The Challenges & Nuances of Being a Lead Artist For AAA Video Games

Kacper Niepokólczycki, a Lead Environment Artist at CD Projekt RED, has detailed his artistic journey, explained how he joined CDPR and became its Lead Artist, outlined the mistakes a lead can make, and discussed the challenges of leading other artists.

Introduction

80.lv: Please introduce yourself. What companies have you worked for in the past? What projects have you been a part of?

Kacper Niepokólczycki, Lead Environment Artist at CD Projekt RED: Cześć everyone! My name is Kacper Niepokólczycki, and first of all, I would like to mention how extremely thrilled I am to be interviewed by 80 Level. I know how impactful this community is, especially among the younger generation of artists. You guys are doing a great job – keep it up!

Now, circling back to the main question, in my career, I had the privilege to work with The Farm 51 on titles like PainKiller HD: Hell and Damnation and DeadFall Adventures and helped a bit with the pre-production of Get Even. I helped with smaller gigs for companies like, for example, Tap It Games, working on The Ward II.

The biggest chunk of my career, however, is taken by this amazing place called CD PROJEKT RED. I have been here for over nine years now – currently, my role is a Lead Environment Artist. In my time with RED, I had the opportunity to help create The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine, Cyberpunk 2077, and now, we are working super hard to deliver a fantastic expansion pack Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, which will be out soon, and we are super excited for everyone to play it!

Getting Started With Environment Art

80.lv: How did you get into environment art? What motivated you to choose this path?

Kacper Niepokólczycki: Let's start from the beginning and move back to 2010 (it's always crazy, when I think about it, time is brutal), when after many failed experiments with, as I hoped back then, my passion for coding, I tried to keep my dream of creating video games alive. I turned towards "graphics". That's what I called it back then, having literally ZERO idea about anything related to this field. My main motivation behind pursuing gamedev dreams was my current (at that time) job, which was not fulfilling my ambitions, and my huge love for video games. Even as a gamer, I was trying to reverse-engineer "how things were done" while I played games, imagining myself creating those amazing worlds.

One of the first steps I took, right after downloading the trial version of Maya, was to buy around 2000 pages worth of books and crush it within a month (I was not reading much back then, so for me, that was a huge challenge). Please keep in mind that YouTube and digital information about 3D modeling were very limited back then – let's say it was starting to show up. Most of the useful tutorials and other resources were paid and not cheap. You may have heard about services like Eat 3D (with its epic intro music), 3D Motive, and, of course, the legendary 3D Buzz.

I remember the first "task" that I put on myself. I think it was even before the whole reading books situation. I said to myself that I wanted to create a short animation of a wine bottle pouring the wine into a glass. I set a deadline for this – 48 hours. I sat in front of my MacBook (that's why I started using Maya – the only 3D app back then for macOS).

After two days of hard work and getting through some basic tutorials about modeling and fluid simulation, I was able to fulfill my goal. My first CG short was born. While it was challenging and kept me awake for a long time, I had a f-ing blast doing it. It gave me this fuel and reassurance – this is what I want to do. With coding, it was the opposite, I had the worst time while trying to write a line of code. I kept reading all the books, modeling non-stop in my free time, and getting to know more and more about all that Maya could do. 

Modeling, texturing/shader creation, animation, rendering, and many more skills for me felt like a must-have. Looking at it from today's perspective, it was way too much, as we should limit ourselves to the crucial, needed skills (regardless of the area we want to work with), but of course, back then, I had no idea what I should be doing. The key takeaway was that I loved modeling, animating, and rendering. I had so much fun every day being kept in the creative zone all the time. It's funny, I remember that I never had a huge passion for art. I sucked with all the art classes at school. However, I always loved to create.

The next step was to figure out how to create real-time, playable environments. I learned about CryEngine (Crysis 2 – great game!), Unity, and Unreal Engine 3, also known by developers as UDK – Unreal Development Kit. Unreal Engine 3 got to run Gears Of War and Unreal Tournament, just to name a couple. I had to try every single one of those engines and had fun with all of them. In the end, I spent most of my time with UDK, creating, what I thought, insanely great environmental art.

It took me about six months to create a "portfolio", with the huge help of professionals whom I reached out to for guidance (huge shout out here to Mateusz Piaskiewicz for his insane help and support). I used the quotation marks on the word "portfolio" because it consisted of a few crappy images from Maya and UDK showing my "skills". Surprisingly, it turned out it was decent enough, and I landed an internship in a super cool studio in Poland called The Farm 51. I need to give another shout-out here to Wojciech Pazdur for trusting me and getting me on board and, of course, for many, many brutal feedbacks that helped me grow rapidly as an artist.

