Georgii Amelekhin shared his experience of going through job interviews at AAA game studios and working at Ubisoft, talked about his approach to game vegetation, and gave some advice to junior artists.
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Georgii Amelekhin: I started studying 3D at school and during the institute, I already worked as an interior visualizer. In parallel, my friend and I tried to create our own mods for the game Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven and then even our own game in our own engine. All this time, I studied 3D graphics on my own with the help of online tutorials. Then, after a while, we began to create 3D simulators for skydivers and helicopter pilots in our engine, and one of them was even eventually bought by a company that works with the Ministry of Emergency Situations and firefighters of Russia. It is also worth saying that I studied at the Department of Film and Design at the university and often my coursework was related to 3D or 2D graphics in one way or another.
After graduating from the institute, I sent my small portfolio to Gaijin Entertainment for the War Thunder project. This is how my career in game development as an environment artist began. Very quickly, my main specialization shifted to vegetation because we were then creating an alpha version of locations for War Thunder tanks and we needed a fairly large number of different biomes.
Stages of Interviewing at Large Game Studios
After Gaijin, I went through the hiring processes at a substantial number of AAA studios both in Europe and the USA and received offers until I settled on Ubisoft. I can say that hiring usually goes in three or four stages.
The first stage is the submission of an application and its consideration by the HR department of the company. Don't want for an answer in a day or two – usually, the reply comes in a week or a month, sometimes even half a year. Next, the first call with HR during which you will discuss the basic things, tell them a little about yourself, and learn more about the company. At this stage, they check your level of English and that you are an adequate person.
The second stage usually involves direct communication with the team and the people with whom you will work, they can already get an idea of your technical skills, ask for a breakdown of one or more of your works in the portfolio, and discuss how you could be useful for the company. Before this interview, you should look at your work and figure out how to describe it in a concise and beneficial way, perhaps recollect some technical terms and come up with questions regarding things that you are interested to learn about from the team. What's funny is that large Chinese studios usually are not fluent in English and provide you with an interpreter. It can also be very useful to check out the glassdoor website where people write about their experience of going through interviews at various companies and sometimes even share frequent questions they were asked during them.
Very often, after this interview, artists get a test task. Of course, there are companies that give applicants tasks immediately prior to any of the interviews, but there are not many of them. After that, there is usually a third interview during which you talk to the lead artist or art director. They usually ask general questions, such as why you are interested in the field you are engaged in or how you would improve one of the company's games in a technical or art plan, and they also discuss your test.
Before COVID, there was also the fourth stage at which you get invited to the office; there, you'll go to a meeting room and communicate with different people from the team, both those you talked to before and someone new, and finally – with the art director or even the head of the company. In my opinion, this is the most difficult stage because the office is usually situated in a different city or even a country. Very often, companies offer one night in a hotel and conduct the interview almost immediately upon your arrival. In this case, it is better to take an extra day or two to see the city and get a good night's sleep and relax because first of all, during such interviews, the employer looks at you as a person and it will not to your advantage if you are too nervous or sleepy.
Also, a very effective strategy that I have used more than once is to search for a job on LinkedIn and send your portfolio and resume directly to the Leads or Art Directors of the studios. This often helps to save weeks and even months of waiting for a response from HR or even immediately grants you a long-awaited interview with the team.
What Is It Like to Work at Ubisoft?
Ubisoft is a large company within which more than a dozen studios can work on a project and each will have its own role in it – after Gaijin, this was something unusual. For example, one studio can create biomes, another can work on a certain part of the map, and a third – be in charge of animations or props. Ubisoft Berlin is a young studio but it already consists of more than a hundred people. And studios like Ubisoft Toronto or Montreal, which often take leading positions on large franchises, have thousands of employees.
Therefore, the aspect of communication between the studios is very important. We have monthly meetings during which each studio shows a presentation with a report on what was done this month; during these meetings, anyone can ask the producer or game director from the lead studio questions directly. A lot of attention is also paid to training, all aspects of working with the editor are documented, there are video tutorials on how to use the internal platform, and training sessions are held every week. During the first three weeks at Ubisoft, you go through the onboarding process during which you just learn how to work with the engine, configure shaders, etc. and only then do you start working with the team and taking on real tasks – this approach is very convenient and relieves new employees from stress.
Working on Game Vegetation
Working on vegetation was my main specialization at Gaijin, I always liked games with beautiful nature – from the beauty of Oblivion with its incredibly dense forests to the incredibly realistic palm trees and the subsurface scattering effect in Crysis that still looks good. In most games, especially open-world, vegetation covers more than 50% of the map and the quality of assets and recipes for generating them directly affect the final appearance of the game.
