Hey Clinton, welcome to Beyond Extent and thank you for making some time in your busy schedule for us today! Could you introduce yourself and let us know a little bit more about you and your work?
Hey! I am happy to - My name is Clinton Crumpler and I am the Creative Director and Head of Dekogon Studios. I’ve worked my way up over the past 12 years within the gaming industry as an environmental artist to be where I am today. I have previously worked at Microsofts’ The Coalition, Bethesda Austin, Midwinter Entertainment, and Kixeye along with various other game studios and freelance contract gigs. My passions throughout my career have been mainly focused in environment scene building, art direction, and shader development. My favorite things to focus on in an environment are history and storytelling - I love the ability to tell stories through my work as well as have fellow artists make their own renditions through how they perceive my work. So far my favorite project I have been on has been Gears of War as a Look Development Artist. It allowed me a chance to work in multiple facets of development to promote the style of Gears. While growing up some of my favorite games were Fallout 1 and 2, Final Fantasy 7 and Tactics, and ToeJam and Earl.
After completing a traditional 4 year bachelor’s degree I started my career in graphic design, but I soon found I was really interested in game development and 3D. I decided to pursue additional schooling to get a secondary bachelor’s degree in Animation and then a Master’s in Interactive and Game Design from Savannah College of Art and Design. After leaving school I got my first real game development job with the Army Game Studio where I worked on America’s Army.
Throughout all of my previous experiences I have encountered positive and negative impacts in relation to game development, but the people I have worked with and the memories I have made during the thick of development have shaped me into the person I am today. This promoted me to want to continue to work with and lead creative teams of my own and to open my own development studio with a focus on art construction and development.
"...I love the ability to tell stories through my work..."
What does your studio - Dekogon Studios - look like internally? What do you all do?
Dekogon Studios is composed of contract artists who work on projects for clients on a per-project basis. The types of clients range from game development, VR simulations, commercials, virtual backgrounds, app development and more. We, as contract artists, primarily focus on the Unreal Engine as our tool of choice, but are skilled to do contracts in other engines if required. Our community is composed of artists from all over the world.
What led to the idea for an outsource studio composed of experienced industry veterans? Did this evolve over time or was that your vision from the start?
This was a very natural transition actually. It came completely out of the blue and almost organically. We started making content for the marketplace with some of our close friends in the industry and continued to recruit talented referrals along with other artists that wanted to work with us. This grew quickly and we were able to cultivate quite the large group of super amazing and talented people that were very passionate about the craft. It truly took form once we gave our team a name and created our discord community which helped to form a bond between its members and artists.
To me, the biggest goal was to promote good art from good people - no matter where you were in the world, what your background was, or where you had worked previously. If your skill level and quality of work was high then we felt it was a great partnership to work alongside like-minded people.
"...The biggest goal was to promote good art from good people - no matter where you were in the world..."
Originally, what was your process like starting Dekogon from a financial standpoint? Did you reach out to other artists and generate interest in collaboration and branch out from there?
From a financial standpoint we didn’t have more than our normal day-to-day paycheck that we all made with standard jobs to start the company. Most of our first artists and content creators were based on commission. This allowed us to start small and continue to grow from there.
What was your biggest hurdle when it comes to running your own company that you think others, maybe looking to do the same, should be aware of?
I think the biggest challenges were understanding tax laws, business laws, and multiple other administrative rules and regulations that must be adhered to as a company. It's important for long-term growth to keep track of all projects and contracts being worked along with tracking payments coming in and out of the business. There is definitely a learning curve for a person who has just come from an artistic background that may not realize all of the strenuous requirements needed to run a business successfully. A main obstacle that artists struggle with is the assumption that their ego will make them successful as a business owner. Modesty along with the support of your fellow coworkers and peers will provide the most longevity to growth of not only your own happiness but everyone around you as well!