That's how my professional adventure with games started.

Some shots from my portfolio after around six months, looking for an internship. As you can see, it's really nothing special, to say the least. The idea here is to keep working, pushing, and getting better every day:

The Artistic Journey

80.lv: How long have you been working as an artist? How did you evolve and learn new things?

Kacper Niepokólczycki: While with The Farm 51, I worked as an Asset Artist on projects like PainKiller HD: Hell and Damnation, DeadFall Adventures, and helped a bit with GetEven pre-production. I'm still extremely happy to have had the chance to be a part of this project, even early on, as I learned how to scan objects and get myself into understanding how photogrammetry works.

It was a super great time with the fantastic team of "Farmers". I worked on games that were artistically looking really impressive for that time, and I can't stress how much I've learned. I'm still super grateful for almost three amazing years with them. Throughout that time, I went from making really crappy 3D assets to creating pretty complex objects. I gained a lot of skills in sculpting in ZBrush – which, at some point, was the main tool I used for work. The only way to improve and evolve as an artist is to get outside your comfort zone, take up challenges, and be open for honest, sometimes brutal, constructive feedback – it's not pleasant, of course, it's your blood and sweat being talked about. Don't take it personally, and listen to everyone who has something to say. Learn, work hard, improve, repeat.

The Farm 51, at that time, was aiming mostly for AA, high-quality projects. I was already hungry for more. As much as I loved working there, I needed a change. The biggest companies in Poland, working on the biggest games, even worldwide, were CD PROJEKT RED and Techland. I think it's fair to say that in the AAA sector, those are the two biggest players.

A few months earlier, in 2013, CDPR opened a branch in Kraków, the city that I was living in. Guess what? They were recruiting. Of course, without hesitation, I applied. Why? First, I wanted to grow, get outside my comfort zone. Second, I had, and still have, a huge love for the sci-fi and cyberpunk genres. When I saw the first teaser for Cyberpunk 2077, I freaked out. I wanted to work on that game so hard. I did not have, however, the same amount of love for dark fantasy back then.

I remember the interview I had when I applied for the first time like it was yesterday. The meeting was going fairly well, I thought. Until I got this one question (please, keep in mind, it was when The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was in development). The question went along the lines of "Do you enjoy The Witcher universe? Have you read the books and played our games? What do you think about them?" I'm trying to create a build-up here, but I'm sure I'm failing miserably. As you might expect, I had never read any of The Witcher books nor played the games. I've seen my friends playing The Witcher 2 – it looked fun, but I always thought, "Hmm, not my cup of tea". I don't think one can be more stupid than I was – going for an interview not knowing the source material for the core products of the company I was applying to. I won't say, that was the reason I failed the interview – I leave the speculations for you – but yes, I did fail that interview.

In retrospect, I'm super happy that it happened. I challenged myself to be a much better artist, I worked super hard. One of the highlights of that was my Deus Ex: Human Revolution fan art. It got really big media coverage. It was a super nice feeling knowing that people liked what I made. On top of that, I played The Witcher 2 and read a bunch of The Witcher books. Thanks to that, I fell in love with this dark fantasy and understood what I could have been creating and missing in my life.

A few months later, there was a new position for a Senior Environment Artist open in CD PROJEKT RED Krakow, so of course, I applied again. This time, I got an art test first. It was a sculpture from The Witcher 2, I think the deadline was a week to create a full 3D asset with baked Normal Maps, all needed textures, and LODs.

I used every possible hour of my free time (back then, I had my regular job and was freelancing a bit) on that model while listening to The Witcher 2 soundtrack looping. This time, the art test and interviews went very positively – I got in! I was hired as a Specialist Environment Artist!

I started from the optimization of assets for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and quickly moved into level art which I didn't have much experience with outside of my own level art fun at home. That was stressful, absolutely outside my comfort zone, yet super, super fun. I fell in love with building worlds. It seemed that I kind of did something well enough for the Art Directors and led them to be happy with my work. I got more and more demanding tasks. From small abandoned houses in haunted forests to natural landscapes – it was insanely satisfying work.

When we started to work on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine expansion pack, I was put in charge of building Beauclair – the capital of Toussaint (the new hub for the expansion). That was a huge challenge for me, and I loved it. I basically built the whole middle part of the town. I learned a lot in the process about player guidance, composition, architecture, landmarks, building worlds in an optimal way, and much, much more.

