Art has a unique place in the world. It drives innovation and fulfills a specific need in the human mind. Whether painting the Mona Lisa and drawing in millions of admirers or designing the layout of your lounge to please you the most, creativity is a key part of being human. When you think of a career that you could love for life, a lot of people turn to the creative route, and a lot of people think of their favorite hobbies such as games, so for many such as me, becoming a Game Artist is a lifelong dream.
Many people are put off pursuing such a career though, I almost was as well. It seems more like a pipe dream than something that is achievable, and this is reinforced by the reaction most people will have when you say you want to work in games. A look that suggests you aren’t being serious about your future and that you will ‘grow out of it’. But it is something that is very achievable, the biggest hurdle is actually competing with all of the other people who have successfully done so.
I’m a Lead Artist and recruiter. I started out from a family where no one had a university degree or higher education and working my way up to the career ladder, working on major titles across all of the consoles. I’m going to break down exactly what a Game Artist does, how you can do it, and how you can get started with your game development journey, whether you want to make your own game or land a job working on the latest Grand Theft Auto game.
What Does A Game Artist Do?
Everyone is aware of what an artist does, but it’s not so obvious when it comes to games. Pretty much everything that you see on the screen when playing a game is part of what a Game Artist does, from the character you play to the smoke coming from the fire, from the sky and clouds to the way the light bounces around a room. There’s a near-endless level of complexity, so each area of work is developed by different types of game artists.
Depending on the size of the project and the art style you are going for it can vary from a single person doing all of the work for an indie game all the way up to a team of hundreds working on a single project, focusing on things as specific as generating the materials that objects are made from. Whilst it’s impossible to list all of the possible roles you might come across and the field is getting more complicated all the time, some of the most common roles involve environment artist, character artist, VFX artist, and animator.
How Is Game Art Created?
Whilst it’s possible, and often looks great, when you hand paint aspects of a game and load them into the computer, that’s not normally the way it works. More often, when you need 2D art for a game, you will need to use programs such as Photoshop to generate the art, as well as other programs such as Spine to handle the animation. This can be loaded into the game engine pretty directly, so it’s the simplest way to get your art into a game. 2D art also benefits most directly from art skills in other fields, although any artistic skills can be quite easily transferred into game art.
3D art has a few more steps than 2D. Most 3D art will start with a model. 3D modeling utilizes a specialist program such as 3DS Max or Maya to generate a 3D object by plotting out a series of points in a 3D space and telling the program how to connect those points into polygons. The next step is to ‘unwrap’ the model. This involves taking the polygons and cutting them up so that they can lay flat. This sets up the final part of the asset creation.
Once the model is unwrapped we can generate materials, which are made up of textures. Textures are 2D images that are then projected onto the object which stop it from looking like a grey box and instead like the object it is meant to. These textures all have their own functions, some add color to it, others determine how shiny the object is, or if it glows. There’s a huge amount of functions there texture maps can be utilized for. All of these maps combined make up the final material that shows on the model.
Other aspects of art such as VFX or Lighting are usually done in the game engine itself using custom-built tools. This may be a generic engine like Unity or Unreal Engine or a custom-built tool for the studio. Yet other roles such as Tech Artist will work partially in code and partially in-game engines or other programs, modifying them to help other game artists work optimally.
What Roles Are Available In Game Art
Now we’ve covered what game art consists of, let’s take a look at some of the roles that are available in-game art and roughly what they consist of. It’s important to note that most people will begin as a Generalist, or with a slight specialization such as characters or environments. The exceptions to this are roles that require separate skillsets such as Tech Artists or Animators who need knowledge of programming or animation respectively. Whilst you don’t need to aim specifically for that one role, it’s rarer to go from a generalist game artist to one of these roles without learning a new skillset.
Not every company will have people in all of these roles. Smaller companies may only have Generalists who do a bit of everything, whereas big AAA companies may have a specialist for roles more specific than listed here. Some games won’t need a dedicated vehicle artist as there are no vehicles, or perhaps they don’t need a specialist lighting artist, as their lighting is purely practical and the general settings will do. These are just the most generic titles that you are likely to see.
