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volume 1, issue 12

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Thinking Outside the Box:
Tips on Breaking Into the Industry



By Paul "Villam" Steed

Anything I say comes from me and represents my personal opinions, views and subtle plans for influencing society. Read, ruminate over and remember at your own risk. If I teach you something and it helps, teach someone else.

oo many times I start to address the topic of getting into the computer game biz and meander off into tips for growing into a better artist once you're in the door. This time I'll stay on the path as I devote this TOTB to the aiding and abetting of you amateurs as you struggle to make a dream of making games for a living a reality.

First of all if you want to make games you need to do two things. One: be an artist. Yeah, as in demonstrate the ability to d-r-a-w. Know basic anatomy and the use of color. I may be one to talk since I never had any formal art training, but I always strove to increase my art skills on my own through self study. Go buy some books like How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, 'Bridgeman's' or Gray's Anatomy, some books on architecture and design and something which will teach you to paint. Better yet, go to an art school and learn that kind of stuff along with good grammar and better communication skills. Keyboard jocks who are artistically challenged find it harder and harder to get jobs in our industry. Simply be good at using a computer like any other medium to do good art.

For the second thing I'll tell you a story. Growing up, I could always draw. I did it well enough to win grade school poster contests and hear gushing praise from aunts, uncles and other relatives who didn't have the faintest idea of how good my art was other than the fact it was better than they could have done. An avid sci-fi fan I filled sketchbooks up with visions inspired by Howard, Zelazny, Tolkien, Asimov, Heinlein, Burroughs, etc. I was too proud to take art in high school but I did take a year of vocational drafting with that yuppy, 80's goal of being an architect. I learned a lot about anatomy after I went through the How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way book (I've been collecting comics since '78) and wanted to even go to the Kubert School to be a professional comic book artist. Growing up and then moving on to the Air Force I never ran across anyone who could draw like I did or even wanted to draw like I did. I thought I was pretty damn good. I was da shit. Not.

When I went to Origin at the end of '91 I saw 14 guys who made my drawings look like shit. I felt very depressed. I wasn't good enough to be an artist so I was brought on as a TDA (Technical Design Assistant - read: gopher…as go for this and go for that and do whatever scrub thing we tell you to do), and taught myself the art tools with the goal of interviewing for an art position.

My point being?

Lose the attitude, fanboy. You ain't all that. All your clanmates and relatives may gush over your latest skin or latest player model but you have a long way to go. The gap between minor league and major league game art may not seem all that large to you after you play the latest hacked-out-in-time-for-Christmas effort from Joe Blow Entertainment, but it is there. Depending on the individual, closing that gap may be fast or never. That's where the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, Grasshopper attitude will get your foot in the door over "Don't you know who I am?" approach.

I recently exchanged e-mails with this guy who flat out blasted the RHIP (rank hath its privileges), 'pay your dues' ideology that rears its ugly head at most companies, barring the way for young pups with plenty of talent and no experience as they try to get into game development. Well, think of it as simple quality control. Of course things like patronage, nepotism, favoritism and well-placed bribes are a part of it too, but that's another story. It's hard to get into the industry now because ridiculous occurrences like 42 real time strategy games come out in a single Christmas season. Now do some math. If you take all the revenue generated from gaming, about 90 percent of that revenue comes from less than 10 percent of the total games released. In other words, Lot's of games are released that plain suck. This isn't all because of poor marketing or missed ship dates. It's because the people making the games suck.

How does this affect you the game artist wannabe? Easy. Stinging from lower corporate earnings than usual, JB Entertainment warily examines your resume and reel as you sit over-dressed in some insanely useless human resource person's or worse yet a producer's office. Preferring someone with more experience and potentially more ability, they politely tell you they like your stuff but are on a 'hiring freeze' or they're waiting for a project 'budget'. Bullshit. Delaying tactics. They just can't be frank and tell you your stuff needs work. Or worse, they just can't blurt out how all those flying logos and cool web art you've filled your demo reel with have no pertinent bearing on the next Mortal Kombat ripoff or (snicker) Quake2 Killer they're working on.

Okay, I know I don't paint a very Pollyanna view for the entry-level person but stick with me. At the risk of ostracizing myself from my mostly socially-challenged developer brethren I'm about to give you some advice and insight that will improve your chances at getting into the industry. So let's take for granted you're a better than average artist and you can ditch the hubris. What in the hell do you gotta do to get a job around here? You gotta play dirty that's what.

Rule #1 Know your enemy.

Let's face it. People who spend 12 hours (plus) a day playing on their computers are geeks. Yeah some have money and some get laid more than most but in the end we're all just a bunch of geeks. There's a few car salesmen out there pounding the beat in the name of a developer that have an amazing amount of social acumen, but for the most part take for granted that anyone you talk to in this industry suffers from some degree of a social disability. Then again if you're a geek yourself…well, just be yourself. However, this rule is why I said to back off any 'tude. You'll scare somebody or bruise their big-haired ego or worse, intimidate them. Be contrite. Pretend you're dealing with a cop without the 'yessirs' and 'nosirs'. I'm serious. No one would admit it but I've seen it enough to make it rule #1 to drive into your grasshopper head that a little ass kissing will go a long way in this industry.

