Career Advice: Working as an Associate Environment Artist at a Global Game Development Studio

Career Advice: Working as an Associate Environment Artist at a Global Game Development Studio

Casca Socea, a recent Digipen Institute of Technology graduate, now serves as an Associate Environment Artist at San Diego Studio in California. Casca shares insights and advice for aspiring artists seeking a rewarding and challenging career.

Recent graduate of Digipen Institute of Technology, Casca Socea, is now an Associate Environment Artist at San Diego Studio in California. Casca sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

I am currently an Associate Environment Artist for San Diego Studio. We work on the award-winning sports game “MLB The Show.” In this role, I work with teams from all disciplines including programming and game design. My main responsibilities are working on the “Create A Stadium” and “Road to the Show” game modes. “Create a Stadium” is a collection of individual props that our players can use to build their own unique stadiums. “Road to the Show” is a franchise-style mode where players can create their own character and climb their way from the minor leagues to the major leagues. In this mode, I work on building environments that the player will be immersed in and feel like they are really in the game.

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

I first knew I wanted to be in this industry when I was a kid. Games were a place I could always escape to. I always bugged teachers about learning how to make games, but none of them at the time had the answers. Back then, games were not seen as a viable work option and there just was not a lot of education surrounding the industry at the time. However, when I graduated high school, my local community college started a brand-new game design program, I took this as a sign and instantly enrolled to take my first steps.

How did you get your first big break?

My first big break was in 2022 during my Senior Year at DigiPen Institute of Technology. Like everyone else trying to break into the industry, I was applying for hundreds of jobs. I saw the listing for a PlayStation Internship and decided to apply. After a few months of waiting, I finally heard back for an interview and landed the internship after that interview.

Student work by Casca Socea

Describe the journey you took into your current role?

My journey to this point has been an odd one. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona and right after graduating high school, I started a new game design program at a local community college. I learned a lot of the basics of how games are made and got my first introduction into a lot of the tools we still use today. We started making 2D games in Adobe Flash and 3D games in an engine called Torque. Although I received an associate degree and graduated with honors, I did not know it at the time, but this initial education did not give me the realistic skills that I needed to break in. I tried to get in for the next ten years while working in food service and decided that I could not live like this and decided to give this dream one final try. I worked hard making an art portfolio for DigiPen and was accepted. The problem I then faced was that DigiPen was in Washington, and I would have to move. My wife gave me her blessing to take this final chance and we moved to Redmond, Washington in June of 2018. I graduated in 2022 from DigiPen and started the PlayStation internship a month later. I then got converted to a contractor and then promoted to full-time in October of 2023.

Why did you choose to study at Digipen Institute of Technology?

I chose to attend DigiPen because of their good track record of preparing students for the industry. They have a great program that reinforces art fundamentals and taught me how to learn skills and not just tools. They have a great line of instructors that are notable in their fields and have either worked in the industry or currently do. DigiPen also has an amazing game course where students work with students from other disciplines to build games from scratch. This was the number one selling point for me because I got to learn about how teams and games functioned. I had opportunities to learn how to effectively communicate with programmers, designers, audio engineers and other artists. And this served as valuable experience for me and prepared me for my current role.

I also must give a shout-out to CGMA (CG Master Academy) though, I took their Organic World Building Course during the summer of 2020. The course was taught by Naughty Dog Senior Environment Artist, Anthony Vaccaro, and I learned a lot about current workflows from those ten weeks.

How does your education complement your work?

For me, my education was essential in my ability to do my job. My experience gained at DigiPen prepared me with the baseline skills that I needed to do my job. The biggest thing I gained was a great ability to self-learn. My instructors taught me all of the fundamentals, so that when an obstacle popped up in front of me, I had the skill, and knowledge to be able to find a solution on my own, or at least know who to ask, or what questions to ask. I also got to have firsthand experience with most of the tools that I use daily at work. The wonderful thing is that now that I know how to learn on my own, it has become simpler to learn new software when I make personal projects in my free time.

I chose to attend DigiPen because of their good track record of preparing students for the industry. They have a great program that reinforces art fundamentals and taught me how to learn skills and not just tools.

Day in the life

Describe a typical day for you and your team?

A typical day for me is usually routine, we have regularly scheduled meetings where we talk about high priority issues that the game needs fixed, tool updates and other crucial details. Then the rest of the time is split between bug fixes, game optimisation, assets that need to be implemented into the engine, or creating other assets that may need to be made.

Artwork from MLB The Show

What does your workflow look like?

For my workflow, I start with a block out that is properly scaled to a human character so that the sizes can be consistent. Then I try to get the block out into the engine as quickly as possible to see things in the context of the game. Then, I start to refine the scenes/props. I then make any high polys that need to be made for trim sheets or other asset bakes. I then optimise the scenes as needed, including reducing texture sizes. Then I bake out lightmaps if the asset needs it and then fix any bugs that popped up in the process. While all of this is happening, I am getting regular feedback from the team to make sure all the proper priorities are aligned with what the game needs.

Which departments and key people do you work closely with?

I work with departments of every discipline. The ones I personally collaborate with most though are Design and Programmers to make sure that needs are met from both ends. I work with our producers very closely too. They really help make sure we are aware of bugs or other key issues / tasks are communicated. Then of course I work a lot with the other artists on the team. We are constantly giving and receiving feedback.

Some industry trends that I have been noticing are that games are getting bigger and have pushed environment artists and other disciplines to lean into procedural content generation from tools like Houdini. The ability to make textures, worlds, etc. from tools like Houdini really cover a lot of ground. I do believe that we need to add an artist’s touch to make procedurally generated content look and feel grounded though.