- 2D Artist – A 2D Artists will use a program such as Photoshop to generate art for a 2D game, or work alongside 3D artists to generate some of the 2D artwork, such as posters or paintings that require more detail and a keen 2D artist’s eye.
- 2D Animator – 2D Animators are responible for the movement for any 2D assets. Mostly these will be character in 2D games but could also be things like swining ropes or falling rocks. Sometimes a 2D Game Artist will do both of these roles and sometimes they will use specialists.
- Concept Artist – Very similar to 2D Artists, although they can sometimes work in 3D as well. Concept Artists will come up with ideas and concepts for key aspects of game, usually characters and other assets like vehicles, weapons or key environment pieces. Basically anything that needs to stand out and requires lots of design work will get drawn up so other artists can create them. Almost all concept work will not make it into the end game, but will influence it more than pretty much any other role. Their work also takes up a large amount of most game’s art books.
- Generalist – A Generalist is a jack of all trades kind of role. You will be expected to be able to work a variety of roles to a decent level, but not expected to work to the skill level of specialists in any one role. This role is most common in smaller companies who cannot afford to have a team of specialists.
- Environment Artist – Environment Artists are responsible not just for the natural environment such as trees, hills ect, but for everything about the level the player explores. This can range from none-driveable vehicles to cliff faces, buildings to coffee mugs on tables. The only exceptions tend to be items that are interactive.
- Prop Artist – Prop Artists are an offshoot of Environment Artists which specialize in the smaller objects you find around an environment. They will avoid making the bigger things, such as buildings or forests, focusing on the detail of the smaller objects. They may also work on some of the more important props, such as weapons and items that a player uses.
- Vehicle Artist – Much like Prop Artists, Vehicle Artists are more specialized game artists with a focus on vehicles, particularly any that may be drivable or usable in some way by the player.
- Character Artist – A Character Artist’s focus is entirely on making the best looking chracters that they can. Due to the complexity and high level of detail that’s needed, Character Artists are one of the roles that usually have breakaway specialists first. As well as human characters, Character Artists can also be responsible for other things such as animals, aliens and monsters.
- Modeler – Whilst not as common, some bigger companies will have people dedicated to entirely to the modeling step of the art process, leaving other parts to other specialists. This was more common in the past but generally as things have gotten more complicated, this role has become less common.
- Material Artist – Whilst the specialist modeling role has become less common, the Material Artist role is more common than ever. This is due to the complexity of materials. Gone are the days when all you need is color, now there’s many complexities to get materials to have values that match as close as possible to reality.
- VFX Artists – VFX Artists work on the particle effects in a game, anything from fire tothe smoke it produces, muzzle flashes, explosion and rain.
- UI Artist – UI Artists are responsible for the HUD that the player sees in the game, as well as menus and other interactive aspects. They will work in 2D and need to make flexable and adjustable layouts that can work on a number of consoles and tvs/monitors.
- Lighting Artist – Lighting Artists are responsible for not just placing the lights in a game, but balancing them and giving them real to life values, working on how the light bounces around a room and how it can direct the player. This is generally a more technical role than many of the others and may need coding knowledge.
- Technical Artist – A Technical Artist is a bridge between Art and Programming. They will work closely with the art team and use their programming knowledge to help create tools and programs that will be able do tasks the artists need or optimise their workflow so they can work more productively.
- Technical Animator – Technical Animators are sometimes known as riggers, they set up the internal ‘skeleton’ inside a character or other moving objects that allows Animators to come in and animate them. It requires building an internal skeleton and then telling the 3D model how it should move when someone comes in and moves one of those bones.
- Animator – An Animator is responsible for making the 3D models move. This is done by moving the bones within a 3D model whilst setting keyframes along a timeline. This tells the game engine exactly how the object should move. Most of the work will invovle working on characters as well as other living things, but occasionally might include inanimate objects that are moving.
How Much Are Game Artists Paid?
