Melissa Preston is the art director at ArtCraft Entertainment, where she manages large teams of artists who create characters and worlds for innovative MMO video games such as Crowfall. She holds a fine arts degree in studio drawing and painting and is an expert in 3D modeling, texturing, and painting color theory. With 13 years of experience in the industry, she has honed her eye for quality, direction, and tone in game experiences, paying thought to how settings can evoke particular moods and emotions. During her nine years with KingsIsle Entertainment, she led two MMO art teams comprising 30-40 artists to develop Pirate101, as well as a still unreleased title from the company.
Ms. Preston graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] How did you initially get into working in video games? And do you consider yourself a gamer?
[Ms. Preston] When I was a little kid—and I’m sure this is everybody’s story—my dad got my brother and me a Nintendo. I was all in and became a gamer from the first time I actually played. Growing up, it was a big thing for me until late middle school. In high school, I fell out of it a little bit with my friends and everything. I didn’t have any female friends who actually played video games at that time. It wasn’t common when I was in high school—or at least at my school—that girls played video games. I was one of the only ones, so it was not something I particularly related to with anybody at that time of my life.
When I met [my husband] Michael, I went to his house and he had Tomb Raider. When he wasn’t playing, I went and picked it up and I just never gave the controller back to him! From that point on, it became a thing that we enjoyed doing together. So I got drawn in by this game with a female character—who has a disproportionate body, of course—but the game was awesome. Tomb Raider was adventurous because you were out in the wild, climbing high mountains and cliffs, and you were in the jungle. I was always a very adventurous person, so that was an outlet for me to feel like I was going on these adventures. I also figured out how to navigate my surroundings and solve the puzzles. It was a huge game for me, although I never considered video games for a career.
When I was in college, I changed majors a few times, moving into different art careers. I was in graphic design, and then I had this amazing drawing teacher, who told me, “You draw like a painter draws. You should start taking some painting classes.” So I took a few painting classes and I decided to complete a dual major in graphic design and then drawing and painting. It was two studio degrees, basically. That started to kick my butt! So eventually I pushed the drawing and painting because that was a more finite world—more on the artistic side of things. I didn’t know where it would lead. My drawing teacher who recommended I get into painting was a self-taught 3D artist, and he taught extracurricular senior level classes in 3D to learn Maya.
[OnlineEducation.com] And that’s the software you use to develop characters?
[Ms. Preston] Yes. Studio Max and Maya are pretty much the standards that everybody uses. So I took the class, and it was just an extracurricular credit hour, but it was an advanced-level art course and I fell in love with it. My teacher encouraged me and I ended up taking that class a couple times for no credit because I really wanted to learn it. They paired us up with the programming department, which actually had a gaming program; the arts department didn’t. So we got to make games with them. It was only a semester long, but the team of artists and programmers developed a whole game concept to implementation.
I did some pretty crazy stuff! I was really into The Nightmare Before Christmas and stop motion work, so I actually made characters and captured all the stages for the animation, bringing those into Photoshop and finally animating everything. Video games just felt like an interesting art medium and a surprise, too. At the time, I thought most games were just purely entertainment. I enjoyed them, but I really liked the experiences that I could grow from.
I was working on this Halo-style, popular first-person-shooter game. It had all these barren landscapes in the background. I got paired up with a team and I’d run off into a corner; look up at the sky and the mountains; set up my easel; and do landscape drawings inside the studio space. These little nonsensical captions would pop up at the bottom of the game and people in these worlds have their character “handles”— names which were sometimes bizarre. So I would transcribe these little descriptions of what was happening in the game and make a landscape drawing. For example: “So-and-so killed so-and-so with a particular kind of weapon.”
A lot of my art a that time centered around being in a game world—doing drawings and paintings from within that space. It made me question my identity inside and out since we have these online presences; people have these personas that they hide behind. They go on the internet, say whatever they want, but they wouldn’t say those kinds of things in person. A lot of my paintings dealt with identity in general and I would have video game controllers in the background, or a shadow of a character holding one of these things. I did paintings of my little brothers when they were really young, silhouetted and holding these controllers standing up with wires wrapped around all over the floor. It was just an interesting medium to me and an art form. Nobody was really doing that on a high art kind of level. Now you see a lot more games with that approach. Games like Journey, where you’re just this spirit of a character who is aimlessly roaming around this world having surreal experiences. There isn’t an antagonist or any particular goal, either, it’s just more about having a freeform experience.
I met a few people who were in the video game industry in the North Texas Bay Area, and I wanted to dig in and become more proficient. I started working on my free skills and filling my portfolio. I got a job initially working with a group of guys from my school starting a mobile game company. This was back when everyone still had flip-phones, and it was challenging because the phone technologies were distinct; developing for one was not necessarily translatable to another.
I eventually got a job in Austin at KingsIsle as a 3D artist and I stayed there for over nine years as an environment artist, moving up to a senior artist and then lead artist. I led two large projects to completion and then I moved into my role at ArtCraft.
[OnlineEducation.com] I’m curious about your process developing characters. You had mentioned Lara Croft. Blogs like Feminist Frequency and others have called attention to the over-sexualization of female characters in video games and the impracticality of their skimpy outfits. In your studio, when you’re developing female characters, do you have an awareness of this?
