Career Advice - Working as a UI Artist in a Game Development Studio with Sophia Rodyakin
So what exactly is a Game UI Artist?? Games Academy Falmouth University graduate Sophia Rodyakin, gives us some insight into what's involved in making interfaces for games, her journey, and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.
What’s your current role and what does it involve?
I am a Graduate UI Artist at Firesprite Games currently working on Star Citizen’s Theaters of War gamemode. I do a variety of UI related tasks for the game largely focusing on UX design and high fidelity mockups of various menus, plus picking up various graphics tasks here and there, as they arise. Recently, I’ve also started to get my head around the implementation side of things.
Where do you work, and what types of projects are they involved with?
Firesprite Games. We are a studio of around 180 people and growing. We are best known for The Persistence, a sci-fi horror game. We recently announced The Persistence Enhanced, as well as our collaboration with Cloud Imperium Games (what I work on!), though like every game studio, we’ve got a few secrets.
In the past, the studio has also worked on Run Sackboy! Run! and Astro’s Playroom.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
When I was around 15. I was gently complaining to a teacher that I never focused on my studies and just wanted to doodle in the margins of my homework all day. She suggested that I could pursue art, and my mind was blown — I had felt very held back by all the talk of starving artists and the intense value society puts on STEM fields over creative ones. About a year later, I realised that, 1. I love video games and 2. doing art for games means salaried jobs. I haven’t looked back since!
How did you get your first big break?
I think like most people, by putting myself out there and a healthy dose of luck. Hannah Wood of Story Juice UK was looking for a UI artist for The Glass Ceiling Games and posted in our university’s Facebook group. I linked my portfolio and got the job! Already having a portfolio ready with bright, colourful, and punk-inspired work meant I was well-suited for the role - I was in the right place at the right time with the right work available.
I think it’s really important to always be on the lookout for opportunities and make sure you’re looking in unlikely places.
Furthermore, although it’s good to have a broad range of work, you’ll be hired for your viewpoint. If your portfolio is filled with work you love to create, you’ll get hired to create work you love.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
I remember seeing endless posts on Twitter suggesting that UI art and VFX art were significantly underrepresented fields compared to concept and 3D art, so I decided to pivot my focus from traditional concept art to UI and discovered that I really love it.
At Falmouth University, where I studied, I created almost all of the UI for two different game projects, which gave me a good starting point to create further portfolio pieces alongside my freelance work for Story Juice UK.
I applied for several roles, failed some art tests, nearly gave up, then abruptly got two interviews and subsequent job offers in the same week via LinkedIn. One of those ended up being Firesprite Games, and I couldn’t be happier with where I am.
Day in the Life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
It’s a bit odd right now — I’ve been at the company since August 2020 and yet I’ve never once been in the office!
We all start work anywhere from 8 to 10 AM - I aim for 9. Every day at 9:45 our art team meets to discuss our work that day, blockers, and maybe get a little bit sidetracked by current events. Monday mornings the entire team on our project meet together to have a weekly scrum meeting to talk about that week’s work. I usually try to get coffee before these sessions, sip it very quietly during, then get to work after.
Sometimes I’ll have to meet with one of the designers and our dev manager to discuss implementations or constraints for a specific project, but usually I duck my head down, get a playlist on, and get going. Most days I’m iterating on work I’ve already done more often than creating new work, which means taking time to get feedback from the UI team and the designers.
At 4:00, we have an end of day meeting at where we review the day’s work. After that it’s usually about an hour or so of polishing off my tasks, then I’m done for the day.
Obviously, this varies. Some days we’ll do playtests, some days I have more meetings, some days I have less. Every other week or so I meet with the UI director at CIG, and sometimes the game and art directors as well. No day is exactly the same, but no day is that different from the rest either.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
Adobe Creative Cloud is my bread and butter. I have both Photoshop and Illustrator open 99% of the time, and sometimes I’ll use After Effects for motion graphics. I’m also a fan of Adobe XD for UX flow and wireframes. Wireframes in UI are different from 3D art - you are essentially looking at a screen or menu purely from a layout point of view without thinking as much about fonts, colours, or visuals. I don’t personally work in-engine much, but CiG is developing a UI tool called Building Blocks which is very, very cool and which I’m starting to use more frequently.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
User Interface is a bit weird. It’s not quite design, it’s not quite art, and more its own unique area that lies somewhere between the two. I talk to Firesprite’s UI team a lot to get feedback on my work, as well as the designers and programmers so I can understand what constraints I have as far as implementation goes.
