Building a video game takes inspiration, talent, dedication, and hard work. And if you're building a critically-acclaimed title like The Last of Us, you'll need your share of teammates. Naughty Dog is a studio known for its high quality games; to build these games it hires some of the best in the business and gives them the freedom they need to get the job done.
We sat down with Gnomon alumni and Naughty Dog texture artist Melissa Altobello to find out what it's like to work on a AAA video game and to learn a bit about the work of texture artists.
How did you first get involved in the world of game design?
It happened mostly by chance actually. I didn't know a thing about game engines or anything; I didn't even have a game console at home. I just assumed that I would end up working in film since I didn't know anything about games besides the cheat code for Contra. I was in the office at Gnomon one day and the head recruiter from Naughty Dog contacted them looking for some students who might be a good fit. The front desk coordinator saw me and emailed me the info right away. I contacted Naughty Dog, took the test, and eventually was hired. It was more of a “right place, right time" kind of situation for me.
Tell us a bit about your games background.
I grew up playing video games as a kid. When I was just a rugrat we had an Atari and an Apple II GS. I used to love playing games on both of them with my sister and my cousins. When we eventually graduated to Nintendo we spent many sleepless nights playing Super Mario 3 and fighting over when to use the Flute to transport worlds.
What is your primary role at Naughty Dog?
On the broad scale, I'm an environment artist, but more specifically I'm a Shader and Texture artist.
What are the responsibilities of a texture artist?
A texture artist (at Naughty Dog) creates textures and shaders for background art. We hand sculpt most of our textures using ZBrush, and we use a variety of methods to create the diffuse maps. Though I was told in school that modelers always do the UVs, at Naughty Dog Texture artists are also responsible for UV layout on the models that we are texturing. Together with a modeler and a lighting artist we create the background art for a specific level or region of the game.
My typical day… hmm. I like to come in a bit early to get caught up on emails I might have missed in the evening, check out what my level looks like, and then I create a game plan for what I want to get done for the day (which often gets derailed). We have very few formal meetings at Naughty Dog, so my day is pretty organic. I work at my own pace creating textures, UVing models, and defining my shaders and occasionally harassing one of my pod mates. I work really closely with my modeler and lighting artist so I'm sure to pop over to one of their desks a few times a day to touch base about the level as well.
What would you say has been your most challenging project so far?
Honestly, every project seems more challenging than the last. There is always new tech to learn and new barriers to breach. Naughty Dog is always pushing to make our games better than the last in every department, so there's always a new hurdle ahead and we're always making things better until the game leaves the studio.
What would you consider a dream project?
I've loved working on the games we make at Naughty Dog because we base everything in reality while still keeping it a bit stylized. That being said, I think it would be really fun to work on something extremely graphic, illustrative, or painterly.
How did your education impact your ability to work in the field?
Having a traditional art background helped tremendously. I'm still learning important concepts in color (most of the time from someone right here at work) that help me grow stronger as a texture artist every day. My time at Gnomon helped give me a great understanding of the expectations that would await me in the games industry. Before going to Gnomon, I figured an entry level job in the games and film industry really would entail asking “one cream or two," not working on art straight from the gate. Gnomon taught me more than just CG. Being able to receive strong critiques, learning new techniques (including the right way to do something and the way to cheat it), and being able to receive instruction from teachers who have worked in the industry were all invaluable. I believe that both my traditional art education and my CG education together were vital in pushing me into the industry.
I feel like I worked towards landing this job from the moment I finished high school. I always set goals for myself and I feel like that was instrumental in giving me the push I needed to get here. I tried to network as much as possible while I was at Gnomon because advice from professionals is as valuable as any class you can take. I reached out for critique on all my projects (and even which projects I would decide to work on) to make sure that I was building a strong and varied body of work.
What advice would you give to aspiring games artists?
I would tell any aspiring game artist to get familiar with what the best games out there are doing and try to replicate that on your demo reel. The industry is always moving forward so it's important to keep up with what's current and demonstrate that you can hang. I would also say to get critique from lots of people on your work, not just your friends who are going to tell you how awesome your project is. Get feedback from your instructors, people in forums, even people who don't even make art. Everyone will see something different and you never know when you're going to hear the one suggestion that will turn something good into something great.
Thanks so much for your time!
Founded in 1997, Gnomon has trained thousands of students and professionals for careers in the entertainment industry. Find out more