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What Does a Video Game Artist Do? And How to Make It a Profession?

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Video game artists use their artistic and technical skills in contextual sync with other game developers to create one cohesive, immersive and engaging experience for players.

In a game studio, a video game artist’s responsibility for creating the visual elements of a video game including

  • User interface
  • Characters
  • Environments
  • Objects
  • Effects

Here is where game art is involved in the context of the game development process:

image15

The reason why so many people want to become video game artists is because a game’s art style is often one of the major factors in its success, setting the mood and making it instantly recognizable.

Being a part of a beautiful creative vision is the dream of many who aspire to this industry.

image9 min
(Credit: Krieg Cool wallpaper.com)

Think about what different games look like – franchises like Borderlands are unforgettable because of the art direction they took.

The problem is that the game art jobs in the industry includes a range of different yet overlapping roles that can easily confuse newcomers.

As someone who’s been developing games professionally for over 20 years, I’ve seen many people confuse the line between game design and art. If you’re trying to get your foot in the door, it helps to know what exactly you’re getting into.

By the way, as you read this post, feel free to join #career-guidance channel in Funsmith Club Discord where you can seek advice from game devs of all levels including me on

  • Breaking into the industry
  • Your resume/CV, Portfolio, design skill test, interviews, negotiations
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What’s the difference between a game artist and game designer?

These two professions work side-by-side to produce a game, but while game designers work on the content and mechanics of a game, artists create the models and textures that bring it to life.

Art is absolutely vital to communicating the game’s design and the game’s design is vital to inspiring its art. However, each is distinctive and unique in its tools and skillset.

By the way, check out this detailed tutorial if you’re more interested in becoming a video game designer instead.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at the different roles that exist in game art.

What are The Different Types of Game Artists?

When people imagine a game artist, they might picture someone working on a single object in-game, developing it from a concept into a final asset for the game.

However, the reality is that game artists usually work in a specific role, like creating concept character designs. And within these roles, artists might only work on a specific set of things.

For example: You might be an environment artist (who produces artwork for the surrounding game world) or a character artist (who designs the people that inhabit the game world).

Game artists used to be required to take on a more generalized position, contributing to several of these roles. But, nowadays the field is becoming more specialized, with artists focusing on more specific parts of a game’s artwork.

With that out of the way, here are the main art roles you could expect at a game studio:

Concept Artist:

This position is responsible for creating preliminary sketches for all the assets that make up a game.

image2
(Credit: Bryan Sola)

Concept art acts as a guide for the rest of the game development. 

The goal of concept art is to enable 3D artists to convert a concept into the final in-game form. 

Main skills needed:

  • Highly experienced  traditional fine art techniques
  • Prowess with digital art software.

Concept artists interact with designers in the best studios I’ve worked at, iterating quickly on shape silhouettes and exploring different ideas for key character traits to inspire or inform the design mechanics.

3D Modelers:

This position constructs computer-generated 3D visual game assets based on the concept art.

image14
(Credit: Rafał Urbański)

This includes creating the characters and animals, buildings and locations, and the polished 3D art for the game. 

Main skills needed:

  • Must be able to use 3D graphic content generation software.
  • May be required to texture their models as well.

3D Modeler’s responsibilities:

  • The location of important aspects of the game.
  • Collision boundaries.
  • Line of sight.
  • Reinforcement of the game’s fantasy.
  • The needs of level and game designers.

2D and 3D Animators:

This position brings life to the moving creatures and objects in the game. 

They use techniques like keyframe animation or motion capture to make things move. 

Main skills needed:

  • Experience with keyframe animation or motion capture.
  • Ability to develop cinematics and rigging  (creating the digital “bone structure” that defines a model’s movement in game).

2D and 3D Animators work with game designers to ensure the timing of animations, attacks and the position of weapons for the placement of offensive damage zones, known as hurt-boxes or attack boxes, are placed. 

In addition, animators help convey when an animation is complete and where players can resume movement, so the game looks and feels natural and intuitive.

Texture Artists:

These artists create or manipulate images to give textures to objects in game.

image12
(Credit: Greg Zdunek)

Textures are images that define color information, surface detail, and light information within a computer-generated world.

Think about the textural difference between silk and leather – texture artists work to create this visual effect in-game.

Main skills needed:

  • Familiarity with Substance Painter
  • High-level experience in digitally modeling software.