Our next project, Cyberpunk 2077, was yet again, an insane challenge. We set a very demanding goal – to create the biggest and the most immersive city in games. With this project, I've learned pipelines and a lot of technical solutions, how to work with such a big game, and how to optimize it. I also learned how to work fast and how to manage a team. On top of that, I improved a lot as an artist – you can not stop improving, ever.

The Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty expansion is another step up for me as I lead the whole environment art for the project. Basically, as you can see, every project, every step, was for me a huge opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. In my opinion, that's the only way to evolve, not only as an artist but also as a human being. 

Becoming the Lead Artist

80.lv: Could you tell us about becoming a lead artist? What was the day when you realized you could be leading other artists?

Kacper Niepokólczycki: I would not say I woke up one day and said to myself, "YES, now I can lead." It's a process, where I was really lucky enough that this path for me was very smooth (here I definitely need to give a huge shoutout to Lucjan Więcek, our Art Director, as he put me on that path and was mentoring me all the way through). When we worked on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine I was handed the responsibility to be an environment art coordinator. My role, as I mentioned before, was to coordinate and build Beauclair.

In practice, I was working with three more artists locally in Krakow and a big part of the team in Warsaw. I coordinated teams, meaning I was responsible for the collaboration between studios, making sure the communication was clear and everyone knew what to do. I also had to ensure that the art quality was high and consistent while, of course, making sure the art direction was followed. I had to plan our work and execute the plan, try to keep good morale in the team, and, on top of the coordination role, I was doing level art and the rest of the team, based in Krakow, was creating assets. For some time, I had help with other level artists, who worked on the part of lower districts.

Looking back from today, it was a big challenge, but at the same time, I'm so happy I did not hesitate and took the role. Although, now when I write about my process and responsibilities, it all feels very clear and logical to me, yet back then, I had to learn everything from scratch. It was absolute chaos in my head. Every day was a lesson learned. It was a small test lab for me to see what it is like to lead a team. 
As a result, we created a well-received The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine expansion, and people loved the whole world of Toussaint and Beauclair. From there it took off. I was promoted to be an acting lead for a few months and then took the role of Lead Environment Artist, leading a much bigger team in a much more complex project – Cyberpunk 2077, which taught me so much more.

I mentioned that this process for me was very smooth. I believe that I was introduced to this role with a relatively small scale of a team and a project. With that, I had a small playground to fall, learn, and get up – repeat. At the same time, it allowed me to taste what this role might be. This is how I learned and this is exactly how everyone learns. I always say, "Fail fast so you can learn faster".

On top of that, I had huge support from our wonderful team, I never felt alone, which is super important. Some of the most important team members for me are Lucjan Więcek (our Art Director), Michał Janiszewski (my fellow Environment Art Lead), Jakub Knapik (our Global Art Director) who also supports me on my way, Pawel Mielniczuk (Art Director), and a great HR team, including Agata Dziewulska (my great supporter), Marysia Marasek (back in the day, an insanely helpful friend), and many, many more. The whole team at CD PROJEKT RED is just wonderful. They keep me going, motivate me to try and be better every day. It's really important to have people you can trust and are able to count on them.

So, to answer the second question – it was a journey for me, I sunk more and more with every project into the lead role. I must say, I still enjoy it. It was not a matter of a day that made up my mind, but years of a difficult path.

I can imagine that for many other artists, this path is super unclear (for me it was also not clear, yet I was starting small, so it was a bit simpler for me to unbox it), they don't know what to expect and very often when they are offered this position they are thrown into a big project without any tools and sometimes even support. Often, they see it as a natural evolution in their careers – which, to be honest, it isn't and doesn't have to be.

For this reason this year I led a talk at GDC 2023 to discuss this exact issue. I explained a bit more about what the role is and whether an individual should think about the switch to a lead/manager position or not. I never had a talk that was not purely art-related. It was scary for me as I thought it would be a totally boring, waste of an hour for some people that showed up to it. Turns out, this topic has not been covered much, there is a lot of confusion around it, and we need to figure out a way of explaining this path to people before they accept this career change. If you are interested, I recommend you to look up my talk – "Artist vs Manager".

The Mistakes

80.lv: How would you describe a bad art boss? What mistakes did you make at the beginning of the path?

Kacper Niepokólczycki: That's a tough question, but a good one. I think I made every possible mistake in the book:

  • I was aggressive, losing my temper way too fast.
  • I was horrible at giving feedback. The feedback was poorly delivered – I had a huge ego.
  • I was treating people as if they were the same as me (everyone is different and we need to understand that very quickly).
  • My communication was not great.
  • I was not listening to people that I thought didn't have anything to add – I was not empathetic enough
  • I was not mentoring and motivating enough

I hope I've managed to change those flaws and turn my mistakes as a lead into learnings. And I hope, as I said earlier, I failed rather fast to learn to be a better lead as fast as possible.

