You'd best be up for a stiff challenge, though, because this is no mere fan art contest. You'll face artists the likes of last year's winners Jessica Dinh, Peter K. Lee -- and the subject of this week's interview, the detail-oriented Marie Lazar.
"It's all about the details," said WoW lead environment artist Gary Platner of Marie's work. "When we create art for WoW, we have to follow some rules. Pieces must have hand painted textures that match our unique art style and they must tell a story. Marie's work does this very well! And, if you look close enough, some great details come through. It's a library of the afterlife floating on an island in the sky! There are book references everywhere, books lying around, book grave stones, even the roof is made to look like an open book. All of us could look at this piece and come up with a great story."
Marie Lazar: I've always loved games, but it never really occurred to me that making them was something you could do for a living until my senior year of high school. I took a class in 3DS Max and immediately fell in love with the idea that I could create my own worlds. I tried my hand at design and programming in college (and still enjoy doing both), but art was what I was best at, so I decided to pursue it full-force.
Over the years, I naturally gravitated towards environment art. I think it's because exploring is one of my favorite things to do, and my strongest memories of games are always of the places I visit.
What attracted you to the Blizzard student art contest? What does winning an internship like this mean to an artist in your position?
From the moment I heard about the contest, I knew it was meant for me. I had already been trying to emulate WoW's texture style, digging through their model viewer and pouring over the art books. And geeze -- it's an environment contest, too? Concept art or character design I would expect, but environments tend to get overlooked (despite being the bulk of game art), so an environment contest was really something special.
I'd like to see more companies follow Blizzard's example in the future. It's difficult for would-be artists to know what to put in their portfolios to attract their favorite companies, and contests like this give them a good goal to work towards.
Talk us through creating your contest submission, Marie.
I remember spending a long time deciding on a concept. I wanted to do something mysterious, cozy, and just a little bit clever. Combining two unlikely things, a crypt and a library, seemed to fit that goal.
After roughing out a sketch I liked, I blocked out my scene in Blender. Then I tried lighting it in a few different engines, eventually choosing UDK over Unity and Marmoset, as it had the best rendering options and I was already familiar with it.
Then came a long, long period of unwrapping models and painting textures in Photoshop, using examples from WoW and Allods Online as reference. There's always some amount of grind to finishing a scene, but it helps that hand-painted textures are naturally fun to paint. To top it all off, I tweaked materials and post effects in Unreal, trying to get the right color balance adding small effects like the ground fog.
Her color palette was very bright and imaginative, and her shapes are thick and exaggerated. We like to say that objects in WoW should look heavy, like they could hurt you! Also, and this is something most people don't think about, she doesn't use any straight lines. The columns are slightly curved and the angles of the building are exaggerated. – Gary Platner, WoW lead environment artist
What sort of tools, software, and hardware do you use?
For 3D modeling, I use an older version of Blender (2.49). I can work with Max or Maya when I need to, but I still prefer Blender for personal work as it feels faster and more streamlined. Photoshop and tablet are all I need for 2D, but I've been experimenting with a new toy, my ShuttlePro 2. With my Photoshop hotkeys set to the ShuttlePro, I can paint with Photoshop's interface entirely hidden.
Also, 3D Coat! I've been using it for over a year now and I can't imagine going back to texturing without it. It's invaluable for blocking in light and painting over seams. For presenting models, I stick with UDK or Marmoset, depending on the needs of the scene.
Let's talk about your summer with Blizzard! How much time did you spend there? What sort of tasks did you work on?
Like the other interns, I was there from June until August. I worked under Gary Platner on the exteriors team, working on plants, trees, rocks, and other props that populate the outdoors. Because I came in fairly late in production, I spent a lot of time fixing bugs -- one-sided waterfalls, broken collision, UV seams... All very minor stuff, but it did help me assimilate to Blizzard's asset management and project tracking software.
Is there something in Mists of Pandaria you could point to and say "I did that"?
