Game Art Tests and How to Approach Them
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Game Art Tests and How to Approach Them
11 July, 2019
Interview
Opinion

Jonjo Hemmens wrote an amazing article that covers game art tests and their importance and gathered numerous pieces of advice from the artists working in the industry.

Introduction

My name is Jonjo Hemmens, and I’m an Environment Artist just starting in the games industry. In this article, I intend to explain what art tests are, show some successful art tests found on ArtStation, discuss rules and etiquette, and provide some great advice and opinions from experienced artists in the games industry. These artists include Baj Singh, Clinton Crumpler, Jacob Claussen, Jacob Norris, Josh Van Zuylen, Kieran Goodson, Natalia P. Gutiérrez, and Tim Simpson.

Foundry 42 Art Test by Josh Van Zuylen

What Are Game Art Tests and Why Are They Necessary?

Technical tests are a common and very important step in the application process for many positions in game development. Programmers, designers, and animators all have to do tests too, but we’ll be focusing just on art tests in this article. Art tests are briefs that expect a set of deliverables to be handed back to the employer by a specific date. Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy.

Most studios have their own unique art tests for each art position in the company, with little known about what they’re really looking for in a submission. The deadlines can vary from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. They can range from modeling entire scenes, a singular prop, a character bust, assets for texturing, or even a scene to light. Assets may or may not be provided to you, such as models or concepts. Your art test will most likely be for the specific art role you are applying for, so you probably shouldn’t worry about sculpting a character head if you’ve applied for a prop position.

But Isn’t My Portfolio Enough?

Depending on the studio, your portfolio and your skill level; you might be able to bypass the art test completely. But this is only if the studio is certain you can do the job they need you for. These tests are set to gauge the skills of the applicant, seeing if they can perform the level of quality the company desires within the specified timeframe. Sometimes you might be applying to a studio with a style that doesn’t match yours; the test will be set to challenge your ability to adapt.

“This is to make sure that the artist that may have god tier medieval artworks can also create sci-fi to the same standard the employer requires.” – Josh Van Zuylen

It’s also important for the studio to work out how well you perform when there are deadlines. A portfolio doesn’t always tell you much about how long it took to make each piece. An art test acts as a mock example of a task you’d be expected to perform in the studio, showing the team how you work in game production.

“You would be surprised how many artists I believed were good by their portfolio but when it came to performance in house they struggled.” – Clinton Crumpler

Naughty Dog Environment Art Test by Adrian Campos

What Do Studios Look for When Reviewing an Art Test?

So far, we’ve established that art tests vary from studio to studio, and probably look for slightly different things in terms of style and technical skill. To get an idea of the fundamental skills that studios are looking for, I asked each of the artists I interviewed what they look for when reviewing art tests.

“I would want to see if the quality of their test matched what our in-house artists could achieve (or whether they showed potential). Following the brief closely is important too, as it shows that they can be left to work fairly management free and in an automated state.” – Baj Singh

“Attention to detail, clean UVs and topology. Texture attention and clarity and texture density are my first looks. If the artist makes it past those then it’s just on quality.” – Clinton Crumpler

“It really comes down to how well you follow instructions. Guides and limits are set in tests to see how well you work within those bounds. Also, if your scene looks awesome but your layout renders look crap then you will lose some points. You want to look good on all fronts”. – Josh Van Zuylen

“If the test matched the provided concept well, how technically efficient was the test done. Is everything a unique unwrap? Or did they use tiling textures and trim sheets to save resources etc. Also is the modeling somewhat efficient and is there clean topology etc. But really the first thing is the proportions and form should feel good and match the provided reference material. It certainly doesn’t have to be perfect, but demonstrating a little awareness of technical requirements for game art is expected”. – Tim Simpson

The responses I received highlighted some really important things to pay attention to when working on your art test. I’ve condensed the responses into some digestible points to follow when working on a test.

 

  • Good understanding of technical skills

 

Understanding the fundamentals of game art seems to be what all the artists look for. Clean topology in your meshes, good texel density, use of game art techniques (such as tiling / trims textures) and clean UVs are fundamental 3D skills when creating game assets. These are some of the most important things to demonstrate in your art test.

 

  • Good presentation

 

No matter how cool your art test might be, your presentation of the piece needs to be clean. Handing in messy renders with joke file names probably isn’t the best idea. Make sure you have clean Maya/Max/Zbrush files, use naming conventions and organize your assets appropriately in your submission. You also need to spend time on your final renders if they’re necessary. Taking the time to submit a clean test shows you can work professionally and that you care about the quality of your piece.