One thing you’d never change about your job?

The biggest thing that I would not change is the people. We really try to have each other’s backs and do what we can to not only represent the studio and the game in a positive light, but also display what we love for the game of baseball. An example I must share is from our new Storylines mode where we feature amazing athletes from the Negro Leagues and their impact that they had on baseball. It really helps teach the players about the sport that they love and the people that make it great. In my experience, San Diego Studio ensures that work-life balance is a priority. We have generous breaks and great benefits that make working here an awesome experience.

But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?

A thing I would like to see continue to change industry-wide is more inclusion and accessibility. I met a large variety of different people at DigiPen and learned so much from their different perspectives. The amazing thing about video games is that they have such a large audience. And it is because of this that the stories and worlds we build are better because of it. The industry is on the right track, but I will always support forward progress.

Career Advice

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

Formal education may not be essential for everyone, but for me, it holds great value. I appreciate the structure that allows me to ask questions and grow instantly. Before attending DigiPen, I recognized gaps in my knowledge but didn't know how to fill them. Game development is incredibly complex, requiring not just great artwork but also the ability to work within technical constraints. Researching and choosing the best path for oneself is crucial, considering the abundance of resources available. Knowing how to learn is essential because, at the end of the day, you don't know what you don't know. Networking and team building, crucial for me, are aspects often found in formal education environments. While experiences may vary, attending DigiPen was the best decision for my professional development.

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

Typically, when starting out, teams assign simpler tasks to help you become familiar with their pipeline. In my case, the team initially placed me in an asset implementation role for the first few months to grasp our tools, file structure, and engine operations. This involved cleaning up assets submitted by our outsource partners to align with our engine, performing texture optimizations, lightmap bakes, and building shaders for seamless integration. This hands-on experience allowed me to observe various approaches to asset creation, contributing significantly to my learning curve. Additionally, I collaborated on constructing simple props for environments, aiding other team members working on different parts of the game.

Artwork from MLB The Show
In my experience, San Diego Studio ensures that work-life balance is a priority. We have generous breaks and great benefits that make working here an awesome experience.

What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?

As I'm still relatively new to the industry, I haven't been directly involved in the hiring process. However, when I inquired about the qualities that led to my selection, my manager emphasized the significance of personality and cultural fit. While my portfolio demonstrated my ability to fulfill the required tasks, they stressed the importance of day-to-day interactions and how well I'd integrate into their team. Interestingly, the casual discussion about pets during the interview, prompted by my dog appearing on camera, created a memorable connection. In my experience, strong interpersonal skills are crucial in daily interactions. Additionally, reliability, meeting deadlines, and maintaining self-accountability are essential alongside foundational art skills like drawing, painting, and colour theory, which significantly benefit this role.

What skills seem to be missing all too often?

In my experience, the skill I see missed most often is confidence. Many individuals express fear about applying for jobs, but my advice is simple: just apply. Be realistic and honest about your skill level. If the job description aligns with your skillsets, go for it! The worst that can happen is rejection, and in this competitive field, we all encounter a significant number of rejections while looking for work.

Describe your attitude towards your job?

I genuinely love my job. While I'm not a baseball superfan, my overall passion for sports drives me to give my best, aiming to inspire and captivate even the most diehard sports enthusiasts. Having worked in food service for over ten years, I experienced some challenging moments, even though I was surrounded by great people. However, nothing compares to the fulfillment of doing what you love, and the studio's exceptional care for its employees is something I never experienced in any of my previous jobs.

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

My inspiration takes various forms. In the realm of fine art, Caravaggio stands out as my favorite painter, particularly for his ability to reveal beauty in darkness. The pivotal moment that sparked my passion for becoming an environment artist was playing 'God of War 3.' The grand set pieces and captivating art direction left a lasting impression, inspiring me to pursue this career. While I gravitate towards darker-themed artwork with dramatic lighting, I acknowledge the challenge of incorporating these elements into sports games, but I actively seek ways to infuse my unique style. I'd also like to give a huge shout-out to Maarten Hof and Eve Astra, whose work serves as a significant inspiration for me.

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

For aspiring individuals working on portfolio projects, my recommendation is to choose something that genuinely excites you. Since high-quality projects demand a significant time investment, maintaining motivation is crucial, and enjoying the process ensures that. Injecting your personality into your work adds authenticity, which can greatly contribute to your success. One major challenge I often confront is project scope. Managing this effectively is essential. Utilise asset trackers, plan meticulously before starting, and assess whether the project is achievable within a reasonable timeframe. Avoid attempting to create a full game level; instead, focus on crafting a high-quality vertical slice of a level, ensuring it is well-composed and presented.

Student work by Casca Socea

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

One common oversight is the lack of well-presented work with detailed breakdowns. Including information such as polycounts, texture sheets, and wireframes not only showcases your skills but also makes it easier for employers to assess your work. Demonstrating your process is crucial, offering employers insights into your problem-solving approach.

For aspiring artists, my key advice is simple: don't give up. I entered the industry at the age of 32, emphasising the significance of seeking help, finding mentors, and joining artist communities. While the industry is competitive, success is achievable with hard work, patience, and a bit of luck.

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

If I could go back in time and give past me some advice, I would tell myself to take the leap sooner. I spent a lot of time doing things I did not like doing because I feared change and lacked confidence. Take the leap!

Check out more of Socea's student work and contact him via his Rookies profile here.