From Intern to Artist: How Diane Stevenson Broke Into the Game Industry

By Jill Duffy [08.30.07]

 Diane Stevenson calls herself an illustrator, but also a designer -- or more like "all around artist." She's got a quirky and vibrant streak, but also a touch of shyness; she admitted to feeling nervous when I interviewed her about how she jumped the chasm from intern to employed game developer, and in the same breath told me that she had been wearing a wig through the entire interview (she alleges she lost a bet). She landed a two-month internship at Large Animal Games straight out of college, and at the end of it was offered a job. Diane, how did you initially break into the industry?

A line drawing piece from Diane Stevenson's portfolio, an atypical work for a video game artist, but one that showed her talent and ability to polish.Diane Stevenson: Hard workin'!

I went to an internship fair with my portfolio at Parsons School of Design. I was looking around, and Large Animal had a table there, so I decided to head over since I was really into video games. I wanted to see what my chances were to get a job there.

They interviewed me at the fair very loosely. It was very quick. They took a look at my portfolio; it was actually just Wade Tinney [one of the founders of Large Animal Games, and also a Parsons alumnus], my boss. The art director wasn't there that day. Wade took a look at my portfolio and liked my stuff. I was very enthusiastic. I was telling him that I love video games and I don't have much of a video game developing background but I'm willing to learn. And I was able to catch his attention, so he called me in for another interview.

Stevenson's portfolio contained atypical artwork
for a video game artist, but her attention to
detail made up the difference.


GCG: Then you came in and you interviewed here at the office. What do you think they like about you and your portfolio?

DS: I'd say the thing they liked about my portfolio is that everything was very detailed. I had attention to detail in finishing things. All my work was finished and polished.

GCG: You mentioned to me earlier that your portfolio didn't have game-related work, that it had a lot of line drawing and illustration.

DS: Most of my background was more like comics and editorial illustration. They saw that, but they also saw that my stuff could translate to video games. I was asked if I thought I could do it, and I said, "Yes!"

GCG: Was it all 2D work?

DS: It was all 2D work, yeah. A lot of it was line art, black and white, with screen tone. It was mostly really detailed artwork, though.

GCG: What was the interview like when you came in?

DS: I was really nervous. It was good though, pretty laid back. They asked me a few questions. They were interested in the fact that I liked video games, so we talked about that for a little while. Also, they asked just how I saw my work translating into video games.

I honestly didn't see my work translating into video games (laughs)! But I was so excited about working in this field that I was just like, "Yeah! Of course I can do it!"

I have a lot of character designs and not a whole lot of informational design work, which is actually pretty big in video game development. I figured I'd just work and figure it out.

GCG: What was it like to work as an intern here?

DS: Large Animal is a really awesome company. They didn't make me do usual intern jobs like make copies or get coffee. Most of it was actually doing real artwork on video games. I found myself learning a lot about the industry in those two months that I was interning here.

GCG: Did you have a mentor or one or two people you worked with closely?

DS: I did. My art director was definitely my mentor, Brad MacDonald. He was an excellent teacher. He taught me a whole lot. We worked closely together on a game called Snapshot Adventures: Secret of Bird Island.

I was still pretty timid and nervous about working here, but also very excited. I had a lot of questions for him all the time and he was always very willing to answer them, so I was really grateful for that.

GCG: Tell us about your educational background.

 DS: I went to Parsons School of Design, and I went through the illustration program that they had set up. The program was actually training the students for editorial illustration.

Once, I mentioned to a teacher that I wanted to do video game art and I remember that teacher shooting it down immediately, saying that that was completely unrealistic. They told me, "Don't even bother. Editorial illustration is what you should be doing," even though my work never looked like editorial illustration. But that's what they mostly focused on there.

GCG: What degree did you get from Parsons?


GCG: What about your non-educational background? You mentioned to me earlier that you were born in Korea and, in a roundabout way, that's what got you interested in video games in the first place.

DS: I was born there and at a young age I moved here to the U.S. There wasn't much technology where I came from. I was on my grandparents' farm in a really rural area.

I came here and saw TVs and stuff and was kind of overwhelmed. And then I saw Atari! I played a lot of Atari. From there I bought almost every console that became available. I got into Nintendo, Gensis, Dreamcast ...

GCG: Where you always looking at the artistic side of games?

DS: The artwork for games definitely influenced me. I think video games was the one reason I got into illustration in the first place. I would play RPGs all the time. I remember playing Xenogears and being really excited about the character design (laughs)! The artwork heavily influenced me throughout my life.

GCG: What other jobs have you had?

DS: This is my first professional job. I had other freelancing jobs for illustration; I guess you can call that kind of professional, but it wasn't really. It was me searching for whatever was available on Craigslist and just doing artwork for random people. Nothing from that really went on my resume, though.

I did some web site designs, a character design for a comic, comps for a children's book -- some of the things fell through, but some of them went through.

I was just really excited about being an artist. For the longest time I didn't think I was going to be able to go to college as an artist. Once I did, I was just so excited that I became very motivated and kept working. I think a lot of it is being excited about what you're working for -- just being motivated and keeping yourself motivated.

GCG: Would you say that's a trait you generally find from your co-workers, too?

