Video game art directors play a key role in every stage of the creation of a video game, from formulating concepts to supervising production. They work with 2D and 3D artists, animators, modelers, and other artistic staff to coordinate all the visual images used in a game. Video game art directors supervise both in-house and off-site staff, handle management issues, and oversee the entire artistic production process.
History of Video Game Art Director Career
The artistic elements of computer and video games have come a long way from Pong graphics, where a simple moving blip on the screen entertained early gamers. Today’s games not only have to be challenging, engaging, and fun, but they must be visually interesting, realistic, and flashy. While some games still incorporate “cute” characters in the vein of Q*bert or Pac-Man, the majority of game characters are now human. Figures are pictured with bulging muscles, realistic wounds, or, in the case of many Final Fantasy characters, have sex appeal. This realism is the work of huge teams of talented artists that all work together on the completion of a single game. As these teams grew, someone was needed to direct the efforts of these workers and ensure the process, quality, and productivity of the department. Thus, the career of art director developed to oversee this important aspect of game creation.
The Job of Video Game Art Directors
Video game art directors are responsible for making sure all visual aspects of a computer or video game meet the expectations of the producers, and ultimately, the client. The art director works directly and indirectly with all artists on a project, such as 2D and 3D artists, model makers, texture artists, and character animators. Depending on the size of the company, the director may work as a staff artist in addition to handling managerial tasks. But generally, the director’s main responsibilities focus on board meetings rather than on the drawing board.
Video game art directors must be skilled in and knowledgeable about design, illustration, computers, research, and writing in order to supervise the work of their department. They need to be skilled in classic art forms, such as illustration and sculpture, while still familiar with computer art tools.
To coordinate all artistic contributions of a computer or video game, video game art directors may begin with the client’s concept or develop one in collaboration with the executive producer. Once the concept is established, the next step is to decide on the most effective way to create it. If the project is to create a sequel to a preexisting game, past animations and illustrations must be taken into consideration and reevaluated for use in the new game.
After deciding what needs to be created, video game art directors must hire talented staff that can pull it off. Because the visual aspects of a game are so important, the art department can be quite large, even just for the making of a single game.
The process of creating a computer or video game begins in much the same way that a television show or film is created. The art director may start with the client’s concept or create one in-house in collaboration with staff members. Once a concept has been created, the art director sketches a rough storyboard based on the producer’s ideas, and the plan is presented for review to the creative director. The next step is to develop a finished storyboard, with larger and more detailed frames (the individual scenes) in color. This storyboard is presented to the client for review and used as a guide for the executive producer.
Technology has been playing an increasingly important role in the art director’s job. Most video game art directors, for example, use a variety of computer software programs, including Adobe InDesign, PageMaker, FrameMaker, Illustrator, and Photoshop; as well as more specialized 3D game creation tools such as Lightwave, 3D Studio Max, and Maya.
Video game art directors may work on more than one game at a time and must be able to keep numerous, unrelated details straight. They often work under pressure of a deadline and yet must remain calm and pleasant when dealing with clients and staff. Because they are supervisors, video game art directors are often called upon to resolve problems, not only with projects but with employees as well.
Video Game Art Director Career Requirements
A college degree is usually a requirement for video game art directors; however, in some instances, it is not absolutely necessary. A variety of high school courses will give you both a taste of college-level offerings and an idea of the skills necessary for video game art directors on the job. These courses include art, drawing, art history, graphic design, illustration, and computer science.
Math courses are also important. Most of the elements of sizing an image involve calculating percentage reduction or enlargement of the original picture. This must be done with a great degree of accuracy if the overall design is going to work. For example, type size may have to be figured within a thirty-second of an inch for a print project. Errors can be extremely costly and may make a game look sloppy.
Other useful courses that you should take in high school include business, technical drawing, and social science.
According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts, nine out of 10 artists have a college degree. Among them, six out of 10 have majored in graphic design, and two out of 10 have majored in fine arts. In addition, almost two out of 10 have a master’s degree. Along with general two- and four-year colleges and universities, a number of professional art schools offer two-, three-, or four-year programs with such classes as figure drawing, painting, graphic design, and other art courses, as well as classes in art history, writing, and business administration.
Specialized courses, sometimes offered only at professional art schools, may be particularly helpful for students who want to go into the video and computer game industry. These include animation, Web design, and portfolio development.
Because of the nature of their work, it is essential for video game art directors to have a thorough understanding of how computer animation and layout programs work. In smaller companies, the art director may be responsible for doing some of this work; in larger companies, staff artists, under the direction of the art director, may use these programs. In either case, the director must be familiar with imaging software and how to use it to best create the intended visual effect.
