Hello and welcome to a fun recollection of my artistic journeys so far!
2020 was a tough year and 2021 has been no different so far… but with all this isolation it has been a good time to reflect. This April 2021, marks ten years since I began professionally working as an artist and it has been an incredible adventure so far.
I’ve pursued it, struggled with it, loathed it and fallen back in love with it during this time span.
Let’s go back in time to 2010 – the relatively early days of YouTube, Starcraft 2 had just come out and taken
e-sports by storm, WoW was at its height as the world was getting geared up to fight the Lich King.
And I was leaving my lovely hometown and country to move to Glasgow, Scotland where I was to going to study Games Art & Animation in Glasgow Caledonian University.
At this point, I had some experience with creating 3d art by modelling and rendering in 3DS Max as a hobby but it was very general and self-taught – my favourites were always creating characters and environments
First year in university was tough, partly due to feeling homesick and partly due to needing money being the poor student that I was. At the time, my nationality did not allow me to just go and pick up a part-time job in the UK, so I had to be creative. (literally!)
I had tried a few places to sell my art online to no success, until a friend of mine suggested a website called videohive.net – an online marketplace for video content and motion-graphics templates. Desperation at my side, I plunged into this work headfirst without any prior knowledge whatsoever. I had some software and that was it. Rejection after rejection after rejection after rejection… this was the great first hurdle.
It took a couple of months of non-stop failures and lessons and more failures, until finally a project was accepted! I had learned enough basics and fundamentals to cobble together something that barely passed the quality requirements and it was ready to be sold! I was over the moon, obsessively checking if it had any sales every hour – it didn’t… this was the great second hurdle.
A week later, it made its first sale – $8 – eight dollars. I had spent months watching tutorials, following guides and working non-stop in order to make a precious eight dollars. It felt fantastic and terrible at the same time, imagine climbing a rocky mountain and when you finally get to the top, there is no top… just more jagged rocks to ascend.
At the time, I was listening a lot to the Smashing Pumpkins and the cheesy chorus from Bullet with Butterfly Wings felt very appropriate – ‘despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.’ Onto the next project!
Despite all the struggles, there was the desperation to make some money but there was also something else… The creative process was fun. Coming up with an idea, prototyping, testing, polishing and seeing it all come together as a crudely packaged project was kinda awesome. Seeing it fall flat on its face was not fun, but the journey beforehand was really exciting to me.
The following summer (2011) I kept on practicing and failing and making projects, some of them even started selling more regularly. I started learning the rules of animation, applying them and seeing sales slowly but gradually increase. My goal was to make enough money to pay the rent and have enough left over for some food. Maybe.
I was making roughly one project per week, most of them being very self-contained logo reveals – these fit my preferences best, as I could focus on improving the quality while producing them relatively quickly. Roughly around that time, branding my work was also becoming more important as most of the successful authors on the Envato marketplaces had done. Roddin the Mighty started off as a simple character design, then an internet alias and then an improvised brand for a motion-graphics artist. It is cheesy and ridiculous and metal and I absolutely love it to this day.
There were (and still are!) some truly excellent artists and animators on those marketplaces. People with a ton of experience and creative ideas and far more technical skills were constantly flocking to make cool projects on Videohive. Competing there for the attention of the buyers every week and seeing other authors evolve and improve the same way I had, made it an incredible learning experience.
Between 2012-2013, projects continued to flow in parallel to my university work. I was able to pay my rent consistently, even if I sometimes had to live on rice and beans. I made a lot of fantastic new friends. I met the most wonderful, charming and supporting lady of my dreams.
All this happiness was reflected in my work and I still consider some of those projects as some of my finest. I learned how to manipulate particles and move them in ways that were both natural and exciting, how to direct the viewers attention through motion and follow through.
Unfortunately, after things go up and up and up, inevitably they come crashing down – at the end of 2013 I hit a creative block unlike any other I had ever experienced. The memories from that time are still quite vivid. After the successes of those few projects faded, the following ones did not find much success nor did they bring me any creative satisfaction. I was exhausted, overwhelmed and most of all, frustrated. Frustrated at the fact, that I couldn’t just make more great stuff on a whim. Up to that point, there was a steady growth even if it was slow. When the growth plateaued, it felt rough – the confidence was gone, the excitement of the process missing and I remember feeling like the successes were just lucky flukes, lonely pearls in a sea of failures…
Early 2014 there was an interview with legendary power metal singer Roy Khan of KAMELOT fame, who shocked the world a few years prior when he stepped away from the band and the music industry altogether. His reasoning was creative burnout. How can someone so skilled, experienced and talented be afflicted to the point of quitting?! The interview resonated with me and there had to be more information out there on this matter – especially if even the best of the best could struggle from burnout.
Coincidentally, that was the last year of university – it was time to finish the thesis and make plans for the future. I put my head down despite the burnout, made ends meet and focused on my final project instead – a cool VR project that consisted of a fantasy environment built in Unity. It was tremendous fun and an early view into how game engines worked.
