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Hey Alex, welcome to Beyond Extent and thank you for agreeing to this article! Could you introduce yourself and let us know a little bit more about yourself and your work?
Hey, thank you so much for inviting me to participate. It is a huge pleasure. My name is Alex Beddows and I currently reside as a Senior Environment Artist at Respawn. At this point I have roughly 8 years experience in the games industry, ranging from mobile to AAA and on the side I run the GDD (Game Dev Discussion) podcast where I have people of interest from the games industry on the show for a longform discussion. In case it wasn’t clear I was the kid at school who got told off for talking too much, as well as GDD I also co-host the ArtStation podcast, given talks at Vertex and View conference, Given talks at multiple universities and produced learning content for multiple platforms.
I should also mention that more recently (end of 2020 / start of 2021) I picked up photography, it has been a breath of fresh air to fall in love with a new creative medium, I mainly do street photography but love exploring interesting landscapes too!
To get us started, what’s been your most memorable video game moment and what was the title that most made you want to get started in the industry?
Jeez this is a tough one, I think the video game moment that hit me at a young age and still does to this day, Metal Gear Solid 2’s last act. The whole game has this meta narrative which I never picked up on as a 7 year old kid, but when everything starts getting trippy with the codec calls breaking the fourth wall was the first time I actually had to think past the game as something bigger. It really made me start to look at games in a new light that has stuck with me to this day.
As for the game that made me want to get started in the industry, its hard to really pinpoint but I think Gears Of War is a good start. Gameplay aside, the world is rich, the human design language, the world the locusts inhabit is so rich and full that it just made my imagination go wild thinking of what other regions would look like. As an environment artist I really love world building and I think this probably really came to life with Gears Of War first.
"...I really love world building and I think this probably really came to life with Gears Of War..."
You’re well known for your excellent material work, both realistic and stylized. What sort of materials most inspire you and get you excited these days?
I think the most important thing is making materials that don't look like materials, I like to look at an image and have no idea how it was made or be unable to reverse engineer the method of creation. It peaks my interest and makes the image more interesting to look at as I try and dissect and understand it better, also when I am doing this you tend to notice the subtle details that have been worked into the material. For example I see some concrete, with the classic designer crack shape with a clouds 2 slope blur with a really obvious flood fill type pebbles and some bog standard drips. I have understood the image in 10 seconds and thats as much time I would spend on it, at least thats how I rationalise what I find ‘interesting’ about a material.
The other side of the coin is I tend to like seeing things I have seen before, for example a brick wall, they are dime a dozen on artstation and I tend to not give them a second glance. I am unsure why that really is but I think it is because I know this material has been done astoniglishnly well by Chris Hodgson, his brickwall is my personal favourite, so I think the only time I would find a material i have seen before really interesting is when it is better than the previous exemplar.
"...I like to look at an image and have no idea how it was made..."
You’ve expressed your opinion on the ”100% Designer” mentality in the past. What are your thoughts on leveraging all the available tools at your disposal and translating personal workflows into production-friendly ones or vice versa?
Yeah that 100% substance designer mindset held my development back quite a bit, but that was because I was single mindedly solving everything with it, even if it was a square peg in a round hole. BUT I also think the utility of 100% designer is grossly misunderstood. I have seen through twitter discourse people dunk on the notion even though when an artist does it it is essentially flexing how well they know the software and how much control they have NOT ‘this is how you should make materials.’ This is a misunderstanding I had and I have seen plenty of experienced industry artists still have, and it’s a shame because through some of the wacky 100% designer materials I have made which have zero utility to a game production have taught me funky cool techniques I have actually leveraged heavily in AAA production.
All that being said, the fact of the matter is all that counts when authoring materials is Time + Quality + Utility. If you can crank out 15 zbrush sculpted materials in the time it takes to establish 1 procedural macro shape then clearly zbrush is the way, at that point the only consideration is how quickly you can iterate on that sculpt to produce change / variation. An example of why the utility component is so powerful is on the Godfall DLC I was tasked with exploring floor tile design language. So I spent a large chunk of time just establishing a graph that all i needed to do was plug in a new mask and it would spit out a close to finished material, so from that initial time investment I was able to spit out 10+ different designs plus their own variation in a day or 2. It is not a sexy answer or a hot take but the tool and workflow that works is the one that ticks them 3 boxes, time + quality + utility.
"...All that counts when authoring materials is the balance between Time, Quality and Utility..."
