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My day job as a video game Environment Artist…

Besides the usual stresses that come along with the holiday season, a choral singer’s schedule is, needless to say, full. Church services, rehearsals, and concerts are some of the events you may see your friendly neighborhood singer scrambling to get to. While I’ll put myself into the “busy singer category” this time of year, my average day to day is fairly different. You won’t find me buried in music – until the evening of course…when I’m dutifully learning new rep for the Chorale (Charles… I promise!).

Phoenix Chorale Alto Holly Sheppard

You can usually find me hovering probably a little too close to my new Cintiq, a tablet that allows you to draw directly on the screen. Or with a game controller in my hand, looking at some minute detail in a video game like a rock, some dirt, or the placement of a tree. That’s because it’s my job and I made said rock, dirt, and tree. My professional life outside of choral music is in video games. I work as an Environment Artist at THQ Digital Phoenix, or, as we’ve been known up until the last few months, Rainbow Studios.

As an Environment Artist, I use computer programs like 3D Studio Max and Photoshop to create the content that makes up a video game level – or the environment of a level. This includes all of the elements that make up a scene – from the sky to objects and buildings, to the lighting and atmospheric elements.

A common misconception is that we are also designers or programmers. I had to take a basic programming class in school, but beyond that, computer programming of any sort is completely over my head. I am first and foremost an artist. The programs that we use are just tools, much like a paintbrush or pencil, just in a digital format. In fact, traditional art skills are a major component for a game artist and is usually the foundation for which many of us get into the industry.

Though studios vary, most have the same basic staff including character artists, environment artists, designers, programmers, producers, directors, and so on. In a small studio where there are fewer people per each task, you may find an overlap of tasks where environment artists are also level designers, and so on.

Here is a screenshot of a level in Reflex that Holly designed.

I’ve noticed since I’ve been in the industry that there are a lot of misconceptions about how games are made.  I think this is due in part to the way games were made back in the early days of the industry. Generally, programmers were also artists and designers and overall owners of their product. (Also, movies like “Grandma’s Boy,” though hilarious and highly inappropriate, have helped spread an inaccurate representation of the field.) The game industry has grown from those early years: it is big business with big budgets and big staffs.

In my five years in the industry, I’ve had the opportunity to work on some pretty cool games! I started my career working on MX vs ATV: Untamed (you might say off-road racing games are our bread-and-butter). This project was a real learning experience for me – my first professional job in the game industry – and I made a pretty wide variety of objects and learned a lot about the world of off-road racing and Motocross.

After that project wrapped up, I swapped teams for about 7 months and got to work on a Wii title called Deadly Creatures. It was a blast! There was a lot of heavy crunching, i.e. 12 hour days and working weekends, but it was such a great learning experience and we finished with a product we felt was really innovative and something to be proud of.

Then I moved back to the MX team where I fell in love with dirt. Making dirt that is. On MX vs. ATV: Reflex, I made a few objects here and there, and I did a fair amount of lighting, but the bulk of my work was in terrain texturing. Essentially, I made the dirt for many of the levels in the game. I truly could go on about how cool this really is, but I won’t. Let’s just say dirt is an important part of any off-road experience.

After Reflex shipped, I was moved onto the Dood’s Big Adventure team to help out for a few months.  “Dood” was released earlier this month along with the uDraw tablet peripheral (which was prototyped by guys at our studio.) We took a major gamble by creating a Wii title that required a new controller, but gauging reviews and interest so far, the uDraw has a lot of potential to be a hit with consumers.

Holly and her husband George walking the track at Supercross in Phoenix.

We’re also nearing the final stages of production for a product that I’ve been working on for several months now. Unfortunately, a game that hasn’t been announced falls under our non-disclosure agreement, so I can’t tell you anything about it… However, I can tell you that it has been so much fun to work on! There were a lot of fears heading into it, since we lost such a large number of people, but it has really come together. Having a great team makes all the difference, and the environment team is made up of some of the coolest guys I know.

I suppose the two career paths I have chosen to take don’t exactly go hand in hand. When I tell fellow singers that I make video games in my “day job,” I’m met with a reply of: “really?” And when I tell my fellow visual artists that I sing with a professional choir, I generally get a: “huh?” The way I see it is that I’m an artist who couldn’t choose. So, I decided to do both. Of course I remind myself everyday how lucky I am to get to do the things that I do, and I hope to keep making art in all of its many forms for many more years.

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