WildTangent Studios' Rick Schmitz offers advice for artists in games

How to level up your career: Tips from an art director

I will admit this from the outset: I will never master being a manager. No one can. Human beings are just too varied, complex and unpredictable to know the right thing to do in every situation.

As a manager of artists, that’s probably doubly true. We artists are an odd breed, and there’s nothing in our formal training that teaches us to collaborate with other artists, let alone with engineers, marketers, producers and players. Everything I have learned about being an art director has been on the job, both as someone who has worked as an artist in the business for over 20 years and as an art manager of some sort or another for the past ten of those years.

I may not have done it all, but I’ve certainly done a lot. I’ve worked on Genesis games, MMOs, flip phone games, PC games and, now, iOS and Android games. There was even some console work here and there.

Some were huge hits, such as the mobile version of Plants vs. Zombies while at PopCap, Everquest during my time at Sony, and smaller games that you may never have heard of. I’ve helped to create original IP and worked with licensed products like Lord of the Rings and Ren and Stimpy. I’ve worn a lot of different hats, from animator to character designer to texture artist to background artist.

Today, I’m the art director at WildTangent Studios and I wear all of those production hats as well as my art director hat. Even now, the games I work on at WildTangent vary widely – from the family friendly Polar Bowler to puzzle games like Swipe 3 and Poker PLAY!. Although it’s impossible to achieve total mastery of art direction, I have learned a few tips along the way that continue to help me encourage my team to do the best job they can:

  • Trust your instincts on people as well as on art decisions. That doesn’t mean you are always right, but you should always let artists and the rest of the game team know what you think about the game you are working on and its art.
  • This is also critical on hiring decisions. If you have instincts about someone you are looking to hire, give those instincts a voice – they are as relevant as anyone else’s on the team.
  • Game making is a collaborative endeavour. You will get critiques from all quarters and it should all be listened to and evaluated based on its own merits, not on who delivered the critique.
  • As an art director, you are a translator. You need to be able to translate feedback and technical requirements from management and engineers to the art team. Also, you need to be able to express the thoughts and concerns of the art team to the rest of the team and management.
  • Don’t forget that your team members want to grow and advance their skills. Look for chances to help artists learn new skills within the needs of a project and, perhaps, find training opportunities outside of the office as well.
  • Mix it up. Artists have tasks that they like to do and ones that they aren’t as keen on but still need to get done. Keep it a good mix for each member of the art team so that they don’t get bored or frustrated with a steady diet of grunt work.

There are a lot of people out there who would like to know the secret of getting one’s foot in the door at a game company. I can’t speak for other art directors, but here are some of the things that I suggest to help get my attention:

  • Only put really good stuff in your portfolio. Honestly assess your work and compare it to the pros; if a piece isn’t that good, then don’t put it in your portfolio. Your portfolio is only as strong as the weakest piece in it. If you are making a demo reel, don’t save your best stuff for last. I have a lot to do on any given day and I won’t watch the whole reel if I’m not wowed in the first 15 seconds.
  • Is the work in your portfolio appropriate for the job you are applying to? Don’t expect to get an interview if you are applying to make art for a super-realistic FPS and only have cartoony stuff in your portfolio. Art Directors can’t afford to assume that you can do a job if you don’t have specific samples of it in your portfolio.
  • Learn about UI/UX design and note examples in your portfolio and on your resume. Practice making UI designs. Most of the art jobs in the industry right now are UI jobs or at least require UI experience along with other art abilities.
  • If you aren’t already on LinkedIn, get on it. I have found many artists on LinkedIn who I have ended up hiring. If you don’t have a lot of game jobs under your belt, be sure to list your non-game jobs, particularly if you are working as part of a team. In my book, team experience is a critical component of any candidate.
  • Look for game art groups/sketch clubs in your area, as this is a good way to make connections. If there isn’t one, then start one yourself.
  • Don’t assume that you are going to start out making cool character art in your first game art job. Those tasks are usually for the more advanced and experienced people with seniority.
  • If you get a job, be prepared to take criticism, particularly from non-artists. The whole team has a vested interest in how the game looks, so you are going to get critiques from all corners of the team. Listen to them. If a non-artist is telling you that something doesn’t look right then there’s a good chance that the players will have the same experience.

I’m fortunate to have worked in the game industry for so many years. I wish you the best of luck on your path.

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