Your extensive material and environment portfolio has a ton of variety, and you also have other pieces which are explorations into other interests and learning ambitions, such as lighting studies and ZBrush heavy scenes. How do you personally balance learning new software versus showing off what you know and using that technology to its fullest?
I tackle this in a very pragmatic way, it all starts with what my aim is. I am not the kind of person to always be interested in the next big tool, what pushes me to learn something new is if I am lacking in skills that I will need for a future role I desire. Zbrush as 1 example, I had spent so long in procedural tools land that my skill set for producing organic assets like rocks via traditional methods like Zbrush was sorely lacking and when you see the standard set by artists at a lot of the big studios such as Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica, Respawn and so on I knew there was a lot of room for improvement. I think this kind of pragmatism is the best way to tackle the ‘learning new skills’ conversation as you have real reasons to do these things which is a much more powerful motivator compared to ‘cause it looks cool’.
On the flip side to that with regards to showing your use of software to its fullest potential, there is a good reference point we have all heard, ‘be T shaped’. And this is something I strongly believe in. Take me as an example, my portfolio showcases a wide variety of skills such as: prop art, level art, material art, lighting, shaders, zbrush sculpting, procedural tech among others, but quite clearly I have much more expertise in materials and I have confidence in tackling a material with the variety of methods I have picked up over the years. Being aware of where you are and what you are doing is key to see if you have boxed yourself into a pretty tight niche or if you are a complete generalist and can’t be an authority on a certain medium….both of which are completely fine but I personally do believe T shaped artists are the most viable way of assessing your skill set.
Having worked for Counterplay Games- which is a worldwide remote studio- and now for Microsoft’s The Initiative, based in the US: do you prefer the work-from-home lifestyle and what lessons do you think there are to be learnt from the past two years that the industry could look to adopt?
This is a tricky one, if you had asked me this question 12 months ago I would of told you I hated it. I am a very extroverted social person and being in the studio is a lot of fun for me as my peers tend to also be my close friends, so the isolation and lack of social interaction really took its toll on my mental health. But that being said, I now have a different take on work from home. The way I see it is as an individual I have to be far more diligent to make plans to go see friends, get out and relax, I am a bit of a work-a-holic so my default mode is to wake up, sit at my pc and work until I go to sleep (which I did through 2020). So I have to really go out of my way not to fall into that default habit, but since countering it and seeing people more I have have really found my groove with work from home and actually enjoy it a lot, maybe its also healthy to have friends not 100% tied to my place of work in terms of having some detachment from work and having other interests other than the day job.
In terms of this new WFH world we are in and what studios can learn from, I think they could really look to ArtStation on how they can help build a healthy company made up of in house and WFH employees. ArtStation has 2 offices, and twice a year they would all get together in one place to have key conversations and generally bond as a team. This is a great way to help those who WFH feel like they are part of something bigger as well as helping those in the office put people to the names on Teams or Slack.
As a self-taught artist, is there anything you can recommend to younger people looking to go down the same path and are trying to make the decision between formal education and self-learning?
It is no secret I have my issues with higher education in general but more specifically game art…
The fundamental issue I have is we shouldn’t be trying to monetize young peoples education and turn it into a business where profit is more important than the quality of education these institutions provide. I am in the UK and it costs roughly 9,000 GBP per year of university and it is way higher for those in the US. This is a huge amount of debt and if I look at what the student comes out with on the other side, I am sorry I cannot justify the cost. If you put a tiny fraction of that cost into tutorials and mentorships I think you would be way further ahead. For game art, university courses are so generalized that it makes it impossible for students to get into the weeds of the info they require to get into the industry without doing a ton of work in their own time to get to a point where they can even attempt to enter the industry.
But, I do see value in university, not for artists but students in general. It is great for those people who need to get away from home, find their independence and start to take the first steps of adulthood while still having some sort of structure and safety net around it. Another point I see made is the visa element, where a university degree makes moving to the US easier, this is true,it does. But again it is not the only option. You can do a lot in your own time to position yourself in a place to have a successful visa application and now with remote work becoming a permanent fixture this point has been reduced in validity dramatically.
This is all really valuable to those who need it, but the question is if this experience is worth thousands of pounds of debt to receive, and in my honest opinion no...it isn’t.
"...You can do a lot in your own time to position yourself in a place to have a successful application..."
Following up on this topic, what do you think of the growing number of mentorships in the industry? As a mentor for the Dinusty Empire and Skilltree yourself, do you think those looking to grow and progress in their careers could benefit from the one-on-one “master-apprentice” relationship of traditional art in days past?
