Jason Keyser on In-Game VFX and the Demand for FX Artists

VFX Artist and Founder of VFX Apprentice Jason Keyser has told us more about modern-day visual effects, explained the general rules of appealing VFX in games, and spoke about the situation on the market for VFX Artists.


80.lv: Could you introduce yourself to us? Tell us a bit about your story of going to VFX in games and your career in Riot.

Jason Keyser, VFX Artist & Founder of VFX Apprentice: When I joined an art school, I knew I wanted to be an Animator. I had no idea what a Game VFX Animator was! Like most of us, I stumbled into it and instantly fell in love. Making magical elemental animation just seemed perfect for me.

My student thesis project Alight, about a boy made of fire and a girl made of water, was all about 2D FX. While in school, I worked a few jobs using my 2D skills. It was unclear exactly how I would get to my dream job while doing that sort of work, so I tried a few things for a few years until I applied at Riot Games. They took a chance on me, even though I had no 3D Real-Time VFX experience at the time. Essentially, my 2D FX skills were strong enough that they were willing to teach me 3D. I'll always be grateful for that decision they made because it seriously altered the course of my life!

Modern-Day Visual Effects

80.lv: Could you tell us a bit about the technological processes that are at the core of modern game VFX?

Jason: Game VFX covers a MASSIVE spectrum of skills, tools, and terms. I recommend picking just one specialization for your first job, then pick up others that interest you throughout your career. So for instance, someone might start on a game that uses a lot of 2D FX, working in Toon Boom Harmony, Adobe Animate, or similar software, animating frame-by-frame animation much like the old days. That's one area our instructors and I focus on teaching a lot because you can do some really fun styles, and a lot of studios are looking to hire skilled 2D FX Artists (both in games, cinematics, and film). I'd say 2D FX fits on the "artsy" side of the game VFX spectrum.

Then there's hand-crafted 3D FX. This is another love of mine because it's the category that I worked in for League of Legends. With a hand-crafted style, it's a lot of manual work, painting a texture just the way you want it to look so the elements of smoke, fire, water, magic, etc. feel as if they were painted. Then you build your meshes exactly how you want, giving you full control over their shape profile. To get some fun and punchy timing in your effect, you have full control of the particle editor to fine-tune your motion. At the end of the day, your goal is to make an illusion of an effect that feels magical, powerful, and dynamic. Hand-crafted effects don't have to feel low-tech, though! Often we use animated materials that get the textures we paint to "dance" across the screen in interesting ways. Tools used here would include something like Krita or Photoshop for texture painting, Blender or Maya for meshes, and Unity or Unreal for animating the particles in the engine. I always make sure my students not only know the software but also the artistic fundamentals as well. Studios need VFX Artists to know both, for sure.

At the more "techy" end of the spectrum would be dynamic, procedural, and simulated effects. Each of these has its own depths of complexity to plunge into and is a really fun adventure for someone who loves solving puzzles. For dynamic effects, you'll want to understand how the game engine itself functions, so you can script events, pass around parameters, and modify what's happening with your effect in real-time. Sometimes this means a destructible object that breaks up when impacted or a particle system that reacts dynamically to something the player is doing when playing the game. It's like seeing your scripting come to life!

The technology, tools, and styles are evolving constantly across the whole spectrum of game VFX. In the end, you can go super deep in one area, or try exploring lots of areas throughout your career. No two VFX Artists are the same!

The Rules

80.lv: What are the general rules of thumb for VFX usage in games? How not to overdo it, and how to combine different parts like visuals, camera, and sound for better results?

Jason: It really comes down to the game. Some games actually want to fill the screen with more VFX than you can handle, like in certain bullet-hell titles. With online PvP competitive titles, it's important that the VFX are reigned in to meet clear standards of power level and area of effect. Whenever I get questions or e-mails from students about how to balance their effects visually, I want to know the specific types of games they want to work on, preferably with examples of projects they admire or want to go work on.

Here are a few examples to answer the second part of your question: when planning your effect, always ALWAYS think about the player's experience. How do you want them to feel when the effect happens? What will it be next to when it happens? How often does it happen, and is it a climactic moment? All of this will massively impact your plans, not only with the effect itself but how it will tie in with other aspects such as audio and post-processing to help it meet its goal. A successful effect might be some ambient fog increasing the mystery or suspense in a subconscious way. Or it might be the final boss' dark magic spell of decimation during a cutscene, that fills the entire scene. With such a wide range of possibilities, being very clear on what your goals are will be critical, even when making student work! After all, one of the first questions a studio interviewer will ask is, "what is this effect for? How would it be used in a game, and what were your goals when making the effect?" Be ready with those answers before you start, and you'll be well on your way!

The Demand for VFX Artists

80.lv: What's going on with the market for VFX Artists nowadays? What's your take on it?

