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How to land your dream job in game art

This article is part of our Get into Games special, offering students insight on life in the games industry and advice on how to get into the business. You can also find aselection of the best Academy guides for job-seekers here

Working as an artist in games can seem like a difficult role to land. But it’s something that – with the right level of skill and hard work – is absolutely within your grasp.

On the Academy stage at EGX 2023, Sinéad Oram, a 2D artist at Sony’s Media Molecule, shared her insights into securing a position within this segment of game development.

What roles are there within game art?
How much can you earn?
How do I choose a university course?
What if university isn’t an option?
What engine and software should I learn to use?
Where can I find like-minded people?
How can I create the perfect portfolio?
How do I present my projects?
How can I find companies to apply to?

What roles are there within game art?

When considering a position in games art, it helps to narrow down what you like about this sector of development and where your talent lies.

“I’m pretty confident in saying that whatever your art skills and interests, there is an art role in the industry for you,” Oram says.

She suggests a UI role might suit those into graphic design; if you are good with shaders and enjoy coding, technical art might work for you. People who love Substance Designer might find that a material artist role is up their alley.

“The best place to start is what you enjoy doing and are naturally skilled at,” she continues.

“The more you learn, the more you practice and experiment, the more you’ll find that perfect role. For example, I always wanted to be an animator growing up. I even did an animation degree, then I made an animated short film for my final project and found out I liked modelling more than I did animating. I was also better at it because I liked it. So I then became an environment artist.”

How much can you earn?

Salary is an important consideration when choosing a specific field within any part of game development and art is no exception. Oram recommends checking Skillsearch’s annual games and interactive salary satisfaction report to learn more about pay within the industry.

“There’s a huge difference between art roles in the industry. Certain positions are very in demand; they tend to pay better and have less competition,” she explains.

“Companies are always looking for tech artists, VFX artists and UI/UX designers. Therefore, the pay is typically a little bit higher, whereas a role like concept artist is very competitive as there are so few concept art roles compared to 3D art roles. Usually, there’s one concept artist for every ten 3D artists at a studio. That can be even more extreme. At Media Molecule, we tend to do our concept art on projects; at Hutch, the art director did a few key concepts for us.”

How do I choose a university course?

To secure a job within games art, you need to look at education. This doesn’t need to be university-based, but if you are looking at that path, Oram recommends that you try to find the best institution for you. You can check The Rookies for university rankings and look out for courses that Screen Skills accredits.

“I’d advise you to look through ArtStation and find the work of graduates from the institutions that look interesting to you,” Oram explained. “If you can, try and talk to graduates from those universities to see what they think of it.

“Make sure you apply for all the student bursaries you are entitled to. Most scholarships will be available on the university’s website. This is how I got my scholarship for my master’s degree – universities give you access to equipment, studios, education, knowledge and most importantly, the friendship of your peers. It’s a very difficult thing to work out the value of and it’s certainly the easiest way to create a community of creatives around you, which is priceless really.”

What if university isn’t an option?

Of course, university isn’t the only route into game development. One of the senior artists on Oram’s team, Daniel Goddard, came to his current role via Media Molecule’s QA department.

It’s also possible to teach yourself via the myriad courses that are available online.

“ArtStation Learning is probably the best place to go for free industry-standard knowledge,” Oram says. “YouTube is also a great place to start. There are online talks – like this one or those on the GDC channel – available for free, but do be wary of picking up bad habits from older free tutorials.”

There are also tutorials available from marketplaces such as ArtStation Learning, Flipped Normals and Stylized Station Courses. Oram says these are great places to find “reliable and up-to-date” information, especially about CG art.

Platforms such as Udemy and Gumroad allow users to sell tutorials, not only providing you with educational resources but also allowing you to support actual artists.

Finally, there’s the subscription model, which Oram says is “really good value for money.”

“When I was a student, a friend and I used to share a subscription account because we couldn’t afford it on our own,” she said. “If you can swing it, The Gnomon Workshop and Schoolism are filled with highly curated courses made by working professionals. Patata School is also great for 2D artists who want to learn 3D. This section is the perfect mix of money and quality.”

What engine and software should I learn to use?

If you are looking at this article, then the odds of you being an aspiring games artist are high. As a result, you’ll likely be aware of the plethora of 3D software and game engines on the market.

It can be intimidating, but you can take some comfort in the knowledge that – according to Oram – it doesn’t matter what you use, as you’ll likely be switching between different software across your career and various jobs.

“But it is important that you know a 3D software really well and are open to learning pipelines that you are applying to,” she said. “Maya is probably the most popular in games right now, so that might give you a slight edge in getting you initially hired. But this does change by studio. The main thing to know is the base art skills that can be applied to every platform you will likely come across.

“Ultimately, when starting out, familiarise yourself with a 3D package, a texturing software and an engine. More importantly, become used to taking your assets through that whole pipeline, from beginning to end. Once you have the basics down, you can work out what software is vital to the specific role you are interested in. I would really encourage you to get all those assets to the finish line and get them in engine because that puts you at a huge advantage compared to the artists that don’t have that in their portfolios.”

Where can I find like-minded people?

In addition to education and familiarising yourself with various game development software, Oram recommends finding a community. Online groups are easier to find and can yield positive results.

“Ideally, you need a Discord server where you can ask stupid questions and get answers and feedback on your work,” she said. “Getting stuck into an online community is, in my experience, one of the quickest ways to improve when you are on your own. Flipped Normals, The Rookies and Into Games all have Discord servers. My journey improved a hundred times quicker when I started posting my work on the old Polycount forums.” As well as forums and servers, Oram recommends aspiring artists engage with folks already in the business online.

