Excerpt: How to Become a Video Game Artist

By Sam R. Kennedy [04.25.13]

 [In this excerpt from How to Become a Video Game Artist, Sam R. Kennedy outlines industry basics and gives tips for newcomers wishing to work in the field of the visual arts.]

This book is for anyone who wants to do art and get paid to do it. Specifically, it is about working successfully as an artist in the video game industry. I wrote this book for those artists out there who, like me, love to draw and paint and animate and either have or would like to have a video game career. You may not be a working artist right now, but if you read this book you will learn how to become one. If you are already a professional, I'll tell you how to break into video games or how to move to your dream job if you've already broken in.

Video game art is like no other art form. Like movies, video games demand excellent visuals, interesting stories, and compelling animation. Unlike movies, however, video game art is interactive and intertwined with complex and changing technology. A movie audience sees only what is in front of a camera, whereas a video game player is free to walk around the set. Video game artists have to build an entire world for the player's character to live in, not just a set that looks realistic from one angle.

Video games are engaging to play and amazing to watch, and it takes many talented artists working on many different aspects to create each game. There are even artist tech jobs that don't require you to have strong drawing skills. If you are determined and work hard at perfecting the right skills, there will be creative roles you can fill in the industry.

How I Became a Video Game Artist

When I was a child, I thought the only artists out there were Disney animators and the starving variety. But when art-heavy video games burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s, I realized there was a whole new art world out there, one with thousands of new jobs.

I was in college at the time, struggling to learn to become an illustrator. Though video games had been increasingly popular since the early 1970s, when Pong swept the country, they didn't become art-heavy until the mid-1990s with games like Warcraft II, Abe's Oddysee, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six.

Simultaneously, 3D arrived. The enormous worldwide success of the movie Toy Story (1995) proved that audiences would embrace 3D, and shortly after that video games began to move from 2D sprite animations (series of pictures of characters or objects on the game disk that are played when the player inputs the right combination on the controller) to real-time rendered 3D games (the video game itself renders the images on the screen as the player sees them, called rendering on the fly.) This move from 2D to 3D triggered a huge upsurge in the number of artists needed to create a video game, and as 3D art has become more sophisticated, the number of artists needed to produce it continues to increase.

Screen shot from Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, composed and edited by Sam R. Kennedy, using game assets created by Ubisoft and the Red Storm development staff.

3D games feature virtual worlds with three dimensions (length, width, and the illusion of depth) that allow the player to move in multiple directions-forward/backward, up/down, side to side, and in front of and behind scenery and objects. In this screen shot, because this is a 3D game, the player can run anywhere in this environment, including behind buildings and from ship to ship, and enemies can ambush the players from rooftops.

Getting My First Video Game Job

I was lucky enough to be exiting college when simply knowing some 3D applications made you highly employable. After I struck out trying to get an animation job, I was offered a job as a video game production artist. (Production artists are the artists who do the mucking-out jobs. We were called pixel pushers back then, because we literally changed the colors one pixel at a time.)

I wasn't a very strong artist when I started pushing pixels, but I was making money and focused on learning what I could from the better artists around me. After some outside workshops in 3D, I went from pixel pushing to creating cinematics for PlayStation's Animaniacs Ten Pin Alley, a wonderful job where I got to model, rig, animate, light, and render complete scenes in 3D.

But I still liked animation the best, and in my down time I taught myself character animation. I landed an animation gig at Saffire, Inc., where I was a principal animator for a Soul Calibur fighting-style Xbox game and also rendered concept art and pitch art. When the studio lost its funding, I became an animator and concept artist at a new studio, painting in my down time. Our game didn't have a marketing artist, so I tried my hand at that too. Later I took a marketing artist position at Ubisoft, where I was privileged to work with some great people on brand name games like Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

What's a Pixel?

