Breaking Into The Industry is a weekly interview series that speaks with video game professionals from all across EA. We hope that by sharing how some of the industry's biggest (and smallest) players got their start, you can learn how to do the same.
You’re an Environment Artist, correct? What exactly does that entail?
So, Environment Artists are kind of broken into two categories: World Builders and Prop Artists. As an Environment Artist – a World Builder – I make all the scenery you walk around in. All the architecture you interact with.
And you did the environments for Dead Space 2?
Yeah. I made a couple of the boss rooms. Pretty much the first 10 to 20 minutes of the first level were my environments you sprinted through.
How many Environment Artists do you have on a game like that?
Here at Redwood Shores, there are five of us, and then there are another five or so in Montreal.
And do you work as a team, or do you have a specific area that’s assigned just to you?
Whole areas are given to one artist at a time. They want you to own it, and you’re responsible for it. That way, if it breaks, they know who to tell to fix it or who to go yell at. So, the idea is that they give you a whole area, and a picture, and they say “Make this,” and you have to make it as close to the content as you can while still making it function, run, and do what the designers want.
Were you a horror fan before Dead Space? Or was it a pretty unexpected assignment?
It was unexpected! Prior to Dead Space, I was doing a lot of very realistic-looking games, where they wanted things like real brick textures and stuff like that. And it just got really redundant and uninteresting to me, because the artistic challenge of making space stuff, with the space style that is Dead Space, was just really appealing. Really different. I wanted to try it.
So do you ever find that horror stuff leaking into other parts of your life?
Well, kinda. After doing Dead Space, I was massively desensitized to gore and horror. Any paranoia I had was just gone. I just don’t have it anymore. I can see kibble and road kill and stuff and just be like, “Oh, hey, look at that.” Before I’d be like, “Ugh, I don’t want to look at that,” but now it’s like, “Oh, hey, inspiration.”
Just another part of the environment?
Yeah, exactly. [laughs] I even got into watching that Dexter show, because he analyzes blood splatters, and my job is a lot of placing blood splatters. I watch it and think, “Oh, he’s right. I should have done this to make it look like he got his head chopped and… more blood to the left.” So it’s fun. Little things like that have started to creep into my life.
Do you create any art outside of work?
I do art. I’ve got my little sketchbooks and I’ve been trying to oil paint in my free time. So, I do art, but it’s not like… for example, I make gore and sci-fi and all that stuff at work, but then the oil paintings at home are flowers. I kind of do the complete opposite of what I do at work when I get out, because my brain’s just drained. I can only do so much gore. So I like to draw nature and stuff like that. Which makes it sound like I’m a 60 year-old grandmother, but whatever.
What were you working on before you took on Dead Space?
I started as a freelance Character Artist, and from home I worked on Hellgate: London, Rock Band, Rock Band 2… a slew of games like that. After that, I switched to being a Prop Artist, still freelancing from home because, you know, it’s fun working from home. And I worked on Borderlands.
What was really fun was Rockband, because I made the microphone for the game, and there’s only one microphone in the game, and then they use it again in RockBand 2. So my little microphone, that I spent like, two hours making, wound up being in everyone’s face across the world. …If I’d known that, I might have spent a little more time on it.
So you’ve been in the game industry for a while. Did you go the college route?
I went to the Art Institute in San Diego for Game Art & Design. Just on a whim. I wasn’t really good at much of anything except making art, so I started doing my homework, like: “What art discipline makes the most money securely?” And that was pretty much my driving factor. It was weird. When I got into the school thing, it was when games just started requiring degrees to get a job.
I think I was in the second or third graduating class that had a degree that was purposely tailored toward video games. Which didn’t really mean anything, because, at that time, they didn’t have teachers that knew anything about video games. They just kind of had professors who were like, “Oh, I was an architect, I can kind of teach you Maya.” And I was like, “Well, that’s not very helpful, but…” “Don’t worry, we can fumble through it.”
It was a lot of basic learning, and not very specialized, so you had to spend a lot of time learning on your own outside of school.
Do you find yourself having to adapt a lot even now?
Oh yeah. Sometimes I think, “I should take a year off, or try something else, or travel, or take a little hiatus,” and then I think, so much changes in six months; if I come back in a year or two, I’ll be massively outdated. The odds of me jumping right back in – it would be pretty difficult.
