YCB Presents – The bad side of working in VFX and computer games by Wayne Robson

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The views do not represent those of any clients past present or future. This article is presented for informational purposes only.Wayne Robson

There are a lot of fallacies about the Game and visual FX industries, most of them glossing over some rather important details of the reality of things. After well over 20 years in the industry (and to be honest sort of on the wind down of my career). I’ve been lucky enough to work in roles such as Senior Artist, Lead Artist and 3D supervisor (amongst many others) for over two decades now at a variety of VFX and games firms, both massive and small. I feel the time is right to outline some stuff you might not know if you’re either training to work in either industry or are thinking of doing just that. While there are plenty of articles that talk about the good side, there are none that talk about the darker side of either working in computer games or visual FX. I’ve been very careful to mention no names of either people or companies in this article.

I hear it all the time….

“It must have been amazing to get paid to play games all day!”
“It must have been amazing working on a marvel movie!!”
“I’d love to have stuff on my resume like that!”
“It must be so cool to see things months or years before anyone else!”
“I’d give my right testicle to do what I love all day and get paid shit loads of money for it!”
“I’d work every hour I could and sleep under my desk to get the chance to work on that!”

Each of those very common statements I hear (and god knows there are many more) are so wrong it should be illegal. Let’s break those down one at a time and bring them kicking and screaming into the harsh bright lights of reality!

“It must have been amazing to get paid to play games all day!”

Nope, not even a little bit. You are stuck with an often bugged to fuck early version where nothing is textured, the game play isn’t in place, the shaders look like crap, that crashes if you blink wrong (or sometimes just because it’s Tuesday and the 2nd week in october). This is not like having a fully functional game that you can play on. In fact, if you an environment artist you may not even have a locked down set of terrain for the game itself for a lot of the early development and no characters at all.

I hate to break it to you that the only ones who get ‘paid’ to play games all day are the games testers. Which is to be honest a thankless job with very little real chance of getting promoted into a real 3D or programming job. (No matter what the interviewer may tell you!) Imagine having a game with 10 characters multiple armor and there is the ability to pick up random items to use as weapons. Some poor bastard has the thankless task to taking let’s say 1 particular brick and hitting every possible combination of characters and amour and positions in its animation cycle with said brick to check for bugs.

When they have finished this seemingly endless list of near identical crap…they have the same list only this time with a random bit of wood. …and that’s NOT an extreme example. After a couple of years of games testing people can end up burnt out and hating the sight of any game. Let’s say our imaginary games tester finds a huge sodding great bug that allows a person to walk through a boss level if they are holding a certain brick wearing certain armour. That’d be worth noting and you’d think that would get sorted. But NO it may not at all!

As very few companies these days have the majority of their games testers on site (or even the same country) that bug may be flagged as WNF (Will not fix). Maybe it’s a pain to fix with a potential huge knock on effect and they foolishly assume no one will ever find that bug. What can follow can be a month’s long email battle between supervisors of games testers and supervisors of the game itself to try and make them see why this bloody brick needs fixing.

If you’re doing an art role, be that working doing characters, environments, props etc… then chances are the only time you’re going to fire up the game is to test that something you’ve made doesn’t look like a complete shit covered turkey. It’ll be (hopefully) export >> fire up game (hoping it’s not having a ‘bad day’ and crash on you before it boots) >> check the things you are working on >> go back to fixing said thing. It’s about as far away from game playing fun as you can get.

“It must have been amazing working on a Marvel / DC / Whatever movie!!”

Is it cool when you see your work on a finished film that is everywhere for a few weeks? Sort of… Is it always amazing working on a film or a TV show in visual FX? Hell no! Many places have unpaid overtime. Now ‘theoretically’ you can turn down doing this…but if you do, then good luck trying to keep your job. No matter what level you’re at you are seen as disposable, if you crack at the seams, or fall apart a lot of companies will have you out of the door if it becomes too much trouble and bring in someone else.

You learn in VFX very fast that no one gives a goddamn shit what you think, no matter how good you think it’d look ‘this way’, they do not care. Would you like to know why? The answer is very simple, because it’s not your vision that you are making, it’s the director vision / producers / studio (that varies depending on the situation etc, so while some directors have a lot of power and position, others are basically hired hands brought in to make the movie the studio wants.)

