Art is an integral part of video games.  But the debate continues whether video games are a work of art.


To compete in the $60 billion global video game marketplace, top studios have assembled NFL-roster-size teams of increasingly specialized artists to create blockbuster titles. And the growing demand for high-profile talent has led colleges and art schools to increase the course and degree options for prospective video game artists.

“As gaming continues to rise in popularity, cross gender and social boundaries, and expand in what defines a gaming experience, artists of all types will be in high demand to provide all the visual elements we as game consumers expect and at the quality we demand,” says Nick Heitzman, a game developer and member of the faculty at the Guildhall graduate game development program at Southern Methodist University.

The wide variety of art directions that video games are taking will be exhibited in several new releases:

•Take Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Revelations. Artists traveled to Istanbul to see the ancient Hagia Sophia to help them re-create their ornate rendition of the one-time Catholic church and Muslim mosque in the 16th-century-based game that comes out Tuesday. ($60 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PCs; ages 17 and up.)

•Another Ubisoft game out Tuesday, Rayman Origins ($60 for PS3, Xbox 360; $50 for Wii; ages 10 and up), brings Disney-like hand-drawn animation.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword ($50 for Wii; ages 10 and up) has been described as having an impressionistic art style. It comes out Sunday.

•A team of 40 artists helped create 16 square miles of ice-capped vistas and intricate dungeons in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which came out Friday. ($60 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PCs; ages 17 and up.)

Video game artists face unique challenges because their work is not admired passively. “It’s interactive. It’s different than if you are making a sculpture or a painting,” says Matt Carofano, art director on Skyrim for Bethesda Softworks. “You know that people are going to play this art and not just see it from one specific angle. They are going to walk around it and make up their own story as they look at the work you’ve made.”

Artists have always been a part of video games and, arguably, it was even tougher for them when game characters and settings were more abstract. “There were great artists working on video games even if it was very low-res,” says Assassin’s Creed Revelations Art Director Raphael Lacoste. “They had to deal with very low budgets and still do something interesting.”

Despite being pixellated, early video games will be part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art of Video Games exhibition, which opens March 16, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

As games have gained high-definition graphics, the work of artists has become more high-profile. “When people see video games like Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed, even if they are working on visual effects for movies, they want to join us now,” says Lacoste, himself a former matte painter and concept artist for films including Terminator Salvation and Journey to the Center of the Earth. “You can be more creative in video games, I think.”

Games have caught the attention of prospective students, too. Colleges and art schools have doubled the video game art majors in the last two years, according to The Princeton Review‘s survey of schools offering video game coursework and degrees.

“Gaming courses and the number of schools that offer them have only grown” since The Princeton Review and GamePro magazine released a first-ever ranking of undergraduate and graduate programs in February 2010, says David Soto, director of content development at The Princeton Review. “Visual design and art creation, in particular, are two skills that high-ranking schools continue to emphasize.”

In addition to the creative element, video game artists and animators are well-paid. They make, on average, $71,354, according to Game Developer magazine’s 2010 annual industry salary survey, though not as much as game programmers, at $85,733 on average.

For current blockbuster games, budgeted at $40 million to $60 million, artists are needed to conceptualize environments and characters, create visual effects, add lighting and mesh the art with the game programming.

“We obsess over all the small details,” says Bethesda Softworks’ Todd Howard, Skyrim game director. “Our art team created all the stuff and placed it all by hand, every tree and every rock.”

With rising interest for games, studios will need a constant flow of artists, says Michel Ancel, creator of the Rayman game franchise. “Video games are just at the start of their history, when you compare them to other styles of art,” he says. “Thousands of worlds have yet to be designed, and artists are essential to bring these worlds to life. The story is just beginning.”

Via USA Today