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Level Up: The Growth of Digital Artist Jobs as Streaming Wars Push Into Video Games

“The advancement of toolsets has been so refined and made so user-friendly that almost any individual, if they wanted to create a game on their own, would have the freedom to do that.”

Tyler Smith, Digital Artist at Probably Monsters

The video game industry has boomed following the pandemic and encompasses a lucrative global job market. Even Netflix is moving into the video games space as the industry emerges as the next battleground for Big Tech’s streaming wars. And this means jobs will be opening up for the taking.

Of all the components of game design, the art is one of the most critical aspects of a video game that players come into contact with, which sets the tone, scene, and visual interactive style of proceeding gameplay. spoke with a fantasy video game artist to discover what students need to know to land a dream job in the burgeoning video game industry.

Meet the Expert: Tyler Smith

Tyler Smith

Tyler Smith, Digital Artist at Probably Monsters

Tyler Smith is a senior-level environment artist with over seven years of experience working in the AAA game industry. Over the course of his career, he has leveraged his full understanding of the AAA game production pipeline to produce work for major entertainment gaming organizations, such as Sony, Sucker Punch Productions, Game Art Institute, and Dire Wolf Digital. Smith holds a bachelor’s in fine arts for 3D animation from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

Q&A with Digital Artist Tyler Smith What led you to become a digital artist, and how did you prepare for work as an environmental artist in the gaming industry?

Smith: I went to school before digital art, especially video game art, really was taking off. It obviously existed because video games were around at the time, but I went to school for digital animation and illustration.

And then it was actually the luck of when I was looking for internships once I graduated. One studio that was able to offer internships was a company called Direwolf that specializes in game art. I wanted to just get any kind of foot in the door. Originally, I was going to go into the film industry since that’s what a lot of my teachers where I went to art school specialized in. Once I got my internship, I started this very intense learning process of figuring out how environment art was made, how game environments are made, the pipeline for creating 3D environments, and how to interact with them. That internship was back in 2012. So it’s almost a decade now.

As for tools and technology, the community is very tight-knit and any new toolsets or technologies that emerge are usually spread through the community very fast. It’s very accessible because a lot of the tech companies really love to feature new toolsets that they have. It’s one of the least secretive areas in tech. Through spaces in the community like Art Station, Polycount, and Level, the community is very, very eager to see what kind of new tools keep coming down the pipeline.

And as far as learning them, usually these companies are very good at offering tutorials and exposure to how the toolsets work. As far as keeping things secretive, it’s usually very rare in our industry that a company or some sort of organization would keep under wraps how they’re doing certain things. There are exceptions to that. But for the most part, it’s a very open and very sharing industry, which is one of the huge perks of working in this industry. How have you seen the video game industry landscape evolve over the course of your career thus far?

Smith: I came into the video game industry when—and I’m not sure if it’s still called this—the “Indie darling boom” was starting to really take off. Toolsets were becoming accessible enough around the start of the 2010s that all these smaller independent companies could start making games with a very small group of people. That’s how we saw that giant boom of very creative [gamrs] and different titles emerge. And it hasn’t stopped since then.

Now there are these two main branches in the industry. First, smaller independent companies that make interesting creative titles with small groups of people; and then you have the giant companies with larger groups of people making the AAA blockbuster titles that are somewhat obligated to come out every year and are released on a more set schedule, behaving kind of like the movie industry. With these games, there’s lots of field testing, finance, and marketing research and focus on efforts to reach as wide an audience as possible.

[These days] smaller groups of people can gain access to very complicated tools as well as technology advancing to present video games in new ways, like with 3D games.

The advancement of toolsets has been so refined and made so user-friendly that almost any individual, if they wanted to create a game on their own, would have the freedom to do that. Back in 2011, that would be extremely hard to do. There would be a lot of hurdles to get across as far as the amount of base information you would need to know just for navigating the toolsets. What goes into your thought process of creating art, and how do you think your work impacts players?