Rule#2 Narrow your target.

If you're applying at JB Entertainment do some research, fer chrissakes. Like the idiot who thinks that a generic resume and generic cover letter with the name at the top changed to reflect the company it was sent to will be a homerun, don't make such a basic fuck-up by not showing your prospective employer what they want to see. Tailor your cd or reel for the employer you're sending it to (if possible, of course). What kind of games are they known for? What are they working on? What have they expressed interest in from others or on their web page? Do some research on the history and personnel in the company. I don't mean say something like, "Hi, Mr. Steed. I've heard you're an opinionated asshole…" Uh…no. How about, "Hi, Mr. Steed. I've really been impressed with your work, especially the planes you did on 'Wings of Glory' and that armless t-rex in 'Bioforge' was kewl. Now forget the fact whether or not I actually believe you played those games I worked on at Origin. BUT, I'd be a lying mo-fo if my head didn't swell up a couple notches hearing something like that. In other words, you have my attention. I'd stop thinking about restrained lab coats at make-up counters on my way to lunch at the mall and pay more heed to you. Don't get all squeamish on me either. Do you want to do what it takes or not?

Rule#3 T23Anim.

This rule is a very important one because it pertains to your demo reel and portfolio. To begin with, slide 'reel' right over there with words like 'diet'. They're outdated terms that need changed. In the case of diet it's more like 'behavioral modification'. In the case of 'reel' it needs to be more like 'interactive demo'. I apologize for my sloppiness but I can't tell you the name of this cool program Jade Moffatt turned me onto that allows you to easily create an interactive demo that can basically be burned onto a couple cd's to distribute. It's out there, as is a couple others I'm sure which allow you to basically make an install program that gives an art director the opportunity to view the following four most important aspects of your skills that will get your ass hired.

  • (T)raditional art skills. I've preached on this enough but it'd be great as I review your portfolio to see a bunch of sketches and paintings and traditional non-computer art that ideally is some kind of conceptual work for a piece of CG.
  • (2)-D art. This is basic texture map ability like skins, wall textures, web art or any other type of pixel pushing or even photo manipulation. Very, very important to show this type of range unless you are specifically targeting a job that only requires one or two areas of expertise.
  • (3)-D art. Modeling. Show some low-poly and high poly modeling. If you're unsure what game or project you're applying for then show a cool set, figure and vehicle in high rez and show the same geometry optimized to a low-poly version.
  • (Anim). Self-explanatory, this aspect of your demo usually is the weakest since most animators become good after years of practice (I've been animating for about 7 now.) Make sure if you haven't targeted your presentation that you cover the basic range. A good mix would be some kind of money shot like a spaceship or aircraft blowing something up, some kind of character animation and some kind of ability showing your post processing skills. Be prepared to tell the interviewer exactly how you did anything you show him, too. Unlike the real world where people can get away with lying on their resume, If you didn't do the work on your demo, you're screwed because you'll eventually be found out.

Rule#4 Representation or cold call?

This is something you need to roll into your company research. Head hunters and talent agencies are a valuable resource for the up and coming computer artist. I know a recruiting goddess that will go the extra mile to help get you that dream job. The problem with representation is basically their fee. Smaller companies just can't afford to shell out that equivalent twenty percent of your first annual salary to the head hunter organization. On the flip side, some companies will only give your demo the time of day if you have representation. However, cold calling won't hurt you, if you stay cool and adhere to rules 1-3. Representation is something to consider if for no other reason than it doesn't cost you a dime. Also, the recruiter does all the legwork for you and usually has an extensive network of people to draw from (and yes, I do have a recruiter I can refer you to if you're interested and good).

Rule#5 Don't talk unless you're asked to.

This applies to the interview phase once you get to that point. Basically don't be so nervous or excited that you get a case of diarrhea of the mouth. The policy of not volunteering info is a good one to avoid nothing else but breaking rule #1. I'm personally guilty of this when I interviewed at id. Here I am meeting Adrian and Kevin (the other artist at id who also happen to be co-owners with JC) for the first time and I try to be cool and mention to Adrian that I bet his wife picked out the clothes he's wearing (she did). Luckily Adrian's cool so he didn't ding me for it (at least I hope not) but a hyper sensitive developer who's sartorially-conscious might just take offense at your observance that he's just as fashion-challenged as you are and relies on the advice of a SO (significant other). Then again NEVER show up to an interview wearing a suit and tie. Not even a sports coat for that matter. You'll come off snooty. Trust me. But, wait 'til you're hired before you show up all ragged-out and pierced-up, too.

That's it for now, I guess. I suppose I could try and scrape up some more pearls of wisdom when trying to help your green butt break into the biz, but I value the above the most. Hope it helps because I'll probably have to watch my back from now on…whoah.

What was that noise…


- Paul Steed is an incredibly opinionated 3D artist at id Software.


Credits: Thinking Outside the Box logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Thinking Outside the Box is © 1998 Paul Steed. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't even try it. We've got really big guns, and we're ripped, baby.