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Want to become a game artist? Specialize!

When I was looking to become a game artist back in the day, things were easy. Not many people knew the software, and even fewer were actually good artists! Breaking into the game industry then meant I was hired as an ‘artist’ – a catch-all position that meant that I would be doing a little of everything.

Nowadays the landscape is  completely different. Competition for game jobs is absolutely cut-throat. On top of that, 3D art is becoming every more complicated! How can a noob possibly make it? 

How to become a game artist?

The answer, of course, is specialization. You have to specialize! Because CGI is an ever-increasing series of technical challenges, more and more specialization is a must. The obvious question is – how do you figure out what your specialty is?

Finding a specialization that works for you as an artist isn’t easy. Most education aims to build generalists, not training specialists.  So you must put in a lot of careful thought to find your particular specialty! But how to start?

When it comes to becoming a game artist, I’ve noticed that there are three particular strategies most people use.

Mercenary strategy

The first approach is the mercenary approach – look out on the job landscape, and see who is hiring, and choose the specialization that has the most demand. This is actually a great way to do things if employment is your major focus!

The big downside is that you don’t have perfect information – you only have the jobs posted online to go on. If people aren’t posting for in-demand positions, then you won’t spot them.

There is also the obvious challenge that what is in demand may not fit right with your skill-set! Or what is in demand could call for learning skills you just don’t have. You ideally want to focus your time on developing your portfolio, as opposed to constantly learning new software. However learning software could be a good idea, especially if it something you routinely see requested (e.g. you know Blender, but everyone is asking for Maya/Max artists).

Talent strategy

The next approach is based on your skill-set – in other words, focus on what are you good at! There are two tricks to this strategy.

The first trick is just how do you figure out what you’re good at? You have to look outside your own judgements and opinions. You need outside opinions – and your peers, your friends, your professors, and your family don’t count! They all have a vested interest in seeing you succeed. What you need is feedback from strangers.

Posting online seems like an ideal way to get feedback. However, people tend to ignore bad or mediocre artwork. Getting good feedback is frustrating. Plus, online, you never know who is giving the feedback – they may not be qualified to do so!

The best feedback comes from professional portfolio reviews. A review from a pro can show you exactly what you need to do to become a game artist. After all, these are the kind of people who are going to make the decision to hire you. You can learn not only what you’re doing wrong, but how to fix it.

When I was at Midway Games, we routinely held portfolio reviews for locals looking to become game artists.  Companies will occasionally host these types of portfolio reviews in an attempt to lure in new talent – I certainly hired artists this way, and I still offer portfolio reviews as a service on my site! There’s no better way to learn than from someone else’s experience.

The second trick is a hard truth: what you’re good at, and what you like doing, may not be the same thing! My only tip here is to pay very close attention when you’re working – is there something that feels really easy, or you flow right through? Chances are that is where your talent lies. Again, an outsider’s viewpoint is more helpful here!

Desire strategy

The last strategy is the most difficult, the least helpful, and unfortunately, the most common. The thinking that powers this strategy is: “I want to become a game artist!” That’s it. Nothing else there! It isn’t much of a strategy.

Obviously this strategy fails if your talent doesn’t match up with your desires. It also fails when your desired specialty is an extremely common one – you want to become a game artist for Blizzard or Valve? Well guess what, so does everyone else! That means that Blizzard and Valve can afford be very choosy, with good reason.

Desire can definitely be a part of your process, but don’t overlook the other factors that go into choosing a specialty. Figure out your strengths, and what is in demand in the market, to balance out the wide-eyed desire strategy.

What are the different specialization choices?

That’s a whole different post! Check out my post on what goes into a game art portfolio to get an idea of some of the specialized art disciplines that are out there.

As always, the best strategy is simply making great art. That is often easier said than done, though! Specialization can help you find that niche that will just make it that much easier to become a game artist.

2 thoughts on “Want to become a game artist? Specialize!”

  1. This article was very useful, thanks.
    When it comes to getting a job in the gaming industries as an artist, does the degree matter? If I had a degree and a decent portfolio but someone else didn’t have one but had a better portfolio, who would they take?

    Another thing is: Lets say I decided I want to create textures (as that is what I’m the best at in the moment), do I need a specific portfolio that shows my textures and only them?

    Also if I was going to create my own game, would that count as experience for the people that employ me?

    1. The better artist always gets the job. You go to school to become a better artist, and ideally learn from pros that are teaching.

      You want your portfolio to show your work, yes. But if you are doing an environment and not all the textures are yours, you can still show the environment and just highlight your contributions.

      Creating your own game could count as experience. It depends how good it is.

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