Another major bit of advice is to never burn bridges. Many clients and/or contract artists are recurring members of Dekogon. Building trustworthy relationships and repertoires with people are the building blocks of a successful business. Developing trust will allow communication and the workflow to run much more smoothly. Disagreements are not to be taken personally, but should be looked at as learning experiences and opportunities to work together as a team to create a mutual ground of understanding. Dekogon is just that, a team. It wouldn’t function as well as it does without the team of skilled artists working together as a family.
Business is definitely not for the faint of heart. It has the potential to be a huge risk and heavy burden, but when you find success not only for yourself but for everyone involved it can be an extremely rewarding experience.
How did you find your processes and workflows had to adapt to start working on larger titles and with AAA studios over time?
Every studio works differently - I found that having worked for many different studios myself, ranging from mobile to AAA, I had a firm understanding of most of their general practices and methods to art creation and outsourcing. Also working with outsourcing myself with multiple studios from the in-house perspective, I was able to understand the process that studios took to effectively create art and content with external vendors.
As an outsourcer it's important to realize what your client wants in the end. Do they want flexibility and high-quality art? Is it more about a tight deadline for them? Do they have preferred tools you use? All of these important questions play an impactful role in working as an outsource group to ensure the client is satisfied with the work you produce.
"...As an outsourcer it's important to realize what your client wants..."
Have you noticed any significant changes in the outsource industry since the time you started Dekogon?
Of course! We work in an extremely fast-paced industry where things constantly change. When we first started posting our work for purchase on the Unreal Marketplace there were less than 500 listings. With the globalization of the industry there have been many more teams and groups available worldwide. Covid has made a significant impact in the readily availableness of jobs opening within this industry. Contract artists, as many others during this pandemic, are opening up to the idea of working from home. Studios are recognizing the quality of work being generated by a team of global artists working from their basements, bedrooms, and offices. It's a very interesting time to be a freelancer or OS group as there are so many projects and tech changes that are happening right now.
I think we will start to see a lot of emerging trends with studios having more focus aimed towards tools such as Unreal Engine. Before it was all based on game development whereas now studios are working with Unreal Engine to produce commercials, films, simulations, and all sorts of other projects. This will in turn lead to OS studios that specialize in these types of projects.
How much time do you dedicate to the more administrative side of the business? Do you prefer to be in the thick of things with the production team, or have you stepped back to assume a more managerial role out of necessity?
When we first started I tried to balance my time about 50/50 between production and administration. I soon realized, as a business owner, that running a successful studio means working directly with clients more so in an administrative role. Your attention quickly adverts to many of the administrative tasks that are required to keep the wheels running smoothly during production. This has caused me to balance my focus on production to about 20-25% and the remaining 75-80% on administrative tasks. To be honest, I do often miss working in production. I love having the opportunity to work alongside talented artists to generate content.
As Studio Head, what are you looking for in an environment artist's portfolio? Are there any particular skills that you think could be focused more upon in general in the industry at the moment?
This is a great question! One thing I often tell my students about portfolios is your portfolio is the BEST you can do. As an employer, I look at portfolios as a representation of the best quality I could expect to receive. I also keep in mind that, on average, I will most likely get 75-80% of this quality of work. This is only natural. Can anyone truthfully say they have never spent too much time on a portfolio piece to ensure it was just right (far beyond what would normally be considered a reasonable time limit and budget to spend)? This is completely normal and something that most good artists tend to do. However, on a time limit while working with a client you need to keep a stern eye on schedule to complete the content. This means that the last bit of detail and polish you would normally be able to add just isn't alloted.
When viewing an artist's portfolio one of the first things I look for is attention to detail. I love seeing a wonderful roughness map with nice light showing off the surface of an object. Such careful attention to subtle details, such as wood grain following the right direction or having part lines between metal or wood panels, really shows that the artist is aware of their craft and has paid careful attention when creating the asset as compared to its real-world counterpart.
