September 5, 1999
The Wizard Turns Out to Be an Artist
of Design Are Mined
For Computer Games
By STEPHEN C. MILLER
avid 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.
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
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.
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
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
"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."