Smith: I would say as far as my process, what I try to do is I look a lot at classical art that was created before the digital revolution. I look a lot at illustrations from the Golden Age and even the Gilded Age—illustrators from the 1950s, the 1960s, all the way back to the 1880s and 1890s—and just seeing how they were making posters or magazine covers and such. Those people were just absolute masters at conveying action in a space.

You can lose sight of that a little bit as a 3D artist because you’re being more of a cinematographer than a 2D illustrator because 3D artists have a different relationship with perspective in some regard. And so I then try to get the elements of the space from their perspective.

Then there’s another factor added to that, which is that if a player is moving through the space, it’s like trying to be a director in real time with someone you’re never going to meet. How do you communicate to the people in your gameplay space where you want them to look? How long do you want them to linger in a certain space? Where do you want them to go? How do you coax or direct where the person playing your experience is going or how they’re going to react?

It’s an interesting combination of almost writing and being an artist as well. It’s really challenging, but it’s also really fun. What are some skills you developed you didn’t expect you would need when entering the video game industry?

Smith: That’s a really good question. Though it might sound a little strange and I haven’t thought of this till just now, I’d say to have a mindset as though you’re doing something like carpentry—something where you need to practice the mindset of measure twice, cut once; something that requires a lot of precision, like fabric work or woodwork. Just anything where if you get a measurement off or if you don’t pay attention to detail, the project is going to kind of fall apart as the trajectory of inaccuracy or sloppiness gets stronger and stronger as you go forward.

I think in my field and in my job that is something that you really need to pay attention to because we work with a lot of limitations. That relies on a very organized and orderly code structure. Make sure you practice that element of organization, precision, not cutting corners, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. Really keep that measure twice, cut once kind of mindset. In your opinion, what are the next horizons for gameplay and art development in video games?

Smith: I think we’re going to see—and we’re already seeing—a huge emergence of different art styles that game art can be represented in. It used to be that it was a very limited amount of style: you could either go for hyperrealism, trying to make it as realistic as you possibly can, or you could branch out a little bit make art that looks cell-shaded, more like a Saturday morning cartoon or a Studio Ghibli movie.

I think that’s just going to expand in a massive way because with the flexibility that the new rendering toolsets have, you could have it to where you can make the game look exactly like a Muka illustration, or a book cover, or some other illustration.

Teams are going to sit down and instead of making a game look hyper-realistic or cell-shaded, [they can make it] look like a moving painting, a moving etching from the 1880s, or something else. I’m really excited about that element in the industry. What advice would you give someone just starting out on their journey to become a digital artist?

Smith: Don’t get overwhelmed that you need to make art that fits what you think is popular. I think this bit of advice has been given before and I’m sure it’s been given in better ways, but it’s still very easy to forget.

This is especially true if you go on Art Station or Instagram and you should see what’s popular, what’s got all the traffic, and what’s being featured. It’s easy to fall into the trap of, I just need to do that. I used to do that all the time when I was coming up, where I wanted to chase what was trending.

Also, a lot of people come with the question of, What subject matter do I need to make? What do I need to be making to get noticed? And I would say probably the fastest way to create something that will get you noticed is just to sit with your thoughts for a while and think, What do I want to make that would be really cool? or What is something I could make that I would have nothing but passion to make?

Something that would be super fun to make and all the passion driving that will come out in the piece and will really stand out once you put it out on social media.

I was working with two subjects where I was doing a little bit of character art when I was coming out of school and I was also doing environment art. I chose to go with environment art because that’s the subject matter that just comes the easiest to me and where I have the most relaxation and the most fun.

It can be easy to get hung up on the idea, I want to prove that I could be a character artist and I could make really good character art. Sometimes, there can be a bit of an insecurity factor driving your thoughts that you should pay attention to. It’s a little easy to get blinded by that. You have to consider, Am I doing this because I want to do this? or Am I doing this because of my insecurity that I want to prove that I’m a good artist? Just look out for that.

And then this is just such a cliche, but just do what you love. The market is big enough now that if you do what you love, I think you’re going to find an element of work that will really fit your passion.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.