Texturing often involves taking the model into a 3d painting program, and painting additional details and depth into the texturing. Working with Substance Painter, or node-based procedural tools like Substance Designer, Texture artists now must work in PBR, so they have to author metallic, roughness, AO, masks, and glow maps. 

Technical Artists:

Using both artistic and coding skills, a technical artist integrates the visual content into the game by connecting the assets to the game engine or rigging them to bones for use in animation.

They do this by designing and importing graphic elements and developing systems for other artists to use.

If you’re interested in what a technical artist does, check out our podcast with my colleague Paul Forest above (a technical artist who worked on World of Warcraft).

Visual Effects (VFX) Artists:

This position creates animations for things that aren’t characters or objects.

VFX Artists are responsible for:

  • Explosions
  • Powers 
  • Water dynamics
  • Weather dynamics and changes
  • And everything in between

Main skills needed:

  • A high-level understanding of how elements like water and dust behave in different conditions. 
  • Expertise with key software.

Visual effects artists and game designers work together to clearly communicate WHEN and WHERE attacks land, in addition to communicating consistent visual styles for different types of damage.

Lighting Artists: 

Using light, color, and shadow, lighting artists create dynamic experiences for players.

image4
(Credit: Jen Delle Monache)

For example, they might create the glow and lens flare associated with a man-made light in the game. They also work with game designers to optimize the lighting pipeline so that the game can run smoothly.

Main skill(s) needed: Trained and experienced in visual lighting softwares

Lighting artists support the efforts of level designers to help draw players into the right locations and ensure they notice the most important landmarks.

If you’ve ever entered a cave because there was a torch next to the entrance, you’ve seen the impact of a lighting artist at work.

User interface (UI) & user experience (UX) artists:

These artists are responsible for determining the layout, content, navigation, and usability features in the game’s interface.

image8 e1664908977537

Their job is to produce a UI that is visually pleasing and intuitive so that players can navigate the interfaces with ease.

Main skills needed:

  • An experienced understand of a user’s needs and general reflexes
  • An overall knowledge of animation and motion software.

UI/UX work is so close to game design many people often confuse the two. At the heart though, UI focused on presentation, while UX thinks about how the user gets the job done.

Game Designers work carefully with both to ensure the game and its controls are well taught and the most essential features the most accessible and useful.

Art Directors:

Game art directors communicate and oversee the artistic vision of the game.

They are responsible for managing the team of artists and animators, ensuring that all assets work as a cohesive whole.

Main skills needed:

  • A firm understanding of all the art fields they oversee.
  • Experience organizing, managing and leading a large team of different types of artists.

Art directors work with the game director to ensure the art is reinforcing the core pillars, themes and identity of the gameplay through its style and assets.

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Keep in mind that this list isn’t exhaustive. A role’s description can differ drastically depending on the size and type of game studio you work for.

What Does a Game Artist’s Career Look Like?

No two game artist careers will look the same, but there is a general trend for most game artists.

At first, you will be hired into an entry-level position. As you move along in your career, you will take on more responsibilities, gradually entering into senior positions or moving into the specialty that you most like.

After a few years, you might find yourself becoming a principal artist, whose role is to guide a team of artists and maintain the vision set by the art director.

Finally, with years of experience, you might progress to art director, with the job of coordinating an entire cohort of artistic staff on large projects.

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(Character art credit: Morten Skaalvik)

Keep in mind that the game industry is highly diverse.

The day-to-day work of an artist will depend on the game company they work for, the game they’re working on, and what type of art they have been hired to create.

In a smaller studio, there might be fewer artists, meaning that each artist must be skilled in different types of art development. In a larger studio, on the other hand, artists tend to be more specialized.

For example, an artist at an indie developer might create concepts and 3D models, while an artist at an AAA title could focus on a highly specific type of asset, like concept art for furniture in-game.

What are Game Artist’s Responsibilities

The bulk of a game artist’s day-to-day work is filled with creating their art and liaising with lead artists, developers, and other team members to fine-tune the style and feel of the artwork.

Take a concept artist as an example. In the early stages of a design, the artist might create dozens or hundreds of versions. These will be rough sketches that take a few minutes to produce.

The artist then narrows these concepts down to a few favorites through meetings with the lead artist and other team members.