First and foremost I think it is great, and we have people like Josh Lynch with the Mentor Coalition to thank for this. He really showed artists there is a way for us to put our knowledge to good use and offer a viable alternative to the higher educational model which is more affordable, higher quality and more personalized.
I mentor via DiNusty and more recently Skilltree and I do think it is a new space that still has some growing pains to be worked out, its new and young artists are still figuring out how to use them, and sometimes they make mistakes. I have given a lot of refunds where someone has paid for a mentorship for me to teach them the very fundamental basics of Substance Designer, it is actually what led me to create this blog -
A mentorship is still a big chunk of money and there is so much free or cheap great tutorials out there, I was saying to those I refunded to go check these out, then come back because then they will get way more value out of the mentorship.
With regards to the master-apprentice reference. In some ways but then not in others, our industry is unique where the tech moves so quick that a student may know a hot new software better than the mentor which is a funny dynamic in of itself. But where I think the reference is apt is in the personal dynamic between the two.
The purpose of the mentorship is not just learning hard skills, if anything that is the least valuable part as you can get hard skills knowledge from the tons of great tutorials online. Its in the empathy and guidance of the mentor, listening to the mentee and understanding their circumstances and helping them forge their own path. I would never as a mentor try and tell every mentee to do how I did as if our careers are cookie cutters that can be copy and pasted. This is the exact reason I dislike the university route. We will figure out where you want to go and with my experience will try and set you on the right pathway, and the hope is in a year or so I get a message that you got to where your destination was, not because I gave you the magic formula, or a contact to give you an ‘in’, but because you take the guidance, applied it and forged your own way to the industry.
"...It's about listening to the mentee and understanding their circumstances and helping them forge their own path..."
You’ve previously spoken about managing mental bandwidth. Do you think this is a skill more creatives need to invest in, given the extremely competitive nature of the industry? Are there any methods which you personally employ which you think might be beneficial for others?
YES! God as an industry we need to reframe how we see ourselves and how we perceive mental health.
I see a lot of big sweeping ideas about mental health and time management and things along these lines as if they are binary things and they really are not… we are individuals with complex lives, situations and circumstances that go into what makes up the condition of our mental health. I prefer talking about mental bandwidth as it pertains to the idea that we all have different stress tolerances and circumstances and as individuals we need to understand these things better so we can be more productive without sacrificing our own health for it.
The reason this all came was from an interaction I had last year, It is no secret I like to work, I like to be busy and have a generally high capacity to work. And someone reached out to me feeling pretty down on themselves because they was looking at what I and a few others was doing and comparing themselves to me as if they are not being all they could be, and this really cut me up. The way I rationalised it was we are all different, to the outside it looks great that I can work tons and be really productive, but the flip side is I find it near impossible to relax, how do you think that plays out in my personal life with friends, family and my wife. I have my own challenges to deal with and so do you, and thats the key to this whole idea, understand yourself better then you can make educated decisions to move forward.
"...As individuals we need to understand these things better so we can be more productive without sacrificing our own health..."
I see you’ve recently taken up photography as a hobby- what brought about this interest for you, and do you think it’s important for artists to pick up something they enjoy away from the 3D world?
So photography is this weird thing for me, it has multiple origins and rationale behind it. The biggest motivator was my long term career goal, it feels weird to say this because I used to think it was egotistical but in reality there is nothing wrong with having ambition and goals, but I want to be an Art Director / Creative Director one day. And in the pursuit of that goal I wanted to improve my artistic eye and understanding of creating pleasing images, so I picked up photography and I just fell in love with it as soon as I tried it.
I have loved being a complete novice again, where every little mistake is a huge learning point and I can really see my growth from shoot to shoot, in any outlet this progression soon slows down as the improvements become smaller and smaller, but as of right now I am in that honeymoon period and I love it!
One other nice surprise is the lack of pressure that comes with it. When I produce game art or 3D it has this added self imposed pressure that it is my career, and what ever expectation comes with 3d work being produced by a professional. Because I have detached any of the photogrammetry elements from my photography to purely focus on the act of taking photos it feels very liberating to just post things without expectation, to do it purely for me without worrying if this studio or that studio is going to like this body of work. Truly a breath of fresh air.
Is there any upcoming tech you’re itching to try and put into practice?
To be honest no, tech doesn't really spark me into action, there are creative ideas I want to pursue in both photography and 3D but that gets me going more than the next hot tool. The kind of things upcoming from me that excites me is diving more into the photography world, cinematography and really diving into authoring collections that really belong together to help express my artistic taste further!