All of my work gets reviewed and approved by CiG’s UI director and the ToW game mode director, and our art and design team help me make sure I’m adhering thematically to the mode and actually supporting the design intention.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
I think we’re starting to see UI and UX start getting more attention and respect within games. I remember finding it really hard to try and learn about the discipline a few years ago when I was first getting into it. However, the efforts from people like the great folks in the We Can Fix It In UI Discord server, a strong push for better accessibility in games, and increased awareness of its importance, more games and studios are given the time to iterate and develop better UI earlier in the process. This means bigger studios especially, are segmenting up UI roles the way you might have a vehicle and vegetation artist instead of just an environment artist - which means more room to specialise in something a little more specific.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
I think UI is such a player focused role that requires a great deal of empathy and love for those playing your game, and that means a lot to me.
I never want to lose that desire to make things better for the player.
That care was something that really surprised me when I first started talking to UI professionals, and it’s since become one of the things that matters most to me in my work.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
I think it’d be great if job titles could get standardised. UI designer in one company might mean doing visual mockups and nothing else, while in another it might mean doing wireframes and nothing else. That can translate to confusion on job responsibilities and make it tricky to find out what, exactly, you should be doing.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
I don’t think so, but it was very helpful for me. Falmouth University’s Games Academy puts you into interdisciplinary teams where you can specialise in a skill - this let me make menus and HUDs for actual games and iterate on them with playtests, rather than creating mockups in isolation. I think this gave me a chance to improve my skills and learn more quickly than I would have otherwise. Saying that, I’m someone who benefits from very structured education - you could get the same experience working on game jams or on indie projects in small teams.
There’s also cheaper-than-university courses out there like Celia Hodent’s masterclasses or Erik Kennedy’s Learn UI Design and Learn UX Design courses. Both have lots of free content, plus there’s loads of talks out there in places like the GDC vault and YouTube channel or the Game Accessibility Conference’s past talks. Also, the We Can Fix It In UI discord server has an associated Notion page that is an absolute goldmine of information.
Formal education was very helpful for me in developing as a person and an artist. That doesn’t mean it’s the right route for you, nor that it’s a necessary one.
What skills seem to be missing all too often?
I think a lot of people tend to try to apply for associate/junior/graduate UI roles thinking they can use it as a stepping stone into something more competitive like concept art or illustration. This shows in a lack of passion and especially a lack of graphic design skills - obviously great illustrative skills can be incredible useful for fantasy hand-painted UI, mobile games, or MOBA-style games with lots of icons, but that skill needs to be paired with an understanding of things like font choices, appropriate spacing between menu elements, and basic UX skills. Yes, there aren’t enough UI artists, but companies still want to hire people who care about the job.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
Creating a fake game and UI for it is a great approach - it showcases that you can carry the same style through multiple screens and understand the constraints of the genre that you’re working towards. An alternative approach to this might be taking a game you love and creating UI as though it was in a completely different genre.
Redesigns can be a tricky one, as whether a redesigned UI is actually successful or not can be subjective. You can find more great project briefs depending on your specific sub-discipline here.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
Same as skills - Illustrators trying to pivot into UI that haven’t spent enough time creating a UI-specific portfolio. In an interview context, a mistake is not being able to answer questions like what your favourite game’s UI is. I think it’s important to have lots of perspectives in industry, especially from people unfamiliar to games (the best UI is one usable by everyone!) and I suspect games could learn quite a bit from web UI and UX, but being unable to answer this question suggests a lack of familiarity with the space you’re working within. This is, of course, subjective!
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
Study UI you like - analyse it, break it down, figure out what works, and try to recreate it! This shouldn’t be a portfolio piece, but whether you’re new to UI or already familiar with it, recreating every last detail of a screen you like will help you notice all the little things that make it successful. Doing this forces you to think about why this font was chosen here, why they placed that menu element on the left instead of right, and study the decisions someone made on a level far more intimately than just looking at a piece. Think of it like a master study - it’ll give you a lot to think about, improve on, and apply to your own work to make it better.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
Reference more. I’ve never had any qualms referencing with 2D art, but for some reason, even now, I have to battle with the idea that every piece of UI I create has to be totally new and innovative. Of course, you never want to plagiarise, but taking a few days to collect reference and picking the best out of all of it will make your UI better and help you find solutions to problems before you have them.