September 5, 1999

The Wizard Turns Out to Be an Artist

Traditional Fields of Design Are Mined For Computer Games

David T. Glenn, an architect, designs environments -- but not the kind with apartments, shopping malls and offices. His environments, where sorcerers trap the unwary and armies battle on treacherous terrain, exist within the confines of computer games.

Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
David T. Glenn, an architect, was drawn into computer-game design by the industry's need for traditional art skills. Below, two scenes from the Diablo II game.
Glenn is part of a trend in the computer game industry toward using the skills of people trained in the traditional disciplines of fine art, illustration and animation. He is a background artist, designing the scenes in which the characters play out their fantasy dramas in Diablo II, the sequel to the hit game from Blizzard Entertainment. Blizzard, based in Irvine, Calif., is owned by Vivendi S.A.

In the original Diablo, which has sold nearly two million copies since its release in 1997, a character battling evil forces can go through a simple entrance into a boxy dungeon with a shadowy background. But the new game has settings like the palace designed by Glenn; it has a dome, turrets, many entrances and elaborate architectural details, and it sits in a cityscape of shops, streets, walls and gates.

The industry push away from jerky figures and cartoonlike settings stems from leaps in computer technology and the higher expectations of the avid players who buy the most games. According to Computer Gaming World magazine, 14 percent of the buyers account for 52 percent of sales.

The stakes are high. A hit game can sell several hundred thousand copies at $50 each, and the business is growing. Software for interactive games generated sales of $5.4 billion in 1998, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y., compared with $4.4 billion in 1997.

But as sales have risen, so has the cost of bringing a game to market. It can take $2 million and 18 months for a game to reach consumers, compared with $250,000 in the early 90's.

Ron Gilbert, the creative director of Cavedog Entertainment, a game designer in Bothell, Wash., says costs have jumped because gamers won't buy a game if the artwork isn't as sophisticated as the twists and turns of the game itself.

When Glenn received a bachelor of architecture degree at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1993, jobs in architecture were scarce. He found work designing office layouts and illustrating structural concepts for architectural firms. In 1997, Maxis, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, the developer of the Simcity computer games, hired the firm where Glenn was working to help prepare the next version of the game. (In Simcity, players design, build and manage virtual cities.) For Glenn, now 28, it was a life-changing experience.

"It became apparent," he said, "that game design, specifically game environments, offered more opportunity than traditional architecture."

One big difference was financial. Glenn started with Blizzard in January 1998 and now makes about three times as much money as he did in his last architectural job. But he also found a creative outlet. Architecture is about "creating spaces in which people will do things -- live, work, play," said Glenn, who works in the company's San Mateo office, and though creating a game environment is much the same, "the game world can be anything you want."

Across the computer game industry, skills like Glenn's are in demand. A check last week of the Web sites of several leading game developers showed that all had openings for artists or animators.

"The game industry has many of the same traits as the movie industry in that each new game has to be flashier than last year's release," said Gilbert, who was a designer for George Lucas's Lucasarts Entertainment before helping to found Cavedog. And in the game business, as in Hollywood, only a few productions become hits.

Clayton Kauzlaric, the lead designer for Cavedog's Total Annihilation Kingdoms, a strategy game featuring wizards and magic, has seen the change play out in the work forces of game-design companies. "When I first started developing games, there was one graphic artist for every four programmers," he said.

"Now the ratio is four artists for every programmer."

Kauzlaric tries to find designers with both artistic and computer skills, but one of his successful hires was a commercial artist with 20 years' experience who had never used a computer as a design tool. "The artistic experience he brought to game design is not one you'd find in most programmers," Kauzlaric said.

Glenn encourages others with artistic skills to look beyond traditional jobs to consider game design.

"Depending on the success of the game, the worlds we create will be experienced by millions of people," he said.

"Not only is this satisfying in a creative sense, but it translates into far better pay."  

Home | Site Index | Site Search | Forums | Archives | Marketplace

Quick News | Page One Plus | International | National/N.Y. | Business | Technology | Science | Sports | Weather | Editorial | Op-Ed | Arts | Automobiles | Books | Diversions | Job Market | Real Estate | Travel

Help/Feedback | Classifieds | Services | New York Today

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company