A pixel is a tiny square of color. Digital art is made up of hundreds of thousands to millions of individual pixels. Each pixel is a combination of three colors (in the RGB system: red, green, or blue). By mixing these three basic colors you create all the colors in the art. The more pixels there are in a digital artwork, the sharper and crisper that artwork is. If you don't have enough pixels to create smooth gradients across your picture, it is said to be pixelated (because you can see the pixels themselves). Usually a printed digital art piece will have 300 pixels to an inch-long row. Computer monitors are flexible with their display rate; however, 72 DPI or dots per inch can be thought of as average. (In the phrase "dots per inch" pixels are referred to as dots.)

2D and 3D

In the video game world, the terms "2D" and "3D" are ubiquitous. 2D refers to two- dimensional images that have the dimensions of length and width only, while 3D (three-dimensional) images have depth in addition to length and width.

This marketing artwork for Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 was composed and edited by Sam R. Kennedy, using game assets created by Ubisoft and the Red Storm development staff.

Isn't this fantastic?! I started off working the somebody-has-to-do-this jobs but ended up creating exciting images like this when I began working as a marketing artist.

How this Book Can Help You Land a Job

This book starts off with an overview of the artists who create video games and the workflow of game creation, followed by a tutorial on the fundamentals of drawing, painting, drawing software tools, and basic 3D skills. Next, I cover the most popular art jobs in the industry: concept artist, environment artist, character artist, charac- ter animator, user interface artist, and marketing artist.

Each job chapter details what the job is and how it fits into the video game production workflow. I cover all aspects of each artist's job, the development and creation process, other artists and technicians the artists work with, and the education and training needed for each job. As a special feature of each chapter, you'll meet a successful artist working in that job providing you with the inside story about the job, along with an illustrated lesson in how to create that type of artwork. Each chapter ends with a typical help wanted ad for that artist's job so that you can compare your education, skills, and experience against real-world standards and learn what art you need to have in your portfolio to land that particular job.


A portfolio is a selection of examples of your best artwork to show a potential employer your skills, talents, and artistic vision. The artwork can be drawings, digital paintings,

3D models, animation, and/ or other graphics. Your portfolio should also be available on the web. The work in your portfolio should visually illustrate the skills needed for the job you're interested in and should also show your proficiency in all software programs required.

Real-Time Console Games: A Unique and Technological Artform

The jobs covered in this book are for creating real-time video game art. In a real-time video game the characters and world you see on the screen are being rendered as you play the game, or "on the fly." The game engine reads stored information off the game disc and renders the 3D geometry for each character and environment object. This 3D geometry lets you move in any direction in the game's world. Before real-time games, movements were limited for the most part to moving left or right, and they always had a pre-rendered 2D backdrop behind the character.

As long as the game engine can keep up, the 3D world is rendered at 30 frames per second, but keeping the game flowing at 30 frames per second is a challenge. The game engine has a limited rendering capacity, and the amount of data available to be read is also limited to the size of the game disc and the hardware space available on the console. Game consoles, currently Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo's Wii, also have individual limitations of space and speed. Every final piece of art for video games must be scrutinized to make it as efficient as possible. That is the economy of game art. All elements of a video game draw resources from a single pool. If the environment requires too much of the limited rendering resources, there will less available for rendering characters. It is up to the game designer to decide how much of the resources will be dedicated to the characters, the environment, special effects, and so on.

A Brief History of Early Video Games

The pioneering efforts that brought us to today's complex and realistic 3D games began in the 1940s with cathode ray tube beams that could be manipulated by knobs and buttons and early chess games. The 1950s saw the first computer specifically designed to play a game (Nim) and the development of computerized Tic-Tac-Toe and Mouse in the Maze games. Spacewar!, considered the first shooter game, arrived in 1961, and Odyssey, the first game to use a video display on a TV set, debuted in 1966. The year 1971 ushered in Galaxy Game, the first coin-operated game (only one was created), followed a few months later by Computer Space, the first commercially sold coin- operated game. In 1972, with the introduction of Pong, gamers could finally play a computerized game at home (on the TV screen) -and video games haven't looked back since. The 1980s and early 1990s saw an explosion of home and arcade video games, and the mid-1990s gave birth to art-heavy, 3D, and increasingly interactive games.

