Landing a Job as a 3D Environment Artist: Insights from Naughty Dog's Sean VanGorder

Senior Environment Artist at Naughty Dog Sean VanGorder has delved into his artistic journey, shared his perspectives on the essential skills that can lead artists to success, and provided insights into ways to attain a role at an AAA studio.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part II


Hello! My name is Sean VanGorder and I currently work as a Senior Environment Artist at Naughty Dog. So far in my career, I have had the privilege of working on a wide range of titles ranging from mobile to AAA, both critical flops and blockbuster hits. Most recently I was able to contribute to The Last of Us Part I and Part II. My near-eleven years in the ever-shifting and notoriously challenging game industry have been filled with no shortage of ups and downs, all of which were important stepping stones to help me get to where I am today.

Working in the game industry is a joy and a privilege. It's also very turbulent. I’ve always felt that when speaking to aspiring game developers, it’s important to address some of the tough times in tandem with the highlights. Having realistic expectations of the industry can help prepare you to navigate potential setbacks. Setbacks that – while discouraging – are temporary. In the past, I've found it helpful to know that others have made it through similar experiences. With that in mind, here is a relatively brief look inside my path through the game industry.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part II

The Artistic Path

I had no plan to come out of high school. My girlfriend at the time had chosen the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and suggested that I might be interested in their Game Art & Design program. My background was in sports and music, but considering any moment I had outside of class or practice was spent playing Halo or Elder Scrolls, she was fair in her assumption. I thought back to enjoying the single 3D modeling class I had taken (despite barely grasping the ancient version of Blender) and decided to give it a shot. Unfortunately, like many students, I had no understanding of the predatory nature of for-profit game art schools. So, with my ill-advised loans, I packed up and moved to Pittsburgh.

I’m bad at drawing. Like, really bad. So bad that a school that literally just cares about my money forced me to spend my first few semesters in the Graphic Design program until my portfolio was worthy of Game Art & Design. Eventually, a few mediocre life drawings gained me access to my desired major and I proceeded to model and trace my way through future 2D classes. Soon after, I was introduced to the 3D classes. I quickly realized that my character modeling is on par with my drawing skills. Luckily, I found a love for hard surface modeling and environment art, no doubt inspired by my days of Halo and Elder Scrolls. So, they became my focus.

Game Art schools are a touchy subject. By and large, my opinion is most schools are massively overpriced with outdated curriculums that fail to adequately prepare most students for the industry. Harsh, sure, but I have seen too many instances of graduates leaving school with nothing but crippling debt to show for it. However, the school did provide me with two very important things: direction and connections. 

Image Credit: Sean VanGorder

Once we reached the limits of the curriculum, a few classmates and I realized we would have to take it upon ourselves to expand our education outside of class. An instructor of ours recommended we join Polycount, a forum for professional game developers, hobbyists, and modders. It is no exaggeration when I say that joining Polycount is the most important moment in my game art career. Having direct access to the knowledge and feedback of developers who were actively working in the industry was invaluable. In addition to the education that I and many others received from that forum, it also introduced me to an incredible community brimming with networking opportunities. I progressed from member to moderator, to admin; the connections I made with fellow game devs jumpstarted my career and continue to provide me opportunities to this day.  

During my time in Pittsburgh, I was lucky to work as a 3D artist at a local company that provided environments for military simulations. Not exactly game development, but still a valuable experience. In my free time, I continued to work on my portfolio and post updates to the Polycount forum. One day a recruiter for an outsource art studio, Liquid Development, saw the renders of a mech I had posted; they contacted me saying they needed another hard surface artist. I jumped at the opportunity, and my career in games officially began. I contributed to a few projects via Liquid Development while finishing out my time at the Art Institute, some more successful than others. All in all, it was a great experience, and I would encourage junior artists to search for positions at art production houses in addition to traditional studios. 

After graduating, I began searching for in-studio positions and managed to land a few art tests, none of which ultimately worked out despite the time and effort put into them. It was frustrating, but also humbling. It’s unfortunate, but the reality is that rejection is common in this industry, something I wish had been conveyed more transparently to us as students. Being able to navigate a job search with a healthy mindset and not take rejection personally is a skill, the one that is crucial to long-term success in the game industry. It may be easier said than done, but consistent self-improvement and application of feedback are all but guaranteed to push your career forward. 

