10 tips for concept artists breaking into the games industry

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“Alas, the vast majority of people which I saw on this road were facing the other way, defeated, head down and making the slow retreat away from their dreams.”

The percentage of conceptual artists in each studio range from 0-5%. Huge AAA studios have eight artists max, some hire only freelance people externally. Some have one guy they have had since the studio opened- my point is, being a 2D artist in games is brutal and you need all the help you can get to get in.

I’m no expert by any stretch of the imagination as someone in the games industry as I am very much at the start of my career- but now that I have finally just broken into industry *victory pose*, I can confidently say that I’ve completed at least one journey, and holy crap; what a journey it has been to get to this starting line. People think that breaking in is just a waiting room, but its not. It’s a long road and relentless road with little to no help along the way as you crawl towards your goals. Like a marathon runner training for years before the race begins.

To get to this point myself, I feel like I’m an old traveler, full beard, haven’t showered in years, scars from battles, blunt sword gripped in my frail but hardened finger tips as I’ve adventured from my aspiring-14-year-old-self to the late-20’s man I am today. Along the way, many people have run past me, some were carried by more experienced heroes and some were even given a ride by total strangers. Alas, the vast majority of people which I saw on this road were facing the other way, defeated, head down and making the slow retreat away from their dreams. The irony being that now I’m at the starting line again, I feel like that 14-year-old boy again, fresh faced, but ready to run.

So here is what i’ve learned along the way! Take it how you will and use what you like, they worked for me and they may (or may not) work for you too.

1. Get a degree.

“get educated and make it worthwhile.”

I see a lot of people on blogs like Noah Bradley say “Don’t go to school to learn art! Its a waste of money!” this is all good and well if you live in America or east Canada where games studios are pretty much everywhere for you to explore in your citizenship. For everyone else, you will be moving over seas at some point or another. I myself ended up in Japan and I plan to move to America or Canada some day to climb the industry ladder; the only way country hopping is possible (visa-wise) is to have a degree OR 5-12 years of experience in the field you are being hired for (depending on the country).

So yes, you should go to school for the visa benefits but its also important to just get an education! At school you learn about vital communication skills, you meet other people that may or may not make into studios, you learn how to present ideas, give and receive critical feedback, you grow up, learn hard life lessons and and most importantly; you learn how to plan and work to deadlines.

Lastly, learn something that cant be self-taught easily! My biggest regret about school is that I chose to learn ‘Games Art and Design’ which was mainly aimed towards 3D work. I wanted to be a concept artist/designer so this course didn’t 100% benefit me and I learned a lot of my skills at home on my Wacom Bamboo in the still of the night between my lectures. Looking back, i wish that I have learned a useful skill like programming. With programming i could have made a game with my showcased art work opposed to a slide show. So yeah, get educated and make it worthwhile!

2. Your website matters.

“You WILL be judged by your worst work.”

Put yourself in an art directors position; he needs a an artist, maybe the studio only just really needs clean up work so they are just looking for a Junior artist! Man, its your time to shine! The AD has about 20-30 sites which he has been given by the studio-recruiter and he has maybe 2 hours to get through them all to pick 2-5 candidates to interview via Skype. He comes to your website, it takes three links to get to your gallery, the thumbnails are small and you cant use the arrow keys to fly through your images. He looks at two of your pieces that looked catchy from the thumbnails (not the best in your portfolio), closes your portfolio and crosses your name off the list.

Most Important points to remember:

  • Gallery: Make sure your work can be seen in full from the second that they open up your site. Have a slide show or a full page piece on the front page. Have a link above the slideshow that goes to your gallery. If you’re breaking your gallery up into sections like “Characters” “Vehicles” and “Environments” then have a mixed gallery too. Give them the option but don’t limit them either. They should be able to flick through them easily and all your images should have at least one important detail: How long something took you to finish. They aren’t looking for speed paintings, they just need to gage how much work you’ll be able to produce in an 8 hour work day.
  • Contact information: Your contact should be easy to find and use. Email address should be all over your gallery. You should have a “Contact me” section on your site with AT LEAST 1.Email. 2.Skype. 3.Phone number. 4.LinkedIn Profile. More the better.
  • Most importantly: You WILL be judged by your worst work. Its better to have 10 awesome pieces of art than 50 ‘Okay’ ones. This stuff really is quality over quantity. List on your portfolio that you can do x, y and z but if its not as strong in your folio next to the other stuff then wait until they ask for examples of it further down the line. You’re here to make an impression after all.

