Hello, all! Here’s article for artists seeking employment, contract or full-time. It focuses on using basic marketing techniques to stand out in the crowd, give hiring managers something to notice and remember, and filling out your portfolio most enticingly. This article is based loosely on my Marketing for Artists article from years back, but I’ve developed and refined my ideas vastly since I wrote that, so this is a much better article comparatively.
I gave this ten-minute talk at the IGDA Microtalks in Austin, TX on Friday, June 24, 2011.
Here’s a link to the slides. I’m not really a Powerpoint kind of guy so don’t expect anything fancy, as it’s always been about the writing for me.
The Art of Getting Noticed
In honor and sympathy of the two layoffs Austin has had this week, I wanted to talk about how to market yourself as an artist — be you contract or full-time employed — to help give you a leg up on the competition.
I’m going to go over some techniques for building a great portfolio, standing out in the crowd, and how to increase your chances of getting hired using some basic marketing techniques.
For the purposes of illustration, I’m going to use character artists as an example.
Most character artists I’ve seen make the same four models: Space marine, naked man, naked woman, and character from a recently released movie.
If everyone’s making the same basic character, how is anyone going to stand out? Being an artist that creates high quality assets is important, but quality should not be the only differentiator between you and another artist. You want to seem relevant, but also unique and memorable.
Consider this: If a potential employer is looking for a new artist, in a “market” where there are hundreds of space marines, how likely is it that your space marine is going to be the very best out of all of them? Not very.
I see three ways to strengthen your appeal:
1) Find a game and choose a style.
Pick specific games that embody a stylistic archetype, and make art that fits it. The more successful the game, the better!
- War game realism – The Battlefield series and all 170 Call of Duty sequels are a good baseline.
- Science fiction – Mass Effect or Gears of War are good examples of sci-fi — clean and Star Warsy versus gritty, beefy, neckless soldiers in an unforgiving post-apocalyptic hellscape.
- Cartoony – Team Fortress 2 and Battlefield Heroes are good examples of carefully calculated cartoon stylization.
- Fantasy – World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Oblivion and so forth are good examples of the different flavors of fantasy. Which, now that I’ve said it out loud, sounds much dirtier than I meant it to.
- Facebook iPhone – On the Facebook and iPhone side of things, do a little Googling and peruse the App Store top ten to see what’s most popular, and imitate that. Frontierville and Angry Birds come to mind.
The goal is to be relevant and match the pattern of what an art director or hiring manager is looking for in a candidate. Let’s be honest… most games fall into those categories, and investing too much time in creating art for edge case genres and styles when you’re trying to create a well-rounded portfolio could be a waste of time.
Something that’ll give you major relevancy points is creating a series of characters or environments or objects of a consistent style within one of these styles. If you can show that your work is consistent and you can stick to a style, then great. It’ll be easier for an art director to imagine you as a good fit for an open art position for a game in that style. Be relevant!
Another option is…
2) Make a mod.
Or at least a new character or level that 100% fully works within a game engine along the lines of UDK Unreal engine. As a side note, I’ve heard designers have gotten great results — in the form of “jobs” — by creating modules for Neverwinter Nights.
The real power in creating a mod and integrating art assets into an actual engine is showing that not only can you tart it up in MAX and generate sexy renders, but you can actually tweak and iterate upon it so it works in-engine. It demonstrates you can take a piece of art to final, make it look great in an engine, and have the technical aptitude to understand the engine’s tools and technical constraints and get great results.
Again, this is another way to show you’re relevant. Honestly, maybe 1 artist in 20 actually does this, which should tell you what a great opportunity it is for you to stand out in the sweeping sea of sameness.
Now, what you have to do to balance out being relevant with being unique is to find ways to jazz up or create interesting variations on existing concepts and styles. The state of modern games — particularly action games — is as such that if you’re a male character, they all look like Ben Affleck and the dude from Avatar had a giant bald muscled baby with an angry squint developed through years of staring at the sun and grimacing stoically.
And if you’re a female character in games, it’s even dumber with broad strokes — no pun intended. You are white, have a 12-inch waist, sport a couple of surgically-attached pumpkins and wear no more than 8 square inches of clothing. Also, you spend a suspicious amount of time running and jumping unnecessarily.
Try to make characters or environments that fit within a certain style, but have unique characteristics that make it stand out from the rest of the crowd. Design a believable modular weapon for a sci-fi game and plan out potential usage cases for it, taking into account whether it’s first-person or third-person, how and where to put detail in it based on when the player will be viewing it most often, etc. How does it reload? Can it handle multiple types of ammunition? Are there modifications you can make to it like adding a silencer, scope, or a lightsaber bayonet?
Some other ideas: Design a base character and a series of swappable armor pieces for it, taking into account how other games handle different pieces of armor intersecting. Make a convincing female version of a character race in a game that doesn’t have one. Choose a really interesting setting you haven’t seen in games before for an environment piece and plan out gameplay for it.
Let’s face it; managers hiring artists are going to look through dozens of portfolios to find a worthy artist. If you’re making exactly the same art exactly the same way as everybody else, what reason does this manager have to remember you?
Look at what other people aren’t making or focusing on, look at what games are most successful and large-scale, and tailor your portfolio and personal projects toward meeting those needs. The easier it is for them to imagine you being an artist on that project, the better your odds.
Were you the kid in high school who sat alone in a corner, ignored everyone and filled his sketchbook with drawings? Once upon a time, I was That Guy. Hopelessly shy, didn’t understand the importance of networking relationship-building, and just kind of schlepped along thinking my talent is all that I needed. Sadly, that’s one of the fastest ways to fail in this career, second only to having no talent and just above never bathing.
Maintain your focus on art but focus on breaking your shyness, anxiety, antisocial behavior, whatever it is that holds you back. Keeping completely to yourself leads to failure and ruin. Period. You HAVE to network and be social to be able to pursue opportunities. If you’re not, someone else will, because they’re willing to get out there, talk, learn, and sell.
Woody Allen once said that eighty percent of success is showing up. And if you can’t trust Woody Allen, who CAN you trust?
To put this in perspective, every contract and every job I’ve ever gotten was the result of having known a guy that knows a guy. That has always stemmed from my involvement in the video game art community and attending all the game development parties and mixers that I can. No cold calls, no internships, no open assault of job applications. My career was created entirely through networking, though I’ll grant that I have been extraordinarily lucky at times. I don’t say this to brag, just that your chances of getting what you want and succeeding are MUCH easier if you learn to value networking. This can work for anyone, because the more people you talk to, the more likely it is that opportunities will literally come to you.
Find a message board or website that focuses on art and start posting. Comment on other peoples’ work, give helpful advice, be friendly, and make friends. Build a network of friends and acquaintances and surround yourself with them all the time. Be social. Network. Thrive.
So get out there, make friends, and create a presence. Always be there. Always have a voice. Always have a personality. Be yourself. Never make enemies. The guy whose mom you said was so fat that even THX can’t surround her could be your boss someday. I’ve actually heard of this happening many times, so don’t shoot off at the mouth and hit yourself in the foot. And never use mixed metaphors.
I’ll say it again: If you think you can succeed by not networking, you’d better be a world class talent that lays mushroom clouds with every step, or you’re in for unnecessary difficulty scoring a job.
So, that was a series of steps you can take to improve your professional standing, increase your chances of getting hired, and to make it dead easy to see what a great fit you are for a job.