While working on my art tests I continued to be an active member of the Polycount community and spent a lot of time in various chat servers. On one random night, I saw that a character artist at Trion Worlds was asking if there were any junior environment artists looking for work, a position that his team had just opened. I immediately raised my virtual hand and sent him a private message along with my portfolio. A week later I finished an art test, and a week after that I was flown to San Francisco for an interview. After a couple more agonizing weeks of waiting on an answer I finally signed an offer letter and moved across the country. 

Image Credit: Sean VanGorder

My time at Trion Worlds was very enjoyable, despite working on a title that ultimately did not meet expectations upon release. I met some developers I had known through Polycount, gained some valuable real-world experience, and made some great memories. Unfortunately, my time did not last as long as I had hoped. Less than a year after my start date, I was among forty or so developers caught in a round of layoffs as the company restructured.

It was a rough time, but thankfully I had built up enough connections that I was able to support myself through freelance work as I figured out my next step. I was able to contribute to various projects ranging from smaller mobile titles to games like The Division in large part because of friends and coworkers being familiar with my work. In a similar vein, some coworkers from Trion Worlds had moved on to Visceral Games and just happened to be looking for an environment artist. 

I spent the next few years as an environment artist at Visceral Games, mostly focusing on textures and shaders. This was about the time that Substance 3D Designer was really gaining traction so I put a lot of focus into becoming as proficient with it as possible. I encourage all artists of any level to stay up to date with industry tools and trends as studios will always be looking for those experienced with cutting-edge tech. Substance 3D Designer and Substance 3D Painter were used heavily during my time at Visceral, first on Battlefield: Hardline and then the ill-fated Star Wars project known as "Ragtag". Sadly, Visceral Games eventually closed its doors, leaving me and many others once again looking for new positions.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part I

At this point in my career, I was feeling very burnt out and quite pessimistic regarding the idea of joining another big studio, given my previous experiences. Some former coworkers and friends from Polycount had formed a small studio and I decided to give the indie route a try. It was quite refreshing and fun to work on a project as one of only two environment artists, but unfortunately, it was short-lived. Only a few months later the studio went through some rough times and made the hard decision to close entirely. Back to the job search.

I reached out to various connections and applied to some positions I was interested in, including a long shot at a dream company of mine, Naughty Dog. I had applied multiple times in the past and been rejected for various reasons, but it never hurts to try again. This time was different. Seeing my experience at Visceral, they sent me the art test for a texture artist position and after a few stressful weeks I had the privilege of accepting an offer. I moved down to Los Angeles and have been here since, forever thankful for the opportunity.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part II

Secrets of Success

There are a few skills that I believe can help artists of any level achieve success as we are all constantly growing and attempting to improve. The first two, however, have more of a focus on students and young artists.  

First, learn how to seek out information and teach yourself new skills. While some are content with absorbing only what is provided to them, the most successful artists I know all proactively seek out information and challenge themselves to consistently grow. There is a certain drive and hunger that pushes away complacency.  

Second, do not compare yourself to classmates; compare yourself to those active in the industry. I was guilty of this myself. Because I was near the top of my class in terms of skill, I assumed that would translate to the industry. That was not the case. If you want to see if your skills are where they need to be, search out the portfolios of developers currently working in similar positions and evaluate yourself against them. 

As a general tip, I would encourage artists of any level to learn how to accept and act upon feedback. We all have egos and it can be tough to hear criticism of something you worked hard on. But learning from our mistakes and improving upon our weaknesses is how we grow. Not only that but being receptive to feedback is an admirable quality that studios want to see in any developer.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part II

Staying Up to Date

Another benefit of being proactive in your learning and networking is that you will tend to keep your knowledge current by association. Consistently seeking out techniques and participating in communities will naturally expose you to the newest trends in game art. It’s when you become complacent and set in your ways that you will start to fall behind.

