Beginner’s Guide to Game Art and Becoming a Video Game Artist?
There’s a reason why so many people want to become video game artists.
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.
Think about what different games look like – franchises like Borderlands are unforgettable because of the art direction they took.
The problem is that jobs in the gaming industry are highly competitive, and game art 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.
Here is what we’ll cover today:
What is Game Art and What Do Game Artists Do?
Here is where game art is involved in the context of the game development process:
At its core, game art is a simple concept. It’s all of the visual elements that make up a computer game, from characters to menus and user interfaces.
It’s the job of a game artist to create these artistic elements using art creation software. These elements include all of the characters, objects, and environments in the game, as well as their animations, effects, lighting, and so on.
But don’t confuse “game art” with “game design.”
These two professions work side-by-side to produce a game, but while 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.
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:
This position is responsible for creating preliminary sketches for all the assets that make up a game.
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.
This position constructs computer-generated 3D visual game assets based on the concept art.
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.
These artists create or manipulate images to give textures to objects in game.
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.
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:
- 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.
Using light, color, and shadow, lighting artists create dynamic experiences for players.
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 skills 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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, and game development are available at institutions around the world.
This kind of formal training in game development can show employers that you have the necessary chops, giving you a leg up over other applicants.
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.
Create a Portfolio that Showcases You’ve Made
A 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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 also try to find local or virtual game development meetups, fairs, 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!