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Writing: Love of the Craft
Creativity Coaching : David Duggins : Making a Living as an Artist

Love of the Craft

Making a Living as a Computer Game Software Artist

Interview with Daniel Dociu of ArenaNet

By David Duggins

My coaching generally tends to focus on writing, as that's where most of my experience lies. But I'm a visual artist too — just not a very practiced one — and I love visual art in all its many forms, which accounts for the art features and artist profiles featured in Spacesuits and Sixguns.

The recent issue of S&S featured an interview with Daniel Dociu, the director of an art team responsible for one of the most creative, original and beautifully rendered computer games of the past decade. The Spacesuits and Sixguns feature covered less than a third of what we talked about, much of which concerned the creative process, careers in art, and the perspectives of a guy with fifteen-plus years as a creative professional. Daniel has been making a very good living as an artist since 1993.

So I dedicate this article to those of you who may have parents, significant others or well-intentioned friends telling you to get a real job. When you've heard what Daniel has to say, I'm sure you'll agree: it doesn't get any more real than this.

Daniel Dociu is Art Director for a software company called ArenaNet. ArenaNet makes computer games — in particular, a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (hereafter known as MMORPG) called Guild Wars.

An MMORPG is a computer game that features a persistent online world combining computer-controlled creatures and quests with real players from all over the world. Players log in to the game universe, create an avatar that represents them in the game world, and use that character to have adventures in a fantasy realm. The popularity of this style of game took off with a game called Everquest, and continues today with games like Everquest 2, Eve Online, World of Warcraft, and Guild Wars.

A complex, ever-changing game like Guild Wars requires continuity, flexibility, ingenuity ... and tons of artwork. Everything you see or interact with in the game — every landscape, every structure, every creature you square off against — is an artistic creation. You create your own character in the game, but you do so using tools created by the design team. Those tools rely on art assets, which are produced by a team of over 50 artists under the direction of Daniel Dociu.

Think about it: every computer and video game developer in the country (and many with offices in Canada) builds games in a similar way — with teams of writers, artists and creative designers. Without even doing a Google search on game studios, I can tell you that there are dozens. Probably a hundred. Maybe more.

Not all of those studios use large art teams, but many do. Again, not looking at hard numbers, but an hour's worth of research could fill a page with references — a thousand potential jobs out there, if you do your homework and know what to look for.

Get a real job? You bet. These are all real jobs. Just ask Daniel.

"I've been in the industry since 1993," Daniel says. "I worked with Squaresoft as an art director, Electronic Arts for a couple of years, a startup called Zipper Interactive for four years, back to EA under a different title, freelanced for a few months, got tired of that, decided I wanted a full-time gig, and that's when I joined Arena."

When I asked Daniel why he decided to forego freelance in favor of a gig with a software company, his answer surprised me. "It's very easy to get greedy, and work yourself to death," Daniel says. " The money can be really good, and it's easy to start neglecting your life, health and family."

That doesn't exactly sound like the kind of problem a starving artist would experience, does it? "I began to think of every minute as money earned or money lost. You never know where your next job will come from, so you tend to take on a lot at once." Daniel found that the more stable and balanced lifestyle of regular employment was a better fit.

For him, regular employment does not mean sacrifice — stable money doesn't mean less of it. We didn't talk specific numbers, but Daniel lives very comfortably. In fact, he has never fit the "starving artist" stereotype. Formal education and constant self-improvement helped him build success. "I got my degree in Industrial Design and worked as a product designer for years, "Daniel says. "After I came to the U.S., I got into the toy design business for a couple of years. It was purely by accident that I ran into a young artist — a guy who later became a well-known art director — who mentioned video games. He had recently been exposed to this emerging industry, and he told me there was money to be made."

At Squaresoft, Daniel developed his professional and artistic reputation, landing subsequent jobs based on networking that reputation. "It was purely me chasing the money," Daniel says.

I hope you're picking up on the recurring theme here. I'm beating you over the head with it quite intentionally. During our fifty minutes on the phone together, Daniel never once mentioned being broke, struggling, looking for work without finding it, or even feeling like he wasn't going to make it. He remained flexible, kept his own definition of success loose and fluid, and went where his creativity took him. And he always found work.

And speaking of creativity, Daniel is very much an artist, with a solid creative philosophy playing compliment to his take-no-prisoners business acumen. Lots of artists are uncomfortable with the whole idea of commerce, but Daniel sees possibility in the marriage. "I believe there are plenty of opportunities to express yourself and feel good about yourself in the context of commercial art," he says. "There is compromise, but there is compromise in any art form. It's up to each artist to decide when your integrity is taking a hit. It's always up to you to decide where that line is that you don't want to cross. It's not a hard line. You set it for yourself, and sometimes decide to move back and forth."

Daniel emphasized that it's very important to dig deep and do the necessary soul-searching before you start getting a paycheck. Being centered — understanding who you are as a person — will both protect you from making a decision you later regret and help you define your style.

"I think it's dangerous to deliberately search for style, "Daniel says. "I've been there, done that. It didn't take me anywhere. Eventually, I decided to give it up, not worry about it. It's not deliberate effort."

I've said in numerous columns and articles that artists often enter the fray unaware that they're voluntarily agreeing to live out the archetypal bad dream of going to school naked. "Being yourself is a scary thing. It's really paralyzing for young artists to expose themselves as they are — their strengths and weaknesses alike, their doubts and insecurities," Daniel says. "But this is what makes you who you are. You shouldn't try to hide it. It's what gives your art credibility and makes it genuine."

Daniel told me he meets far too many artists who only care about tools and technique. "You need to figure out who you are, what you're about, and be open to exposing that, and finding the means of expression that allows you to communicate that. That's your technique. It's not something you borrow or learn," he says.

If you've been worried about making a living as an artist, I hope Daniel's example has helped allay those fears. It is not only possible to make money; it is possible to make a living — a very comfortable living — as an artist.

The outlook is good. The gaming industry is a brave new world. "Even if we think we've outgrown infancy, the industry is still in the puberty phase, which is not any prettier," Daniel says. It may not be pretty, but the explosion of growth means opportunity. With the development of new game consoles rivaling the power of current PC processors, the entire industry has taken a giant technological and creative step forward. It's exciting stuff, and a lot of new companies are going to be looking to be part of that growth. Existing companies will expand as the demand for new games strengthens.

Game developers are always looking for new talent. The possibilities for finding work are more varied, more numerous and better paying than ever.

So how's your resume looking? •

© 2007 David Duggins. All rights reserved.

David DugginsDave Duggins, owner/creator of Voidgunner, is a creativity coach and writing mentor. More »

7/19/07