Presenting yourself professionally throughout your interaction with the studio is just as important. If you don’t get the job, then politely ask for feedback. Don’t send them an angry rant. Remember, they’re people just doing their jobs.

 

  • Follow the brief

 

Following the brief shows that you can follow instructions and work independently on what they’ve asked for, which is ideally what you would be doing if hired by the studio. It’s really important to get this right: make sure you understand the brief and properly organize your time, to make sure you have all your deliverables ready to hand in before the deadline.

It’s better to hand in something of less quality on time, then something of amazing quality but late. But not handing anything in on deadline day is a cardinal sin, and it looks unprofessional. – Kieran Goodson

Going into your test with the aim to achieve these three points should put you in a good position during your art test, and will help make you a better artist. It will show that you have the passion and attention to detail that they might be looking for.

Examples of Great Art Tests

To give an idea of what you might have to expect when encountering art tests, I got in contact with Jacob Claussen and Natalia P. Gutiérrez who have both posted their successful tests on their portfolios. They were both kind enough to give a brief breakdown, and explain their thought process.

The Alley

The Alley by Jacob Claussen

The Alley by Jacob Claussen shows a solid understanding of lighting and art fundamentals, as well as good technical knowledge of environment art techniques. For his art test for Starbreeze, he’s been able to create this city backstreet which utilizes many art techniques to bring it to life. With the use of decals, trim sheets, masked alphas, vertex painting, and a good modular kit, Jacob achieved this in just 3 days!

How long was the test?

“We got 7 days for this art-test but I wanted to show that I could manage a short deadline, so I did it in a weekend. I did quite strict planning and gave myself breaks to go outside because if you crunch it will not give you good results when you work for 15+ hours a day. Put in breaks every other hour and work smart!”

What did you prioritize?

“My goal was to show that I could do an early draft of an environment in a couple of days with a strict 10,000 polycount. With a low poly count, I had to put more weight on lighting and decals. I think my biggest mistake was not planning the poly count on the props. I ended up lowering and lowering the assets in the end (the balcony is only masked alphas for example). I put almost 1000 polys into one of the security cameras but it was good in the sense that I gave them a higher detail prop to show that I could do that. Details like the balcony were really important to add a really nice detail shadow. Using shadows as a detail is very cheap and very effective. Being at such a distance, it was enough to just use alphas instead of a whole mesh!“

What helped you prepare for your test?

“I applied for Overkill’s The Walking Dead; I studied post-apocalyptic games and also the quality of AAA games. Watching the TV show helped me show my interest in the project and it’s always nice for a studio to get an applicant who wants to get involved in the world that’s being created.” 

Why did you decide to use your art test on your portfolio?

“I saved all the art-tests I could find online and there were not that many, so my first thought was that I could give people trying to get into the industry an idea of how an art-test can look like. It may also show that I can pull off something during a shorter time-frame, with strict limitations.”

Military Girl

Military Girl by Natalia P. Gutiérrez

With Military girl, Natalia Gutiérrez demonstrates the ability to create an intriguing character using multiple pieces of clothing and a range of different PBR materials. It shows an understanding of the essential workflows needed for character production. Apart from the vest, Natalia had the freedom to design her own character; one of the strongest parts of this test.

How long was the test?

“It lasted for about 12 days if I remember correctly. I spent all the available days, working a different number of hours per day on it. They gave me the freedom to design the character (A concept was given for the vest/armor parts).”

What did you prioritize in the test?

“What I mainly wanted to achieve was something good enough to get the job! Since I had some creative freedom, I tried making something both original and coherent, adding some elements that I thought could fit the original concept. I focused on creating an interesting character, something that wouldn’t look generic. I think the strongest part would be the general character design.”

Why did you decide to use your art test on your portfolio?

“I got their permission to do so, and since I considered it to be a good piece for my standards back then, I uploaded it. I think it’s a good piece to show that I’m able to do an asset under established limitations.” 

Sharing your Art Test Online

Sharing your test online can be a valuable opportunity for you to get some good feedback on your work. However, there are some things you should keep in mind before you do so.

  • Non-disclosure agreements (NDA)

NDA’s are a very standard document in the games industry that could be provided to ensure that sensitive information discussed with you, stays with you. This information could be about the studio’s internal projects.