Time is definitely a precious resource when you’re doing the nine to five. Do you get much gaming in?
No. I don’t play games.
To be honest, I don’t even own a computer. I have nothing. I’m like a caveman. I have nothing except my iPhone and it doesn’t work 90% of the time.
Really? That’s an unusual thing to hear from someone in the industry.
Well, from my perspective, you can either play games or make games. If you’re going to make art for games, that’s a craft you have to practice, and it takes a lot of time, and it’s a lot of learning, and you can’t fit 60 hours of gaming in with whatever’s left of your “awake time.” It’s just not going to work. It’s one or the other. For me, at least.
Of course, once you get a job, and you’re working, and you put in your 40 hours a week, then in your own time you can go game. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve played a handful of games. I’ll play like ten minutes here or there just to see what other companies are doing. But other than that… if they had a mode on games that was called like, “Just Walk Around Mode,” that’s how I’d play them. Get rid of the bad guys, get rid of the puzzles… just let me walk around and look at stuff. That’s all I want to do.
So you don’t play much, but you play a little. What games do you play?
So, since I don’t have much time anymore, I just play the games I can pop in and out of. If I can play ten minutes of Counter Strike, that’s fun. But as far as more current games go, I like racing games. You can pick up a controller, run a few courses, put it back down, and you don’t lose anything. I’m not dependent on other people to play with and I don’t have to find a group or anything.
And now, with the more advanced cell phones, I find myself playing those little GPS games a lot. I’m pretty much in charge of the west end of San Francisco right now, in one of my games.
Which game is that one?
Turf Wars. And I only play that game because my cell phone’s old and I can’t get Life of Crime. That’s the one I really want, and I can’t get it, so I’ve kind of had to make do with its unwanted cousin.
Can you tell us what game you’re working on now?
I can't. It's unannounced.
Mysterious. But you’re still doing environment work?
Yes. I like doing environments. I don’t really care to change from that. I’ve tried pretty much all the disciplines you can do within art, and this is the one that fits my lifestyle the best. It’s the least headache and the most freedom of creation without people micromanaging you, so you get to pretty much – as long as you do it well and do it correctly – you can pretty much do what you want. Nobody really comes around to me and is like, “Tweak that to the left a little.”
Is there any one thing you’ve done that really stands out in your mind?
Everything? [laughs] That’s a tough question. I guess in Dead Space 2 I enjoyed the first boss room that I built, which was the Chapter One hospital boss room. It was just a big open area where ambulances came, dropped off people, and then the people were wheeled into the rest of the hospital. It was like a big hub area. But it was the biggest space I had gotten to make working at EA.
Could you walk me through a typical day for you?
Sure. After I show up, I talk to my leads and we kind of synch up for the day so that they know what I’m doing, I know what I’m supposed to be doing, and we make sure everything is going according to plan. Then, I download all of the data from the previous day and set up all my dev kits.
After that, I set off working, and the majority of an Environment Artist’s day is dedicated to working on the little area that you’re designated to work on – your environment. If there are any dependencies – if I need to talk to the lighters, or VFX, or sound, or anybody – I just kind of wander over to their desk. I don’t like to bother with emails. I like to bug people in person. We have little micro-meetings throughout the day as well, but most of the time you’re sitting at your desk, building and testing.
At the end of the day, the Art Director comes around and reviews what you’ve done for the day. If he has input, I’ll take that input into account for the next day. Or, if what I’m working on is due at the end of that day, he’ll give me the thumbs up or thumbs down. And then I go home.
Of course, you have to mix in the coffee breaks, feeding the fish, you know…
Any advice for aspiring Environment Artists out there?
The easiest way to become an Environment Artist is to be a World Builder. If you’re going through school, lots of schools will try to get you to be a Prop Artist, because props are the easiest things to turn around and make nice-looking. The problem with that is that most prop work gets outsourced. Companies need people who can make entire spaces. And to get those jobs, you have to show that you can realize an environment in its entirety, concept it, build it, and handle it – all by yourself.
Sounds like solid advice. Thanks for sitting down and talking with me, Phil.
No problem! Thanks for inviting me.
Is there a specific video game job you’d like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week’s interview with Charles Graf, a Game Capture Artist for The Sims 3, for more insight into the industry.