The video game industry is booming and games, from Angry Birds to Red Dead Redemption, were successful in large part because of the art department. It’s hard to imagine Arthur Morgan becoming the digital sensation he is if it hadn’t been for the art department creating the spectacular world he lived in.
Enter IllFonic, one of Tacoma’s most innovative independent video game studios responsible for such games as Friday the 13th: The Game and soon-to-be-released Predator: Hunting Grounds. We met with some people in their art department to see how they’re building out their team.
EMPLOYEES: 40 in Tacoma; 38 in Colorado
WHERE THEY DO IT: Tacoma and Golden, Colorado
WHAT THEY DO: Create and develop video games. The studio is behind games like Friday 13th: The Game, Nexuiz and the soon-to-be-released Predator: Hunting Grounds.
NOTABLE PERKS: Unlimited PTO, full medical coverage and, you know, the ability to make video games played by millions.
Jessica Horton, Environment Artist
Jessi’s main task is creating the environmental pieces — think set dressing and foliage — that help to fill out a video game’s world and to situate those pieces within that world in a way that makes them feel believable.
BEYOND WORK: Jessi recently adopted two puppies and, when she’s not in the office, she’s probably neck-deep in fluffy, puppy cuteness.
You’ve been around since the office grew from just a handful of employees to 30-some odd employees – what has changed since the early days?
Quite a bit has changed since the office first opened, the most obvious being that we no longer only have two or three people working here. We grew pretty quickly — so quickly, in fact, that we were struggling to find places to put desks. We actually had to move offices suddenly one Friday in order to accommodate more people on Monday. Beyond sheer numbers, things are a lot more exciting now, both in terms of the work, which of course picked up as projects progressed, but also because of our expansion. Culture is important here, and each of the new hires has really added to that. So, since I started we’ve added a new office, new people and now there are more people to play games with on board game night.
Creating art for a game like Predator: Hunting Grounds is a massive and complex undertaking. How does the team split up all the tasks?
The art directors and leads are great at giving people tasks that not only play to each artist’s individual strengths but that keep things interesting. The confidence an artist can gain and the interest in more challenging or dynamic tasks makes for better art. The art team is pretty collaborative, willing to help out with tips, feedback and collaboration on tasks when needed. I don’t think I have ever worked for a company where it was so obvious that everyone actually cares about the company and the employees. When you work somewhere that supports and puts its employees first, and where the team is so passionate about the projects they work on, it inspires you to do better, to learn more, and to really make your work great.
I don’t think I have ever worked for a company where it was so obvious that everyone actually cares about the company and the employees.”
The video game industry as a whole isn’t well known for its gender diversity, but IllFonic makes it a point to hire talented female artists. What has your experience been like?
I have never experienced a situation in gaming where I was treated differently simply because I am a female and IllFonic is no different. Everyone here treats me with the same level of respect as they would any other peer or employee, and my work is judged on the quality of what I submit. Everyone in the company is encouraged to share any feedback, ideas or suggestions on everything from what we are working on to general culture in the offices. Several of my suggestions and ideas have been implemented into the game, and I’m often given creative freedom in what I do. IllFonic makes a point to hire talented people, with good attitudes, who are interested in learning and sharing. The general philosophy, especially on the art team, is that bettering employees strengthens the company.
Ian Davis, Associate Artist
Ian is also an environmental artist on the art team. His role includes a lot of modeling, texturing, lighting and world-building. It’s his team’s job to build amazing worlds that draw in players and capture their imagination.
BEYOND WORK: Ian has managed to get his entire family into riding motorcycles and later this year he’s going to attend the Superbike World Championships.
When you were still in the process of job hunting, what about IllFonic got your attention?
When I first saw the job listing, I had never heard of IllFonic before. Their previous games seemed like they were up my street and they were looking for junior artists, so I sent in an application. Today, we work out of a new office than the one I interviewed in and have a fully-fledged team of talented game developers passionate about making the best game possible.
What is it like being the new guy on the team? What kind of training or onboarding occurred when you came onto the team?
When I started, there were a few days of setting up my workspace and getting up to speed on what I would be working on, and then I hopped right in. Occasionally, there is the opportunity to take a few days and learn new software or techniques if there is a specific need during a project. When I was finishing school, I expected my first professional project to be some terrible throwaway game that no one would play, and instead, I’m working on a title that could be seen by millions of people. As for what I’m working on, it’s actually something that’s super-secret, which is both really exciting and a little intimidating!
When I was finishing school, I expected my first professional project to be some terrible throwaway game that no one would play, and instead, I’m working on a title that could be seen by millions of people.”
What has it been like working on creative projects within a team setting?
This is an area my school did really well preparing me for. Nearly every year I was placed on a project with a multidisciplinary team. That allowed me to learn how to work with other artists, designers, engineers and so on. It’s a lot of fun and really rewarding to watch the work from the different disciplines coalesce and come together to build a game. One of the big differences, though, is just the scale of the operation here. At school, my largest team was 14 students, and we all pretty much knew what everyone else was doing at any given time. IllFonic is at least five times larger than that and it requires a bit more widespread and frequent communication to keep everyone headed in the same direction.
Eric Klokstad, Expert Environment Artist
Eric is in charge of the quality and goals of the environmental artists in the art department. As such, he works closely with the design team, tech groups and the art director.
BEYOND WORK: When he’s not at work, Eric is probably still working — but out of personal interest. Since his passion is art and his work is art, it tends to keep him busy.
The team is working on a Predator: Hunting Grounds game, how close are you to being finished? Will this year’s new hires be working on this game?
Our Predator game is scheduled to be out early next year. IllFonic has a really fast production cycle of around 18 to 20 months and, to make that deadline, we have a lot of “first game industry job” employees, both old and young, some right out of school and some on second careers. It has given me a fresh perspective and inspires me to share the experience I have gained over my 25 years in the biz.
The goals for Illfonic are to make awesome games and hope that gamers love to play them as much as we do, and our team members should be driven and love to perfect their craft.”
You’ve been in the video game industry for a while now — how have you stayed relevant in such a constantly changing industry? Does it get any easier?
I’ve seen game developers mature with age. When I started, it was rare to work with someone over 40. Now, gray hair is a common thing in the studio. You definitely need to stay on top of industry trends in this business. I’m always learning and yet, still failing. I’ve come to like to fail — and quickly — because I find that it often opens the way for success. It's also helpful to be inventive and think outside of the box.
Describe your ideal candidate. What characteristics or skills do they possess?
Our ideal candidate is passionate about games, art, and design, and enthusiastic and open to new ideas and processes. The goals for Illfonic are to make awesome games and hope that gamers love to play them as much as we do, and our team members should be driven and love to perfect their craft.