As you can see from the list above, the scope of different roles is vast, and as such the pay you might receive varies greatly as well. Couple that with levels of work ranging from Juniors to Leads it makes it very hard to estimate accurately, but we will do our best. The estimates will be in USD, but different countries and regions with those countries can affect it quite a lot so check locally if it’s available. You can get more information at glassdoor.com. You can also check out our more in-depth article on game artists’ pay or our more general game developers’ pay.
For an entry-level position, an artist could be expected to be paid around $28k to $44k. Generally pay is fairly low for entry-level jobs, as there is a large number of people applying for them, however, the pay can raise fairly fast once you are more skilled, with Senior Game Artists earning an average of $94k, even higher for specialist roles such as Art Directors at major companies, climbing to $200k or more.
There are some variations based on roles. Roles like Generalists and Environment Artists are normally the lowest paid, as they are the ones that require the least amount of specialist knowledge. Character Artists are expected to bring in a little more money as, for the most part, the characters are the stars of the show and need to look great. Hybrid roles such as Technical Artists and Technical Animators are generally paid highly as they require both art and programming skills, this becomes especially true if you can specialize in a highly sought-after industry role, such as Rendering Programmer or Lighting Artists.
Is Being A Game Artist A Good Career Choice?
Obviously, whether you enjoy a job is subjective, but in terms of artistic career choices, it’s pretty good. It generally breaks the rule of the ‘starving artist’, paying a decent wage for your artistic skill (with the possible exception of entry-level jobs) and it provides a steady wage which more freelance roles might not. Getting to work on video games is also very fulfilling although it comes with some negatives.
The biggest and most well-known issue the games industry has is over time. Most often unpaid, working hours can reach 100 or more hours a week during crunch periods. Whilst crunch is sometimes a necessity, some companies run crunch periods for a year or more, burning out their employees and causing huge issues with their lives, even breaking couples up under the stress of work. The good news is, not all companies are like this. Some even pride themselves on having a no-crunch culture. Whilst it’s shameful the industry needs to have this definition in the first place, it’s good to know there are some safe places still left to work. The downside is you are very unlikely to find this kind of culture at a major studio, if you want to work on your favorite series or what that big-name title on your resume, you need to tough it out.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. Working against adversity with a team of like-minded and highly driven people is hugely enriching. You’re likely to make lifelong friends and further increase your passion for games and art and the creation thereof. Working with such skilled teams also allows you to create groundbreaking games that would be impossible on your own.
The other option is to go Indie or Freelance, where you’re your own boss and get set the terms of your work. This counters a lot of the issues the industry has but comes with some downsides. Whilst use salaried employees have to compete for a role but are then generally secure with a job, freelancers have to constantly compete for work and Indie devs need to compete for game sales to keep afloat. You also don’t get to work as part of a team directly on a project unless you hire other staff members, which is a big step up in terms of managing, so this is not for everyone.
Do I Need A University Degree To Be A Game Artist?
Whilst game development courses of all varieties are popping up in universities the world over, it’s not essential that you have such a degree to get a job, it does, however, help. A degree shows a level of knowledge and ability to work under similar industry conditions that cannot always be proved otherwise. That being said, when applying for a job, the potential employers will give very little weight to any degrees that may have been accumulated and will spend much more time pouring over portfolios and previous work.
The most important part of an application for a job in game art is your portfolio. Employers will pour over work to look not just for how good it looks, but also how well it’s put together to see if you know what you are doing. Also important is any previous job experience you have in the industry. Whilst not always possible for entry-level jobs, having any form of job experience, even a free internship, will say more to them about your ability to work in a studio than a degree will.
There is, of course, the learning side to studying at a university. For me, university was the kick in the butt I needed to develop my strong work ethic and helped structure my learning, something I’m quite bad at doing myself, so I consider it an essential step in my career. That being said, universities will teach you nothing that cannot be learned, even for free, online, if you have the self-motivation to follow it through. The only downside would be not being able to get one-to-one feedback, this can be countered by joining online courses which offer this feedback, but they tend to be expensive. The other option is posting it to messageboards within the industry, which can be useful although not always consistent.
