Environment Artists vs. Character Artists

EDIT (2011): Re-reading this four years later, I don’t hold the same opinion anymore. Somewhere along the line during this generation of consoles, artists began placing equal weight on the value of environment art, and it shows. Game worlds in this generation have been beautiful, believable and immersive.

It’s the most common division of labor amongst game artists today. In my experience, there is a distinct skill imbalance in favor of character artists. ¬†They’re what students and hobbyists almost always are, and so the best artists get to choose to keep working on characters. The best of the rest get to do something else, most often environment art.

Environment work is more typically done with proprietary systems and tools for a given game. For example, Unreal’s use of terrain, structures and static meshes is probably very different from the Battlefield engine’s use of similar tech. Lighting systems can get very complex. It’s hard to just create an environment for a game without groking a specific game’s tools and tech (which tend to be harder to use and understand than something like Max). It’s easier to experiment with character work for fun and really get a sense for how it would look in a game.

You could always make an entire game level, but that’s a huge undertaking and requires level design skills in addition to art skills. So, when you’re interested in creating some game art but not getting into all the technical drudgery found in game dev, it’s much easier to make characters.

If you have hobbyists or modders, everybody is going to want to make the characters because there is less game-specific drudgery to learn. If there’s a conflict over who gets to do the characters and who is forced to do the environments, the better artists are going to get their way and do the characters.

None of this means that characters are more important than environments in games. Characters and environments are at least equally important in most games. But, I think this appeal is responsible for why environment work often gets neglected and why good environment artists are harder to find.

With newer tech like Unreal Engine 3, we’re finally able to do environments justice and create really engaging and detailed architecture, complex lighting and color grading. I think environments are going to start getting a lot more attention than characters in the new generation of games.

This is an imbalance that we need to fix. For our games to get better, we need our best artists working on environments.

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