Try: Ask other developers and artists working in industry to do a review of your site, ask them how you can improve it. 

3. Work for free

“I’ll never work for free. I have bills to pay.” – Idiot.

I meet a lot of artists that say “I’ll never work for free. I have bills to pay.” this I respect and understand for people working freelance full time. If however you’re working a day job full time while you’re trying to break into studio; then you’re an idiot not to take all the work you can get. After your site has impressed an AD or a studio head, they will then look to your resumé and see what you have done in the past. You need to fill that resumé up. Swallow your pride and get some work done.

I’ve honestly lost count of the amount of artists that have been on forums saying “Avoid this indie group if they contact you, they only want free work done for them in a run up to their kick starter.” and I’ve shook my head at them saying “Idiot”. If an indie group of developers contact you with a game which is looking good and ready to go to kickstarter- you join them. You do a little bit of work and then you leave. If that game gets finished a year later then thats a shipped game on your resumé. Think of it as planting seeds, the more seeds you throw out there the more chance something will grow. I’ve heard a lot of stories about groups that have grown into full in-house studios and recontacted people to bring them in to become full time artists. That could be you.

However! There is a limit to the amount of free work you should be doing. Don’t let the groups take it too far and you should 100% limit your workload before you start work with the group to x-amount of time or x-amount of pieces, get in, get out, get it on your resume.

Do your research into the group too. Has the group got no experience with 13 concept artists and no programmers? Avoid them. Do they have a core build of the game running with a history of finishing games/jams? Join them. Be smart about it and stay away from remakes, people who have no idea how to make a game and people making games that can never be published onto a platform for legal reasons. I have been contacted by three different people who are making Assassin’s Creed fan game games- these will never be finished or playable to the public as they will likely be sent a cease and desist letter from Ubisoft before they hit Alpha- this is useless on your resume.

Use common sense and get the work onto your resume because in the end, if it comes down to the guy with 2 paid non-shipped jobs on their resumé vs. the guy with 7 free projects with 3 of them shipped. Then the artist with the shipped titles will win every time. It will give you experience with working in a team, gives you focused practice and shows that you can work to a deadline and brief.

Try: Look at indie dev sites and offer out services to to people currently making a game.

4.Network

“People on ArtStation, DrawCrowd and DeviantArt are your competition!”

The infamous “Network” point. Man the amount of people i’ve spoken to that say this and don’t actually explain it is honestly endless. Network HOW exactly?!

LinkedIn: Is basically your online resumé, everyone in industry is on it and everyone is talking.

  • DO: Get on LinkedIn. Join games development based groups. Add developers and talk to them. Ask them for advice, how they got hired and what advice they can give to help you and your career. You’d be amazed how nice developers are when you get talking with them, ask questions like “What sort of qualities in an artist are you looking for at your studio?”, ask them questions about the industry. I’ve gotten to know some really cool guys that have given me a lot of specific advice to my situation, Art directors at AAA studios, concept artists that are on projects I could only dream of. Who knows, maybe they’ll mention me one day to people they know for open positions. Either way, their advice is what I need and a lot of people out there are nice and cool enough to give it. Especially the recruiters.
  • DO NOT: Avoid asking non-recruiters for a job directly. Dev’s will see you as simple spam, they may even block or delete you over it. This isn’t cool. Most of the AAA studios will have an in-house recruiter that deals with this stuff, so for them to get an email notification from linked in about how “Passionate they are” while they are in the middle of crunch time is frankly annoying.  Tread lightly on linked in in all ways, don’t fill up the feed with viral videos, only give genuine updates to your professional life- and for christ sakes, don’t add stuff about your unrelated day job. Art directors don’t care if you worked in a box packing factory, while noble, it doesn’t retain to you being an artist in the games industry.

