So you want to be a video game artist...

Maybe you just finished a game art/design program or perhaps you are self taught and have been grinding away on building up the skill set required for a job you can be passionate about; Putting in the work and steadily making progress towards that dream of getting in at a game studio and being paid to make video games for a living. Or perhaps you have been working in the industry for a while but are looking to make the jump to another studio.
 For pretty much everybody, clicking that apply button on a job posting is accompanied by a mixture of hope, fear and nervousness. Then the frustration of playing the waiting game in hopes of some sort of response. And at the end of it all once you get that phone call with a job offer and sign the papers, relief and excitement for the next step in your career in the game industry. Or on the flip side, the sting of rejection. Or worse yet, the depressing silence of no response at all.
Applying for game jobs be like...
Almost without fail 2 to 3 times a a month there is a post popping up on Polycount or other game art communities in regards to this topic. Sometimes it is to ask for advice, other times to vent at the lack of results the person is getting on their path in breaking into the industry. And there is always a few common threads that tie all these posts together. Confusion. Frustration. Depression. On the other hand there are also usually a couple posts from people celebrating getting their first job, filled with gratitude and excitement of whats to come.
The goal of this article is to be an evergreen resource that's updated to be relevant and useful to anyone regardless of if they went to school, are self taught or are already in the industry. Hopefully you can take these tactics and apply them to your situation, hopefully there might be a few more of those "I JUST GOT MY FIRST JOB!!!11!!" threads being posted. Success is always something that should be celebrated. Let's crack into the tips!

I really wish it was as simple as just tightening up the graphics on level 3...

1. Your game art portfolio should contain actual game art...

I know, this sounds eye rollingly obvious. The sheer amount of students or artists posting they are struggling to find a job and dropping their portfolio link for critique says otherwise. Upon clicking that link, the problem becomes clear within 30 seconds.
 Piles of ZBrush only sculpts and half finished character busts. Galleries filled with insanely detailed highpoly vehicles or weapons, rendered to  perfection in keyshot. Row upon row of awesome looking substance shader balls with displacement settings cranked through the roof. And not a single piece of realtime art to be found.
If you are going to be working at a game studio, indie or AAA, you need to clearly demonstrate a thorough understanding of the entire workflow in your chosen field. This means getting to the end product. Show you can take an environment from blockout, modular breakdown and asset production to a final layout that looks great as a whole. Show you can build a character from high-poly, to a nice clean baked down TEXTURED game asset that is going to be friendly for the technical/animation teams to use. Show you understand how textures and materials work on in game geometry, utilize vertex blending, show you know how to use trim sheets and UV objects correctly if you want to be a texture artist. If you think you can just turn on realtime displacement and call it a day...think again.
If you are going to be working in a studio environment, you need to be working with the final product in mind. While there might be a rare job opportunity for a highpoly creature sculpting artist popping up, those are likely to be snapped up by super senior talent with years of experience. With so many  presentation options like Unreal and Unity available for free, there is really no excuse not to be presenting your work as a realtime, finished product. It will show you understand the game art workflow and that you have skills that are actually relevant to the open position. It's a big part of the equation!
A great example of a final game ready character by Satoshi Arakawa. Click the image to visit his ArtStation!
A great example some Uncharted environment art by Anthony Vaccaro. Click the image to visit his ArtStation!

2. Context is king

The more relevant information you can give to the people looking to fill the open position the better. Give them all the pieces of the puzzle they are trying to fill in. Are you applying for an environment artist position but your portfolio only consists of a collection of props and no fully fleshed out scenes? Applying to somewhere like Blizzard with a portfolio filled with gritty photo-real assets leaves a lot of questions unanswered for whoever is looking at your portfolio. Or perhaps applying to work on Call of Duty with a portfolio filled with hand painted work, no matter how high quality it is. Quality is a huge factor up to a point, but without context it can only get you so far.
No doubt the person might be able to see you are a great artist, but their more immediate concern is finding someone who can clearly demonstrate they can produce work that fits the studio/project art style. They want to hire someone who needs as little training and time to ramp up as possible. A lot of the time, hiring comes during the heat of production and there isn't time to hope that a good artist can quickly learn or adapt to a specific art style.
The leads and HR managers need to know that from a single glance at your portfolio, or else it is much easier to click to the next applicant instead of trying to play a guessing game to fill in the blanks. Give them as many easy tick boxes to check by providing them context via a portfolio that helps them see you as a great fit and someone who is going to make their life easier. It doesn't matter what you say you can do, it matters what you SHOW can do. Find ways to save people time and questions and you will really win.
Very different art skills required for each of these projects!