“Follow games studios accounts. Follow devs,” she said. “Most of my jobs have come from social media and people and studios I followed posting when their studios were hiring. Follow studios on LinkedIn and Twitter, and sign up to their email lists.”

Real-life communities are also a good way of meeting other artists and improving your skill set. Often, universities have video game clubs where you can meet like-minded developers. “Remember that your peers are not your competition,” Oram explained.

“Your peers will help you get jobs when you don’t have one. They’ll be the people you start companies with. Make meaningful connections early on. It’s a small industry in the UK and you’ll probably be working with these people for the rest of your lives.

“If you aren’t at university, try finding local game dev meetups on Eventbrite. Maybe try volunteering at events. Try to make friends, not networking connections. Networking events are great, but the real networking happens between expensive events where you make friends with industry peers. There are plenty of jobs for everyone, I promise. The more we work together as a community of artists, the more jobs and opportunities there will be.”

How can I create the perfect portfolio?

You need a good portfolio before you land a job in games art. This is your chance to demonstrate your skills, regardless of whether you went to university or are self-educated. You don’t need to make a website for an art portfolio; instead, you can use existing platforms such as ArtStation and Behance.

Oram says that showreels are vital for animators but aren’t crucial for most artist roles.

“The best advice I can give is to look at portfolios of people whose jobs you want but also look at the portfolio of students who have just graduated and have their first jobs,” she said. “This will tell you exactly where you must be to get hired.”

The first rule for a solid portfolio, Oram said, is how you present the first page. This is very important as it will give recruiters an idea of who you are and whether your work is worth looking at.

“Make lovely thumbnails,” she said. “Whatever the platform, just don’t crop a shot from the project badly. Line it up, make it look nice, and crop the image to an exciting part of a portfolio. The number of portfolios where the thumbnail is a tiny shot of the handle of a gun is far too many. For characters, cropping the face is a really good trick. For environments, maybe a lovely shot of the vista. Put as much effort into the thumbnail as any image inside the project.

“I like to put a logo on the work as if it’s a professional piece. You can also do that with personal projects. For me, it looks neat and shows my pro experience.”

Oram’s second rule is to put your best work first.

“You don’t have to do it chronologically,” she said. “I like to put my best pieces at the beginning, middle and end of the top line. And my third rule is if there’s a header, put your art in it. You don’t want anything on your portfolio to look unfinished or blank.”

The fourth rule for creating a perfect portfolio is to only feature your “best and finished work”.

“Please, no work-in-progress pieces,” Oram said. “Please, no life drawing and please, no crowd simulations that you only did for a class once and have no interest in doing again.”

The final – and golden – rule for your portfolio is to curate your work to be the best and most relevant to the job you are applying for.

“Unfortunately, you need to be a bit brutal and prune regularly,” Oram explained. “Four industry-ready projects are enough to get hired. In fact, three good projects will get you hired over six projects, of which three aren’t really up to the task. It’s about quality over quantity here.”

How do I present my projects?

As with portfolios, there are some golden rules for showing off individual game projects. Oram recommended showing something in engine to put you above the competition.

“You’ll be head and shoulders above the rest as you are showing something beautiful and competent,” she said. “If it’s an environment, render a camera slowly moving through the scene. Add some audio. Show any VFX or animated shader work you’ve done.

“If it’s a character or prop, try creating a turnaround or have slow pans over lovely parts of the asset. Feel free to make this a long video that the viewer can skip around. If it’s a concept art project, put the gorgeous colour concept at the top, then a project blurb, let the viewer know what software you used, how long the project took if you made it in a group setting and exactly what you did.”

The following section should contain more renders and shots of the piece.

“If it is a concept piece, put all the uncoloured turnarounds and callout sheets here,” Oram said. “Sell the whole project. Some more lovely projects for anyone who skipped through the video you put at the top.”

Finally, you need to have a breakdown section, what Oram described as “your working out” or how you came to the result that you did.

“At the very least, I want to see wireframes. I want to make sure you are creating usable assets,” she said. “You can show materials here, normal map, meta map, roughness, and separate renders of hero props. This is great because I can see your wireframes, normals and everything in 3D. If it’s a concept piece, show the thumbnails, sketches and colour scripts you have made in this section.”

How can I find companies to apply to?

The games industry is massive, but finding individual studios to work at can be challenging. You can turn to resources like the UK Games Industry Map to find developers near you.

It’s also worth using social media as a resource for finding jobs. This is actually how Oram has secured her last five roles.

“I followed artists at companies I wanted to work at on Twitter, but I’ve also got jobs following companies on LinkedIn and signing up for company mailing lists,” she explained. “I even got some jobs from Facebook groups back in the day.

“Additionally, those communities I talked about earlier also have community job boards. The UK Games Industry Slack has one, and the art community Discords also tend to have them. Job boards are a great place to look when you don’t have as many connections. I tend to find that by the time a job ends up on a board like Indeed or Monster, the position is filled. I’d recommend focusing on job boards specifically aimed at games roles. Many people have told me Work With Indies is a great place to work. There’s also the and ArtStation jobs boards.”

Finally, you can also turn to recruiters in order to secure your next – or first – job.

“This is especially useful if you have a commercial portfolio,” Oram said. “If you’re a UI/UX designer, a graphic designer or a marketing artist. I’ve worked with Aardvark Swift and Amiqus before and they were both very useful.”

Oram also has a list of resources for trying to secure an artist position in the games industry that you can check out right here.

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