Jason: So basically it's absolutely insane how in-demand game VFX artists are. A combination of many factors is all feeding into this, and it's all happening on a massive global scale. It's true of game development generally, but even more with VFX. Here are the factors I see at play:

  • More growth = more demand: Non-stop long-term growth in the games industry means more VFX artists are needed.
  • More jobs = less supply of new artists: Start-up studio investors expect teams to hire quickly to hit their milestones faster.
  • More jobs per studio = Larger studios have grown the size of their VFX departments, recognizing their importance.
  • No training = no new artists: At my last count, there are exactly zero college degree programs specialized in game VFX.

When you consider all of this has been happening for 20-30 years, it's clear we have a real supply/demand imbalance on our hands. It's not a VFX talent pool we're dealing with; it's a talent puddle. And most days, that puddle is totally dried up. During my six years at Riot Games sitting on applicant review panels looking at potential VFX artists, this became painfully obvious to me: there weren't enough people at a high enough skill level to meet the need, and practically everyone who could help mentor them was already overbooked with work. This is actually the exact reason I left Riot: to build a school fully dedicated to training new VFX artists and start filling up the pool.

VFX in Realistic and Stylized Games

80.lv: What's your take on realism in games?

Jason: Regardless of the tech or style in any game, if it doesn't have a strong creative direction, it won't be an iconic product. We know this is true of films, and it applies exactly to games. Let's not mistake high budgets for high quality! My general take on realism in games is that they can be some of the most immersive, engaging, and captivating spectacles imaginable. Or they can be a total misuse of creative energy. Epic Games' The Matrix demo is great not just because it is realistic, but because it is well-art-directed and executed with strong artistic integrity.

To hit a high bar for quality in realistic game VFX, it takes time and practice to go deep into the tools at hand, such as EmberGen for simulations, or Niagara for scripted particles. The tools vary wildly across the style spectrum. For instance, a VFX Artist for a 2D side-scroller won't have the education to make VFX for a 3D next-gen open-world action-adventure title. It would take months or years to truly master one style or the other. We call them both "game VFX," but each sub-category is an entirely different career track.

The tools used to make high-detail, well-lit, randomized effects which are grounded in a rich and immersive world are, in the end, just tools. Like a painter having different paint brushes, pallet knives, charcoal pencils, and sponges, a VFX Artist can load up their tool belt with as many or as few tools as they want, depending on the jobs they want to do.

This range of specialization is true for every game developer. Each game is uniquely created by specific people with specific skills. There are a few examples of people I know who can span a wider spectrum of VFX styles, tools, and genres. Some of them work with me as instructors! I'm a big believer that if you want to diversify your career, hopping on to totally different projects, then you need to invest time into your education throughout your career. For those of us who love learning, it's just a matter of putting in the time to get the skills.

80.lv: And what about stylization? How do you approach it? What are the challenges of it?

Jason: We've been having a lot of fun teaching our apprentices to put 2D FX into Unreal Engine 5. The term "stylized" has become a sort of shorthand to describe a very broad category of game VFX. It's not quite specific enough for my needs, though. I mean, even a photograph can be stylized, so where's the line between realistic and stylized? Instead, I like to use terms like these: clear graphic shapes, punchy personality, imaginative, edgy, unexpected, full of life, flat-shaded, vibrant colors, and so on. By getting more specific, you can better define what the goals are. It's critical to define your style so the whole team understands what the target is. That way you don't have five artists making five different stylized styles!

To create the 2D FX, grab some 2D animation software. There's a lot out on the market to choose from, including Toon Boom Harmony, OpenToonz, and many other alternatives. You can export your animation into a sheet of frames called a flipbook, which can be imported into a game engine. From there I like to combine my 2D flipbook with a number of other 3D elements to create a more substantial composition. It can be tempting to overcomplicate a flipbook. Try to let supplementary GPU particles, animated shaders, and maybe even alternate flipbooks do some of the lifting to make your effect more cohesive and integrated. It's a pretty complex process for something so artistic, to be honest. I have a few tutorials on YouTube and a lot more in our classes that explain all this in more detail.


80.lv: Where do VFX go from here? More AI? More simulations? What are the new tools and things that should be of importance and worthy to learn?

Jason: Well, it's hard to say what the future of VFX holds. I will say we still have a lot of catching up to do currently. Many studios have built a lot of very fascinating solutions to make dynamic and appealing effects on a vast scale, but those tricks and tools are usually kept secret from the rest of us. Surprisingly, a lot of studios are using outdated pipelines and techniques in their VFX work, due to a lack of training and support. 

In the best of times, we get the opportunity to learn and share game VFX knowledge more openly at conferences. To get ourselves up to speed with its neighboring artistic disciplines, it's critical that we learn from projects that inspire us and take those lessons into the open-ended future of possibilities. In short, before we can know all the cool places we're headed, we need more game VFX training! Once we have a baseline of standards for creating VFX and sharing knowledge with a new generation of VFX Artists, we can press on to a bright future.

Jason Keyser, VFX Artist & Founder of VFX Apprentice

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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