the office. The diversity of subjects and styles in casual and social games
also attracts new artists who don't care about traditional games' focus on
science fiction, fantasy, and the military. Plus, the CSM gaming world is
a lot more geographically diverse than the core business. Take a look at
GameDevMap.com, and you'll notice CSM studios in all sorts of places that
are far from the centers of AAA power in California, Washington, and Texas.
This, too, helps attract a wide range of artists with different tastes, styles,
All of this means that the stereotypes that go with the phrase “game
artist” are changing rapidly. You're going to meet a lot of folks at your local
IGDA chapter who won't chuckle at your Leeroy Jenkins T-shirt, or admire
the fact that you do, in fact, haz Recon. You might get a blank stare if you
tell them that all their base are belong to you. Our little club has gotten a lot
bigger all of a sudden.
In most ways, this new diversity will be good for us; it'll help us break
out of the stylistic rut we've been in since the era of near-photorealism
that dawned with the current console generation. It doesn't hurt that
small teams and short dev cycles let CSM games take a lot more risks
than big, ponderous AAA projects; once somebody's scored a hit with a
game like Limbo, it's a lot easier to pitch a similarly risky-style project
to your publisher. A wider set of perspectives can help us shake off
some of our clichés, and it might also help us avoid some cross-cultural
embarrassments like Resident eviL 5's white-heroes-shooting-black-zombies controversy.
There will, of course, be grumbling too. A lot of developers love the old
school frat-house atmosphere and won't be happy to give it up. With a
broader range of folks in the break room, you will have to be a little more
corporate about your behavior. The language and swagger learned while
deathmatching against the over-caffeinated and under-adjusted can land
you in serious trouble with HR.
Even without the Employee Handbook issues, the gradual broadening
of the game business brings with it a culture clash that will be hard to
ignore. It’s easy to snicker about the industry's genre obsessions, but
for many working artists, those giant stomping mechs, badass spec-ops
warriors, and buxom elf-maidens are really the reason they got into games.
Those folks cannot be bribed to work on the next iteration of oh my doLLz,
not for all the credits on Facebook. As with any big, complex cultural shift,
there's no one single story about how these changes will play out. Like the
rest of the world, we'll muddle along in our new, more diverse reality. Some
of us will find it less cozy than what we've known, and others will come out
of hiding and cry "I'll never have to make another goddamn suit of power
armor again! Hallelujah!"
» One thing is for sure, though: the ongoing re-definition of the term “game
artist” will have serious impacts on your career.
For example, if you're a student, you're probably studying high-poly
modeling and character design skills. These make great portfolio pieces
when you're trying to land a spot on the next installment of GeaRs, but
they may not be as much help if all the actual jobs are for 2D Flash games.
You need to think carefully whether you want to fight hard for one of those
increasingly scarce AAA jobs or go where all the hot money is heading.
Your chances of retiring early on your bonus as modeler #37 on a team of
400 making World of Call of Grand Theft Auto are pretty slim. Perhaps you
want to swing for the fences with a scrappy little web game startup? If so,
you'd better add some Flash, graphic design, and 2D animation to your
repertoire. Naturally, the choice will depend on your taste, your talents,
and your ambitions; however, there is an important new variable you need
to consider, which is what, exactly, you mean when you say "I want to
work in games."
If, on the other hand, you're a veteran with some hard-won skills and a
few titles under your belt, you may worry that all this action is passing you
by. The skills you've worked so hard to acquire may seem undervalued in
the casual space. Veterans already know the danger of being professionally
stereotyped: once you've shipped a couple of racing games, it's hard
to change course and decide to make KinectimaLs. Add in really radical
differences of platform and technology—if you wanted to jump from GRan
tuRismo to, say, caLL of biebeR—and you'll have to work pretty hard to prove
the relevance of your skills and experience.
» Over time, though, the boundary between AAA and CSM games will
become more porous. While most of today's CSM games look pretty low
tech to a jaded AAA developer, that will change as the space matures and
gets more competitive. It's inevitable that some titles will try to stand
out from their crowded fields with graphics, which means that a lot of
casual developers will need to tap the skills of artists from the core games
business. You can already see this process at work in mobile games, where
the last six months have seen some really incredible graphics in games like
ReaL RacinG and infinity bLade.
Web and social media games haven't gone for lavish production values
to the same degree, but that has a lot to do with the bandwidth limitations
of browser-based gaming. Cloud gaming companies like Gaikai think
they can break the bandwidth barrier by streaming games directly from
their own servers, allowing even your parents' creaky old PC to play high-powered modern games inside a browser. If this works as promised, the
graphics arms race will hit the casual-social space with a vengeance. That's
good news for AAA artists who could use some cheering up after several
years of doom and gloom in big-name development.
Even if the graphics armageddon doesn't hit tomorrow, AAA artists
have a lot more to offer than just their skills with high-poly models
or fancy shaders. Big projects have huge asset bases and complex
toolchains. Keeping these beasts fed is a difficult job for the tech artists
who build the tools and the leads who keep herding things along. As the
new frontiers of gaming become big businesses, they're going to need
hardcore production experience to make sure they don't repeat some of
the mistakes that the core business has gradually learned to avoid. A lot
of agile little studios would benefit from the wisdom of vets who know
how important unsexy things like asset tracking, source control, and
debugging skills are.
Predicting the future is really hard. If this column had been written in
2006, it might easily have gone out on a limb to predict that by 2011 we'd
all be laboring on 2,000-person MMO teams or that all of our jobs would
have already been shipped to China. Reality is a lot messier, but it's also
always changing around us, and we have to keep our eyes open to deal
with it. There’s one thing we can predict with certainty: it's going to be
hard to get by on just attitude. Maybe you did models for a caLL of duty
episode, or maybe you animated some awesome melee moves for Nathan
Drake. Great! But when interviewing for a job with some group of twenty-somethings whose point-and-click Flash game has 35 million users, you'd
better show—as the phrase goes—some freaking respect.
S Teve TheOdOre has been pushing pixels for more than a dozen years. His credits include
Mech coMMander, half-life, TeaM for Tress, coun Ter-s Trike, and halo 3. He's been a modeler,
animator, and technical artist, as well as a frequent speaker at industry conferences. He’s
currently the technical art director at Seattle's Undead Labs.
No Freakin’ Respect! Social Game