I've tried many different programs and pipelines for creating vegetation, from manual modeling to using GrowFX or PlantFactory, but I've been getting into SpeedTree lately. In my opinion, this is one of the best programs for creating vegetation at the moment, especially the latest version that supports working with photogrammetry and PBR. At the moment, almost 90% of the workflow for vegetation can be performed in SpeedTree without using other software. This is very useful when you work on an asset with a large number of LODs or pre-baked imposters.
Collaborating with Other Departments
When I was doing vegetation at Gaijin, communication with programmers played a big role – we constantly improved the rendering and shading of the foliage since our original task was to make a game about tanks in an engine that was cut out for flight simulators. I often looked through various GDC presentations and articles about the experience of other studios, then explained to the programmers what we roughly needed in terms of the algorithm, and they tried to implement it. Also, the work on biomes was very closely connected with the lead level artist in charge of the location – we discussed what plants, shapes, and sizes we'd need in order for the location to work from the visual and gameplay points of view.
At Ubisoft Berlin, there was more work with level and game designers. Because we work on games with large spaces, each POI is carefully designed from the gameplay point of view in terms of navigation, lines of sight, etc. Because of this, the level design department is constantly in touch and gives us feedback on how the location works and how it can be improved almost every day. Sometimes, it's even possible to create your own layouts from scratch and then finish them with the level design department.
Also at Gaijin and Ubisoft, there are very frequent playtests that provide you with feedback from the rest of the team, including people who are busy with other projects and can look at the location or even the whole game with fresh eyes.
Since currently, even on modern consoles, we can not create dense forests the way they are arranged in reality, the main task of the artist is to, first of all, deceive the player's eye and create the most realistic effect with a moderate number of triangles and low alpha overdraw. In this regard, the tasks are quite similar to what VFX artists do.
For this purpose, various techniques are used – for example, at Gaijin we made a shader that hid the triangles of the foliage placed at an extreme angle and also used spherical normals on the branch textures. All this helped to make the trees look smoother and fluffier. There was also a great emphasis on the LODs, where the clusters became slightly larger in order to preserve the volume and silhouette of a tree when using fewer branches. The silhouette is very important for perception and you need to follow it very closely.
I also really like the latest trends in using photogrammetry for the trunks of large trees and leaves. This was especially significant in the production of Battlefront, where large scanned tree trunks and fern textures gave a big boost to the realism of the final picture. Those same artists are now creating incredibly beautiful demos with a focus on photogrammetry at Embark Studio. If you do not have access to photogrammetry, you can use libraries of ready-made assets such as Megascans or search for raw scan sources on the Internet. But often, studios still extensively use Substance or ZBrush to create textures of moss, bark, and leaves; sometimes, the result is no worse than photo scans. I like Jobye Karmaker's method – he does sculpting on top of the tiles generated from the photo:
Be sure to pay great attention to the search for references. Think about the types of vegetation you create, each type has its own unique name (usually in Latin). References can really help to connect the elements in the scene and ensure the vegetation you chose really grows in the type of environment you are working on. For example, Sagebrush that often grows in the deserts has more than 20 species and you need to understand whether you are creating a California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) or a Black sagebrush (Artemisia nova).
Examine how the branches and leaves grow, what shapes they have, etc. It is also useful to look at the photos of the plants taken in winter to better understand the structure of the plant. And it's helpful to watch what you are going to model in reality – a very large number of popular plants and species can be found in the botanical gardens that any large city has.
When modeling, in my opinion, there are no strict rules: use a texture atlas for branches, control the overdraw, watch the silhouette so that the vegetation looks good from all sides. This is not always possible with random generation, so I often finish the plant manually using editing nodes in SpeedTree. Be sure to check how the vegetation looks in the engine, usually after the first export you have to change quite a lot due to the shading and lighting features. And check how plants from the same biome combine with each other.
Advice to Junior Artists
Of course, it is important to know the technical part because it allows you to make your art more optimized and saves you from wasting time on rework but the traditional artistic part is also vital. It is important to observe, develop a sense of composition, and learn how to work with lighting. It's also important to find an area you'll want to focus on because nowadays companies like to hire artists for highly specialized positions, such as creating weapons, cars or props, level or terrain art, and so on. It is important to choose one or two areas of expertise and work on them.
But my main advice is to master the basics, make a few scenes or assets and start working at some studio right away instead of spending a lot of time creating the coolest portfolio with your personal work. It may not necessarily be an AAA studio but even huge companies like Ubisoft hire juniors for fairly large projects. And from my experience at Ubisoft Berlin, these people do incredible things and grow very quickly as artists. In addition, a large number of outsourcing studios have great open positions that will allow you to create assets for AAA games and significantly improve your resume.