The rise of video games and their mass popularity have created a lot of new jobs and opportunities for artists. In the 1980s, someone like concept artist Mark Molnar might have had trouble finding work. However. Mark and other skilled artists like him are in high demand today thanks to video games and of her forms of media. The art needed for video games is very diverse, like these three environment concepts. Every day concept artists are envisioning past, present, and future worlds.

Working in a Video Game Production Studio

A video game production studio can be a great place to start your career. Once you get a foot in the proverbial door with that first job, there are numerous opportunities for growth. For one, working with established profession- als provides invaluable experiences that will help you to improve your artistic and creative skills and to navigate the complicated collaborative process of game design. Because a production studio employs every type of artist, you'll have ample opportunity to discover if you have a talent or interest in an area you'd never considered (or even known about).

I learned so much in my twelve years as a video game artist. As an animator, I learned to dramatically pose 3D figures like these special-ops guys. Doing marketing art taught me how to integrate photos into pictures, like the hands in the nearest figure. Throughout my career, I have used photos to add texture like the dirt and uneven surface on the walls and door. Many artists I worked alongside taught me how to research things like the contemporary military gear that dresses the figures.

Video Game Jobs Defined

Here are some of the key players in the video game art creation pipeline. There can be some overlap among these jobs. In smaller studios in particular, the same person may perform more than one role-a concept artist might also be the marketing artist, for example. But large studio or small, it takes a lot of talented people working in concert to take an idea to finished game.

Producer: The producer is at the head of the game devel- opment workflow and runs the entire creative process, providing direction and feedback to the various teams of artists in the production pipeline. Producers make sure all the artists stick to the game designer's vision, and they set and maintain deadlines and the overall budget. Along with game designers, producers originate ideas for new games, determining how the game will play, what will draw people to it, and what sort of world it will be set in. They are usually not artists and rely on artists to realize their ideas.

Head Game Designer (Game Designer): Sometimes the idea for the game is the designer's; sometimes it's not. But whoever has the original idea, it's the game designer who has to envision the entire game and then create a detailed design document to guide the various art and technical teams executing the game. (A design document is several hundred pages long and specifies gameplay, settings, characters, weapons, vehicles, story, and functionality.)

Art Team(s): The art for each stage in the pipeline is developed and reviewed by a team that includes some combination of artists, game designer, producer, and art director, and sometimes chief engineer and level designers.

Art Director (AD): The art director is the top artist on every team and works with the producer and game designer to keep the various artists on track, on vision, on budget, and on schedule. The AD coordinates the look and style of the characters, environments, and props to ensure that all the different artists work in a common style and that all aspects of the game's look are compatible and work together to deliver a consistent experience throughout the game.

Chief Engineer: The chief engineer sees that all the nec- essary programming code for each gaming feature is developed on time and works smoothly. He manages the Software Engineers, who write the programming code that makes the game run and function.

Concept Artist: The concept artist is the first artist to execute the characters, creatures, environments, and objects the design team has dreamed up; what the concept artist draws and paints is the basis for the art from all the other artists in the pipeline.

Environment Artist: The environment artist models and textures all the 3D objects (except characters) you see in the game, like backgrounds, props, vehicles, and buildings.

Character Artist: This may well be the most desirable art job in video game production because character artists get to build the 3D models for all the characters and creatures in a game. 

Character Animator: The animator makes the character move-every single motion a character makes: running, walking, throwing, leaping, shooting, and fighting.