Facebook:

  • DO: Make a facebook page specifically to your art, update it, get people to spread the word about you and your art, share other people’s work, join art related groups, get and give good feedback, participate in competitions, its all good practice and the people in those groups wont just be usual “This is awesome/this is bad” they will say things like “This is good BUT it needs x, y and z” this feedback is vital in helping you grow and you can form some pretty good friendships and rivalries. I personally have a couple of artists on my friends list on Facebook whom are awesome and i’m constantly pushing myself to be better- not to just be better but so I actually learn some things- its all good fun.
  • DO NOT: Spend too much time on Facebook. Its distracting for obvious reasons and you’ll find yourself pleasing the people that don’t really matter like 11-year-old Billy from Kansas because he likes “How cool your guns look”. Likes are good and all but you need to be exposed to the industry, not the public. While i have in fact gotten contacted for paid work and games jobs via Facebook, its rare and should be taken at face value. Likes don’t get you into industry but it may help in getting you noticed.

Art based community sites:

I’m on them. I find they are a total waste of time and effort for the most part. I’ve never had anyone give me any meaningful feedback on my work nor have I been noticed by anyone in industry. In fact its quite the opposite! People on ArtStation, DrawCrowd and DeviantArt are your competition and its rare that anyone will throw you a bone unless you’re already in industry. Those sites will not help you break in and most of the time I find that they are actually rather discouraging when you see some mind-blowing artwork from a 10-year-senior, it doesn’t inspire me, It makes me want to quit. Maybe thats just me and it inspires others but either way, it makes the road to breaking in that little bit longer. By all means stay on them and enjoy them! Be active and get some likes, favs and features! Just be aware that it won’t help you much in the long run and they can actually be distracting.

5. be cool, stay classy.

“Be humble, but not modest OR cocky.”

To make it into the games industry you have to of course have the skill, luck and knowhow but ultimately people want to know if they can work with you. I have known some amazing artists who have been assholes and never gotten a job. So, stay cool, and be classy. If people are working with you 9 hours a day for up to two years; they want you to be a nice person, frankly you’re awesome portfolio comes second to this in a lot of cases and its a very important point to remember. This is games, not a law firm.

Every email you send should be polite, “Dear —” “Kind and Best regards —“. Apologize for taking up their time, tell them you ‘hope they are well’ and that ‘they had a good weekend’ if you’re emailing them on a Monday, I have a personal habit of using “Chap” in my emails, its a British quirk which is casual but quite polite, its also quite rememberable to the point that i’ve had clients remember me because of this and even had them playfully call me it back. Call it ass-kissing all you want but you need to be a nice person. Be welcoming to speak with anyone in any position like this. After a couple of emails loosen up to how they are talking back. ALWAYS follow their lead and tone it down to them, not the other way around.

Be humble, but not modest OR cocky. If they compliment you and your work, thank them. Don’t play it down and say “I know better people.” or “Yeah man, I’m awesome.”, be polite! “Thank you for your kind words, I’m glad you liked it!”

6. Be thick skinned

“If i had a penny for every person I have seen that has posted up work requesting feedback, got it then replied saying “Oh it’s just a sketch.” “Or I’ve only just started it”; then i would have enough money to go to FZD school.”

When you’re building your portfolio, networking, asking people for advice and doing odd client work to get on your resume you will be getting feedback. Some of it is harsh, some of it is uncalled for or much needed. I know how it is; sometimes you put your soul, blood sweat and tears into a piece and then someone in a Facebook group is like “OMG, the perspective is garbage on this!” it hurts. People say “Learn from it” sometimes its hard and you just want to give up. Those people however are right, you should learn from it and its actually a good gage to see how solid your artistic abilities are with fundamentals vs. design.

In the beginning people will destroy your work to help you out, mainly with your fundamentals like lighting, perspective, anatomy, composition, values and such but once you’re push past all then you’re golden- use this to your advantage so you know when you’re good enough. The best feedback online that you can get from other people are the ones with no comments or when people are just talking about the design of something. Over time you’ll learn from your mistakes when people are pleasant about it. Be weary though because there are some really horrible people out there that are there to ruin your day just because they are in ‘Forum’-mode where they have to be right about something, your work in their crosshairs can be quite demoralizing at times, you should however go look at their work when you get these criticisms. Sometimes people rip work apart while their own work is questionable. You wouldn’t take the advice from someone who owns a goldfish about how to look after a dolphin- art is no different.