That being said, if you don't mind, I will answer the first part of the question with what the traits of a good art lead are, if you are looking for a bad one just think of the opposite of these examples. First of all, an art lead is a combination of different types of skills. 

Hard skills – expertise

You need to be a really good artist – you don't have to be the best one, that's why we have a great team, but you have to be good at "art" (I don’t want to get into the topic of what "art" is as this would take up a book).

Soft skills – lead

Build the team, create the DNA in the team (values and mission), be empathic, understand the people's needs, be there for the team. Hide the ego. Appreciate the team and recognize a job well done, give feedback to the team to improve it. You have to be able to make hard decisions. It's important to build trust in the team which leads to much better communication, leading to higher commitment, leading to higher dedication from the team members, and as a result a much better quality of work from the team.

Manager

You need to be able to plan how to use resources well to achieve the goal. Most importantly, the lead has to be there with the team, in the "trenches", be hands-on, and keep the team together. 

Challenges of Being a Lead Artist

80.lv: Does it feel lonely sometimes? How do you cope with the challenges of being a lead? Do you feel sometimes you would rather just make environments? Where do you use your creativity?

Kacper Niepokólczycki: Look up "the loneliness of a manager". It's an actual thing. Of course, I feel lonely sometimes, and it's part of our job, unfortunately. We need to be able to detach, take a look at the team, and all the individuals, and look at them very objectively. I, fortunately, feel this loneliness very rarely. I have great support from my team and our lovely HR team.

As you probably got to know me while reading this interview, you might understand that I like to work hard and I like challenges. So for me, it's not much to cope with, it's just another mountain to cross. 
Do I sometimes feel like sitting down with a coffee at 9 AM in front of my desk with my headphones on, listening to some nice ambient music, and working hard on environments – forgetting the whole world exists? Yes, every time I have a tough, busy day. It's an actual running joke with my fellow Lead Environment Artist, Michal Janiszewski.

Why don't I do it? Because my hunger for creativity and creating groundbreaking worlds is fed by our common mission in the team. It's just a different scale. As a lead, I have an influence on the big picture for environment art in our games and also the whole game itself. On top of that, I do find a fracture of my time to be actually hands-on, and in every game, you can find parts of the world crafted personally by me.

Dealing With Burnout

80.lv: How do you deal with burnout? Managing people is a whole other level of stress. What good practices did you find?

Kacper Niepokólczycki: Unfortunately, it’s known that burnout is a part of our industry. When I did research about it, I found that around 60% of people working in the IT sector went through burnout (interestingly, it was a very similar percentage between managers and people not in management positions). I think our industry can be competitive and sometimes demanding, which could be a reason why burnouts happen.

I love what I do – I love to create. I really love our team and the people I work with. We have very ambitious plans and being a part of it is what keeps me going. Even when I have a bad day, waking up the next day gives me a whole new energy to fight all the challenges ahead of me.

I've heard a few times that I’m very resilient, which works to my advantage. I do love to work hard, and I don't mind doing so as long as I enjoy what I do, which is probably the reason why I personally have never experienced burnout outside of maybe a few bad days.

What I do and what I recommend is to find a way to just be with your thoughts and relax. For me, my meditation is sport – going to the gym, for a run, for a swim (you can do whatever you like – meditate, play a video game, just a thing that will give you space to be with your mind and gives you the opportunity to always reflect on your path).

Find a trusted person that you can vent to – keeping all the negative emotions inside will eat you from the inside. Sit down with a coffee, with your friend and just vent, talk about all your frustrations and emotions – it will help you a lot. Be with your team and make sure you have fun – HAVING FUN is what this industry is all about.

Conclusion

80.lv: What five tips would you give to artists getting close to becoming leads? What should they focus on first?

Kacper Niepokólczycki: Learn what becoming a lead means to you – don’t open Pandora's box without doing a good amount of research.

  • You have to have a strong will to change, learn, and improve all the time, and I'm talking mostly about the soft skill areas.
  • Learn to trust the team.
  • Trust yourself and your instincts.
  • Don't stop creating and improving.
  • HAVE FUN!

Thank you guys so much for letting me do this interview and allowing me to go through over 13 years of my memories – it was a very nice nostalgia trip.

Kacper Niepokólczycki, Lead Environment Artist at CD Projekt Red

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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Comments 1

  • Mordvinova Anastasiya

    Thank's for this interview guys. I had a lot great emotions during was reading it!

    0

    Mordvinova Anastasiya

    ·7 months ago·

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