FX (Special Effects) Animator: Although I don't devote a chapter to this job, FX animation is an employment option you should know about. FX animators create the FX (special effects) in the game, things like explosions, muzzle flashes, bullet hits, and so on, and consult on the integration of the FX into gameplay mechanics. Like all game art, the FX must reflect the look and style of the game and the aesthetics and qualities of the game art. Game FX are created with specialized software like 3ds Max and Maya.

User Interface Artist: The UI artist works with UI engineers to allow players to navigate through the setup screens and also creates the vital icons and meters that feed a player important information during gameplay.

Marketing Artist (MA): A marketing artist creates art (or adapts game art) that introduces and sells the game to the buying public. This can include everything from the game's packaging to print and online advertising to animated trail- ers and commercials.

Level Designer: A level designer blocks out the playable levels inside the game and, when environment assets become available, inserts them into each level.

Testers: Testers play the game for several months looking for and tracking problems, called bugs. The bug list is handed back to the appropriate department for resolution.

The Studio Environment

The personality of a studio will vary, but in general it is a very relaxed work environment. Most offices do not enforce a dress code or have a standard office look. In fact, most video game office spaces are stuffed with toys, posters, and one-of-a-kind novelty items that make one wonder, where on earth they came from.

On average it takes about 125 artists, producers, designers, and engineers two to three years to make an entire console game, though the timeline can vary. In a perfect scenario it would take eighteen to twenty-four months to make a game, but there are always changes, setbacks, or unforeseen obstacles that arise. This unpredictability means that there will be unavoidable crunch times when your team has to work weekends or late into the evening to meet a deadline.


Job security in a production studio is only as good as the success of the studio's most recent release. If the game doesn't sell well, the company may have to lay off employees. And, while a successful franchise of games can guarantee an artist's job long term, continuing to work on the same characters, environments, and gameplay can eventually drive you to look for new and fresher challenges in another job. From my own experience and observation, it is rare for an artist to be at a single studio for more than five to seven years, and many stay less than three.

Some Key Game Creation Terms

There are a lot of standard terms used in game design. Although they are explained throughout the book as they appear, some terms are used again and again, and rather than describing them each time, I've defined them here.

Character Model (Character Mesh): A model (or a mesh; the terms are used interchangeably) is a 3D structure of a game character, which has height, width, and depth, and is created in programs like 3ds Max, Maya, and ZBrush. The mesh has the character's shapes, forms, proportions, and body structure.

3D Model: Any object created in a 3D program and that has height, width, and depth. Modeling is the action of creating a 3D model.

Game Assets: Game assets (which include environment assets) are all of the 3D models for characters, props, accessories, and environmental objects that are used in gameplay.

Platform: Platform refers to the hardware on which the game is played; most come from companies like Nintendo, PlayStation, and Microsoft.

Rigging: Rigging is placing a system of bones (skeletal structure) and handles (access points to the bones) in a character model, which allows an animator to create natural movement.

Scripted Event: A scripted event is something that happens when the player performs a certain action. For example, if the player takes a character into a forest and passes the third tree, then six zombies will spawn behind the fourth tree.

Texturing: Texturing is using software (like Photoshop or ZBrush) to color the surface of a 3D model and describing how that surface reacts to light. It can also mean creating more detail on the surface through normal maps.

Normal Map: A normal map fakes the lighting of bumps and dents by remembering depth information of a similar but higher poly-count model. A low-res model with a normal map on it will appear to be much more detailed.

The Fundamentals

Drawing and Software Skills

If you want to be a video game artist, you have to have strong art and software skills. The artists whose work is featured on the following pages have spent years perfecting both. You can learn a lot by studying their art and applying their techniques to your own work. "Practice, practice, practice" may be a cliché, but it's undeniably true. You can't get great without practicing every single day.

Drawing: The Artist's Alphabet

Drawing is the fundamental language for all artists in all genres, and video game artists are no exception. Before you tackle 3D animations and game design, you have to know and understand how to draw. Illustration and animation software are essential tools, but you can't begin to employ them successfully without a strong foundation in drawing with pencil on paper.

