As a concept artist, my job involves designing imaginary worlds. If you’re playing a game and you find yourself blown away by the level of detail that’s been paid to the environment and the characters, remember: that stuff doesn’t happen by accident.
In order to design a world, a concept artist must lay a sturdy foundation. That foundation eventually blossoms and grows into an idea. At a certain point, the idea becomes a game with the help of many writers, editors, engineers, 3D modelers and a team of brilliant animators. Lone wolves don’t make it far in this line of work; bringing a game or a world to life is undeniably a team sport.
I come from Nanjing, the capital of the Eastern Jiangsu province of China, not far from Shanghai. Like many artists, I loved to draw as a kid. Growing up, I fell in love with Japanese animation. Later, in middle school, my life changed when I saw Star Wars. The epic, vast, detailed futuristic worlds of those films set my imagination ablaze. I asked myself sometime later, “How do you get paid to create worlds like that?”
My dream was to come to America and work for Blizzard, the company behind World of Warcraft, which had become a phenomenon where I lived. How would I make this dream come true? I spent a year learning English in China. I worked tirelessly on my portfolio to get into ArtCenter, which I was convinced was the finest art school in America. I was blessed to have a family who supported my ambitions. I traveled to Japan and learned how to speak Japanese.
I came to the United States in 2012. Three years later, I had earned an internship at Riot Games, one of America’s leading video game development and publishing companies. My internship allowed me to attend a game development conference in San Francisco. All the big companies were there – not only Riot Games, but Ubisoft, and, yes, Blizzard.
Somehow, I talked myself into a private party. There, I met the man who was to become my art director and mentor. He later would go on to do character design on Marvel movies. We hit it off, and I secured an interview back in LA. I ended up working with him for a year, soaking up knowledge about the film and gaming industries.
Meanwhile, for my own work, I was still drawing from films like the original Star Wars trilogy and The Fifth Element. I wanted everything I touched to have a kind of fantastical but grounded, organic science-fiction feel. At the end of the day, everything inspires me: the sea, the creatures who live in it, sculptures, abstract shapes, and more. The real world already exists. My goal has always been to create an imagined world that people would want to inhabit.
Creating original environments requires original thought, yet none of us are greater than the sum of our influences. Having references for your work is so important. An intense degree of minutiae goes into the creation of even a single character. What language do they speak? What do they look like? How are they different from other characters in the game? It all matters; it all comes from somewhere.
Working at Overwatch has been quite the journey. Last year, at BlizzCon – Blizzard’s annual convention where they showcase new games, projects, and character designs – the impending arrival of Overwatch 2.0. was announced. I was ecstatic. I was crying, hugging my co-workers, unable to believe that this is where my life had ended up.
The best part of all this is that I’m still getting started. Who knows where I’ll be in five or 10 years? I want to have my own game. I want to tell stories that are personal to me. I want to continue creating my own imaginary worlds. Hopefully, with the help of the amazing folks at ArtCenter and the many friends I’ve met along the way, I will be able to do just that.
BS 17 Entertainment Design
Concept Artist at Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment