A Career in Games: From Games Academy Falmouth University Student to Environment Artist

A Career in Games: From Games Academy Falmouth University Student to Environment Artist

Environment Artist Madison Riley shares her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.

Want a successful career working in Games? Madison Riley is an Environment Artist at Build A Rocket Boy. Madison sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.

The Journey

What is your current role and what does it involve?

My current role is Environment Artist and consists of working with a variety of other disciplines and talented artists to help create assets and set-dress scenes/environments for our projects.

I get the chance to create areas of environmental storytelling and interest with my lovely team, and work together with them to help create some wonderful locations for the players to enjoy and discover!

Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved in?

I started my newest role with Build A Rocket Boy in February of this year, working with my team to develop exciting content! My main focus being on our game EVERYWHERE. We are developing some wonderful things here like EVERYWHERE and MindsEye, and I’ve loved every minute so far!

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

For me, a career in games wasn’t something I had even considered until I had already finished my first year of college - I had always loved games, creating fanart and working with other traditional 2D media, but I wasn’t even aware that this route could be an option for me!

I finished my first year with a lot of writing subjects and creative literature, which I enjoyed but wasn’t really clicking with, and I didn’t feel that it was something I wanted to pursue full-time - it left me feeling a bit lost! I had stumbled onto my college’s Games Development course and the idea of making games art (concept art was my interest at the time) really appealed to me and I was desperate to to give it a proper go, so I worked with the college to change my courses and completed an extra year there to finish my BTEC in Games Development.

Studying there was one of the best decisions I could have made! It introduced me to 3D modelling and a whole other career to pursue that I really enjoyed. I found a passion for my work that really drove me to want to do well on my coursework and projects.

How did you get your first big break?

My first big break came to me with the power of Twitter, I think! In my final year of university, I had taken part in the Search for A Star competition and gotten through to the finals, and it really made me aware of how much feedback and advice was available out there through things like Discord and Twitter. There were so many lovely artists in the community who were always happy to share tips and take a look at your work, and it really gave you that extra push to want to do better!

I had completed a couple of projects and finished University and was knee-deep in applications and rejections when I found out about Portfolio Day! It seemed like a great opportunity to share some of my work and try and find some new opportunities to apply to, so I made a tweet with some of my more recent projects at the time and I was so incredibly lucky that it came across the feed of the amazing Lucid Games team.

From there, the Studio Producer at Lucid games (the lovely Nick!) responded and mentioned that they were taking on applications with their team - and so I did!  My application ended up being successful and I spent an amazing 2 and half years with the Lucid team working on a variety of projects.

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

My journey into Games Art really began from that initial desire to create, that eventually branched out into 3D modelling when I started my college course. From there, I had an awesome time entering the Young Games Designer BAFTA’s and getting through to the finals - entering competitions like this was amazing for getting feedback and advice, and I entered Search For A Star and The Rookies later too.

After my college BTEC, I went on to study my Games Development: Art degree at Games Academy Falmouth University in Cornwall, down by the sea, and I had the chance to meet so many amazing teachers and students.

At Games Academy Falmouth University we primarily focused on group game projects, which helped me learn so many useful skills and gave me the chance to explore so many fun concepts with my teams.

In my first year, concept art was still something I was focused on alongside my 3D projects and it wasn’t really until towards the end of my second year that I realised how passionate I was about modelling and environment art - from there, I decided to really dive in and make it my focus! I worked on the environments with my teams for our coursework, and then later (when our final year show was postponed due to Covid) I helped make the 3D environment for our year to showcase all their awesome work in virtual reality! After entering another student competition, this time Search for a Star, I began to focus on applications and sharing my work, picking up a freelance indie project while working part-time at a restaurant, before starting my full-time role with Lucid Games.

Why did you choose to study at Games Academy Falmouth University?

The big draw to Falmouth for me was location and content - the course seemed to be hugely focused on practical work creating games projects with multidisciplinary teams, which I wanted to experience, and it was in lovely Cornwall right by the sea! I visited during an open day and had such a wonderful time talking with the lecturers and students, and it just felt perfect.

How does your education complement your work?

The work I did at Falmouth helped to prepare me for industry in a few ways, but especially in helping to realise how much each discipline relies on each other to make a final product - you really need each area working cohesively together to make something great!

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team?

A normal day for me starts with our stand-ups. The focus of these is catching up on what everyone is up to and discussing any issues anyone may be having and possible ways to solve them. We get support from our leads and it’s an opportunity to highlight any key issues that you need help with following up on. These are wrapped up and then I’ll usually refresh emails to make sure nothing high priority has come through that would affect my priorities for the day - if all is well, I can go ahead and take a look through my assigned tasks and begin from the highest priority onward through to the smaller/faster fixes.

As a remote worker, I will often hop into huddles and calls with other members of the team to chat through any feedback or other points of interest - I find it speeds up the feedback loop massively and makes it easy for people to explain their point and provide examples! Outside of these calls, I will be working in-editor or in some variety of 3D software, varying depending on my tasks for the day.

Then as the day wraps up, I’ll take some screenshots of my work and make a list of my priorities for the next day!

What third party tools do you use on a daily basis?

We use a variety of software, but I find myself most often using 3DS Max and Maya alongside Photoshop and ZBrush to create assets and complete my work.

What does your workflow look like?

For me, everything starts with references and a blockout. These can be simple and made with primitive shapes, but the main purpose of this is to nail down the scaling and key elements of the asset before I do any detailed work and get feedback from other involved disciplines like design that would affect the features of the asset.

