In the first in a series of Q&As with The Creative Assembly team, we talk to Kevin McDowell, lead Artist on the Total War series.
Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your role at The Creative Assembly?
Hi. I’m Kevin McDowell, I head up the art effort on the Total War games at CA. I moved to the UK from Canada in 1997, and started working at CA in 2000. I got british citizenship in 2004.
What is your artistic background and how did you first get into the games industry?
Like a lot artists, I was interested in art from a very young age. I went to a specialist high school for the arts in Toronto, called Wexford Collegiate Institute. This more or less cemented my commitment to doing something creative. After a two year detour studying architecture at university, I worked as a freelance illustrator. I was interested in games and the potential that they were showing. In 1995 I took a course in Softimage. This was back when 3d was way too expensive for a home PC. From there I started working in games.
How long have you been at The Creative Assembly and what is it like to work there?
I’ve been at CA for over nine years. I’ll qualify for a gold watch soon. It’s a good place to work. The projects are interesting and it’s a good bunch of people to work with. Recommended.
Which games have you worked on to date?
At the Creative Assembly, I’ve worked on Rome Total War, RTW: Barbarian invasion, various TV programmes using the Rome engine and Empire: Total War.
How many different specialist areas are there in the art department?
Technical art, character art, animation, user interface, movies/video, environments, fx, art direction. So, to answer your question pedantically: eight.
Would you recommend any particular training, courses, programs or books to people interesting in becoming an artist?
No. There are many paths to becoming an artist, the main factor is your desire to create fantastic (functional) art. You can lock yourself in a basement for three years and emerge with a fantastic portfolio and all of the skills that you need to break in to the industry. It’s a matter of seeking out the information that you need, getting good feedback and improving your work. A university/college course may or may not help you achieve these things. What’s going to carry you forward is your passion for the art. Start up an account at polycount or cgsociety to get feedback and to see what other people are working on.
Any tips when building a portfolio?
Work hard. Be critical. Your best bet is to focus on one area as this will give you the depth of skill that you require to break in to the industry. Post your work up online, and listen carefully to comments and criticisms, and revise your work as appropriate. Every artist can improve. If you are interested in being a 3d artist, most jobs are in environment /prop design, not characters. Breaking in as a character artist may be very difficult! There’s a lot of really glossy high poly Z-brush and Mudbox work all over the net…don’t even bother looking at that until your low poly work is rock solid.
Finally, have you got any other advice or messages for those wanting to break into the industry?
A great portfolio will get you in to an interview. The rest is about you. Show your willingness to learn and your understanding that the projects goals are paramount – doing those undesirable tasks that actually allow a game to land on the shop’s shelf. For a 3d artist this is technical work such as making collision geometry and adding triggers, cleaning up mocap etc.