Game Arts grad Tim Nguyen on Halo Wars 2 and how to break into the games industry
BA (Hons) Game Arts graduate Tim Nguyen works as a UI Artist at the Bafta award-winning Creative Assembly, a British video game developer responsible for the 'Total War' series, 'Alien Isolation' and 'Halo Wars 2', developing games for Windows, Mac, Linux, and modern consoles including PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
We sat down with Tim Nguyen on his most recent visit to find out more about how he embarked on his professional career, what advice he has for anybody considering working in the games industry, and how to get free games from Sega.
How did you arrive at Creative Assembly after graduating from the college?
After graduating in 2014, I sent out a lot of applications to game studios. I was getting replies, but never making it to interview. I focused on spending the next year building my portfolio.
As part of our degree programme, we took a trip to Develop: Brighton, which is billed as Europe's leading game dev conference. All of the biggest game developers go there and it’s a great opportunity to make industry contacts. After Develop, I made a point of keeping in touch with the people that I’d met, until they gave me a job, basically. Without that opportunity to make those contacts, I’m not sure what my path would have looked like.
I worked really hard to build a strong portfolio, but I was also lucky when my contacts at Creative Assembly helped me to join them in a training position, as part of their User Interface (UI) team.
What did an entry-level role in the games industry look like for you?
At the time I joined Creative Assembly, the UI team on 'Halo Wars 2' had just moved in-house, after originally being outsourced. My experience isn’t typical of the industry, but I joined Creative Assembly only a couple of months after their lead UI artist did, so from the outset there wasn’t really any shadowing or formal training – I was thrown in at the deep end from day one. From that point I received constant feedback and reviews of my work from my Lead, which was instrumental in my growth as a UI artist.
One of the key things that the lead artist wanted to push in 'Halo Wars 2' was the User Experience (UX), which in simple terms covers how our choices make the player feel as they work their way through the game, when we want them to feel rewarded and when we want them to feel frustrated, for example.
The lead taught me the pillars of what they wanted to achieve through UX, and I was able to embed those needs in the layouts of the screens and menus that I was working on. It was a really excellent learning opportunity, to be trusted in that way as part of the UI team, who were always there when I needed help or support.
What advice would you give to BA (Hons) Game Arts students at the college?
I try to come back to Plymouth College of Art to talk to students every year. There are some trends that I’ve noticed, that most of the students I speak to want to become concept artists, 3D modellers, or animators. Those are three of the hardest roles to get into in the games industry. If you’re serious about working in one of those roles, you really need to specialise from the outset and practice every day.
Another way to approach your career would be to look at emerging fields in the game industry, and aim for an area that’s less obvious. This might include working towards becoming a shader artist, lighting artist, or specialising in VFX. That’s my biggest tip for anybody beginning to study BA (Hons) Game Arts – be flexible about moving into a niche role in the industry, or if you’re going for the most competitive areas then be prepared to specialise early and practice every day.
How important is experience versus a portfolio in the games industry?
Portfolios are essential when you’re looking for work in the industry. I know that typically when graduates apply for entry-level roles at Creative Assembly, their portfolio is the most scrutinised part of the application, so it has to be of a really high standard. Your portfolio represents who you are as a creative and designer, what you're capable of and how much you understand about your craft and the tools available to you.
It’s good to understand the reality of how hard it is to get a job in UK games industry. Studios like Rocksteady, who are best known for the 'Batman: Arkham' series, and Rockstar North, who are responsible for the 'Grand Theft Auto' series, are a big allure internationally, so you need to know that when you’re applying to work at studios like that, you’re competing against graduates from all over the world.
Do you have any tips for people particularly interested in UI?
For anybody thinking about working in UI, I’d recommend looking at the work of Davison Carvalho, who’s currently Lead UI Artist at Microsoft 343 Industries. His work is mindblowing, it’s very cool stuff.
If you’re interested in UI, not only should you develop a good understanding of graphic design, animation (Google Material Design is a great resource) and game design, you should consider exploring UX design also – what it does and how it does impact not only the UI but the game and users.
There's a book which is often recommended called 'Don't Make Me Think', which is a fantastic starting point for understanding UX. Later on, it’s probably also good to understand a little code, so that as an artist you’re aware of the limitations and possibilities of the tools around you.
I’m personally interested in how we can continue to push sci-fi UI forwards. There’s a trend right now for everything to be teal, and very flat, but I feel like what we’ll see a lot more of in coming years will be much more colourful sci-fi, with dominant primary colours.
Working in the industry, do you still make time to play games in your free time?
Only when I'm sat on the toilet playing mobile games! Now that I’m working in the industry, I don’t actually play that many games, because I’m working on them all day long, but I do love to play games when I have the opportunity, especially smaller quirky indie titles.
Recently I’ve also been playing 'Yakuza'. Creative Assembly is a subsidiary of Sega, meaning that I get free access to all the Sega games, which is very cool.