Another thing I look for are red flags such as texture seam lines, broken normals and poor PBR values. These are all things that will immediately catch my eye in a negative way and typically push me to move on to the next candidate.
Dekogon will often provide paid art tests to artists. More often than not it's purpose is to test general understanding for the whole package - does the artist know how to submit a clean file submission? Do they understand PBR values? Do they know how to properly use hard and soft edges for baking? All of these requirements can easily be hidden with a good render in Marmoset, so a test is often the only direct way to find out the artist's technical and organizational skills.
In terms of the focus for artists, there are a lot of trends right now in need. I would say a healthy blend of knowing some tech and art is always useful. Tech artists are extremely useful on any project and the more you can wear both hats the more useful to a team you will be. Things like Houdini, virtual set production, cinematography and shader development are all highly underrated skills that are actually quite valuable right now within our industry and we are noticing the artists housing these specialties have a much easier time finding work and jobs than the average artist.
There was previously a huge boom in artists learning Designer and while I think it's a super useful tool and the artists that are good with it always amaze me - it's good to not put all your eggs in one basket. There are a very limited number of roles that provide jobs for just creating textures and surfaces all day and with so many people flooding the market looking to use those skills I would suggest to new artists to diversify their skill set. Oftentimes when hiring at Dekogon I get a lot of applications from artists with nothing but nice texture sphere previews on their portfolio. While the work might be great, it doesn't showcase any other skills which pushes me to look elsewhere for someone with a more well-rounded skill set such as sculpting, asset production, and/or environment art asset experience.
"...Such careful attention to subtle details really shows that the artist is aware of their craft..."
You work with a range of artists and talents ranging from small to larger teams. Any thoughts on things an artist should be aware of when working with larger teams or things you notice as no-nos with artists? Things that are different for artists working with bigger clients?
Yes, of course. There are always a lot of changes that have to be considered when transitioning from working solo or in a smaller team to working alongside a larger team or in a group setting. At times, managing creative control can be a bit of a shock for artists working in groups for the first time as they are used to having all the creative control they want. Many times you find artists struggling with disagreements about how something should look or how it's made because they are used to a particular style or way they have done it before. Although you have full creative control of your own work, when working for a client it is important to remember their word is the final word. While you can often make suggestions as to process or look, it's truly down to the person spending the money that gets to decide.
One of the most influential things I have ever heard from a former team member of mine was to never be precious; meaning don't get too attached to the art that you take feedback or changes personally. As a commercial artist, it's important to remember that while it's fun and dandy that we get to make art for a living, it is still a service and a job that someone is paying for and we have to maintain a level of professionalism and responsibility to commit to the job we were paid to complete.
One other important thing to remember along with this is to also be flexible. I have heard many artists I have worked with in the past say things like, “I made it this way because I think it should be done this way” or “well it's already been done this way.” If the client or project has a change in course/direction/the way things are made/needed, the bottom line still remains, it has to be done to their terms if they are the ones paying for that time and service. Again, offering suggestions for resolution is always fine but simply telling the client, “I did it this way instead against your instruction” is not acceptable. Being flexible not only shows maturity, but a level of professionalism. Being able to demonstrate these qualities will help you to find that people will want to continue to want to work with you again and again.
Lastly, having a positive attitude goes a long way. Everyone has bad days or works on tasks they sometimes don't want to. Being able to work with others in a way that showcases you as a positive person and pleasant coworker will go a long way with employers! People will remember and may lead you to future job opportunities! Word of mouth is very important within this field.
How do you see Dekogon growing in the coming years, given that your client list has grown outside the world of games to include architectural visualization and projects for traditional media like Fox Sports?
My heart is and always will be in game creation. It's just a media that I have a lot of passion for and while Dekogon Studios has taken ventures outside of that space I think we'll continue to focus on and push towards the further development of games and game content as our main passion.
"...It's important to remember that while it's fun and dandy that we get to make art for a living, it is still a job that someone is paying for..."