Feature: Interview - Steven Skidmore, Environmental artist on Darksiders II

You may have seen some of his work in the erroneously overlooked time-traveling shooter Singularity, but if by chance you missed it, you’ll be seeing plenty in next years apocalyptic Darksiders II. Steven Skidmore is a gamer, music lover and environmental artist on the upcoming action-adventure title which is receiving tons of buzz and for good reason… it’s looking pretty bad ass. Steven was kind enough to answer a few question for us on what it’s like for an up and coming artist in the industry and even touches a wee bit on Darksiders II

First of all, I have to ask what were some of your favorite games growing up?

My all-time favorite games growing up were Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid… The original Half-life is also one of my favorites. I am an absolute nut for the Battlefield series as well. I use to do LAN parties with friends and stay up all night playing Battlefield 1942/ Secret Weapons/ Road to Rome. I’ve owned all the Battlefields since.

Going even further back I would said Super Mario Bros for the SNES and Mario 64/Mario Kart 64 were some of the best times I had growing up. Goldeneye 64 will forever be the best multiplayer couch playing I’ve ever had!

Tell us a little about your background and what spurred you to get into the game industry?

I originally went to school with the hopes of being a cinematics artist for game cutscenes. I studied in a pretty tough program focusing on visual effects for film.

For a long time I thought I would end up doing lighting or modeling in the film industry, but near the end of my junior year my roommate (at the time) and I decided we both wanted to work in the game industry. So late in college I decided to focus my work on low poly modeling and learning anything I could about game engines and the production pipelines. I miss the film industry and the excitement of big budget stuff, but honestly games are much more exciting for me to be a part of. I have much more in common with my co-workers now and every day is awesome to go to work.

As an environmental artist, what’s your responsibility on a title?

Environment artists are responsible for basically everything that isn’t effects, UI, or characters. :P I handle anything from some level design, basic level block-out, setting up visual compositions, modeling, texturing, sculpting, shader development… the list could go on. Environment artists are usually jacks of all trades, masters of none.

Who are some designers or artists in the gaming industry that you admire?

To be honest I don’t follow too many individual artists or designers because I feel like the games are really group efforts rather than the sole brainchild of one person. Instead I’ll just name my favorite companies in regard to art and design. Arenanet’s concept and environment teams on Guild wars and Aion are absolutely amazing. Valve is still my favorite studio in terms of design.. they really get it.

This generation of consoles has really given artists and designers a much bigger canvas than any other previous console generation. As an artist, do you find yourself limited by the technology, which granted is getting a bit long in the tooth, or do you still find there’s plenty of breathing room for creators to get their vision on the screen?

There will always be limitations with hardware, sadly enough. As much as this current console generation claims to be miles ahead it is still very much a hardware restriction to developers. Truth is the hardware is dated. Even when we upgrade to the next generation of DX11 consoles there will always be restrictions on artists. We simply cant do ‘everything’ we want. :)

Honestly, I would rather have the restrictions though. I think having the limitations in hardware causes the developers to critically rethink things that could ultimately change the scope of the game. If we didn’t have the restrictions I think we’d all get too lazy and careless in trying to creatively solve situations. Many things in games exist just from developers trying out new ideas to overcome previous limitations.

Many analysts have been debating back and forth about when the next-generation will kick off. We already know about the Wii U, a system that this past E3 was shown off with Darksiders II being one of the standout tech demos on the system.

Microsoft and Sony still haven’t shown their cards on what their offerings will be next-generation but with game development costs this generation skyrocketing, do you see middleware like Epic’s Unreal Engine and Crytek’s Cryengine being a way for game developers to handle the growing costs of next generation development for artists and modelers?

Well Unreal and Crytek definitely make things much easier on developers since they have years of dedicated programming support and troubleshooting experience already built into their engines that allow the developer to focus on the game, and not the engine. To be honest, the engine really makes no difference. Each studio has their own pipelines that work best. It’s all about speed and efficiency in this business so whatever works best for the studio. Hardware is hardware in the end so it really is irrelevant which engine is used.

Whether you use proprietary software, Unreal UDK, Cryengine, Unity, or any other engine… all that really matters is that your company is suited to use that pipeline in the most efficient manner. I wouldn’t say it would cut costs at all. It may actually be more expensive to license those engines anyways since you have to pay for their developer license, rather than building the engine yourself.

You’re currently working on Darksiders II (which is looking fantastic), I know you can’t speak much about it currently, but what are some personal influences stylistic wise that are influencing your work on Darksiders II?

Well, obviously Joe Mad’s style is the driving force behind the look of Darksiders 2, but that’s not to say that’s the sole inspiration for all of artists. I love to surround myself with all kinds of art to become inspired. Recently I’ve been looking at Uncharted 2 and Killzone 3 art for game work inspiration. For environment and mood ideas I have been rewatching Fellowship of the Ring and the Two Towers (LOTR). I also love anime and things like Miyazaki’s many works for inspiration.

As an artist myself, I know tunes are a big part of my working process, even if it’s just at times drowning in the background. What do you listen to while you work?

I mostly listen to only hard rock and metal when I work. I need something to amp me up and keep me going. Recently I’ve been listening to In Flames, Soilwork, Nightwish, Scar Symmetry, and other metal bands. I do love older classic rock sometimes and will occasionally listen to dubstep when I’m in the mood to mellow out.

Surely traditional (painting,pencils etc,) art played a big part in your education, is it something you still dive into in your free time?

I haven’t drawn or painted in a quite a long time since starting work, which is a shame because I miss it. In my free time I do try to sculpt figures and maquettes in sculpey modeling clay. I’ve always been more of a hands on person. Honestly if I could work daily with clay I would probably give up 3d modeling. You have so much more control then you do with a mouse. I’ve always had a soft spot for sculpture.

What games are you playing right now and what are you looking forward to this fall?

Right now I am playing Force Unleashed 2 (because I never got to it)… Entrenched on XBLA, Battlefield Bad Company 2, Team Fortress 2, and Portal 2. This fall I am completely and utterly obsessed with Battlefield 3, can’t wait. I also can’t wait for Gears 3, Uncharted 3, and Guild wars 2.

Finally, what are some important words of wisdom that you would pass down to any amateur artist looking to get into the gaming industry?

Decide what you want to do early on. It’s too hard to get a job saying you want to be a level designer, environment artist, character artist, animator… it’s just not going to happen a big studio. Find out what you really enjoy and focus on that. Learn EVERYTHING you can about your particular job interest. If you want to be an environment artist, learn about composition and what makes a great one. Learn about shaders and HLSL language. Also get familiar with a game engine asap. Don’t be locked into 1 modeling program either, be able to adapt…

From a more inspirational point of view, never give up on your dream. I had a really rough time after graduating. I was out of work for almost 2 years and tried just about every studio I could think of. I interviewed, and art tested, and resumed dozens and dozens of places and I thought I would never get a job. But things will always get better. Now I have a dream job and I love every day of work. So don’t let the hard times get you down as an artist. It’s easy to lose inspiration, but keep working on your portfolio. (Also NEVER use gaudy, animated flash buttons and pop-ups on your website… interviewers HATEEEEEE that) Thanks Mike, this was fun.

For more of Steven’s artwork check out his official page. Darksiders II is set to release next year on PS3, Xbox 360 , PC and maybe even the Wii U.

By: Mike Torres

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