3. Radio silence is a form of feedback. 

 This one is going to be painful to hear for some people. If you have points 1 and 2 handled, but are still not getting any replies to your applications, then chances are you are not producing work that is up to industry standards yet. Radio silence from game studios is a form of feedback, and while it certainly is frustrating and can sting, use that as motivation to keep going and pump out some new badass work! There is a saying: "The market is the market" and in this case, the job market will definitely let you know where you stand.
It's impossible for studios to reply to every applicant, some get hundreds per day ranging from "Joe the ideas guy" to people with zero relevant experience or even a portfolio to show. If they spent time replying to every one, they would never be able to do their actual jobs. 
If you are not hearing back from a studio, take it as a no and that you didn't make the cut this time. I am shocked by the amount of posts I see where people are questioning this, and asking for feedback on the layout of their portfolio website, as if a simple formatting issue is the thing holding them back from their dream job. Or perhaps their application got lost in the system?! It's systems work, applications don't fall through the cracks. Thinking like that is like printing out an email, faxing it to a friend and then calling them to make sure they got it. And then sending a carrier pigeon to follow up.
The lack of response is not a personal attack, it simply means you need to re-focus and improve your skillset. When your work is great, it will cut through the noise of the hundred daily applications and grab their attention. Once you have their attention, you will start to get replies. Until then, keep pumping those art muscles and make you some gainz!

4. Just because you finished an art school program and technically tick all the boxes doesn't guarantee you a job.


 This is a big one. The amount of student posts I have seen where they seemed confused as to why they are not employed at a studio shortly after graduating is a bit stunning. Some universities use crazy statistics like "we have an 80% job placement rate" to lure people into dropping huge sums of money on tuition fees, even if they don't disclose the fact that they consider a student getting a job at the games department of Best Buy or Gamestop as a "job placement".
That's pretty appalling and can certainly lead to a sense of entitlement from some students, expecting to be ready to work in the industry as soon as they graduate. They brag about their 4.0 GPA on their "about me" section of their resume, while their portfolio is...lacking.
Then, 20 applications later, they are bashed against the jagged rocks of reality. For game art positions no one gives a single f*ck about about your grades (your parents don't count). This is the real world baby...time to adapt. The amount of people I've worked with who failed highscool but are killer artists outweighs the Johnny/Sally GPA's with a luke warm portfolio at a ratio of roughly 1000:1 
Art leads reading about your GPA in your "About me"
Schools can no doubt be a great place to learn the basic skills needed to produce game art, network and make friends in the industry, and serve as a great jumping off point. However chances are you are going to need to create some new high quality portfolio pieces using what you have learned in order to really get a baller portfolio that will land you a job. Almost everyone sucks they first time they are learning something, so why would you rely on a portfolio built from projects where you were learning all these new skills for the first time?
Just because a job posting says you need to be familiar with the highpoly to lowpoly workflow, what they really mean is you need to be experienced and have done this many times over, and are producing high quality work consistently. Having baked out one scifi wall panel or humanoid character using that workflow in a school project doesn't necessarily meet expectations. Remember, as mentioned above, its all about what you can SHOW you can do. Which leads to the next point.