  • DO: Be nice. Even if someone says “This is total crap.” be polite and ask them why it looks like crap, ask them to point out “What was wrong, design? Fundamentals?” Thank people for their constrictive feedback, tell them “Your feedback is really helpful, i’m taking all this into consideration.” especially if someone is nice about it. It’s basic phycology that if you’re nice then people will be nice back- even if they started the conversation rather harshly.
  • DO NOT: Get defensive, pull your walls up or give excuses. If i had a penny for every person I have seen that has posted up work requesting feedback, got it then replied saying “Oh it’s just a sketch.” “Or I’ve only just started it”; then i would have enough money to go to FZD school which would be funny if it wasn’t funny. We have all been there and we have all done it, im guilty as charged myself where i’ve posted something, expected to get feedback on a design and they have shredded my fundamentals and i have posted the “But…” comment. Don’t do it. Take the advice, learn from it. If you can’t get into that habit then you will struggle in the games industry.

7. Set yourself projects

“If an Art Director has to see another downed spaceship, mountainous fantasy landscape or a sexy sword lady, then they will be very likely forget about your work pretty quickly.”

This is a big one for me personally. Clients want to see your work but at the same time they want to see if you’re consistent in design. Are you able to produce numerous designs and concepts set in the same world? Can you then do another project very different to the first one and produce new, yet consistent designs?

These are the kinds of questions that clients think about when they are looking at your work. The best way to actually practice this is to just do it. Set yourself 1-month projects with deadlines and very specific subject matters. The projects can be anything you want really but I would suggest keeping it along the same lines as the kind of games which you want to work on. Once you finish one, you should go ahead and mix it up within that genre as much as possible.

For example I focused on a Last of Us sequel, an Assassin’s Creed game set in Japan and also a sci-fi Noir detective game just to name a few. All very different settings but all in the same Third-Person action adventure genre. If you like western styled RPG’s then design a new elder scrolls, if you like Call of Duty then design some weapons and soldiers in a time period where you want to see the series go, like GTA? Design a new GTA to be set in your home city- the possibilities are actually endless. I would go as far to say that if you can’t come up with a good idea then you probably shouldn’t be going into concept at all.

At one point I would have my project ready on my weekends then write down 1-6 on a piece of paper, then i’d assign a subject matter to each number (Character turn around, environments, props, weapons etc.) then I would just roll a dice to see what I would be making that day. This a good way to keep you on your feet and keeps your learning! It speaks volumes in your portfolio and if you’re applying to a studio where you have used one of their IP’s then they know exactly what type of work you can produce for them and this will give you an ENDLESS advantage over the other candidates if its done well. Why? Because if an AD sees another downed spaceship, mountainous fantasy landscape or a sexy sword lady, then they will be very likely forget about your work pretty quickly.

DO NOT: Don’t do fan art of pre-existing games (sequels and prequels are okay though!). You’re a conceptual artist. Your job is to produce new designs on a daily basis, repainting pre-designed characters or locations is totally useless in a portfolio. They want to see things which they haven’t seen before, not another render of a character which we have already seen. This also goes for games which aren’t out yet, If a game has been announced or you know pretty well that its coming then avoid it, because those games were conceptualized in some cases YEARS ago now. For instance; I wouldn’t even attempt to create any art for Fallout 4 because i know full well that it’ll be announced at E3 2015 in a few months.

8. Pick a studio

“I want to be a concept artist for games!”

“I want to be a concept artist for games!” isn’t specific enough as a goal. What games? If you have a load of fantasy landscapes in your portfolio and apply to Infinity Ward then you wont have a chance. In two years I applied to 270 studios world wide, I think I counted 6 studios that eventually got back in touch with me, all of them were rejections but they were all by the studios which I catered my work towards. That was just the first stage for me.