“There are companies where their art tests are secretive as they are project-reliant and by doing this an applicant can break their NDA clause.” – Baj Singh

NDA’s are serious documents with legal repercussions: Breaking an NDA with one studio might make it difficult to find a position in other studios. If you can manage to avoid telling all your friends about the new games “Studio X” is working on, then you’ll be fine and have nothing to worry about. Not all art tests come with NDA’s tied to them, so you may not need to worry about them at all.

Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to share your art test online at this point, so try and get as much feedback as you can from the studio.

“Don’t break your NDA on the test. The industry is very small its very easy for it to come back to the employer through their channels sooner or later.” – Josh Van Zuylen

When provided with your test, you might be asked to not affiliate your test with the studio, or share specific details of the brief if you decide to post it online. Although you might not have a contract with the studio, it is good manners to respect their wishes here. Sharing more than just the art could possibly tarnish your reputation with the studio, making it very difficult if you intend to apply for another position with them. The details are not as important as the art.

Larian Art Test by Nicolas Vanhemelryck

Feedback

If you’re not bound by an NDA, then you should be free to share it online. Even if you’ve not been successful, I urge you to post it: there is no shame in failing an art test. Game art jobs are highly competitive, and sometimes you might not be the right fit. Failing your test provides you with a great opportunity to learn something new and mend the shortcomings in your work. Here are some good places for you to go for feedback;

“Just think of the art tests as more practice. If they don’t work out, ask what could have been better or helped.” – Jacob Norris

  • Polycount

Polycount is one of the largest art forums with a particular focus on 3D game art. The forum threads provide a great way for people to look at the progress on your project and give feedback. Polycount is one of the biggest hubs for games industry artists and has a ridiculous amount of resources stored in their wiki so check it out. https://polycount.com/

  • The DiNusty Empire

The DiNusty Empire is one of the best discord servers for game artists. It’s been running for quite a few years and has accumulated a community of over 3,000 members. It’s incredibly active and has cultivated a positive and supportive community geared towards helping people find work in the games industry. Join Here

  • The Flipped Normals Community

The Flipped Normals community is a great discord server for CG and Character Artists. There’s a specific focus on all things character related, so lots of Zbrush, Marvelous Designer, and Anatomical resources here, as well as a friendly and active community. Join Here

  • No More Grid

No More Grid is a relatively new Discord server with a focus on environment art. Even though it’s new, there is already an active community and some great artists giving feedback and sharing resources. Join Here

  • ArtStation Blog

If you have an ArtStation profile, then you have an ArtStation Blog. Posting updates on your test here allows people who already follow you, and potential employers looking at your portfolio, to see you actively working on upgrading your test. I would recommend using this in conjunction with any of the above!

Sleeping Quarters Foundry 42 Art Test by Chander Lieve

Using Art Tests in Your Portfolio

  • Failed tests

Using an art test on your portfolio would initially seem like a good idea: it would show you’ve done an art test and would be another piece in your portfolio. Time is precious to artists and you don’t want to feel like you’ve wasted all that time on something you have no use for. During my interviews and research, I’ve found that this might not be such a great idea. There is a bit of a stigma towards sharing your art tests on your portfolio. This particularly applies to art tests that failed in the application process.

“If someone fails a test, yet they showed the work on their portfolio, this raises questions, like do they see themselves as being really good and that their test was the bees knees, even though they didn’t get the job.”  – Josh Van Zuylen

Your portfolio should be a place to share your successes, rather than your failures. Sharing a failed test on your portfolio may show that you judge the piece to have as much merit as your other portfolio pieces, which might be far better. You also don’t want prospective employers seeing that you failed to hit the requirements for a different company.

“This shows that you failed to get the position, and prospective employers might call this into question.” – Baj Singh

  • Repetition

Game art positions usually have hundreds of applications which means hundreds of art tests. Although it can be great to see how you compared to other artists,  posting your test might not show much originality or initiative unless you had freedom over the brief. Don’t start your application process with an employer sighing at the test on your portfolio that they had just seen in someone else’s application.

“We often see the same art tests on multiple portfolios (I remember years ago, it was the ‘Splash Damage’ Waterfront, or the ‘Naughty Dog’ head) with varying qualities). Your original work matters more to us.” – Baj Singh

  • Salvage what you can

The silver lining to failing an art test; you’ll be in a good position to learn something new. Take the initiative and ask the employer for feedback on your test. You might not always get a response, but it can’t hurt to ask. Depending on whether you’ve signed an NDA or a contract before starting your test, you could take the piece to places like Polycount or Discord for feedback from the art community.