5. With so much competition out there, your work needs to be AAA quality.


 It doesn't matter if you want to work at a massive AAA studio or a smaller indie dev. You need to be able to hold your work up to screens from a recently released game, and there shouldn't be much of a disparity between them. Your biggest source of competition for job roles isn't your fellow students. It is people already working in the industry. Experienced is highly sought after and it can seem like a catch 22 when trying to land your first job. A frustrating one at that. 
If your work is amazing, then those junior artist jobs asking for 1-2 years worth of experience could well be within your reach. If you are putting out work that is consistently hitting that AAA level, people will notice. Great art grabs the viewers attention, and once you have that, you are well on your way to getting hired.
This might mean going back and revisiting your student portfolio work for a re-texturing pass, or re-doing the lighting on a scene that is 80% of the way there. I am often blown away by how students disregard critiques and move onto the next project, when investing just a few more hours and extra effort could easily elevate their existing work to a new quality bar. 

Depending on how much work you produced at school or during a self teaching period, this could be as extreme as throwing away all the old work that is actually an anchor dragging you down, and starting fresh with your current skill set. Posting your work on forums will help give you an indication and net you feedback from industry pros in the process. There is even a thread on Polycount specifically showcasing the portfolios of people who recently got hired. Check it out and see how your portfolio stacks up against the competition. 

With so much media available online, you should easily be able to find screenshots or let's plays of the studio's last/current project. Hold your work up next to it and ask yourself honestly how big the gap is. Pivot accordingly, back to your home studio for some revisions or smash that apply button with confidence. Aim for quality over quantity, and cut any old work you are unsure of. Be brutal, and subjective. Don't be romantic about your work, because the people looking to hire you won't be. 3 amazing pieces give you a better chance of winning than 6 "ok" pieces that feel like they are there to simply fill out the portfolio.

Get rid of outdated work!

6. If you were rejected 6 months ago, don't re-apply with a small update to your portfolio.

I have been on the hiring side of multiple projects over the course of my career, and have gotten to see a wide range of applicants portfolios. First impressions really are important. Many times there are portfolios that pop up multiple times over the course of a single productions and there is that "ah...I remember this one" moment. And not in a good way. 
Chances are there are one or two pieces that stick out in rejected applicants portfolios, and seeing those again when the person re-applys brings back negative memories of why they didn't make the cut the first time. This usually applies to people still using  their portfolio created while in art school. Seeing the same  work that didn't make the cut the first time with maybe one new portfolio piece is going to hurt you more than help. 6 months is a long time, and if you are consistently producing new art, you should be auditing your old work out of your portfolio. You are only as strong as your weakest piece and sometimes less is more as mentioned above.
Come back fresh and hit hard, over deliver rather than show minor signs of improvement. There have been several artists in the past where their portfolio improvement over 6 months to a year has been night and day, which is extremely refreshing and shows dedication and passion for your craft, which will more than likely net you an interview if your portfolio is a good fit (context + quality). 

7. When possible, attack from the side!

Long before a job posting for an open role goes live, almost every time the producer or art lead will ask around the studio if anyone on the project knows of any good artists they would recommend. A recommendation from someone working on the project is like pure gold. It puts your resume on the top of the pile and many times HR will be the ones reaching out to you.  instead of joining the hundreds of other people trying to cram in and get attention through the front entrance of the job portal, find a way to slip in from the side entrance! Just remember, you won't get a recommendation if your portfolio sucks.
"Clever girl..."
So how do you get this magical advantage? Once your portfolio is up to a high quality bar, start devoting a larger chunk of time to networking. This means joining in the conversation on  artstation, twitter, instagram,  going to local industry meetup events and slowly building relationships with other artists in the industry.
You might not get an immediate return on investment for all this effort, but who knows 6 months down the road when Bob the lead character artist needs help on their new project, he might remember the guy who he had fun downing some beers with at the last Siggraph meetup, checks out your portfolio and shoots you an email. Never underestimate the value of having a network of fellow artists and taking the time to invest in relationships. It has saved my ass multiple times over the course of my career. Word of mouth is more important than ever these days. 