I will then begin to create a basic blockout working from larger scale elements down to smaller scale parts of the assets, asking for feedback throughout. By doing this, I don’t have to make many huge changes later and can keep the process as agile as possible!

Once the asset is finished, and all the disciplines are happy with the visuals and functional aspects of the asset, I can finalise my texture maps and collision before I import to engine and set everything up ready to be placed in-game.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

The environment art team and my art leads are the key people I interact with daily, especially in our stand-ups and just through day-to-day discussions on locations and work we are completing (as well as cool links and things we’ve found!). It’s amazing to be able to rely on the team for feedback and advice, as well as helping to figure out new workflows and workflows that I may not have considered before.

Design is also a key discipline I find myself interacting with often, as we are so closely linked in our work. One of the biggest things I’ve found when creating game art is that besides making it look good, we also must always be making sure that it works great for the player and supports the gameplay! This can mean adjusting structural elements and changing aspects of an asset - keeping in regular contact with the design team helps to make sure these key design aspects are maintained throughout the environment.

The concept art team are also in touch regularly! It’s great being able to discuss new ideas and see all the amazing solutions they come up with to support the design of the world.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

The collaborative element is something I would never want to see changed - it’s honestly so amazing to see the final product of the team’s hard work and effort come together!

Getting to see all these talented developers come up with creative solutions, ideas and concepts and then relying on one another to make it become a reality is a wonderful experience. I’ve been so lucky to get to meet so many talented developers, and it’s a really amazing thing about this industry.

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed?

Something I would love to do personally would be to attend more game events! I keep in touch with a lot of people on Twitter, but I’d love to attend more games events next year and get out more.

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

While I adored my time at University, it isn’t the same for everyone and there are so many different paths for people to take! This can be for a huge variety of reasons, all of which are valid - for me, my college and university course was amazing in guiding my focus and it provided me with a variety of opportunities to gain experiences in co-developing and creating content. That being said, I feel there are so many tutorials and opportunities for self-guided learning that you can find alternative routes into the industry without going through formal education. The biggest thing is truly having a consistent and quality portfolio to share in your interviews!

What tasks would you be typically asked to do as a junior artist?

When you first join a team as a junior, you will usually be paired with a more senior team member who is there to give you feedback and advice as needed while you complete some introductory tasks to help familiarise yourself with tools and programmes that the studio uses. Props and smaller assets are common, as these help you follow through the entire workflow from start-to-finish using the studio’s workflow and get into the preferred practices!

What skills would you look for when hiring an artist?

Soft skills are a huge thing I would look for when hiring personally, as I think that being able to communicate kindly and fairly when receiving and giving feedback is crucial in maintaining a healthy team environment! Other soft-skills like adaptability and problem solving are key too, as they are used so often day-to-day in navigating your tasks.

What skills seem to be missing all too often?

This is a hard one, but I think I’d love to see more people with examples of times they have applied specific feedback from other disciplines and being ready to talk about that in interviews would be awesome!

Describe your attitude towards your job?

My work is something I take a lot of pride in, and I love being able to be a part of crafting experiences for our players. It’s something I find a lot of joy in, which really helps me get excited about introducing new ideas to the team and bouncing ideas from one another to help support the games I’m working on.

I think when it’s something you’re going to be doing for so many hours a day, it’s important to find what area you’re most passionate about and talk regularly with your leads to pick up work that you enjoy, while also being adaptable and helping wherever is needed most!

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?

Normally, my inspiration comes from the world around me or random sketched ideas that I make in my free time! These start small, from a doodle or a picture, and then they will snowball into a more fleshed out project idea. I’ll gather a bunch of references and key features that I want to implement, such as lighting or architectural elements, and then begin to block out a project!

Describe a project brief that you’d recommend to artists to create for your portfolio?

One type of project that I love to see in a portfolio is a room with a focus - by this, I mean a project with one key element, and lots of supporting decorating/supporting elements (I love workshop scenes!)  It really shows that you can use an asset kit cohesively together to create an interesting composition! It’s especially cool when the theme is something you are personally excited about too, as you can talk in an interview about your inspiration and motivations.

What mistakes do you see artists making when applying to jobs?

The most common mistake I see when people apply is not having their work front and centre, or having it hidden behind lots of drop down menus on customised sites. Sometimes less is more.

I personally love a simple grid layout to display work, like you can see on ArtStation, as when you go to a profile you immediately see your artwork and projects - nothing is hidden behind lots of custom menus and drop downs. I think you can use customised sites for sure, as long as you make sure that your work is displayed and the key focus, as well as making sure it is easy to navigate.

If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?

If I could give advice to an artist starting out, it would be to work on what your passionate about - I think you can really see when a bunch of love and passion has gone into a project, and it just shines through when you talk about it in interviews and discussions on your work - and to share that passion with your friends! Share screenshots and ideas, get the feedback that will really help push that project through to completion. It will really help motivate you to finish the project, even when you lose sight of the end goal.

If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?

I think if I could go back and give myself some advice, it would be to have more confidence in myself. There were times that I had ideas I wanted to explore but I was nervous about not executing them perfectly, and it really stressed me out and made me unsure! If I had just had a bit more confidence in my ideas and trusted myself, then I could have avoided a lot of deliberation and second-guessing and a few more projects would have seen the light of day!

Madi is an Environment Artist working at Build-A-Rocket-Boy, with a passion for stylised art, aiming to fill projects with story and colour! You can find Madi via ArtStation, Twitter and LinkedIn.