As the concepts are narrowed down, the artist creates more polished artwork. Finally, a design will be chosen and the artist works towards a final version that is ready for modeling.

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How to Get Started as a  Video Game Artist?

The process to become a game artist is fairly straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In order to get into the game industry and work as professional game artist for a living, you need to prove that you can create art that players will enjoy and that matches the art direction.

The skills required to be a successful game artist are diverse:

  • Training in art creation, game art, or animation
  • A deep understanding of artistic qualities like lighting, perspective, and physics
  • The ability to translate real objects into art or create concepts from abstract ideas
  • The capacity to follow a brief and adapt to different art styles
  • Solid knowledge of the video game industry, the game development process, and current trends
  • The ability to work as part of a team or independently
  • Technical skills in your specific field, like 3D modeling skills, 2D or 3D animation, etc.
  • The ability to work well under the pressure of deadlines
  • The ability to take constructive criticism and adjust your artwork according to feedback

Game artists also need to be able to use the industry standard software for their field. There are several art tools and related software used by game artists, including:

  • 3D modeling and animation software like Blender, Flash, and Autodesk MotionBuilder
  • Image processing software including Adobe Photoshop, Inkscape, and GIMP
  • Texturing tools like ZBrush
  • Game production suites like Maya, Blender, and 3Ds Max
  • Game engines like Unreal Engine, GameMaker Studio 2, and Unity

Finally, game artists also benefit from the ability to code in standard programming languages like Python and C++.

Do You Need Qualifications to Become a Game Artist?

As you might expect, the main thing game studios are looking for in a game artist is their ability to create art that matches the artistic vision of the game they’re working on.

However, different studios will have different requirements and expectations of their artists.

Some studios now require applicants to have formal training, like a Bachelor’s degree, in a relevant course of study. Other studios are less stringent, focusing on the practical skills you bring to the table.

Higher education offers several pathways toward becoming a game artist.

For example, courses in game art, graphic design, 3D digital art, game design and game development are available at institutions around the world.

There are also courses available online that covers these disciplines.

This kind of formal training in game development can show employers that you have the necessary chops and understanding to collaborate effectively with other game dev disciplines such as QA, design and programming, giving you a leg up over other applicants.

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A background in traditional art can also be beneficial, as it will help you develop the fundamental art skills that you’ll need later on.

But at the end of the day, the main thing that will get your foot in the door is your portfolio.

Create a Portfolio that Showcases You’ve Made

high-quality portfolio should communicate your best work, experience, and sense of taste to the recruiter so that they get a good feel for your skills and experience level at a glance.

In game art, your portfolio is often the most important part of your application.

To make your portfolio stand out, you should:

  1. Cater your portfolio to the studio you’re applying to:If they’re looking for a level designer, make sure to include your best work in level design.This might include 3D models or screenshots of levels you’ve designed that showcase your understanding of flow, lighting, scripting, and so on.
  2. Only include your best work: Hiring managers receive tons of applications. To catch their eye, you should only include your best projects that highlight key skills or unique aspects of your work in your portfolio.
  3. Show your process: Your portfolio should show that you know how to make game art.To emphasize this, you should discuss your thought processes: How did you arrive at a design and develop the asset? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

image11

For more information, here’s a detailed guide on how to make a game design portfolio.

Network, Network, Network With Fellow Game Devs

It’s important to forge relationships with other game artists, developers, and studios as early as possible in your career. The most successful artists I’ve seen are also the easiest to work with, because they understand the human element.

Getting to know people in the industry, rubbing elbows, and showing them your work can increase your chances of getting hired. This can be very intimidating to artists who are more introverted, but opportunities only exist if you reach for them. Keep in mind, you don’t have to be the center of attention — just a couple key relationships can dramatically increase your opportunities.

Industry forums and networking sites like LinkedIn and Twitter are great places to start. Try to find key figures in the industry and connect with them to get your name on the map.

There are also several online game development communities that you can be a part of. For example, there are forums, game dev Discord servers, and Reddit threads where game designers and artists can network.

You can join our Discord server Funsmith Club and network with game dev of all levels there.

You can also try to find local or virtual game development meetupsfairs, or conventions. These local communities will help you make connections in your area, potentially leading to job and career development opportunities.

Conferences like the Game Developers Conference (GDC) also offer portfolio reviews where you can take your work and receive feedback.