8. If you are a digital artist, your portfolio should live on ArtStation.

ArtStation is without a doubt where your portfolio work should be displayed. The sheer amount of traffic and eyeballs that hit up the site on a daily basis is insane. The more eyeballs on your work the more chances for opportunity to arise. Having your portfolio on some random website URL no one can remember, on some platform like WIX or Squarespace that leaves trying to make the design and layout up to you is tedious and can actually hurt you. Gavin Goulden wrote a super good article on the subject, be sure to check it out.
Every recruiter, lead and HR employee knows ArtStation and is familiar with it, they can simply search your name to find you again when they have your resume in hand, and its mobile friendly (this is more and more important in 2018 to stay relevant). It's fast and you won't run into problems like broken links or missing images. This topic warrants an entire article itself about all the insane amount of benefits but long story short, just use ArtStation. It is THE social media network for artists, and is where the most relevant attention is at.
Your portfolio NEEDS to be on ArtStation.

9. Even if you are "in talks" with a studio, keep producing new work and applying elsewhere.

You know the saying "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." This definitely applies to the game industry. I have lost count of the amount of times I have seen people saying they have a lead on a job, but haven't heard back for over a month. Still, they sit around waiting for the company to get back to them. Usually, if it's over a couple weeks with no communication...SPOILER ALERT: you didn't get the job. Some studios will email/call you to let you know, some won't, don't take it personally and move on. Be proactive, sitting around with your fingers crossed doesn't help your situation.
Ideally, until you have signed an offer of employment, you should be focused on the things you have direct control over: Making new art, networking at every local meetup and searching for opportunities.  If you are worried applying elsewhere might hurt your chances at a studio you have just had a first stage interview with, it won't. They are professionals, they realize you are looking out for yourself, and they are definitely interviewing multiple candidates for the position. This is a business relationship first and foremost. Usually by being honest telling them you are in talks with other studios, they will get back to you faster if they really want you on board. DO NOT lie about this, it's a small industry and chances are they will know. Having multiple offers on the table can also give you a bit of leverage to choose the studio you think is the best fit and a more competitive starting salary. That's never a bad thing.

10. A little patience goes a long way

Chances are, when you first start applying for jobs in the game industry, you might not get very many replies. This has all been covered above, but one important thing to hit on is the importance of having a little patience. It usually takes artists a few years to get really good and be industry ready. Finishing a one or two year art diploma program and expecting instant results will certainly harm you more than help.
Deploying a little patience and actually falling in love with the process of creating game art rather than being 100% focused on the end game of getting a job/money will help you from falling into a hole of depression and burn out before your career even begins. Just keep hammering on what you can control and have faith if you keep going you will smash through your goals eventually. It is going to take thousands of hours (some say 10k hours) to master your craft, so the more you put in outside of school/work, the faster you will get there. Avoid doing the bare minimum to pass a class and instead create your own set of goals and a timeline of taking action to achieve them.
When it comes to communicating with HR and people at studios, you also have to realize most people are extremely busy in their day to day. If you snag an interview, let them know you will follow up if they don't within a few days. For every interview I have had, immediately after the onsite visit or phone call, I will fire an email to the main point of contact thanking them for their time and asking them to pass the thank you note along to everyone who was part of that process. Then I give them breathing room to make a decision. A little gratitude and patience can go a long way to showing you are someone they could work with. What you don't want to do is email them every couple days asking if there is any news. This could get you labeled as annoying and sabotage your chances. Just wait and keep on making art and applying around elsewhere. If it is more than a week or two without an update, it's safe to assume you didn't make the cut. Jump back to tip 1 and keep on hammering on your portfolio!
Hammer on that portfolio!

Final Thoughts

First off, thanks for taking the time to power through that novel of a post! I really hope you got some form of value out of it that you can use to help achieve your goals/dream job. These thoughts are just my own opinions based on the last 10 crazy years of bouncing around the industry. I have been fortunate to work with some really talented people and had some amazing mentors over the course of my career, so I am trying to do what I can to reach back and help others avoid some of the pitfalls and setbacks I encountered along the way. 

It can be a frustrating process when you are first starting out, but stick with it and I can tell you from experience it's definitely worth it!

This is the first article on Polygon Academy! If you got something out of it or think it would help a fellow student/colleague/friend please share it with them, it would mean the world to me. Also let me know below what you thought! Too long of a read? Not enough cat images?! Have questions about the industry? Drop 'em below in the comments 🙂 - Tim

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