While sometimes you can hit on working on a cool project for a director or art director who has damn good ideas, often you can end up with a total cock womble who has no idea how 3D actually works and doesn’t understand why it’s not possible to change an entire environment across 250 shots in a single day. Sometimes you start to wonder if you really blind as it all looks like crap to you. (Top tip: you are not ands it probably does at that stage)

VFX moves very fast and in my experience VFX 3D guys are used to working a whole lot faster than their computer games counterparts. Some of this is due to the way VFX is and other times due to the large nature of some computer game companies. (Where their very existence depends on every decision being 100% right.)

“I’d love to have stuff on my resume like that!”

This will be a short one to answer. I’ll let you in on a little secret… I probably only have credits (or even in some cases be able to mention) on about 5-7% of the stuff I’ve worked on. A credit is not always a given thing no matter how much you’ve worked on something. Some places if you leave, or drop dead at your desk then you won’t get a credit because you were not present when the game was finished. Even if you did for example 60% of all the character animations. My personal CV would be about 10,000% more awesome if I could mention or had had credits on everything I had worked on….and I am not alone in that.

Many places do not like you even having an online presence, or putting anything on your site or social media until quite frankly no one gives a flying shit. Some places do not like you doing things unconnected to them such as an interview for a 3D magazine on a private 3D model you did for fun. I once had a company get very pissy about an interview for a magazine that I’d done before I even agreed to work for them. Their excuse was ‘it may confuse people and make them think that’s what we are working on.”

“It must be so cool to see things months or years before anyone else!”

For 95% of its life a game, film or TV show looks like total crap. In fact, often I find myself not wanting to play or watch stuff I’ve worked on as to me I always remember when it looked like a hideous putrid turd visually. To bring up an analogy… If you knew someone had taken a dump in your favourite restaurant’s kitchen, it’s a good bet you’d be put off ever wanting to eat there again…no matter how many times it was cleaned. Basically, it spoils the end result, plus you’ve got used to seeing a movie in random parts or a game when it was non-functional.

“I’d give my right testicle to do what I love all day and get paid shit loads of money for it!”

In my experience VFX pays a little more than games. Games will work you into the ground. I’ve worked with guys who were so physically screwed after years in the business that they’ve had nervous breakdowns at work, fallen asleep at their desks after being made to do 18 hour days, 7 day weeks for 2 years. I’ve seen guys who have worked for years on massive IP’s become convinced (due to internal attitudes from some at the top) that they were incapable of ever getting a job anywhere else. That seems to be a technique used to keep the best artists they need without ever having to worry about them being tempted to go hunting for a better job. I’ve seen promised ‘bonuses’ for 2 years of crunch time turn out to only be for management and no one else….

…and oh…you’ll do what you love….and keep doing exactly the same thing every day for years until you grow to loathe it. But on the good side, you can get to live in amazing places and meet some wonderful people who can become lifelong friends. Just remember, everything comes at a cost. It’s just a matter of if it’s a price you are willing to pay.
“I’d work every hour I could and sleep under my desk to get the chance to work on that!”

Good, because chances are you’ll need to. If you’ve heard the stories about having to sleep under your desk, yes those are true. But while when you are a single man or woman that’s maybe not as big a deal; once you have a family then it suddenly makes it a whole lot more of an invasive thing. You don’t get to see your wife or partner very much, you’re never at your kid’s school plays or sports days. You’re never there. You’re stuck in a building making whatever the hell for 18 hours a day. Then one day you wake up and you’ll probably have no friends (they got tired of you not being there long ago), no partner (ditto) and your kids have no idea who you are other than a person they see once in a blue moon.

If that sounds extreme, it really isn’t and I’ve seen it played out so many times over my 20 plus years in 3D. This industry is a killer, it chews people up and spits them up mangled and fried. The long hours and unhealthy lifestyle also take a toll. Both physically and mentally. We are taught early on in our careers that it’s bad to mention health problems, especially mental health issues. Which is odd, as both are very prevalent in both games and VFX, it’s the problem most dare not speak of. But I can assure you that it’s there. But that’s a subject for another article.

After doing the same thing for many years unsurprisingly you eventually end up jaded and what used to be fun, is a chore. The idea of working in another country instead of filling you with excitement, now fills you full of dread. As it means not being able to spend as much time with your family, your kids, your partner or your friends. Eventually many find that it’s no longer worth the price, it’s one they no longer want to pay just to see their name on the credits of a game, TV series or movie. That’s when you call it a day on all that, you prefer to work near or from home as you realise eventually that somethings are worth more than money.

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