Video game artists thrive in Bay Area | KALW

Video game artists thrive in Bay Area

Dec 10, 2014

If Vincent Van Gogh lived in the Bay Area now rather than the Netherlands in the 19th century, maybe he would have been a popular video game designer instead of a withdrawn oil painter. Starry Night could have been a virtual reality space exploration, aliens included. Take it from video game artist Ocean Quigley. 

“I wanted to be able to paint like a 19th century master, and of course, that was an absurd proposition,” he says. “Then I came to the Bay Area and realized there was a whole, new art form being born around computer games.”

He soon found himself immersed in a mainstream industry in which quiet, well-behaved gallery wanderers were replaced by young, diehard gamers screaming obscenities at their screens.

Now, “starving artist” might be a cliche, but no one makes references to a “starving game artist.” Ocean Quigley is doing quite well for himself, thank you very much. I see for myself when I visit his studio up in the Oakland Hills.

“It's an old carriage house,” he says. “The house is about 100 years or so, converted into a painting studio with skylights and a wood floor.”

Quigley’s studio is filled with canvases, paintbrushes, and epic landscape oil paintings. And then there’s his Mac, some scanners, and big, fancy monitors and tablets.

“All the paraphernalia for digital arts. I spend part of my time at the big corporate studios in Electronic Arts, where I'm an art director and creative director,” he says.

Logging on

When Quigley was growing up, he wanted to be an oil painting super star. The programming? He did that quietly.

That was in the nineties, when video designers were seen as the guys who drew Italian plumbers jumping from pixelated mushroom to pixelated mushroom for no apparent reason. But such nerdiness was on its way to becoming a seriously lucrative profession, and, like Mario, Quigley took the leap.  

“I took a job working for Maxis as a senior artist, which is saying something about how young the industry was at that point,” he says. “That some kid who dropped out of art schools repeatedly could just get a job as a senior artist. I was able to do that because I was just a few years ahead of everybody else with computer graphics.”

Quigley soon began designing SimCity and then The Sims, which went on to become one of the best selling video games of all time and launched the official language of “Simglish.” In both games, players get to make their own worlds and create their own characters. 

Last year, MOMA opened a gallery exhibition featuring some of Quigley’s work for The Sims along with Pac-man, Tetris, and Portal

“Games have gotten so huge in our culture that they get some attention from high brow, high art conceptual thinkers,” says Quigley.

In the detective game L.A. Noire, for example, players must look into character’s carefully designed eyes to see if they blink or move suspiciously. 

In Limbo, characters and enemies are artfully represented only by dark silhouettes. It’s eerie. 

Even concerned parents can appreciate Grand Theft Auto’s beautifully rendered prostitutes, assassinations, and fancy cars.

“There's a lot of jobs,” says Quigley. “You can make a really good career out of it where you can afford a house in the Bay Area and raise a family. These things are really hard for people sticking to oil painting in a gallery world.”

The Industry Standard

As game design earns the respect of the art world, it’s starting to make its way to universities. James Morgan, a Digital Media Art teacher at San Jose University, says, “If we were to take and open up a program that said ‘game design’ on it we could fill it very easily. Every institution knows that, and some institutions are taking advantage of that.”

About 100 video game studios call the Bay Area home, from the people who made Pac-man to the brains behind Rock Band. But everybody’s not a winner. Disney recently shut LucasArts, the studio responsible for Star Wars and Indiana Jones games. Major studios like Irrational, Junction Point, and Team Bondi have also closed doors. Even Electronic Arts laid off 1,000 of its employees from 2013 to 2014.

Morgan tries to be realistic with his students.

“Most of them won't be able to get a job in the industry, so they should be prepared for that. If they want to continue to do game development, they should have a way to do it. And that's the indies,” he says.

Angelica Cabanlit is playing a game she helped produce, called Taking Candy From a Baby. She made it for the 2014 Global Game Jam, for which participants were given 48 hours to make a game. In Cabanlit’s  game, players must figure out who took candy from the baby by wandering around and searching for clues. 

“So, that's the secretary,” she tells me as we browse the game. “Then the ant eater. We have a horse. And then a duck. These are all the people that are like working for the company that could have taken the cookies. We just have to figure out which one did it.”

Cabanlit is president of the San Jose Game Development Club, and she says anyone can get involved. English majors give ideas for the games' storylines. Child development majors help make the game child-friendly. Biology majors want to create virtual realities depicting the life cycles of frogs or evolution. 

“I don’t believe there’s anyone who can’t participate in this club because anyone can play a game,” she says. “If you’re throwing a rock into a hole, you’re playing a game.”

Game art is the only world Cabanlit feels she's got a shot at. 

“I believe game making is more accessible art or even those smaller niches because games are meant to reflect something in the world. I mean, think of like the simplest game like Pokemon. You're collecting stuff, right? That's the basis of it. Everyone can collect stuff. That's why I like games: it connects to people in a broad sense.” 

The Studio Artist

Back in his studio, Quigley is painting a landscape. But he knows the world cares more about The Sims than his landscape of Mount Diablo.

“People like painting, but they don't love it in the same way that people seem to love video games,” he says.

When Quigley shows off his oil paintings in galleries, the most he’ll get is that polite, golf match style applause. With video games, he says, “when I'm finishing up a project, and showing the world what it is I'm doing, I'll get mail from random people ranging from death threats to offers of marriage.” 

When Quigley puts his last brush stroke on a painting, it’s done. And it just sits there. Try getting the The Girl with the Pearl Earring to jump from one mushroom to the next, and she won’t listen. But turn on The Sims 5, and you can choose your character’s hairstyle and muscle mass, build their charisma points, and send them to law school. An artist may have designed the characters, but the player gets to tell the artwork what to do next. For that reason, game art is an art that refuses to stand still.