Want to Make Art for Video Games? Here's How
Robin Linn, a veteran of Hollywood animation and visual effects, explains the skills you need to put your passion for gaming to work.
There may be no better person to advise about navigating career changes than Robin Linn. His path has taken him from traditional two-dimensional animation (for none other than Hanna-Barbera) to feature film visual effects (for the likes of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man) to video games (for Activision Blizzard, where he is currently senior director of creative talent). So naturally it all started…with banking.
Linn turned his side hustle as a sculptor and artist into a career, ditching the banking day job and pouring his passion into ever-evolving creative fields. Now, as a creative recruiter, he guides others on their individual paths—as he himself puts it, “I enjoy planting trees I may never sit under.”
Here are his words of advice for anyone looking to turn their passion into a career in gaming:
If someone is interested in a career in gaming, the first thing they should do is…
The first thing is play games! It’s the difference between reading a book about swimming and getting in the water and actually swimming. You have to know the product. Hopefully, a person’s desire to obtain a career in gaming is based upon their pure love for games and those people who play them. If not, I’d really question that person’s motivation. You don’t have to eat and breathe games, but you should know enough about them to hold up your end of a conversation and have educated opinions.
While all of this gaming is happening, start really looking at the way art is used to tell the narrative. How does a campfire tell the story of the person who made the campfire? Is it an Evil Wizard’s campfire, the smoke sharp and pointy, the flames an acid green? Is it a hero’s campfire? An elf’s? Every bit of art created tells a part of the story. If your art is great, but does not say anything, does not tell a story—get back to work until it does.
What is something you know now about the gaming industry that you wish you knew at the start?
I worked in film-based VFX and animation for most of my career, and in film there are some very passionate fans. But gamers are on the next level. They live and breathe their games and I love that passion. It’s infectious and makes me want to be better at my job not to let them down.
What skills do you think are essential for being a successful video artist?
The easier answer is talent. But talent without discipline is like a firework—it goes up, explodes, and then comes down to a sad ending. You need the discipline to put in the 10K hours that Malcom Gladwell says it takes to master something. It takes a bit of humility to understand that however amazing you are, someone out there is better so you can’t rest on your past accomplishments. You need to stay at it—keep learning and trying out new things, to push outside of your comfort zone. You need to be open to real feedback and critiques on your work. If you want to feel good about what you’ve created ask a grandparent for their opinion, “Oh, you drew this all by yourself? It's lovely”. That is not going to make you a better artist though. You want someone better than you to critique your artwork and not spare your feelings. Knives don’t stay sharp by cutting butter; they need something harder to give them their edge.
What are some common misconceptions you find when talking to people about your job?
Talking to me about my job as a creative recruiter? So. Many. Misconceptions. I’d say the biggest one and the one that gets a GASP! every time I say it on a panel or at a school event is the amount of time I spend actually vetting a candidate’s profile. It’s about 10 seconds—and before you GASP!, stop and count to 10 in your head. It’s a long time! It’s more than enough time. An experienced Creative Recruiter can tell if a candidate is qualified very quickly—one or two images on a webpage, or a few seconds of animation and we’ll know. It’s been drilled into our heads during countless portfolio and reel reviews where supervisors from those areas told us over and over again what “good” looks like. It also comes down to math. Q: If Robin has 300 animation reels to vet and only two hours to accomplish that task in how long can he take per reel to accomplish his task within the allotted time?
Where might prospective candidates network with/meet people in your field within the games industry?
If you can make it to an event like the Game Developers Conference, Lightbox, or SIGGRAPH—go! If you can’t, it is not the end of the world. Almost every recruiter I know is on LinkedIn—and many are now on Instagram because that is where the candidates are these days. Connect with them, reach out—share your work but don’t get your feelings hurt if it’s a one-way relationship. Candidates looking for work are many, recruiters are few—there are simply not enough hours in the day to give every candidate the attention they’d like or deserve. Broaden your scope, reach out to Recruiting Coordinators and ask them their thoughts. They may have a little more bandwidth but be realistic, they may be swamped as well. You have to be persistent in reaching out without being annoying. Best of luck on striking that balance.
Working in gaming is a great life, but I’d be lying if I said it was an easy one to get into. And that’s by design! Imagine if everyone who loved playing baseball was allowed to take the field and play professional ball. The quality of the sport would drop pretty quickly. Fans would get angry, stop going to games, and stop supporting teams. Baseball would be dead in a few years because a passion for something is not enough to really master something. Working in gaming art is like that, not everyone who loves game art is qualified to create it. I know that can sting, but reality is agnostic—a passion for something just doesn’t carry as much gravity as talent.
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