Total War art director Kevin McDowell: ‘Artists specialise, and we always want to see that in-depth specialisation’

This month, Total War art director Kevin McDowell talks about the trends and myths in art teams

We’re seeing some trends that are slowly but firmly entrenching themselves in the
art department. First, games-as-a-service is changing the way we think about games. It affects the way we plan and organise our projects, it’s a technical challenge to define how to provide continuing support for a game, as well as a challenge to be continually providing interesting and varied content.

Then, in terms of the game art talent we are seeing, year-on-year, we have higher quality graduate portfolios, which is of course a positive trend. However, the percentage of graduates whose work is developed enough to make that first step into employment with a triple-A developer remains small. We are seeing five or ten universities that are producing the top grads, yet so many in the UK offer broad ‘game development’ courses that are not preparing students for the industry.

Possibly the biggest myth we are seeing is students who believe they should demonstrate all aspects of game development or a variety of different styles in their portfolio. Except in the smallest indie teams, artists specialise, and we always want to see that in-depth specialisation.

With the portfolios, environment art graduates are over-focused on prop modelling and not focused enough on the complete picture: set dressing, lighting, texturing (i.e. substance designer). I’d like them to be thinking about creating a small piece of a world rather than individual props or models.

With concept art graduates, there is generally some confusion as to how concept art is used and what the purpose of it is. It is no coincidence that more than half of our concept artists studied architecture.

The goal for much of the work is to create model sheets that the 3D artists can build from. We see too much illustration in concept art portfolios, and not enough developed well thought through ideas. Concept artists are sometimes called upon to illustrate, but that’s not the core of the job.

More broadly, the actual level of awareness of the different roles in game art is not universal. Everyone is aware of animators, concept art, environment art and character art, but there is less awareness of some of the slightly more specialised roles – UI art, realtime VFX, technical art and technical animation. Which means that some roles that we advertise get an overabundance of applicants, and some very few.

It’s so important that aspiring game developers understand the opportunities available and the best paths to take. That’s why I would always encourage students to come to industry events and take the opportunity to speak to experienced developers and get feedback on their work. 

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

Check Also

IRL – tickets now on sale, nominations open – join us at the comeback industry event on September 16th

IRL will be a casual, inclusive event, designed so that anyone and everyone in the industry can attend, meet colleagues, network, and applaud our collective efforts