Giant Bananas! You can find 'em around Halfhill and Unga Ingoo. That was my very first model, so that banana got a lot of love. I also worked on some of the farming plants, specifically the Snakeroot and Songbell, and some cool lily pads in the Dread Wastes.
Honestly, it's that Blizzard is a real company and its employees are regular people (albeit very skilled ones). I grew up in the Midwest, where the gaming industry is all but nonexistent. These big companies and people were just names on the internet to me, not something I could actually be part of. My first few days at Blizzard were absolutely surreal. I was surrounded by personal celebrities all the time. As the summer went on, I came to know them better as individuals -- what TV shows they like, their favorite kind of sushi. Now I can think of them less as celebrities and more as friends.
Take us inside Blizzard with you, Marie, as a fly on the wall. Let's hear your squee moment!
Marie clearly demonstrated that she understands the WoW style. She used hand painted textures and exaggerated proportions. She also created a unique building with props that are not currently in the game. And most of all, her work could support a great backstory. -- Gary Platner, WoW lead environment artist
Ohmygosh, the library! Blizzard has an on-site library with wall-to-wall art books, PC games, graphic novels -- you name it! It also has textbooks and tutorials on every facet of game production. I could have spent forever in that library, but then I wouldn't have had time for the guest lectures, drawing classes, painting demos... You can really tell Blizzard wants their artists to always be learning, and that for me was the most exciting part of being there.
Are you still working on your college degree?
I finished, actually, a few months ago. Now I'm building up my portfolio and doing some freelance work. I'm trying to decide what I want to do next, because I love working on big games like WoW, but I also have a strong passion for indie games and experimental gameplay. I want to see if I can't find a way of working that satisfies both interests.
What about playing WoW?
Perhaps unusually, I didn't actually try WoW until it became free to play in 2010. I played it obsessively for about a week, but I stopped shortly after getting my first mount because I could tell it was going to be a serious threat to my schoolwork. I left the game, but that visual style stuck with me, and forever after I looked for any excuse to make colorful, whimsical scenes. I've been meaning to start back up again with Mists to see all the content my coworkers worked on, and since I got the collector's edition for Christmas, it looks like I'll finally be able to!
- Participate in online communities. I think it really says something that of the six winners and runners-up in the contest, five had posted their work on the art community Polycount to get feedback. It was the critique I got there that really carried my entry the last 10% of the way to completion. Watching and emulating the artists on Polycount (many of them from Blizzard) is what's gotten me to where I am now.
- Draw and paint. They're not 100% required skills for environment artists, but they're so valuable you'd be crazy to overlook them. Even in a professional setting, you won't have the luxury of other people's concepts to work off of all the time, and concepting your own assets is a great way to get the creative juices flowing and troubleshoot your designs early. Remember, it's always easier to fix something on paper than it is in 3D.
- Learn how to light and present your work. Poor presentation has killed many an otherwise strong portfolio. Being able to get your models in a game engine and light them attractively is absolutely key. Go the extra mile wherever you can. For instance, try adding particle effects and ambient animations to your scene. Small touches like these are what really bring an environment to life.
- Raise your standards. Assuming you're a student, don't stop at comparing at your work to your classmates. You should be holding yourself up to the very best in the industry. I've spent many nights crying over better portfolios than mine, but every morning I wake up determined to match them.
- Keep a inspiration folder and refer to it often. I actually have two. One has work by my favorite artists, stuff that I look at to remind myself of where I want to be. The other is filled with cool ideas, interesting places, and techniques I want to try. It's a good place to start when looking for concepts for that next character or scene.
See Marie's official portfolio at PixelButterfly, and watch for occasional works in progress at her blog.
Read about winner Peter K. Lee: Student artist's Darkmoon carousel stuns Blizzard, earns internship
Read about winner Jessica Dinh: Breaking into Gaming: WoW player earns a summer inside Blizzard's art department
Get the details on this year's Blizzard student art contest (entry deadline Jan. 15, 2013).
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) ... a blind ex-serviceman and the guildmates who keep him raiding as a regular ... and a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.