After university, I continued making motion-graphics projects and trying to figure out what was next. Videohive was fundamentally changing as it grew. There was less focus on an individual author creating consistent stylized work, but instead broad generic projects that targeted as many buyers as possible. Naturally, I followed the trend but something felt off and this time it wasn’t internal. Some of the projects were successful and made good money but there was no creative ownership or satisfaction, simply due to how generic they were…
The latest developments on the marketplace made me a bit more disenchanted with it. The projects above were cool and they had interesting animation challenges, but overall lack of personality and identity of these works was a deal-breaker. I began slowly transitioning my focus away from motion-graphics and more towards my original plan – game development.
The Next Step
For as long as I can remember, video games have been a part of my life – one of the earliest memories I have is booting up Golden Axe and beating up the bad guys as the super cool green dwarf. Being an imaginative kid, even the activities away from games were somehow related to them – I’d build robots out of construction kits, drew cities that resembled Age of Empires, arranged my plastic soldiers like Red Alert and hammered together wooden swords and shields to play Diablo outside.
Here are some of my favorite games growing up – each one of these evokes a wonderful rush of memories from my childhood. I had always wanted to channel this passion for games and pay it forward somehow.
The Beginning p.2
Late 2014 I had been playing a lot of League of Legends. As luck would have it, Riot Games were organizing a big art contest over on Polycount in various different sub-disciplines – illustration, modelling, environments, etc… I didn’t feel confident enough in my modelling but having some skills in After Effects, I decided on VFX – how hard can it be? I threw together 2 cool effects over the course of a few weeks, had a ton of fun in the process and off to the races!
Little did I know, that there was a requirement to use a games-engine for this contest… my entire approach was wrong from the beginning… However! It was a really valuable experience and it dawned on me the fact that real-time VFX is not so very different from motion graphics. All that I had to do, was learn some new software and channel my animation skills through it.
Fast-forward a few months, I had bought a subscription to the shiny new Unreal Engine 4 and was absorbing knowledge quickly. Making my first real-time VFX reel was priority number 1 in order to start applying for jobs. Once that was done, I’d applied to just about every advert for entry level games jobs I could find – more than 20 different applications.
Naturally, there was radio silence afterwards… A minor setback. At that point failing forward was nothing new. The past failures and burning out had made me emotionally resilient. I kept making projects to pay the bills and learning the games engines. At some point sooner or later someone will want to employ me!
Eventually, a few emails came in and after some back-and-forth (including a successful art-test!) it came down to a choice between 2 companies – Traveller’s Tales to work on some cool LEGO games or Dambuster Studios (formerly Crytek UK) who were making first person shooters. I chose the latter, as I was more interested in the technical challenge of a heavily realistic games and I had a very positive impression from travelling to the studio for an onsite interview.
There was one particular exchange near the end of the interview, that still brings a smile to my face. My interviewer was very forward with the responsibilities of the job and the need to learn CryEngine for the project. I was to take on the work of the previous VFX artist and help finish it as we released the game. ‘Can you do it?’ he asked. ‘Yes.’ Absolutely no hesitation or doubt as I said it.
The 9 hour bus ride after the interview was amazing. I was restless and nervous and excited, jamming to music throughout all night. The very next day, I fired up CryEngine at home and started practicing. For some reason, I had a good feeling about it all and just couldn’t wait to get started. A couple of days later, I got a call with the job offer!
Gears started turning really quickly afterwards, we packed up our stuff from Glasgow in a week and moved 300 miles south to permanently live in Nottingham, England. The following months were a complete blur. Learning, meeting new people, adjusting and absorbing as much information about the development process as possible. The studio had gone through some hardships over the years, but there were (and still are!) some truly exceptional artists and developers to learn from. I was excited to get to work every single Monday.
The game we were working on was Homefront: The Revolution – a guerrilla warfare first-person shooter in near-future alternate reality USA. The premise in this alternate history, North Korea had gone through a technological and economical golden age, whereas the US had started to struggle after years of wars.
The story was cheesy but the game-play was fun and the graphics were fantastic. The weapons had a really cool improvised look to them. All the characters had this awesome punk-rock aesthetic and there were plenty of explosions to boot!
Late 2015 we were frantically working to prepare the game for launch. A lot of the gameplay VFX were in a relatively good place, but there were still plenty of cinematics that needed effects work. Usually, in-game cutscenes are happening in real-time with no pre-rendering involved. It’s essentially a heavily scripted sequence with custom cameras, that temporarily locks the player’s input. On one hand, you don’t have to store your cutscenes as big video files but on the other hand, the sequences need to be very robust and reliable.
This workflow was a fantastic introduction to the world of scripting. CryEngine’s Flowgraph and Unreal’s Blueprint are both visual scripting tools that bridge the gap between programming and design. As an artist,
I had wrongly assumed that these wouldn’t be relevant to me. Until I needed them. Fast.
Fortunately, there was an amazing designer who was kind enough to teach me and for that I will be forever thankful. You see, scripting events can only be triggered while you are playing the game, not while editing the game. This is where rudimentary scripting comes in handy – you can create a simple script that triggers the cutscene you need when you press CTRL + 1, instead of having to play the game until you reach the point you need to test. This discovery was a real game changer (pun intended), as it opened my eyes to a means of speed testing the behavior of my work. I use these principles to this day.