Fortunately, it’s now easier than ever to keep up with the quickly evolving world of game development. Twitter is great for finding artists that are pushing the technical boundaries of game art and interacting with them directly. Game art communities, whether through forums or Discord, are still a great way to have more in-depth discussions and receive detailed feedback on your work. Among the many available, some communities I highly recommend are Polycount, The DiNusty Empire, The Club, the Blender Community Discord channel, and the Adobe Substance Discord channel.

ArtStation is currently the best resource for viewing the absolute latest and greatest in game art. Take some time to browse and often you’ll find that artists include a look at the tricks and techniques used in their work. If you have the ability, attending conventions such as GDC, SIGGRAPH, Lightbox, etc. is a great way to see where the industry is heading in the near future. And lastly, just play games. Playing through new games with a critical eye will motivate you to learn how they were made.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part I

Creating an Effective Portfolio

First and foremost, find what you are passionate about and tailor your portfolio around that. It’s common to see portfolios that seem to just be checking off boxes of what the artist thinks studios want to see. I get it. Looking for work is very stressful and it can be tempting to cast as wide a net as possible by including multiple disciplines and styles. And that could potentially work! However, I think it’s wiser to focus on the kind of art that excites you the most and create a portfolio aimed at studios that match. Do not apply to teams creating hyper-realistic games with a portfolio mostly made up of stylized art and vice versa. Show your passion through your portfolio and you’re much more likely to end up in a position you love.

This is probably the most common portfolio advice given, but it can’t be said enough. Keep your portfolio simple; easy to find and easy to view. Your work should be front and center, the first thing visitors see, with nothing to distract from it. Learn enough about rendering and presentation to draw people in and keep your website simple enough to prevent them from clicking away. Recruiters, hiring managers, art directors, etc. are looking through a ton of candidates in their already busy schedules. If there are any barriers to viewing your work they are very likely to just move on to the next portfolio. Luckily, sites like Artstation are the industry standard and make it very easy to set up a clean portfolio. Website builders such as Squarespace are also viable as an alternative.

As far as less common advice goes, I always suggest showing the process and technical details behind your work. While some portfolios will include wireframes and texture sheets in addition to the beauty shots, not many present a look at the workflow behind them. It’s not necessary, but in my opinion, it could give you a slight edge over others. Showing final work is one thing, but presenting that you have a solid understanding of current techniques and pipelines can be especially appealing to studios. Put together an image with some text explaining why you made certain choices. Render out a timelapse video showcasing parts of your workflow. Show potential viewers why you would be a valuable addition to their team.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part I

Using Social Media and Networking

Though I don’t personally use social media for self-promotion much these days it is still an extremely powerful tool, particularly for those newer to the industry. I would expand beyond social media and say that networking in general is one of the most important components of a successful career. Studios cannot hire you and developers cannot recommend you if they do not know you exist. Get your name and your work out there. Whether that is through social media, forums or real-world interactions doesn’t matter. What matters is making meaningful and positive connections. Hopefully, my many examples of how simply participating in Polycount has helped my career over the years illustrate that point. 

My advice for game artists who are just starting to build a professional network is very simple, just be kind. Be friendly, caring, and helpful. Interact with others and give just as much as you take. Whether it’s online or in-person, it’s all the same. The game industry is small. Everyone knows someone who knows someone. And if someone is looking to fill a position they’re very likely to think back to that artist who was great to be around.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part I

Job Search Websites

There are a few game job aggregator sites you can find through a quick Google search, but I can’t vouch for how reliable they are. They are still worth a look but you may find a lot of postings to be outdated or lacking in substance. My personal recommendation is to seek out job postings through the communities I mentioned earlier. Discord communities and forums will often have sections dedicated to job postings. ArtStation also has a page for studios to post their openings. Also, you can always go straight to the source. Visit the websites of studios that interest you and browse through their career page. And remember, don’t wait for the openings to come to you. If you are looking for work then take that portfolio and get it out into the world.

Advice for Beginners

I think I’ve covered most of my advice already, so I’ll just leave it at this. Be kind. Be proactive. The game industry is tough to get into, but with strong connections and a stronger portfolio, I really believe that anyone can be successful.

Sean VanGorder, Senior Environment Artist at Naughty Dog

Interview conducted by Ana Kessler

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