The good news is that drawing skills can be learned and will improve with patience, practice, and education. Even if you don't have the skills of a Rembrandt, you can learn to draw well enough to communicate your ideas and be successful in certain video game jobs.

Doodles by Steve E. Anderson.

Master illustrator and draftsman Steve E. Anderson does pages of doodles like these every day to keep his imagination active and his drawing skills sharp. You too should keep a sketchbook of both real and imaginar y things. steve develops creature concepts for games in the fantasy and science fiction genres and works as a freelance illustrator.

The Language of Drawing

In video game production, drawing is a communication device, a universal language by which the artist articulates ideas and concepts to his or her team. Inside the team effort of making video games, you'll most likely work out your preliminary ideas and concepts via drawing first. (Once you've selected the ideas to develop, you'll work on them in 2D and 3D software.) Whether you are drawing on paper or in a program like Photoshop, the same basic principles of art apply, so it is important that you develop the basic drawing skills covered in this section to the fullest.

Different Drawings for Different Purposes

You'll make different types of drawings depending on what type of artist you are in the creation process. Each type of drawing will look different and have its own unique qualities. A concept artist must draw the character in a static pose in a way that all the characters' details are easily seen. Lighting is kept neutral, so as not to obscure those details. However, key artists or storyboard artists are not concerned with details. They draw posed characters with dramatic lighting, leaving out details that are not yet necessary to work more quickly. Their interest is in the action and storytelling. An animator hardly renders the character at all, often using stick figures to show the gesture of the figure at each stage of a motion and the postures and perspectives that will communicate its attitude and temperament.

Why Drawings?

Most game artists draw to develop ideas and have something concrete to show and discuss with team members and other colleagues as the game, characters, environments, and story concept are being worked out. The nature of the creative process is that more ideas are rejected than accepted, and even ideas everyone loves need further development. Sketching ideas and concepts on paper or in Photoshop is faster and more flexible than fleshing out the same with painting or 3D software. It is better to spend a couple of hours sketching five or six ideas than to take twelve hours developing one idea in 3D detail that the producer may not even want.

Here concept artist Mark Molnar draws his idea for a hangar where giant robots are manufactured. the drawing is kept loose at first as he works out what the robot and space around it will look like. until Mark or his art director approves the layout and design of the art, there's no point in taking the time to create a clean, finished drawing.

Concept art by Mark Molnar.

Jaf Farkas created this concept art to illustrate a detail in the boneyard level of Warm Gun (emotional robots), a strong understanding of perspective is a must for artists who draw environments. Even in this scene featuring a broken airplane you must keep perspective in mind. The closer engine is larger and both the road and the aircraft get smaller as they recede into the distance.

Concept art by Jaf Farkas for Warm Gun (Emotional Robots).

Key art sketch by Nick Bradshaw for Warm Gun (Emotional Robots).

This key art sketch features the playable character Outlaw. By the reaction of the still-living bar patrons, the bodies on the floor, and the nonchalant pose of the main character, we realize Outlaw is not someone you want to mess with.

Concept art by Dave Nash for Warm Gun (Emotional Robots).

These thumbnail drawings of buildings are very small, but the scale and perspective are accurate. Notice that each set of parallel lines comes together at the horizon line of the image; the place where they meet is known as the vanishing paint. Working at this size, artist Dave Nash can draw six or seven ideas in the time it would take him to complete a larger, more detailed drawing.

Drawing Key Art

The video game production process takes a long time; the artists and engineers may spend nine months in development before even a single level of the game is created. Because so many people in so many roles are working on the game, it's critical that they all share the same vision of the game's defining, most exciting moments, the "wow" moments, known as the game's key ideas.

Sometimes the best way to communicate the key ideas is through art. Key art is what game designers use to show the team what their vision is so that all the various artists keep to a single vision of what the game will look and play like. Usually there isn't a dedicated key artist, because these services are needed for such a short time, so key art is usually done by a competent and available concept or marketing artist.

