art and I'm wondering if you can help me out with some inspiration for real "Holy Shit"-quality props I could do for my portfolio?
A-- It's hard to say would would be 'holy shit' quality props. I think that diversity would be key.
Do some science-tech props, some grimy industrial props, some organic props, like trees or moss and lichen covered rocks, and some every-day household stuff. Put together a couple small sets - like a phone pole next to a mailbox and a vending machine on a small slap of brick with some weeds growing out of the cracks - stuff like that.
You could do a small museum set piece. Have your king tut mask, but also make the display case, or pedestal, and have some other artifacts near it.
If anyone has further questions, throw them my way, and I'll probably add them to this lecture thing.