[Ms. Preston] I think it’s interesting. As a female, I’m totally sympathetic to women being portrayed or having historically been portrayed in the game industry as over-sexualized. I would also say that that’s not uncommon for men, as well. There are a lot of video games out there that show irrational or idealized proportions for men.
Now that there are some women in the industry, there’s a lot more sensitivity. In fact, I won’t name the company, but there was a studio in North Texas where I was considering a job. I took an art test with them; they liked the work and asked me to take another test for some reason, so I took another one. Finally, one of the guys who I kind of knew said, “You know, we really like you and we really like your work, but we’re just concerned about having a girl in the office.” I was like, “What?!” He replied, “Well, we have some friends who are at this other studio and this girl worked there who had a relationship in the office, and it was just kind of weird and awkward when they broke up.” He was basically telling me, “We can’t be bros with a girl in the office.” Every other mature industry has females and they work side-by-side, but there was this resistance; it was as if they just wanted to be bros, have locker room talk, and be free to do whatever they wanted to do. So, that hit me. I realized that this is a really male-dominated industry.
There’s still some room to grow, obviously, but just like with movies and entertainment of all kinds, there’s room for a broader spectrum of people. I think we’re seeing a lot more sensitivity to how female characters are portrayed, but fantastical games tend to take a lot of liberties because it is a fantasy setting; it isn’t supposed to be portraying the real world. Men and women alike don’t have sufficient armor if they were going into battle.
These days, I’m working on a Kickstarter project and we have early testing going on. The project is called Crowfall and it’s fantasy-based. What I appreciate is that we have at least as many female characters as we have male characters. Some of them are more fully clad and some of them are completely decked out head-to-toe. I was very cognizant of it when we were designing and developing these characters to make sure that their attire fit the role and the personality. We don’t have warrior characters or knight females that are less clad than the men. In fact, when we made our counterparts, we made sure that the males and the females had equal coverage. I was very conscious of that, but it also allowed for some of that to kind of come through a little bit, because it is a fantasy game. In addition to that, we also try to be super aware and be inclusive on not only gender, but also different races being represented.
[OnlineEducation.com] You mentioned the blatant sexism at that North Texas studio. Can you think of other reasons why women today are underrepresented in video games, particularly in leadership?
[Ms. Preston] I think it’s just a holdover from the past. It’s an immature industry and you can’t expect it to change overnight, but it has made a lot of progress. There are a lot more women. I’ll go to schools and check out people’s portfolios, and there are a lot of girls coming through there now, but it’s disproportionate for sure. At my company, there is a handful of us to 30 men in the office, but I think it is improving. It just takes time. Until more women get into leadership positions, they won’t be able to influence these studios. It’s a slow process, but I think I’ve been really lucky. There are some companies out there that are very resistant to this kind of change.
[OnlineEducation.com] What advice do you have for women who are interested in getting into video games, particularly, in a high leadership or management position like yourself?
[Ms. Preston] That’s a really good question. It’s a challenging industry for anybody. There’s a lot of insecurity with projects and studios opening and shutting. You have to be willing to get up and move and constantly stay on top of the latest technology. At KingsIsle, a lot of the games we were making were for lower-end machines because we were appealing to a younger audience— hand-me-down computers, for instance. The skills that the artists were using weren’t necessarily keeping up with the latest trends and technology, so everybody had to put in extra time on top of their full work day.
Also, one of the things I think is important to know is that when you get into this industry, you don’t always get to work on what you love. You’re taking a concept that someone else has given you. You’re taking spec limitations that the director or tech is giving you, and you aren’t just free to do whatever you want. There are bounds of limits around you, so I think a lot of people can lose a little steam. It’s a job in the end, and it’s hard work. You’ve really got to put a lot of heart and soul into it and understand that, but just stick with it; develop your skills.
I ended up moving into a leadership role pretty early on in my career and I actually wish I’d stayed an artist a little bit longer. I really miss it. When you get moved up into management, you’re not making art as much anymore. You’re guiding other people, giving feedback to your artists, and helping to direct schedules and hiring and whatnot. So that’s something to consider early on: don’t get pulled into a path that isn’t for you. Try and truly consider who you are and what you’re really good at. While I’m a really good artist, I don’t think I’m necessarily the best or the fastest. Being a lead and an art director was a really good fit for me. Just like baseball coaches, those guys aren’t necessarily the best players on the team, but they know how to guide people and give them the freedom to flex some muscles and be creative. I try to find and hire people that show a spark and understand how to see, basically. Also, I try to give them some space to be creative. I give them their bounds and help guide the initial direction, and then let them loose a little bit. I feel like that results in higher quality and stronger art.
In terms of general thoughts on advice on what to give somebody going into the industry, I would say…I don’t know that I really have a great answer for it, I guess. It depends on the person and what they want, what their goals are. It depends on what’s drawing them into the industry to begin with. If they’re coming into it because they think, “I love video games. Therefore, I can make them,” they’re probably going to be in for a rude awakening. It’s a very competitive industry. I have a lot of good friends who are currently still looking for work. It’s not for a lack of talent or skill, it’s just that this industry is very highly sought after.