By proactively fixing the issues in your art test, you can learn something, and reinforce that knowledge. It also ensures that the piece you’ve just invested days, or even weeks into, has value. Ideally, you will finish with a piece that is much more worthy of being on your portfolio or has taught you something new.

“Make something out of every test if you fail. I always suggest my students take a failed art test and turn it into something new like a new scene or project.” – Clinton Crumpler

Conclusion

Art tests can be a bit daunting for people trying to get into the games industry. I hope you have gained some direction for tackling your first tests, or some areas to focus on for your next ones. If you have any additional questions about art tests, just send me a message on ArtStation. Thank you for reading, and good luck with your art tests!

Final Tips and Advice from Industry Artists

Huge thanks to all the artists who helped me put together this article, it really wouldn’t be possible without them so please head to their ArtStations or websites and give them some love! They also went the extra mile to give you some extra tips and advice 🙂

  • Baj Singh, Lead Character Artist for The Creative Assembly:

“If you REALLY want to work for a specific company, cater your portfolio style to their existing line of work. Not only will be extremely apparent that you want to work for them, but also that your work is capable of filling their criteria without the need to even do an art test (and you get portfolio pieces that you won’t see cloned on other people’s portfolios).” – Baj Singh

“Don’t spread yourself too thin. Take the tests you want but not all of them. Also make something out of every test if you fail. I always suggest my students take a failed art test and turn it into something new like a new scene or project. Don’t think of any art test as a failure as you’ll always learn something new.” – Clinton Crumpler

“If you want to work in a specific studio, a good way to set you apart is to research the studio and what workflows they have. Look up the artists who work there and study their stuff, read articles or even maybe find a video from a GDC talk. The more set yourself apart from all the others that apply, the higher chance you get of catching your dream job. It’s okay working in a studio that maybe isn’t what you want to do forever. Use it as a stepping stone. So be realistic and take every opportunity to learn from the studio to reach your goal. And goals always change!” – Jacob Claussen

Jacob has a Gumroad with some great tutorials check them out here! 

“When it comes to art tests, I usually do extra from what they ask. Always show that you can work within their confined parameters, but maybe include an extra scene or an addition to their scene on the side. But make sure it also looks badass, because you don’t want to show extra work if it isn’t as good.” – Jacob Norris

“Unfortunately breaking in your probably going to get the most test you ever will. Take solace in knowing that they will slowly dwindle as you progress up the chain and if you keep your portfolio sharp.” – Josh Van Zuylen

“Generally speaking, workflows are iterative meaning that most assets and levels get several quality checks throughout their development lifetime. Getting feedback and making changes is part of game art life- it’s necessary and expected. If you also know what needs to be improved if you had more time, then even better. Self-awareness is always key and shows humility, as well as a huge potential for growth.”  – Kieran Goodson

“I’d say it definitely helps to have a clear idea of the style or things you like to do the most. Realism, Stylization, etc. Learning what the current industry standards are, quality-wise, and creating projects trying to achieve a similar level of quality using the same pipeline and workflow. Presentation shots are important as well!” – Natalia P. Gutiérrez

  • Tim Simpson, Senior Environment and Lighting Artist at Tuque Games

Tim runs Polygon Academy where he great tutorials and hosts Q&A sessions about the games industry, check them out here!

“I would say just really try to match the concept and avoid trying to get too “creative” and change things up. When you are working at a studio, you are going to be expected to produce work that matches the concept art or art direction reference. So give the studio what it wants, just focus on executing that art at the highest level as possible. For me, I included a notepad file of personal critiques that outlined what I thought went right, wrong and what I would fix if I had more time. The studio responded well to that. But overall just try to challenge yourself, have fun and try to look at being given an art test as an opportunity to shine.” – Tim Simpson

Jonjo Hemmens, Environment Artist

Re-create your favorite game scenes using the new Desert Warzone assets from Quixel:

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jaminKL

Is it OK to ask for the position salary before doing the art test? what if you complete the art test well but they offer a below expected salary….?

maeva
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maeva

I tried that once and they wouldn’t give me an answer but weren’t insulted so it doesn’t hurt to try. In the end I refused to do the test without knowing the salary as I was currently employed and working 70h a week (crunch mode) so I would have hated taking time off work only to be offered less then what I was making

Jonathan Hemmens
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Jonathan Hemmens

Hi Jamin, It’s probably fine to ask this if they haven’t mentioned in on the job posting. However, if you understandably feel awkward doing so, I would recommend checking out Glass Door for average salaries for the position. This might give you a better idea 🙂 cheers for reading.

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