For Ubisoft specifically I applied via their website, kept in touch with the recruiter at the studio where I wanted to be and even sent them a physical letter with post cards and business cards. I did other things outside of this but as a combination I was eventually recognized by the studio to the point where I had spoken to five employees via email and they were even kind enough to pass along a copy of AC: Unity for some of my work which Ill go more into in the next point.

Eventually my resume was passed onto the international branch with their recommendation and I eventually landed a job at the Ubisoft Osaka studio near where I live in Japan, i still had interviews and art tests but without that leg work I may not have made it. My point behind all this is that you need to build a relationship with the studio you want to work with. If you don’t have the experience to prove your worth then show your love for their games and cater you portfolio to them! This may or may not work but it certainly worked for me.

Learn about the studios, their priorities, look for videos online, do their employees have fun there? Is it a place you actually want to work at or are you just applying because you liked their last game. These are the kind of questions you have to ask yourself when you’re applying to these places. To ready myself for Ubisoft, I prepared a lot of concept work and letters- about a month of actual work outside of my day job until it was perfect to send off- with games its not like a retail job where the more you apply to the more change you have to get a job- you need very specific with who you apply to but more importantly; what you apply with.

Try :Make a list of 25 studios you want to work for, do your research about them and then make work specifically for them.

9. Get Noticed

“I know and I am full aware that the idea was what exploded, not so much my work.”

My personal formula: Find an IP that you want to work on, do something which the gaming community wants to see, get it spread around and hope it takes off. This of course ties into projects which you should be setting yourself.

I eventually got noticed when I was picked up by Kotaku for my Assassin’s Creed Japan work. In days my artwork had over 2 million hits across Kotaku, Dorkly, IGN, Imgur and more. In the days to follow I was contacted by three studios for movies and games and this included two employees from the Assassin’s Creed studio. Not for offers or anything but with praise for the work I had done. I was later told that a lot of people knew who I was in the Assassin’s Creed studio. It was all overwhelming and to this day I still can’t fully believe it had happened. However! I know and I am full aware that the idea was what exploded, not so much my work.

I’ve seen multiple people ‘Go viral’ (i hate that term) with work which gamers want to see. One of my artist friends was featured on Imgur and Kotaku when she posted up some Zelda work. Another for a Final Fantasy VII remake. If I didn’t have a job at the moment then I would be working on concept art for a Pokemon MMO.

Try: Do a quick google search of “Most wanted game sequels.” “Most wanted Farcry Settings” etc etc. for ideas.

10. Stop playing games without credits.

Seriously. No more Wow, no more DOTA, no more LoL. Permanent distractions with addictive tendencies are something which you don’t need and should avoid. That does for all things though and its all down to self discipline. I personally only play games maybe 10 hours a week now which is about a fifth of what it was 3 years ago but I do however have a lot to show for it. There is a huge difference between being a gamer and games developer. Its up to you to cross that line.

Basically though: Be cool, stay classy, keep working, cater to studios and get noticed by them.

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6 thoughts on “10 tips for concept artists breaking into the games industry

  1. Thank you so much for your advice. I’m getting to understand how difficult it is to break in. After so many applications with very few replies, all but rejections. This will definitely help as a guide. Once I’m done with school, I’ll be looking into doing free for someone’s project but with precaution.

  2. Thank you so much for the tips! It really helped me as I’m about to be a video game artist on a small starting game company in our country. I never had a college degree or a formal training on arts, but I somehow got accepted and passed the interviews and art tests.. I study art and software programs on my own by the way since I’m not financially stable enough to get a degree. I’m just really nervous on actually working and meeting with new people and how am I going to present myself to the company because this is actually my very very first time! Man, the feeling is really overwhelming. I would like to know your experience when you get this job for the first time if that’s okay, what are the do’s and don’ts when it comes to establishing relationships with other workers because I really want to prepare myself for this small company and your advice would be a really great help to me. Thank you 🙂

    P.S I love your works and I’m one of your biggest fans! hahaah you’re one of my inspirations! 🙂

  3. I’m a late starter and found that my college experience wasn’t the greatest when it came to directing me towards this field. That being said, thank you for this information, it fleshed out a lot of things that I have been struggling with since charging down this road.

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