Key art focuses more on the overall scene than on individual objects or characters. The key, or pre-visualization, artist will be more interested in drawing an entire scene than a single static character or object. As a key artist, you not only must be able to draw the character and environment in perspective; you must also suggest lighting, special effects, and action/movement to create drama and tell a story. You are illustrating gameplay, not characters or environments.

In this key art sketch, I had to show a key idea for a game in which players are barbarians in a prehistoric world when dinosaurs still ruled the earth. This is a "wouldn't it be cool" moment for me. Key art should show action like this -- with blood effects and lots of teeth. the key ideas (how a game character can jump onto and kill dinosaurs with knives) are very clear here: there will be exciting FX during the kill. This image does not represent the final design of the dinosaur, the barbarian, or her costume. It is the concept department's job to lock down those details later in the production process.

Here I've painted the key sketch to turn it into a piece of key art the producer can use to communicate a key idea of the game. Adding colors and texture to the background helps define the dramatic prehistoric world. The strength, bravery, and intensity of the character and her personality and attitude are greatly enhanced by the addition of color and gory, bloody details.

Animation and Key Poses

Animators draw to show motion. They begin the process by sketching quick, very loose representations of motion known as gesture drawings (so called because they show only the broad gestures, or poses, of a figure in motion, not the details).

Animations are made of two types of poses -- key poses and in-between poses. Key poses illustrate the most important character movements, the motions that define the character's personality and the way it operates in the game environment. An animation goes from key pose to key pose with some frames between them. The frames between the key poses are called in-between poses, and their purpose is just to get the viewer to the next key pose. A lot of key pose exploration is done directly on the computer, but when I was animating a fighting game I preferred to work out key poses for different attacks in the library.

Gesture Drawing and the Barksdale Figure

A gesture drawing is a very quickly executed sketch of a figure or object that can take as little as thirty seconds. The idea is to capture the broad essence of the figure or object rather than its details. Gesture studies are an essential part of figuring out how to draw realistic movement.

Barksdale figures (affectionately named after my figure drawing teacher, Ralph Barksdale) are miniature (usually mannequin-type) figures quickly drawn in action poses from imagination or references. Ralph had us do thousands of them for homework to get us used to drawing the figure with correct proportions and solid form from any angle; I can tell you that after a couple thousand figures, proportions are no longer a problem. Fill pages with small figures turning, twisting, running, and jumping, and you will be able to draw the figure in any pose you choose when the time comes.

In these gestural figures, I am working out not only poses but also a storyline. the story was about this character with a spear and large antigravitational boots (don't ask) walking through a frightening maze. At one point she is scared by a statue, recovers, and laughs it off. That's when the minotaur comes up behind her and she's really scared. Using small gestural figures like these are a quick way to get down ideas and see if what you have in your mind seems to work visually.

In these gesture drawings, I am working out the key poses of a run cycle. as you can see, the drawings don't have to be finished to show motion and attitude. these gesture figures are quick and easy for me to do because of my practice drawing barksdale figures. This technique of using quick gesture sketches to work out the details of movement is my preferred method to establish key poses for a game animation.

Drawing Storyboards

Storyboards are created by marketing artists for commercial trailers and by artists dedicated to creating the cinematic scenes of the game. Storyboards are a series of sequential images that visually break down an action scene into its component parts. They are like a set of visual step-by-step instructions for drawing and animating a scene or series of actions. Good storyboards create and show drama through lighting, action, and emotion.

Like other types of drawings, creating storyboard art is a process, and changes will be made as you review your boards with the team of cinematic artists and those in charge of marketing the game.

Here are some very rough storyboards that I did. A minotaur attacks the heroine. She is knocked into a column and then has her weapon taken from her. This is how i work out camera angles for an action sequence. I draw out the ideas simply and quickly, looking to see if the action makes sense.

