“It’s pretty much the perfect job,” Olds says. “In high school I was like, I’m going to be in a metal band, or make video games.”
Olds started at the game studio, best known for its “Fallout” and “Elder Scrolls” franchises, 10½ years ago as an intern. He worked his way up from that gig, which involved laying out grids for navigating through the artificial world of the video game, to a job as a character artist with a specialization in hard-surface modeling, designing guns, armor and other objects in the games. “These days, I’m basically the gun guy,” Olds says.
For Bethesda’s newest game, “Fallout 4,” released in November 2015, Olds also worked with a team of programmers and animators to develop a “mod” (or modification) system for weapons. Mods allow gamers to customize elements of a game, which in this case allows them to craft the perfect weapon.
Olds rarely sits down with a pencil and paper when he’s working on a new design; he’s more likely “sketch” it out in 3-D with a stylus on his Wacom Cintiq graphics tablet. “I pretty much think in 3-D now,” he says.
Just don’t ask him what he’s working on right now: The gaming industry is notoriously secretive, keeping the next big title under wraps until it launches.
How he got the job
Olds set his sights on making video games at an early age, and was strategic about breaking into the industry. He combed through video game magazines to learn terminology and played games with an eye toward understanding what made them tick.
“I was trying to look under the hood a little bit,” he says.
He made his first homemade mod for Bethesda’s “Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind” game, designing a 3-D model of an axe in a separate program and then using a game editor program to import it into the game.
Olds earned a BFA in game development and interactivity from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, and worked on another mod for the game “Half-Life 2” as part of a class project. Even with all that training, Olds says he had just enough skills to get his foot in the door at Bethesda Game Studios as an intern: “I was still pretty green.”
There were no open positions at the company after his internship ended, so he moved back home to Indiana and worked as a handyman — and waited. When a contract position opened up at the studio, he returned to the D.C. area, and at the end of that contract, he was finally offered a full-time position.
“It was such a weight off my shoulders,” Olds said. “All this hard work had paid off.”
Who would want this job
Drop the name “Fallout 4” or “Skyrim” (the company’s 2011 “Elder Scrolls” title) among gamers and watch their eyes light up.
This job is made for anyone who loves art and video games — but be willing to hustle, Olds says. “This is a highly competitive industry.”
An extensive knowledge of computers and familiarity with programs like Photoshop, ZBrush (a digital sculpting tool), 3ds Max (a 3-D modeling program) and Substance Painter (3-D painting software) also helps.
Character artists also must understand the characters — and the worlds — they’re designing for. They immerse themselves in the setting, Olds says, and their art has to make sense in the world that’s being created.
How you can get the job
Bethesda Game Studios is currently hiring for a number of positions, including character artist, animator and game programmer. Olds’ path provides a good model for would-be game makers: Study the industry in and out, and learn the lingo. Dip your toe in the water by making in-game modifications at home. Consider a degree program focused on game design, such as American University’s master’s in game design, which focuses on creating “socially responsible games” and applying game theory to non-game contexts. Finally, be sure to network: The Game Developers Conference and SIGGRAPH Conference are big meetups for aspiring and professional video game artists.
Olds tells young people interested in game design not just to play video games, but to make them.
“All your drive has to go toward this,” he says. “Because if you don’t [put the time in], someone else will.”
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