For more information, check out our full article on whether you need a university degree to get a job in games as well as our guide to creating a job-winning portfolio.
What Jobs Are Available To Me?
Now that we’ve covered the ins and outs of what to expect from a job in games and whether it’s something you can achieve, let’s look at what’s available and how to find the right job. Even some ‘entry-level jobs require work experience and so, although am against it in principle, sometimes an unpaid internship is the best thing to get your foot in the door. I started out doing a few odd jobs for an old university lecturer, who then went on to recommend me to his new employer, landing me my first job after searching for over a year. I was, however, privileged to be in a position where I could do this while living with my parents, this is not a luxury everyone can afford.
For an initial, paid job you want to be looking for Junior or Associate jobs. Sometimes companies will have different names for it, but they are normally the entry-level jobs that expect little to no work experience but will still require an impressive portfolio.
So what is the best place to look for jobs? If you know where you want to work then going direct to their website or getting in contact with one of their recruiters is the best way to go. However, you shouldn’t rely on this as landing your dream job will be difficult and it could take dozens of job applications before you even land an interview. As such it’s best to apply directly for those you are interested in and then turn to specialist sites that collate open job positions.
For Artists, one of the best resources for this is Artstation. They have a number of job listings from around the world and it has the added bonus of most likely being the place you are already hosting your portfolio. Another option is using a site like Gamedevmap.com to find games studios near you that you can then apply to directly. Another option is to sign up to a job agency such as Aardvark Swift who can then apply for jobs on your behalf, although this comes with many of the usual negatives of working with a job agency including taking a commission for finding you, making it more expensive for a company to hire you than someone who they hire directly.
What Programs Do You Need To Create Game Art?
Game Art in all its forms requires a large number of tools, some free, some very expensive (although there’s normally a free alternative). Some of the programs are fairly universal and most roles will need to learn them. Others are very specific to a certain role and can be disregarded by others.
Potentially the most used tool is Photoshop. It’s basically essential for most 2D Game Artist work and is immensely handy (although no longer required) for most 3D roles as well. It’s useful for both image manipulation and painting, allowing you to create concepts from scratch or creating or editing textures to put on 3D assets, or generating Look-Up Tables for Technical Artists. For those that are looking for a free alternative, GIMP is a great program, although lacks a lot of Photoshop’s more complex tools.
3D Artists will need a modeling program. In industry, this will usually be either Autodesk’s 3DS Max or Maya. Some companies will use one or the other or they will give the employee the choice of which to use. Both do the same job and export the same way at the end, they just use slightly different techniques to achieve that goal. For a free alternative, we have Blender, which is more or less on par with the more expensive Autodesk products and some companies are even using it alongside them. For a more in-depth breakdown of alternatives, check this out.
From there you have some sculpting programs such as ZBrush, these programs mimic real sculpting for a more flexible approach to modeling, sometimes bypassing other modeling tools almost completely. This is most useful for characters and other organic objects such as trees and rocks, but can also be used to make hard surface objects like machines and vehicles. Here’s our full article on Digital Sculpting For Games.
Once the models are completed you need to texture them. Traditionally this would be done with Photoshop again, and it still is in some cases such as hand-painted techniques. However, more commonly programs such as Substance Painter, Substance Designer, and Quixel are used as they utilize real-world information to generate realistic textures as well as allowing quick and easy edits and techniques that really elevate the materials. Take a look at our full texture breakdown for more information.
What Equipment Do You Need To Do Game Art?
Whilst no piece of equipment is essential, some are necessary for producing most kinds of art. A good example of this is a graphics tablet. Graphics tablets allow you to paint onto a computer in the same way that you would only a piece of paper or a canvas. They allow you to use the intricacies of a brushstroke, such as pressure and angle of the brush, to give the most realistic brush stroke. These are things that are impossible to do with just a mouse, so it makes creating almost all kinds of art significantly easier and makes the end result so much better. Unless you only plan on doing something like pixel art you will need a graphics tablet. We have a guide covering all aspects of graphics tablets and our own recommendations.