A Career as a 3D Artist

By Tanya Roberts

Nate Torkildson, 3D artist and Instructor in 3D Level Design

Computer and video game development is a fast-growing field, with a lot to offer both professionally and creatively. Considered by some as a curiosity in the mid-1970s, the gaming industry has quickly grown from niche market to mainstream, grossing $9.5 billion (USD) in 2007, and 11.7 billion in 2008. Sure you’ve played video games, but have you ever considered making them? Enthusiasm is crucial, but you’ll also need skills and training. The gaming industry is highly competitive, and you’ll need talent and dedication to make it.

Nate Torkildson is a 3D artist with Red Monkey Games and Gamer Salvation, and Instructor in 3D Level Design for Digital Media Academy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Nate has turned his childhood dream into a successful and rewarding career. He still marvels that he gets paid to make video games. In what other industry could you have this much fun, challenge yourself, and reach the hearts of countless fans?

10 Questions With Nate Torkildson

1. How did you find your way into video game design?

I’ve dreamed about making games since I was 7 years old. I think I still owe my parents about a million dollars in quarters from many visits to the arcade long ago. During my teenage years, I became serious about pursuing a career in design within the gaming industry. I’ve always been creative, but I wanted to take my skills to the next level. I enrolled in creative and technical courses, at an institution very similar to Digital Media Academy, to transform my passion into a solid skill set. I haven’t looked back since.

2. What about your college years?

After I graduated high school, I was accepted to the Vancouver Film School where I studied 3D Animation and Visual Effects. I also attended the University of Washington, where I obtained my degree in Computer Science. After graduation, I was looking for my first big gig in the gaming industry. But, like all new grads, I had to prove myself. I worked tirelessly to build my own video game to give my potential employers a taste of what I could do. I developed “Eclipse,” a science fiction game where the player served to protect the planet from rogue aliens. The folks at a local gaming company, Black Sun Entertainment, loved my game so much they decided to take me on as an intern. During my internship, I worked on a short science fiction film called “Azures Rising.”

3. Take us through a day in the life of a 3D artist.

I usually arrive at work around 9 am to start off my day. The hours can be pretty long is this field, usually 9-10 hours a day, especially if a deadline is approaching. But I love my job so the time flies by quickly. I usually finish off work around 6 or sometimes 7, depending on what I’m working on.

4. How does the video game design process work?

At the beginning of a project, I sit down with the concept artist to review rough sketches outlining the overall vision for the project. I would then take these sketches and put them into 3D work for the lead game designer to review. Designing a game is complex. From designing characters to roads, plants, and shrubbery, every scene and level of the game needs to be flushed out.

5. What do you most enjoy about being a 3D artist?

Every project is dynamic. One day you’ll be designing shrubbery for a game, and the next you may be moulding a character out of clay or painting a backdrop. There’s so much variety, I never get bored. You’ll be working closely with a team, so you’ll be sure to make some great friends along the way.

6. What is most challenging about video game design?

The gaming industry is fast paced and demanding. You’ll need to put in long hours and work the occasional weekend. At the start, you won’t always get to have a say in the creative vision. But once you work your way up, you can collaborate on the big ideas.

7. What misconceptions do people have about game design?

People have this fantasy that working in the gaming industry means you’ll play games all day. This isn’t the case. A lot more work is involved than I imagined as a kid. There are a lot of people lining up to take your job – you’ll need to put in your dues to get ahead. Having said that, I love what I do and barely notice the time fly by. It’s hard work, but it’s extremely rewarding.

8.  What skills are most important for a career in game design?

You’ll need to be creative, detail-oriented, artistic, and computer savvy to make it in game design. Skills in art help, since you’ll be sculpting characters and painting textured backdrops. You’ll need to have a good understanding of human anatomy to design characters that move naturally. This profession requires a lot of programming, so computer skills are a must.

9. What advice can you give someone considering a career in video game design?

Get involved in the community. Being part of a M.O.D. (modification) team is a great way to showcase what you can do. A M.O.D. team creates a video game from concept to completion. You don’t own the rights to this game, but if a company likes it, they may decide to hire you full time. In fact, this is how I landed an internship at Black Sun Entertainment.

10. What is the coolest project that you’ve worked on?

My favorite project was working on a Science Fiction movie called Azueres Rising, where futuristic space-marines go to battle against a big, evil corporation. I helped develop the movie from concept to completion. It was great to see the final project come together. I’m so lucky to do what I love every day. There’s nothing better than that.