Who Invented Storyboards: Storyboarding in the form we use in film, animation, and games today was first developed by the Walt Disney Studios in the early 1930s.

Storyboard by Mark Molnar.

These black-and-white scenes (here and below) show how Mark Molnar approaches storyboarding. By using darks and lights in the right places, Mark has created interest and a sense of drama in each scene, despite the looseness of each drawing.


How to Use a Pencil

Perhaps the most flexible and universal tool for drawing is the pencil. With a pencil (and its companions, putty and plastic erasers), you can draw lines in a multitude of weights from thinnest to thickest (depending on whether you use the sharp tip or the flatter sides of the lead), and you can render light and dark from white to near black and all shades of gray in between.

I recommend you use 2B and HB pencils, which are soft enough to render lines of various thicknesses and allow you to achieve a good dark. Be sure to keep your pencil sharp as you work.

There are many types of paper used for drawing. For key art sketches and gesture drawings I recommend using simple copy paper. It's a convenient size and ubiquitous. If you are concerned about values and light, you could try a gray paper and use both a dark and white charcoal pencil.

Since you'll erase a lot as you do preliminary sketches, it is better to render your initial lines with a light touch. Erasing heavy lines can tear your paper and leave dark smudges on the drawing.

In these anatomical studies, Steve Anderson shows the versatility of a pencil drawing. Notice the different ways in which he uses the pencil. With the point, he draws out the details of the skeletal structure and the monkey's fur. Varying the pressure on the pencil tip allows him to create a dark line for shadows on the underside of the monkey (heavier pressure) and the contours of the monkey's body (lighter pressure). Using the broad side of the pencil, he creates a soft gradient along the monkey's side and then uses an eraser to create the highlights, showing reflected light, on the monkey's head and chest.

Anatomical studies by Steve E. Anderson.

Steve applied the same techniques he employed in his monkey study in this dragon drawing. He placed firm pressure on the point of the pencil to render the dragon's head and neck (including scales, horn, and webbing), while a softer touch was used to lightly sketch the rest of the body.

Dragon by Steve E. Anderson.

Digital Drawing and Color in 2D and 3D

Although a lot of materials like pencils and paper are used around a video game studio, some artists prefer to create their concept, key art, and storyboards digitally using a pressure-sensitive tablet and stylus. (There are also pressure-sensitive monitors on which you can draw, and some artists really love them. Drawing digitally offers the advantage of the software's drawing tools.

Of course, one-color drawing is not the only way to communicate ideas. Some artists like to work in color through the entire process. Although most color is added digitally in a graphics-editing program, we still refer to it as painting. Concept artists do a lot of digital painting; they paint their approved character and environment concepts, for exam- ple. A character artist, who models the game characters in 3D, applies colors and textures when the modeling process is complete. (Sometimes the painting of characters is given to a texture artist to do. But it is much more common that the character artist will do modeling plus painting and texturing, so in this book I am covering texture art as part of the char- acter artist's job.) Environment artists create the 3D objects for the game, like buildings, vehicles, and weapons. They also typically paint and texture their own models.

Today's 3D software programs make it faster and faster to develop 3D sketches, like this Navy SEAL, developed in Zbrush. Quite a few concept artists now work in 3D programs like Zbrush to develop concepts.

These jungle characlers were painted in Photoshop using a pressure-sensitive Wacom tablet. This project was done just for fun.

This humorous picture started off as a pen drawing, but it was digitally painted in Photoshop. With the help of my pressure­-sensitive Wacom tablet, I softly build up the colors in the character's skin to create a sunburnt look. By pressing lightly with the stylus on the tablet, I got a semi-transparent layer of color, which helps make the skin look real. I couldn't achieve that without a pressure-sensitive tablet.

