Fancy a job in games? You're not the only one, it seems. Duncan Harris asks the industry for options, experiences and tips for budding recruits.
To explain the breadth of art careers in games, it helps to start with a word that's lost its meaning in the games industry: 'graphics'. Reminiscent of pop parlance in the playgrounds and magazines of the 80s and 90s, when games were drawn by single pairs of hands, today you don't watch movies and praise their 'looks' so much as their effects, photography, costumes and sets. Games have earned a similar respect. Their art incorporates textures, environments, character designs and animations, while luxurious special editions open to reveal concept art, storyboards, and even animated movies and comic books. Graphics? What exactly do you mean?
To see where Swedish texture artist Carolina Dahlberg fits into all this, just bash your head against a wall - or maybe a command console or crate. A graduate of Lule University of Technology, she now designs textures at Starbreeze Studios, famed for adaptations of the movie The Chronicles Of Riddick and comic book series The Darkness. Her role involves decorating anything from medical bays to intergalactic pirate ships - not the most obvious choice for an aspiring filmmaker.
"Storytelling is my main focus," she explains, "whether in writing, speech or visual imagery. But games contain all these and are also interactive, which makes them more immersive. In the end, they also help - or force - us to draw conclusions and to come up with solutions. It is an exciting and vastly unexplored territory in the entertainment industry that has just started to grow. Every day I have to make use of a broad variety of skills, solving artistic as well as technical problems that require me to learn constantly. Let's just say it keeps me fit."
Did many of her fellow students have the same idea? "About three-quarters, although that's a rough guess," she says. "It's sad, but we aren't staying in touch very well. I think many of us quickly understood that future employment and decent pay is easier to find in the games industry than it is in other areas. So it's not just a matter of interest, but of practicality."
Working with textures, Dahlberg says, isn't as creatively limiting as you might think. Well, not if you pick the right project. Like much of commercial design, any role can be liberating - it's the commissions that set the rules. "On a sci-fi game like Riddick, I design a lot of the textures myself. Working on a contemporary game, on the other hand, probably offers the least amount of freedom of all genres. I often feel like I spend tons of time making tiny details no-one will notice - unless they're missing!"
Along with the US, UK and Japan, the Nordic territories are considered the cradle of modern videogames. Indeed, nowhere else has the spirit of reckless innovation and technical endeavour so endured, with many studios using the same in-house tools and engines over several generations of hardware. How steep a learning curve does this create for a newcomer? "I knew very little about Ogier [the Starbeeze toolset] when I applied for a job here, so that didn't affect the choice," says Dahlberg. "But I felt limited. It seemed like whatever I had in mind was impossible to create. Later I realised it had a lot to do with knowing the right way to do things. Sometimes I might have to stop for a moment, think things through, and then start again from another angle."
Imagination, agrees Stuart Adcock, technical art director at Cambridge-based Ninja Theory, is an advantage in even the most technical disciplines. But while some people have it and others don't, neither kind of person, he believes, should be ignored.
"The games industry is full of both types and I don't see why either would be held back," he says. "Artists can always be tailored to a role that suits them. If they have good imagination, then they are encouraged to collaborate with design and help to push ideas around. If they have good technical know-how, on the other hand, then we would want to take advantage of that. At Ninja Theory we have a team of technical artists that bridge the gap between art and programming. They help imagine ways of tackling problems and streamlining existing processes. We rely just as much on that as on creative imagination."
Thrust to the forefront of AAA development thanks to its PlayStation 3 flagship title, Heavenly Sword, Ninja Theory has made it its business to know the future. The convergence of games and mass media is a common wisdom that's reiterated year on year, but few have had the privilege of casting Andy Serkis in their game, taking advice from filmmaker Peter Jackson, or working directly with the best Hollywood technicians. As gaming's appetite for talent grows, so too does its need for outside talent and training.
"Artist roles are becoming more specific and can be well suited to artists with traditional backgrounds," says Adcock. "The tools we use are developed to aid the transition for traditional artists, constantly evolving to be more intuitive. Having a background in sculpting, painting, lighting, animation, cinematography or post-processing is valuable. Trends also create further opportunities. A lot of emphasis is now placed on user interface and HUD [head-up display] design, for example. The accessibility and appearance of a user interface is very important and can help a game hit a wider audience. This opens up new opportunities for web and graphic designers. And with game engines supporting common languages such as Flash, the transition has never been easier."
But as more and more students enrol on courses both at home and abroad, with ever more recruits found in movies and advertising, the fear for some is that, with teams often swelling to employ hundreds of people during later production, the artist might become less of an individual than a cog in the machine. Scare stories of people spending weeks working on little more than a character's trousers scatter the internet, and the complexity of what you see on screen suggests nothing less. So is it fact or fiction?
"It's more common that an artist would work on an entire character," says Adcock. "It's better for consistency and artist morale. But it is becoming common for another artist to work on the texturing or rigging part of the process. Nowadays a typical game character is certainly more of a collaborative effort, but each area is still owned by an individual. Key areas in Heavenly Sword were the facial animation, lighting and atmospherics, and these relied heavily on individual talents. Every new game will have key artistic goals and new opportunities for individuals to shine."
Is that only in character-based action games? On the contrary: even the most scientific genres need a creative touch, in some respects even more so than the obvious genres. Take Race Driver: Grid, for instance, one of the most flavoursome racing games of recent times and an artistic triumph.
"Our range of influences is eye-opening," says principle concept artist Daniel Oxford. "We cite a varied range of cinematic devices and techniques, along with the specific trademark styles of many top movie directors, as our goals from the outset. That's combined with exhaustive brainstorming sessions in all areas to determine visual direction and how we can introduce new ideas to both the genre and the industry. There's a strong ethos of innovation: we try not to re-hash what we've done before, however well we've done it."
Nor are Oxford's own motivations those you might expect of a pioneering petrol-head. His eye for lighting and surfaces was honed by the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt, his love of fine art by Fantasia-era Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. "The often alien qualities of the culture involved are mesmerising," he says. "In the digital era, I have infinite admiration for Craig Mullins [concept artist for games including Halo and movies including The Matrix Revolutions] - me and most other digital artists, I'd imagine. The style and vitality in his work really lift it into the realms of the great, and prove that digital art can offer as much creativity and life as traditional art when wielded with such imagination and talent."
Unlike Carolina Dahlberg, Oxford's university career didn't have that expanding backdrop of expense and esteem in videogames. "Unlike now, they weren't considered a viable art form," he says. "Graphics technology and budgets were simpler, and high-end equipment and software was prohibitively expensive. In fact, I'd struggle to think of anyone who was considering games as a career back then. The last decade has changed everything."
So much so, in fact, that it's hard to know where to begin. Sure, you could enrol onto one of numerous game design courses at universities such as Abertay or Staffordshire, which appreciate the value of both a world view and specialisation. But you might also think about joining the mod scene, a vast creative assembly that does anything from adding new content to a game, to building new ones out of publicly available technology. All require and potentially showcase an artistic direction. Or you could make movies or music videos instead. It's not like you'd need a new tool belt.
In games, hundreds of industry posts are advertised on websites like OPM and in magazines like Edge. But while new opportunities arise all the time, one thing has - and will - never change: if you can't show it, knowing it barely counts. In Adcock's words: "A strong portfolio goes a long way. It's important to demonstrate your strengths, so don't be shy."