One of Activision’s 3D artists, Luis Zuleta, sat down with me to discuss life as a game designer and shared some tips for students who want to break into the industry.
What is your official position at Activision, and what does your job entail?
Junior Artist. I’m a 3D modeler and texture artist. So, pretty much, anything in the game that you see, like buildings and cars, I help build.
What projects have you worked on?
I just finished up like six, seven months ago’hellip; ‘Kung-Fu Panda’ for Dreamworks, right after that, ‘Transformers 2.’
Where did you go to college?
I went to the Art Institute in Santa Monica. They have a game art and design major. It teaches you how to model and texture.
You work long hours, don’t you?
Yeah [laughs]. I just got off right now, and it’s 10:09 p.m. Usually it’s 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Right now there’s something called ‘crunch time’, which is when we need to get to a certain point. And we’re just working really hard trying to get to that point and trying to get that game polished to the level they’re expecting it to be at this time.
‘ What’s your typical day like?
Things take a long time to make when modeling. A simple building can take 10, 15, 20 hours. So the whole day can just be, ‘Oh, we need to get this building done and have it explode, and have debris come down and have all this cool stuff happen.’ That’s definitely a couple days of work. Then there are some little things, like, ‘We need you to build some tables that break apart when you kick ’em.’ You have to learn how to do all these destruction states and all this math that states, ‘This happens when this happens.’ It’s pretty cool, it’s a lot of fun.
Did you come out of college thinking that you wanted to do environment design?
I went into college saying, ‘I want to learn how to make video games and do the 3D aspect of it.’ It just so happens that characters are pretty damn hard to do [laughs]. I thought, hmm, I don’t really want to go into characters because there aren’t too many in games sometimes. With environments, pretty much anything you see you have to make. It’s interesting figuring out how to put all that stuff together.
Take me through the process of creating a game, from its idea to completion.
For the game we’re doing, Transformers, you kind of have to follow the idea of the movie. We get little tidbits of what goes on, what’s expected to happen and who’s in the movie. They give us a bunch of concept work and character models. From that, we come up with our own ideas and make the game. Every so often’hellip; we’ll send it to the main people at Dreamworks and they give us feedback. Say a character isn’t moving the way they like, or they don’t react toward something or they’re too slow, they’ll tell us we need to change it.
Do you ever play through your own games?
The previous game [Kung-Fu Panda] I tried a little bit. I don’t really want to play it too much. Also, when you’re making the game, you’re testing things out. So you’re playing the game a lot of the time. A real fun part is just watching people play the game. Watching my sister play or having my mom play and say, ‘That’s so cool, your brother made that.’ I think, yeah, I put all this time into the game. A year or two years, and to finally see it all come together ‘- it’s a pretty cool feeling, and to see your name in the credits.
What advice would you offer to students trying to break into the industry?
I would say just work hard and focus’hellip;. Follow how the professionals get things done. They’re the ones in the industry. Check out their websites and look at their portfolios. Also, one good thing that someone told me once, if you’re applying to a company and you want to get in with them and get them to like you is to focus on what they’re into. Say the company makes ‘Call of Duty.’ Focus on really war-looking war jeeps and buildings and things like that. That’s kind of how I did it, I just looked at the companies I wanted to get into and just focused my whole demo reel and portfolio off of that.
Also, networking with people around you, all the people you’re going to school with are looking to do the same thing you’re doing. Just keep in contact with all those people and make good friends. And when it comes time for you to get out, you have a little in, a foot in the door. Most importantly, I would say if you’re a really good texture artist and you’re really good with Photoshop, that will take you a long way. The big thing about games is that they want it to be as low poly as possible. (A low amount of actual 3D objects) You want to create illusions with the textures.
Did you intern anywhere while in college?
No. That’s a good idea though. I never wanted to go the intern route because I felt like it would take away time from me figuring out how to work with the program. I was already busy enough with life, and I already had a job to pay the home bills. Working as an intern is a really good job, but for me I just wanted to learn how t do everything then bam, get out of there as soon as possible. To anyone else, I would recommend working as an intern. You just learn how everything works. Game testers can get in with the people there and get to know them. Let’s say you want to get into modeling, if you get in there and meet the people to do this, then when you finally graduate you can just say hey and give them a bump on the shoulder. I would say 60 to 70 percent of the time people get jobs from friends.
Are there any particular jobs in high demand right now?
Really good character artists.
Is this your ideal job?
I wouldn’t say it’s an ideal job. But I would say it’s a great job. It’s so much fun. You’re making video games, you know, instead of doing a boring desk job where people complain all the time. You’ve got people who are loud and joking, having fun. They take the job seriously because they need to get things done, but they build it as a fun atmosphere. And they treat you well. They hook you up with food, like tonight. We did overtime, 10 or 11 hours.
And you can dress however you want, right? Those are your work clothes?
I’m in sandals and shorts right now [laughs]. There’s no dress code. I’ve got piercings, I’ve got a goatee, I’ve got tattoos. Most companies are serious, and would say, ‘I don’t know about you, I don’t know about this guy.’ [Activision is] really chill and really kicked back. Good perks and good money. You make good money.
How much do you make?
Nah, I’m not going to tell you [laughs]. It pays the bills.
What are some of your other favorite aspects of the job?
When I was a kid, I always used to play games and be like, ‘That would be so cool if you could do this and this,’ and now I’m at the position where I say, ‘Well, why not?’ I can just go to my boss and say, ‘Hey, we should do this,’ and a week later it could be in the game, which is awesome.