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Column Tomas Sala • Art schools should educate designers, not production drones

Now that the games industry has witnessed more than 9.000 layoffs this year, we have to seriously reconsider how the educational system is operating. Do we really need tons of new AAA production workers to come into the industry every year? 

I strongly disagree with the perspective that game development education should focus on AAA jobs. It seems that they are becoming more and more a place that churns out skilled laborers who are able to recreate the latest trends. But those jobs are going to be warehoused or AI fodder in the near future it seems. It’s not as if ‘24 is painting studios and publishers in a kinder light. 

All screenshots are taken from the upcoming game Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles by Tomas Sala.

I’m convinced that a large section of game training/education as a pipeline to get into the AAA industry as just another production worker, is pretty much irrelevant already. Nobody cares about that degree. I also feel that the AAA ‘warehouse’ future isn’t going to match up with a lot of people’s expectations of what they want to create. If you have the perseverance and means you can educate yourself or learn by doing.

Democratizing art

But what are all your youtube learned pencil skills or sculpting skills worth when the AI platform’s promise of “democratizing art” comes around. I mean what hard skills will you need when the AI can paint any style, model any realism or detail? You’ll be liberated and able to do more than ever, right? It’s going to be great, or is it?

I say this with the deepest sarcasm, because the vast majority of AI uses are about squeezing employees and reducing cost not expanding skill or creative domains, this is about the money, as it always has been. Hard skills cost money and if they can be replaced with machines then that’s a win win for any suit.

Reproducing trends

Let’s be blunt, the vast majority of game-art you see is reproducing the same trends. Recreating literally sometimes the same heroes and looks. Don’t even talk about photorealism, you can just buy that, little skills needed soon for any of that. AI will also wreck jobs here. 

Yes, Tomas Sala is the solo developer of Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles.

But let’s say you don’t want that. You want to actually design something new. If you live in a place where that isn’t going to bankrupt you (which is true for most of Europe still), then doing a course in art-school or a reputable academy will provide you a pathway to that.

It won’t provide you with the best current ‘hard skills’. Very true. But it will provide a time-tested environment to develop as an Artist, with a capital A. To go against the trend and mine your own creativity and that of your peers.

Not a magic skill

Classical Art schools do know how to push creativity towards new places, it’s not a magic skill. And it’s more than an appreciation of “doing things differently”. Rick Rubin calls this the creative way. It’s not about recreating what exists but feeling and exploring towards something new. And  nothing motivates a creative person better than an environment filled with other people who are also busy developing sideways rather than just forward.

I feel old fashioned deeper creative skills, like you’d pick up at an old fashioned art school,  is going to come back on its own pretty soon and it will coincide with the rise in AI art used for art production. 

No, Tomas Sala is not using any form of AI in the development of Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles

So here’s my advice: Focus on the skills that cannot be reproduced by the machine, focus on your personal artistic growth and signature, be less generic, make sure you walk away from the machine. Nay run from it! Cuz it only wants to eat you and reproduce whatever you have to offer.

Dinky indies

But I’ve seen the classical art school/academy sort of lose out to the pipeline-focused education in popularity and consciousness this last decade. The AAA industry as a lighting beacon for the best of us as it were. And booooo to those ‘old school’ art schools that deliver dinky indies with weird dinky ideas and outdated skill sets. 

But let’s be honest, AAA is so generic right now, except maybe the very tip of the iceberg.

And I’m pretty sure those ‘tip-of-the-iceberg’ AAA studios still value old school originality and old school design credentials just a tad more than yet another kid of the street who can do ‘Blizzard-style’ treasure chests perfectly.

Big AAA studios and publishers are always looking to protect their future. Giant production budgets and scope were a moat in the past. That moat is rapidly losing use, although prestige titles with celebrity casts will remain a moat. But in the future where production quality isn’t a moat anymore, but cheap and available, skills like Creativity and Originality will be a moat that is worth cherishing.

Ocean of generic AI art

I’m convinced that in this industry where AAA companies seemingly use their employees as mere production tools that can be easily discarded in order to maximize profit, there will be a demand for better, creative designers. Simply because when everybody can do ‘great’ art, it’s worth next to nothing. Simple ‘supply and demand’, if great Blizzard style art is everywhere it’s going to be worthless. 

And what will stand out in that ocean of generic AI art? People who have unique minds, unique perspectives who can put that unquantifiable ingredient into what they bring into the world: themselves and their perspective of the world. Artists, but not the ‘small a’ artists, the ones with the big A, who dare to dream differently. Creative minds with a unique signature that is tied to their name, to their brain. Minds that create oeuvres not micropayments, minds audiences want to go back to again and again. To hear their stories and be moved by their creations.

Good little cog

So, if you live in a country that doesn’t bankrupt you for higher education (and this is a huge factor) then have a good think about where you want to end up. Trying to get into some of these old fashioned reputable academies will always appeal. And sure, a portfolio will always rule, but a good design degree won’t hurt nor be a bad investment.

Let me end by saying this, a degree is not required for hard-skill learning in this industry. But there is more than that to education. There is so much more to our industry than following the rules and being a good little cog. 

It is not without reason that outside the games industry folks still revere the great art schools and academies. Because those industries already realize the value of a good mind over a good worker. To support, train and hire people to be more than a warehouse worker. 

It’s a lesson our industry seems to have not yet learned.


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