When you work at a small studio as a game artist, you’re a versatile jack of all trades. You can easily switch between doing concept art, illustration, UI, graphic design, 3D modeling, or animation in a flash. You are comfortable working on pieces that range from the hyper-simple to hyper-realistic. You have a million awesome ideas on the tip of your tongue.
Indie games studios, with smaller budgets, recruit generalists because they alone can do the work of an entire team, just on a smaller scale that fits their specific needs. Here’s a look at some of the advantages of being an indie game artist.
Work on Everything
As an artist at a small studio, you have your hands on a little of everything. When working at Blue Frog Gaming, I worked on concept art, illustrations, UI, animation, character/vehicle/creature design, graphic design, icons, particle designs, in-game assets, tiles, etc.
You end up creating hundreds to thousands of art pieces, big and small. The important thing is to be able to match the style of the game, where every piece looks like it was done by the same person. The Art Director makes the final decisions on game aesthetics so that the look is established for the art team to follow.
Make Big Decisions
One of the more challenging aspects is deciding the overall look of a game early on, which pertains to concept art. After completing Darkfire Galaxies, the boss left it up to the art team to come up with ideas about how our next game should look. We bounced from monkey-themed Clash of Clans style ideas to steampunk-style Age of Empires, to even a balloon-animal Battleship idea.
It is both fun and tedious to come up with a game and develop its style. We ultimately stuck with what we were good at; a sci-fi RTS game, Shadowrift, and I think the game turned out great. The art team even developed a story-mode that made it into the game, which involves creating the map to designing characters and writing a story. That was an immensely fun change of pace.
An advantage of working in a smaller studio is that you are more valued as a person, giving you a bigger voice in terms of which ideas make it into the game. At BFG, they were open to listening to new ideas, so many of my own ideas were implemented. For example, on Darkfire Galaxies, I took the initiative to dramatically transform our boring outer space background into something with greater depth, dimension, and pizazz.
The art director and other artists loved it, and with a few tweaks, we showed it to the bosses and programmers, who were so impressed, it was implemented into the game that week.
That was definitely a rewarding team-building experience and a huge plus to the indie game dev space.
Compared to AAA Studios…
By contrast, a good friend of mine and former BFG co-worker, got a job at a Triple-A (AAA) computer game company, with hundreds of people working there. He described the experience as being a bit more robotic. His job wasn’t to come up with brilliant new visual ideas, but rather to make art that fills a particular need the game has.
He felt he had a much smaller voice or opinion into how the game should look overall. That’s also the difference between working on a game from the start vs coming into a project that’s already under development.
Working in a small environment is a great way to build up your skills. When I first joined BFG, my game art and concept art skills were lousy, and my illustration skills were weak. I think I got the job due to my animation skills.
When you push yourself, your skills, and your creativity to make amazing art on a daily basis, you get really good, really quick. You learn about the software, about how the system works, collaborate with like-minded people, and grow as a professional. You get a sense of what is required of you, what being a game artist, a concept artist, an illustrator, a 3D modeler, or any other art-specific role means in a production pipeline.
If you are pursuing a career with a Triple-A (AAA) game company, but are unsure of what to specialize in, a small company can help you discover what you’re truly passionate about and excited to work on. It also gives you essential experience and prepares you for the faster pace and tougher work that a Triple-A (AAA) studio requires.
When you work in a small game production setting you get to work on a variety of projects in a variety of styles. You have a bigger voice in a close-knit environment, you have your hands on a little of everything, and you get the chance to really push your skills in many areas. It’s definitely been some of the most fun I have had in my career so far.