DS: I think so. In the video game industry, most people who are developing those video games play games and love them and that's why they're in the industry. I think a lot of people are excited about what they're working on and are excited about the end product, so that keeps them motivated.

 GCG: Specific to being an artist/designer/illustrator, what's the best part about your job?

DS: The best part would probably be being able to have my artwork in a game, having that art appreciated by people. It's a pretty exciting thing to see a video game with your art in it. That's your personality. That's what you've done for, say, 12 months, and that's very satisfying.

GCG: What games are you credited with?

DS: Snapshot Adventures. Right now I'm working on an unannounced title. That's it so far; I'm still fairly new.

Snapshot was a 12-month game, and I came in midway through that one. The one I'm working on now is a six-month title.

GCG: What's the worst or hardest thing about being an artist?

DS: It's hard to really say what makes something "good." It's also what audience you're doing it for, and also the fact that I don't really consider myself a casual gamer, but that's the kind of company I work for. Large Animal does casual games. It's hard to put myself outside my own eyes and design for another group of people. But it's a challenge. It's not always just frustrating. It can be exciting, too.

GCG: What kind of overtime do you work?

DS: With Snapshot, I had a lot of overtime. It was a very ambitious project. There were a few nights when I would stay pretty late.

I think that happens with a lot of small companies because there are small teams working and because of that -- although there are positives to working on a small team -- there's a lot more work for each person.

We actually did just start incorporating agile development into our work. That's the big thing with game development now. Agile development, I think in the long run, will prevent overtime and crunch time. A big part of it is being able to see in a sprint how much time it takes to do each task and whether you can do it by whenever your sprint ends. For us it's two weeks.

GCG: What advice do you have for someone who's looking for their first job as a video game artist?

 DS: My advice is to keep positive. It's weird. My dream job was always to be with a big console company because they're marketing toward my age group. Now that I work in a casual game company that's smaller, I really don't want to work in a big console game company and that's because there's so much creativity that goes into the game using each person's input -- and that's because we're using these small teams.

I would say also be open to any opportunity with a small company to work with video games because that could ultimately give you a lot of experience. It's satisfying because you do have a lot of creative input.

GCG: How do you think your path from being an intern to being hired as an artist would have been different had you taken an internship with a large company?

DS: It would have taken a lot longer. I'm not entirely sure since I never worked in a big console game company, but I would say that I probably wouldn't have been noticed. It would have probably taken a lot longer.

GCG: Do you want to tell us about the team building that goes on at Large Animal, in terms of being a small company?

DS: One really great thing about working at a small company is that you really do get to talk to and know the people that you're working with. You know everyone at the company when it's really small. I think the company really tries to push for that so that everyone is really comfortable with each other and can work with each other.

Every Friday, for example, is Halo night. Wade, our boss, will stop us early, around 6:00 and he'll say, "Okay everyone! Time to play darts." And we'll play darts and who ever gets the highest scores gets to pick which chores they want to do. We all go around and do chores, like sweeping or wiping down surfaces. After that, we'll buy beer for everyone and we'll play Halo for maybe an hour or so.

GCG: What's one thing you wish you had known about the game industry before you started working it in?

 DS: I kind of wish I knew to prepare myself for being more organized. Organization is a huge thing in working with other people on a project. With computer files, you have to make sure all those files are organized correctly and clearly, using the right names for files so that when someone else needs to take over something that you're doing, they can just look and understand exactly what they need to start doing.

GCG: What about time management and budgeting time, knowing how many hours it will take to complete certain tasks?

DS: That's a big thing. That's something I definitely wish I knew about before I came here, but the only way to get better at it is through time, making mistakes and doing it. Estimating your time is really huge in a video game project because you need to be able to see basically what you can get into a project, tasking out and estimating your time for anything. For example, how long is it going to take you to design a screen?

GCG: Does Scrum or agile development help with that?

DS: It definitely does. The good thing about Scrum is that you're not the only one seeing that time estimate. Everyone is. So everyone has a good idea of how long everything is going to take. That really helps out with the projects.

GCG: What games are you playing now?

DS: Unfortunately I don't have an Xbox 360 yet, but I plan to soon. Right now I'm playing a lot of PlayStation 2 games. I'm playing Final Fantasy XII.

Sometimes I'll just go to GameStop and see if there are games I haven't heard of. I'll just pick them up, especially cheap games that are on sale because no one's buying them (laughs)!

I just got this game called ChuLip, which is by the same people who made Harvest Moon, I think. I haven't played Harvest Moon, but I hear it's good. So I picked up ChuLip, and it's about you as a little boy running around a town trying to kiss people. I think "chu" is the sound a kiss makes in Japanese. And then it's "lip." Maybe it's also a pun on "tulip?" It's really funny. You play this little boy and you have kiss people, but you don't have enough points with each person yet, and you'll try to kiss them and they'll hit you in the face and you'll fall on the ground and the characters will say, "What are you doing? You can't kiss me yet!" It's so random because you can kiss doctors or your dad! Ultimately, you're trying to kiss your true love. It's really bizarre.

And Guitar Hero. I'm obsessed with Guitar Hero!

Interview by Jill Duffy
Illustrations by Diane Stevenson
Screenshots courtesy of Large Animal Games

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