Game artist Warren Marshall talks about his time in games and describes some ways you can get into game development.
Warren Marshall is one of the few developers out there, who always tries to help beginners to find their way around gamedev. He publishes articles, uploads great talks on his YouTube channel (we encourage you to subscribe – there’s a ton of stuff for artists there) and does a lot of educational work. We’ve contacted Warren and recorded this little interview, where he was kind enough to talk about his career and talked about artistic work in games.
I’ve been freelancing now for about a year because I felt if I didn’t give that a try, I’d regret it forever. It’s something I always wanted to do … and now I am!
You’ve been in the industry for quite a long time already, having contributed to some of the biggest games of Epic Game’s library. And you also worked on a number of different jobs: from programmer to level designer. How did you manage to do so much?
That’s really a testament to Epic Games allowing employees to pursue what they feel most passionate about. My interests shifted over the years and they were always very accommodating, allowing me to move into different roles as schedules allowed for it.
This helped me to maintain focus and interest over the course of such a long career with them.
What are the most peculiar things of working in the game industry?
Probably the disconnect between what people THINK you do all day and what you ACTUALLY do all day. People think you’re working on whatever you want all day and playing games. You’re not. It’s a real job with real responsibilities and real deadlines – it’s not always a party. But having said that, it beats getting a “real” job.
What are the biggest challenges of game development production?
The biggest challenge in developing large games is really just herding all the cats. Getting everything in line so that production doesn’t get stalled out. Having level designers stuck because art isn’t ready, or art stuck because the concepts aren’t done, or scripting stuck because the level designers are still designing the level layout … that’s all bad and pushes everything back, increasing the chances of crunch.
But iteration is also key … and you can’t always schedule creativity.
And so it goes on.
Why do so many people burn out while building these huge projects?
I would say lack of self awareness. You have to know when you’re overworking yourself and ease off a little. Larger projects are multiple year projects and you have to remember that. Leaving it all on the field in the first 6 months isn’t going to be beneficial to you on the back end when the hours get longer and you’re trying to ship the game.
Then you’re piling overwork on top of already existing fatigue and it’s only natural that people will burn out under those sorts of pressures.
I’ve bee lucky in that I’ve avoided it other than a few years where I questioned what I was doing. But easing back a little allowed the fire to rekindle itself without going out entirely, so I’ve never experienced actual burn out myself.
How does the production of content usually work in game industry?
Well, if you’re lucky you get a piece of concept art. Often you’ll just get a verbal description. Sometimes it’s a few words on a spreadsheet.
From there you block the model out, get that approved, then move through the standard pipeline – high/low poly, baking, etc.
How do artists model and build all those incredible assets in such short periods of time?
Well, typically artists will become specialists in specific areas. Characters, or vehicles, or hard surface props, or effects, etc. Specialization allows you to create assets within that specialization with the most efficiency.
Beyond that, it’s just “being a professional” and getting the job done. The schedule is real and needs to be respected.
How do you optimise and cut the time during the production?
Usually by cutting features or deleting levels/content.
Seriously, that’s the best time savings ever. But that usually hurts the quality of the game so you try to find ways around that – whether it’s reworking a feature or putting in some extra hours to make sure the level/content reaches the quality bar required to ship.
What are the most peculiar things to keep in mind while building assets and environments for games?
The most important thing to keep in mind when developing assets for games and environments is HOW the asset is going to be used. Know what you’re building.
Is this a background prop or something the player will be picking up and turning over in their hands? Will this piece be used one time or hundreds of times in a scene?
Those kinds of decisions will dictate things to you like triangle counts, detail level, texture sizes, etc.
How is this type of 3d content different from things that artists usually produce for their own personal projects? What’s the difference here? How is game 3d content different?
The most obvious difference from personal work is that you have to weigh the wants and needs of the art director and balance that with the technical requirements/restrictions of the game you’re making. Your voice is still in there and still matters, but it’s often muted by the needs of the game. Not in a negative way tho – the art in a game needs to look consistent so it’s necessary that the team work together and creative something visually cohesive.
Personal work is often “gloves off”. Do whatever you want, as long as it looks pretty and shows what you wanted it to show. You would never be able to ship a weapon sporting multiple 8K textures in a real game … but it would sure looks spectacular in your portfolio!
How can an artist influence the gameplay? I mean all the elements such as lighting, movement, color could be used during the game production to achieve a better gameplay, better flow and so on?
This is often done in tandem with level designers. They can use lighting to steer players where they want them to go, for example. And they will make requests to artists for specific pieces or modifications to existing pieces if they need something specific to facilitate gameplay.
For example, a new version of a fence mesh that’s broken through to allow combat to take place through a specific area. Or a hole in a wall mesh. Or a broken version of something they can swap in after something specific explodes.
And artists of course will work with the designers to establish mood and setting for levels, which includes everything from post process to lighting to color schemes. This can often be a different artistic discipline from prop creation however, depending on the size of the company.
How would you advice approaching the choice of tools?
My advice on this would be to learn as many tools as you can. Knowing what’s available to you helps you make the right decisions about what to use for any specific task.
For example, if you only know ZBrush, then you’re going to try and use ZBrush to solve every problem. That’s not efficient.
Not to say you have to master all the apps out there but at least having an idea of what each one is good at and how they work is beneficial. It puts more tools in the toolchest, as I like to think of it.
Which tools would you recommend learning? What’s the best combo, that you think is used in any game production?
These days, the new hotness is definitely Substance Designer/Painter and CAD programs like Fusion 360. I think those are going to come into heavy use in the near future.
Substance already is heavily used but I think that’s only going to increase. And I think CAD programs are going to move more and more into artists toolchests as tools like Fusion 360 develop and mature.
What would you recommend to younger artists, who want to get into game development? How should they approach this task? What are the best ways that they can increase their chances of getting a better job in gamedev?
I’d recommend making sure the industry knows you exist. Be visible. Get out there, show your art, promote yourself. Post WIPs where industry pros can see them, ask for feedback, act on that feedback, etc.
Get yourself in the loop and be seen. Then when it comes time to hire someone, you’re not a stranger. They recognize your name from that Polycount thread or that 80.lv interview or whatever else you’ve done.
My other recommendation is to make sure that the end of school isn’t the end of your learning. Never stop learning. Always stay aware of upcoming technologies and apps and what artists you admire are doing. If you’re not current, it’s harder to justify hiring you as you’ll need to be brought up to speed on something you should already know.
You’re trying to get a job as a professional. Act like one. Take it seriously.