The Technology

Advances in technology continue to change how things are done in the video game industry and provide more ways of generating game assets and sharing ideas. Because today's real-time console video games feature 3D characters and envi- ronments, some artists prefer to develop ideas in digital 3D. (ZBrush is a great 3D visualization software program that allows the user to sculpt characters and other assets quickly.) Drawing a "sketch" in 3D can help get it approved faster; it also provides a starting point for creating the final 3D asset that will be used in the game, also know as an in-game asset.

Photoshop and Painter

Adobe Photoshop is the world's most used 2D image creation and manipulation software. You should have proficiency in it, as the odds are overwhelming that any place you want to work will use it.

Photoshop is one of the oldest graphic software programs in use today, and it continues to evolve and improve to stay on top. Photoshop's ingenious use of layers (a system that allows you to paint over an image without changing the original), its advancements in paintbrush sets and filters (procedural FX that you can apply to your image, like Blur, Sharpen, Add Noise, and others), and its easy integration with other graphic software have set it apart from its competitors.

Another of the early painting pioneers -- and still popular today -- is the software now known as Corel Painter. Painter gives the user paintbrushes that mimic the stroke qualities of traditional art mediums like oil and watercolor paints. Some artists find Painter's method of blending colors superior to Photoshop's system.

I painted this image in Photoshop.Ii took photos of a female model and an alley and then composited them into Photoshop. I used Photoshop's system of layers to add FX and lighting on top of the photos.

3ds Max and Maya

3ds Max (introduced in 1990) and Maya (debuted in 1998, although predecessors existed earlier under different names) are complete 3D packages, and parts of every video game will be created in one of them. They and other 3D programs have been around since the earliest 3D video games in the 1990s, but 3ds Max and Maya have dominated the competition and are virtually the only full-package 3D programs used in video game production today. In both Max and Maya, game characters are modeled, painted, rigged (the process of applying bones and skeletal structure), and then animated. The software also features lights, cameras, FX generators, and rendering engines for cinematics.


3D objects are measured in polygons. Polygons are multisided figures connected together to make up a 3D object. For example, a cube is made up of 6 polygons, 1 polygon for each side. A playable 3D character in a modern video game is made up of 5,000 to 10,000 polygons. The more polygons an object has, the more resources are required of the video game engine to render that object.

I used 3ds Max to create the 3D models and textures for the vehicle and robot in this picture. The FX and people in this picture are painted. When I am developing a vehicle, weapon, or other hard-surfaced object for a picture, I like to work in 3D. In a 3D software package like 3ds Max, I can build the machine with many small pieces and know that when the software package renders the image all the pieces will be in perfect perspective. 3D allows me to put all those details in the machine without the headache of drawing each one properly. The software does the drawing for me. I can then take the rendering of the machines into Photoshop and continue to paint, like I did in this picture.

Zbrush and Mudbox

Newer on the scene than Max and Maya are the digital sculpting programs ZBrush (introduced in 2002) and Mudbox (debuted in 2007). ZBrush allows you to create and manipulate a 3D object, or model, the way you would with clay or other real-world sculpting materials. ZBrush's popularity has grown tremendously since it was introduced, and it now boasts lighting, animating, and robust texturing systems. Mudbox is a newer and more streamlined sculpting program. ZBrush and Mudbox both enabled the hyperrealism required of today's 3D models in video games and movies, which just can't be achieved with Max and Maya. A very high-resolution model in Max and Maya may be 50,000-150,000 polygons. ZBrush can support billions of polygons, allowing every wrinkle, pore, and hair follicle to be modeled in 3D. These details can then be exported to Max and Maya as lighting information called a normal map. When applied to a model with only 10,000 polygons the normal map can make it appear to have the much more detailed surface of a 10-million-polygon model.

For this image, I developed a 3D model of the space shuttle in 3ds Max and the alien flying saucers in Zbrush. Having a 3D model for the spaceships allowed me to duplicate them many times without having to paint each one over again. I simply changed the camera's location and hit the render button to produce the four flying saucers. If done right, 3D software can be a great time-saver.

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