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18.10.2022

How to Build a Career of an Artist in Video Game Industry with Horia Dociu

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Recently we invited Horia Dociu to our SpeakEasy podcast at Devoted Studios. Horia is a publishing art director at 343 Industries working on Halo remastering. Before that, he was a studio art director for Arenanet, worked as a cinematic director, and also was a part of Sucker Punch and a bunch of other studios. We had a fantastic interview together and have some insights to share.

Horia, the question for you. Do you think that there are a lot of opportunities to build a career in the video games industry?

I believe that now is the best time to be in the game art industry. It’s a huge industry with lots of technical abilities, game software, and instantly growing popularity. We have PCs and mobile gaming, consoles, and on top of it, the Internet is different from 25 – 30 years ago. There’re so many online resources: free engines, 2D and 3D software, as well as every type of learning resource you can imagine. When years ago you had to save tens of thousands of dollars to go to college and get a degree to secure a job, now everything that matters in the gaming industry is your portfolio. The best advice I ever received here was “Make your portfolio look like you’ve done the job you’re applying for”. And you can choose how to learn and improve your skills by yourself, either you take an online course, find yourself a mentor or use free tutorials on YouTube. Another great thing is that the gates in the industry are open for people who are working online, and companies hire people remotely, which means that you can have a full-time contract with any company, regardless of the country you live in, as soon as you are good enough.

You mentioned an interesting piece of advice on a portfolio. Let’s say someone wants to get hired at the Call of Duty team for weapons or hard surfaces. Does that mean that they should do a bunch of CoD fan art for their profile?

The teams working on the games such as Call of Duty operate like the whole ecosystem connected one to another. And if they need to replace someone who resolved a bunch of tasks, they will be looking for a person who has the work they need in the portfolio. You may be an amazing character artist but your portfolio would be skipped if they are looking for someone who creates guns. On the other hand, if you make your portfolio look like you managed to cope with the tasks that need to be resolved, and the results you’ve got match their requirements, the chances you get noticed are certainly higher.

So how to build a career in videogames industry nowadays?

A lot of people don’t completely realize that they are in the driver’s seat, and the choices they make on an everyday basis can lead them to their destination point or take them far away from that. Try to imagine where you want to be in 20 years from now. Of course, your initial goal may change, but it can become a North Star in your career. Let’s say I want to become a Pixar movie Director in 20 years. Now I can ask myself where a Pixar movie Director would be 10 years before that, and then where should I be in 5 years, year, month, or a week from now to reach this goal. If you can work back your goal like that, you can define what should you be working on today or this week that will help you to reach your goal in 20 years. That’s how you eat an elephant – one bite at a time because obviously, you can’t become a movie director all of a sudden, you need to take those tiny little steps.

Another mistake people tend to do nowadays due to the Internet and Social Media growth, is that they set up a goal to become famous. One of my friends, who is a teacher, says that all of her six-graders say they want to become famous, whether they want to make YouTube videos, Social Media blogs, or create video games. That’s a little bit mind-boggling because instead of asking yourself what you want to be good at, you make your goal vague. You never gonna get that fame without a clear understanding of what you want to bring to this world, what skills you need to master, and what sphere you’re really into.

All of these don’t mean you can’t change your destination point or career path. I’ve got a buddy who was not an artistic type and signed up for the programming degree, and then he switched over to art, and now he runs his own animation studio working for Netflix and huge companies. This is a very inspiring story about the success that comes after you figure out what you want and what are you able to do.

That’s true, your school degree and even your first jobs don’t have to design what you want to be and what you’re passionate about, and you can switch your career path any time in life. At the same time, you can use all the skills you’ve got and apply them as your background whatever career switch you make.

Exactly. And another important thing here is to set input goals, it is about changing your goal from the result you want to get to the work you need to do. For example, instead of saying “I want to lose 50 pounds” you set an “I make 50 push-ups per day” goal. And if you can reach that goal every day, you eventually may lose those 50 pounds or feel happier and healthier in general.

Well, there’s a system called OKR, meaning objectives and key results. According to it, the objective can be aspirational like “I want to run the stairs like a butterfly”, but then you define the key results that allow you to get to it.

I think that a lot of people have to work hard to achieve their goals, but what does it really mean? It’s not necessarily that you dedicate your whole life to your goal, cutting off your private life, giving up on your friends, and locking yourself in a room in order not to get distracted. I truly believe in sustainable work rather than in hard work. It means that you take one step at a time and do it on an everyday basis. It’s all about being realistic and setting the goal you can obtain, and growing those goals naturally.

As well as you can’t make a billion sit-ups at the gym one day and have a perfect body the next day, you can’t become a great artist all of a sudden. Some artists wait for inspiration to come and fail working daily, but if you want your success, you need to be dedicated to your goal and make one step towards it every day. That is why we establish those input goals and make small steps to get to your North Star, and with time that develops into a kind of a lifestyle. People may avoid doing something because their goal is too big to comprehend, while in reality when you split it up into everyday steps, you finally can go even further than you planned.

For art it’s like: do pieces, finish the pieces so you’re really doing the whole process, get your feedback, do it again.

Also, if you have the objective, you need to figure out what skills can help you to reach this goal, right? Meaning, that you can choose your own path to reach your goal and use your strengths instead of following anyone else’s path. 

Yeah, I love this idea. Actually, there is a story about Milton Kahl, who was one of the greatest Disney animators of all time and an amazing artist. He claimed that he couldn’t draw really well. He just had high standards of drawing and remade his art as many times as he needed to achieve those standards. And he told that he struggled kike hell to make his drawing look good.

When you look at someone’s brilliant work, you only see the result. What you don’t see are all those attempts when they failed to do things right. On social media, YouTube, TikTok, or ArtStation you can only see a tip of an iceberg, the result which these people were happy with. You don’t see all the rough drafts of that piece and years of hardcore practice to get to be this good.

I think we should be careful with how we interpret the stuff online and remember that to do anything well means to do it many bunches of times.

What about feedback? Is it important to get feedback on your work and react to it?

I think it may be tough for many artists because we are very emotionally connected to the art we make. And when you’ve got a job with a boss who was previously a real estate employee, and they are not an artist, their feedback might be not as professional but it might hurt you. That is why I developed a kind of approach to how I relate to feedback. Even when people who are not professionals say that something is wrong with my art, I accept it and try to figure out what I can do with it. However every time I get negative feedback I tell myself that it is not about me being a bad artist, it’s about them being bad communicators.

How would you recommend working with feedback from a manager’s perspective and also how to build that communication between both parties? When one of them is not able to explain the mistake properly how to encourage both parties to partner and deconstruct the problem?

I think that you should start with a brief and make it really comprehensive with a bullet-point list of all the details that the work needs to have. And then an Art Director should come back to a client with a set of questions, such as “How should a player feel from the character?” “What is the emotional vibe the character should have?” because at the end of the day the art is all about conveying emotions.

Horia, please give some final pieces of advice for the artists.

Well, there’s something that helped me and I’m trying to do in my career subconsciously at first and very consciously now, which is trying to align three things: “What am I good at?”, “What do I want to do?”, and “What do I actually do every day?” It might sound kind of obvious, but it helps you to better understand your strengths and your goal, and your current position towards it. And if you want, for example, to be a character artist and draw superheroes, and you step up on a team and suddenly find out that you’re extremely good at technical stuff, don’t fight it. It means that you’ve found a new superpower. The technical stuff can actually help you to work on the game where the superhero story would be told.

And remember that if you are a hard-working person and a good team player, you might not be the most talented, but you’ll be able to get a high position because nobody likes to work with broadcasters.