May 2016 rolled around in a flash. We had finished the game, the cutscenes, everything. It is a wonderful and terrifying feeling to be ‘done’. The reception was… not great. There was a myriad of performance issues and bugs, which unfortunately really impacted the game’s launch. All the trusted reviewers hated it. It was tough, but even tougher on my coworkers who had spent multiple years building this game…
Honestly, it was another difficult stretch of months afterwards. But eventually, we picked up the pieces, rolled up our sleeves and worked extra hard to fix it all up. We made 3 DLCs for the game, which were much more akin to linear shooters and some of the players appreciated those changes. For me, it was yet another hard lesson to learn…
It all went full circle again! You climb the mountain all this time and when you get to the top – there is no top, just more mountain. Or worse yet, maybe it was a slip that took us further from the top instead…
Either way, I loved the work and there was no giving up – there was still so much more to learn in the rocky world of game development.
The Steady Climb
Eventually, the wounds were healed and things picked up afterwards with an exciting new project. Unfortunately, I cannot share too many stories of those following years, as the projects are still in development and I am under NDA!
What I can say, is that that they marked a steady disciplined improvement for me. The goal was to be a little bit less of an emotional artist, but instead more of a methodical developer. To approach problems with a more technical mindset and try to see the forest before the trees. To that end, in early 2017 I decided to begin learning SideFX’s Houdini software – one renowned for its difficult learning curve but incredible VFX possibilities.
Houdini is unlike other traditional 3D software package – it is entirely procedural and really demands an abstract way of thinking. For example, instead of polygon modelling a cup and exporting it, in Houdini you would build a small script that makes cups. Tall cups, short cups, square cups, all kinds of cups! Welcome to your very own cup factory!
Often times, artists struggle in the beginning because you have to methodically think like a programmer (and sometimes write some code!). I was no exception to this. It took a fair few attempts to grasp the basic principles, but with practice it all started making sense. I was hooked. It’s just so much fun approaching problems in different ways – there’s hardly any rules, as long as your node graph compiles you are golden.
I wanted a practical challenge for Houdini to cement my newfound knowledge. To that purpose, I went back to my freelancing ways to create the most ambitious template yet – Explosions for Games. This one involved quite a few moving pieces, combined many of the skills I had learned over the years and took about 9 months of being a weekend warrior – simulations, rendering, compositing, documentation and promotion. It even fried the motherboard of my then mighty powerful laptop!
For the purpose of promoting these projects, I produced 2 hour-long video tutorials detailing my workflow and showed examples of how the projects can be applied. All-in-all it was a tremendous technical effort. Once it was done and out there in the internet, it felt liberating. People bought it, enjoyed the tutorials and shared them around. I was (and still am!) extremely proud of the projects. But it was missing a key ingredient that I couldn’t quite grasp at the time… it was missing imagination. The elusive spark of creativity that makes art, art.
Late 2019 something amazing and unexpected happened… But first! Let’s backtrack to my favourite childhood games, shall we? There is one series that stands at the top of my list – Baldur’s Gate.
My first encounter with it was when I was about 11 years old – my big brother came back home with this cool game that was on 4 discs. Four discs! We installed the game and it looked so cool. Couldn’t quite understand what was going on, because my English at that point wasn’t very good. But still, I watched my brother try to escape an evil wizard’s lair all night before going to bed… The following morning, I got up all excited to play – nope, my brother was still playing this game. He never stopped!
A couple of years later, I dove back into both games of the series, equipped with newly improved English language skills – mostly earned from watching TV, playing games and listening to metal music. This time, the brilliance of the games really shone – the stories and its world. Your companions reacted to your actions and felt like real people. You could complete quests in different ways and approach situations as good or evil. You could explore the world freely. Sometimes you wouldn’t be sure which is the main story quest anymore, since some of the side-quests were so expansive. Honestly, I can gush about these RPGs until the end of time…
The wonderful, unexpected thing was, the opportunity to join the team at Larian and do visual-effects for the much anticipated sequel – Baldur’s Gate 3. We had played through Divinity: Original Sin 1 & 2 coop a couple of years before with my lovely fiance and we both adore those games. I knew that there isn’t a studio more suited to do a sequel in the series. I really didn’t have to think about it too much. Now that I work here, I can absolutely reaffirm that belief.
We wrapped up our previous commitments, packed up our stuff and arrived in Dublin on the 12th of March, 2020. Just a few days before the lockdowns began. Pretty lucky…
The lockdowns have sucked. Not being able to travel has sucked. Not being able to see our friends and families has sucked. Art has kept us sane during this period, and so have the online hangouts. Everyone in the studio has been amazingly supportive to help us adjust and stay positive no matter what.
The last part of this story, I will share with you through my latest work, I hope you enjoy it.
Honestly, if I had the chance to go back in time and somehow magically change the decisions that I’ve made along the way – I wouldn’t change a single thing. All the failures, struggles and emotions have been, in retrospect, hard-earned lessons.
I still don’t know if the mountain has a top. But what I do know now, 10 years later – I do enjoy the climb.
Thank you for reading.