Studio Art Director at The Coalition Aryan Hanbeck has told us about the studio's working organization, explained how they hire new members, and shared some insights on avoiding burnout.
I’m Aryan Hanbeck, Studio Art Director at The Coalition, a first party flagship studio as part of Xbox Game Studios. I have been working in the video games industry for 22 years and at The Coalition for the last 12. I studied Art History at the University of British Columbia and received my 3D Animations Certificate at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.
In 2010, after a stint at Electronic Arts, I was looking for my next adventure and a few people I had worked with in the past were doing some cool stuff at The Coalition (called Black Tusk at that time.) The team was using Unreal Engine 4 at the time, which was very appealing to me. After conversations, it really felt like they had the right mix of people, culture, and technology for me to join. A few years later, we acquired the Gears of War franchise from Epic Games.
Our art team consists of a wide range of artists who are passionate about pushing visual quality and creating games that people will play and remember for years to come.
Working Organization at The Coalition
At the most basic level, the art team is organized into disciplines. Each discipline has a lead and a producer assigned, who are responsible for delivering tasks on time and at quality. Making great games is a highly collaborative endeavor, so our expectation is for artists to be continuously communicating and engaging with one another.
Our team spans from a deeply technical skill set working on the cutting edge of UE5 technology to pushing the creative bounds of environments, characters, lighting and more. To facilitate collaboration, we leverage opportunities to create cross disciplinary workstreams, which can include people from other groups such as Engineering, Tech Art, Audio etc. to focus on one specific area of the game.
Hiring New Specialists
First and foremost, we look for artists that have a strong background in their field and are passionate about growing and learning with us. We also look for opportunities to bring in talent from diverse backgrounds to continuously challenge our workflows and assumptions.
Our studio art culture is very collaborative, so naturally, we value artists who are energized to contribute to the vision of the product and use their artistic minds to push the envelope. In our hybrid workplace, being a clear communicator is more important than ever.
For new hires, there is a ton of information to take on when they join. We have developed a robust onboarding system that helps break it all down and deliver the information in an organized and gradual way, with onboarding extending well through their early days at the studio.
On top of that, each new employee is partnered up with someone in their discipline who will be their onboarding buddy. The onboarding buddy is tasked with helping a new hire get to know the studio and making introductions at more casual events, like a welcome lunch, so the new employee can start making personal connections. They also provide a point of contact outside of their manager and team should any questions come up. One of the most common pieces of feedback from new hires is that there is such a high level of care and openness from the team to answer questions or share resources.
Strategies for Avoiding Burnout
I think we can mitigate burnout in a couple of effective ways. The first way is to make sure that we have realistic estimates for work we have signed up to do. Burnout is minimized if people have more breathing room in their day to day, leading to a more sustainable overall balance. The Studio Leadership Team also takes this into account at a macro level. It’s simply not healthy to sign the team up for project after project without the right amount of downtime.
As a leader and manager, another way to mitigate burnout is by ensuring people take time off and encouraging them to make the most of the benefits available to them through Microsoft. I also try to model this within the team by showing that I prioritize time off, it lets them know they should as well.
Finally, I want to mention that built into our studio culture is a deep commitment to mental health advocacy. Internally, we have a group of employees who provide judgment-free support to our team and aim to reduce the stigma of seeking help for your mental health. Externally, we’ve made a public commitment with a 1% revenue pledge that is in line with our game’s brand to fight against the rising rates of suicide and loneliness, we call this initiative Never Fight Alone.
Approaches to Freedom and Education
The goal of our studio's Art Leadership is to enable artists to make decisions based on their experiences and artistic sensibilities that support our high-level art pillars. We do this by including the art teams in the creation of the plan and making sure everyone is aligned on “the why”. That way, artists can feel empowered to make informed decisions that align to our goals. Anytime we must re-align an artist about a choice they made, we make sure to explain why there is a better way so they can put that learning towards their next task.
From a workflow perspective, we are always looking for new ways to think about things and get better at what we do. The internal team is a big part of that. That means being open to getting feedback from everyone and anyone on the team, which we do through regular postmortems. On top of that, we are always working to create an environment where everyone on the team feels safe to give feedback on what they are noticing directly to the Art Directors.
One way to create this environment is by being completely open with the work we are doing. Most of the team’s work is shared on Confluence for the larger team to see. This creates a lot of eyes on WIP content, which can be a little uncomfortable at times, but at the end of the day ensures results that have passed the test of a larger audience and makes everyone feel involved.
We feel that creating time and space for learning is key. At the studio, we support this by setting out dedicated time in our production schedule for IDEA Days. These are full days for people to explore their interests, spark ideas or learn new skills to drive innovation in our games and teams. We are exploring ways we can improve on these days to make sure our team can make the most of it.
As part of Xbox Game Studios and Microsoft, we also have access to countless professional development resources. An opportunity to further motivate learning in our team is to offer more discipline specific education, like learning options that are more tailored to an artist.
One crucial way to set the tone for constant innovation and learning is to keep a keen eye out for inspirational content and share within the team. Whether it’s a game, film, photograph or posting on a website, I feel it’s important to know what best in class is always. This creates an environment of constant self-assessment to ensure we have the right knowledge, vision, and workflows to try and be the best at what we do.
My advice to artists wanting to work at The Coalition is to really focus on honing your craft. The first thing that gets our attention is high-quality work. You do not need to have a large quantity of work, but you do need something to demonstrate your ability as an artist and stand out. Secondly, download Unreal Engine and dive in. There is a lot of training information online and familiarity with the Engine, while not an absolute must, can set you apart from other candidates.
Visit our LinkedIn to find our current openings at The Coalition.