In addition to course work at the college level, many universities and professional art schools offer graduates or students in their final year a variety of workshop projects or internships. These opportunities provide students with the chance to work on real games, develop their personal styles, and add to their work experience.
The work of an art director requires creativity, imagination, curiosity, and a sense of adventure. Video game art directors must be able to work with all sorts of specialized equipment and computer software as well as communicate their ideas to other directors, producers, and clients.
The ability to work well with different people and situations is a must for video game art directors. They must always be up to date on new techniques, trends, and attitudes. Because deadlines are a constant part of the work, an ability to handle stress and pressure well is key.
The visual aspects of a computer or video game can be the very things that make it sell. For this reason, accuracy and attention to detail are important parts of the art director’s job. When the visuals are innovative and clean, the public either clamors for it or pays no notice. But when a project’s visuals are done poorly or sloppily, people will notice, even if they have had no artistic training, and the game will not sell.
Other requirements for video game art directors include time-management skills and an interest in media and people’s motivations and lifestyles.
Exploring Video Game Art Director Career
High school students can get an idea of what an art director does by working on the staff of the school newspaper, magazine, or yearbook. Developing your own artistic talent is important, and this can be accomplished through self-training (reading books about computer and animated art and then applying it on your own) or through formal training in painting, drawing, animation, and other creative arts. At the very least, you should develop your “creative eye,” that is, your ability to develop ideas visually. Any art classes will help to develop these skills.
Another way to explore is by researching the career on the Internet. Visit the Web site of the International Game Developers Association (http://www.igda.org) to check out Breaking in: Preparing for Your Career in Games. This free online publication can give you an overview of the different jobs available in the visual arts and features job profiles and interviews of workers in the field.
Video game art directors working in computer and video game design work all over the country for game companies large and small. The largest employers are located in California, New York, Washington, Maryland, and Illinois. Electronic Arts is the largest independent publisher of interactive entertainment, including several development studios. Big media companies such as Disney have also opened interactive entertainment departments. Jobs should be available at these companies as well as with online services and interactive networks, which are growing rapidly.
Since an art director’s job requires a great deal of experience, it is usually not considered an entry-level position. Typically, a person on a career track toward art director is hired as an assistant to an established director. Recent graduates wishing to enter the game industry should develop what is called a demo reel. This is a type of portfolio, only the work is interactive and shows moving animations and backgrounds as opposed to pictures of static images. Demo reels can show your skill in composition, color, light, motion, presentation, and craftsmanship. It should reflect a wide breadth of styles and show work in more than just one genre of game. This will show that you are versatile as well as creative.
Remember that video game art directors have done their time in lower positions before advancing to the level of director, so be willing to do your time and acquire credentials by working on various projects. Starting out as an intern or assistant in an art department is a good way to get experience and develop skills.
Again, video game art directors are not entry-level workers. They usually have years of experience working at lower-level jobs in the field before gaining the knowledge needed to supervise projects. This experience will help them manage their artistic staff and solve problems quickly when necessary.
While some may be content upon reaching the position of art director, many video game art directors take on even more responsibility within their organizations, become game producers, develop original multimedia programs, or create their own games.
Many people who get to the position of art director do not advance beyond the title but move on to work at more prestigious game developers. Competition for positions at companies that have strong reputations continues to be keen because of the sheer number of talented people interested in the field. At smaller game developers, the competition may be less intense, since candidates are competing primarily against others in the local market.
According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ Aquent Salary Survey 2003, the median salary for video game art directors was $60,000. Video game art directors in the 25th percentile earned $48,000 annually, while those in the 75th percentile made $75,000 per year.
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) reports that artists with one to two years of experience earn approximately $57,000, while video game art directors with six or more years of experience can earn $68,000 or more. Skilled directors with many years of experience working with some of the larger game developers can earn salaries of $200,000 or more.
Most companies employing video game art directors offer insurance benefits, a retirement plan, and other incentives and bonuses.
Video game art directors usually work in studios or office buildings. While their work areas are ordinarily comfortable, well lit, and ventilated, they often handle glue, paint, ink, and other materials that pose safety hazards, and they should, therefore, exercise caution.
Video game art directors working in design studios usually work a standard 40-hour week. Many, however, work overtime during busy periods in order to meet deadlines.
While video game art directors work independently while reviewing artwork, much of their time is spent collaborating with and supervising a team of employees, often consisting of writers, editors, graphic artists, and executives.
Video Game Art Director Career Outlook
Computer and video game developers will always need talented artists to produce their programs. People who can quickly and creatively generate new concepts and ideas will be in high demand. IGDA reports that as art and design teams grow larger, the need for skilled video game art directors will grow as well. Game visuals have become more technical in nature, blurring the line between programmer and artist. Video game art directors, too, need to become more technical and be able to stay on top of emerging technologies that allow for cutting- edge visual effects.