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(Credit: n*tradeshows)

Finally, you could participate in game jams. These are multi-day events where you form a team and quickly assemble games. You can find out more about game jams and how to join them here.

Practical Tips for Aspiring Game Artists

If you’re just getting started, there are many things you can do to begin growing your skill set and building a shining portfolio:

  • Practice, practice, practice: The only way you’re going to become a talented artist is through the full-time practice of your craft. Understanding basic art theories and the fundamentals of game design is the first step to becoming a game artist.
  • Develop key skills: Once you have the fundamentals down, you need to start building a skill set around game art.A good way to do this is by looking at job descriptions for the specific role you’re interested in. Find out what you need to learn and start working on those skills.
  • Find a mentor: An experienced mentor can help you progress when you feel like you’re hitting a wall. They can give feedback on your work, portfolio, and approach to job interviews to help you land your first game design job.
  • Specialize: Nowadays, the more specialized you are, the better your chances of being hired. Do you want to be a concept artist? Animator?Having a niche helps you apply for specific job roles. It will also help you narrow down which skills you need to develop, and the kind of projects you could take part in to improve your portfolio.
  • Create fan art: It’s important to work from the best assets you can find, regardless of the game art sub-discipline you’re in. One way to do this is to work with high-quality, established assets.

If you want to learn more about how to thrive as an aspiring game artist, check out my conversation with Peet Cooper above, a 20+ year video game art veteran who has worked in almost every sub-discipline in game art throughout his career.

How to Work Well with Game Designers 

A common misconception for early career artists is that their artwork is going to be the centerpiece or main attraction of a game. 

But most often, a game artist’s work is part of a much larger picture

Remember gameplay cares about:

Visual Hierarchy: Games have thousands of pieces of art, and it’s important to make sure they don’t clash. 

Visual hierarchy means that the most important pieces of art are the most visible. For example, the player’s character, followed by the enemies, followed by background objects.

image5
(Credit: Heavy Metal Machines)

Clarity: Players need to know what’s happening, which game characters are enemies, where they need to go, and so on. 

Visual assets need to be designed so that all of this information is clear, intuitive, and easy to understand. 

Communication of game mechanics: Games should give players clear and responsive feedback when they perform actions. 

It could be something as simple as walking or jumping in a game. The art style should help to reinforce how the game works to the player.

For these reasons, a game artist’s work tends to support and reinforce the video game mechanics and clarity, rather than act as standalone pieces. 

Artists need to understand when the art should be stunning for its own sake versus when it needs to take a backseat to gameplay.

That’s why it’s crucial for game artists to learn enough game design to understand how their work can impact the player’s interactions with the game.
Essentially, a major part of a game artist’s role is to work well with other departments to develop a cohesive and consistent game. 

For instance, take a look at this screenshot:

image13
(Credit: Resources4Gaming)

Here, cluttered art distracts from the core gameplay, making a confusing experience for the player. 

In comparison, good art will reinforce the story developed by narrative designers for an area, or it will help to preserve important landmarks and lines of visibility as defined by the level designers.

Final Thoughts

Game artist jobs are highly sought after and there’s a lot of competition for entry-level positions. But don’t be disheartened. With a bit of research and some hard work, you can make yourself stand out from the crowd.

If you’re new to game art design, the first step is to hone your skills and start working on projects (collaborative and solo).

Once you have a set of great art samples, put it together into a coherent portfolio and start applying for jobs!

If you have any questions about game art or want to share your experiences in the field, leave a comment below!

By the way, whenever you’re ready, here are 3 ways to help you start or level-up your game design career:

1. First Principles of Game Design: Skill Development Program: Join game devs who got hired or promoted across 51 AAA and Indie game studios including Riot, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Bathesda, and etc.

Improve player retention and word of mouth by learning to accurately diagnose why the players are losing interest in any game and how to adjust accordingly – one of the main skills studios hire for.

2. Game Design Mentorship – Get access to live weekly video calls and chat feedback support directly from veteran game designer with 25 years of industry experience (see example sessions).

3. Game Design Career Goal Strategy Workshop: A live workshop to help you figure out exact action steps to reach your goal, whether you aim to

  • Break into the video game industry
  • Get promoted (or pivot) from your current position
  • Ship a successful Indie game

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EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan