Among the many creative jobs that Art Institute of Pittsburgh graduates obtain, few incite the kind of drool-worthy response that comes from saying, “I make video games.” Considering the video game industry’s $10 billion annual revenues, which puts even Hollywood to shame, the artists who craft the storylines and plot the pixels in the latest generation of PC and console games are playing to an even larger audience than Tom Cruise. Given the amount of geek chic involved, it’s no wonder that artists like Stig Asmussen (Communication Arts Multi Media, '98) consider themselves among the luckiest dudes on the planet.
“ Growing up as a kid in mid-Michigan, I was always a video game junkie,” confesses Asmussen. From playing games to analyzing them, they were as omnipresent in his life as his sketchpad. Of course, given the slacker stigma associated with gaming (as opposed to “real art”), it’s no surprise that his artistic aspirations were initially channeled into architecture – or that he would eventually be forced to admit he’d made a mistake.
“I was really into the creative design aspect [of architecture],” explains Asmussen, “but I couldn’t handle all of the technical limitations (such as physics / gravity) that go along with it. I dropped out of school and decided to find myself.”
What he found, five years later, was an unfulfilling career as a bartender and a still- unsatisfied obsession with video games. While perusing a gaming magazine late one night, he chanced upon an ad for The Art Institute of Pittsburgh and was stunned to learn he could earn a degree in computer animation. Two months later, he was living atop Mt. Washington and immersing himself in polygons.
Scoring a gig at Midway shortly after graduation, Asmussen worked on the Dr. Muto and Gauntlet properties and learned from some of the gaming pioneers responsible for Centipede, Missile Command and Paperboy.
“The industry [was organized] pretty much the way I imagined when I was at school,” says Asmussen: “a bunch of overgrown teenagers making games.”
When Midway closed up shop in San Jose, Asmussen migrated further south to Santa Monica, home to Sony. There he became the Lead Environment Artist on the popular God of War title, which was lauded by many critics as the most visually impressive game yet released for the PlayStation 2. Asmussen currently enjoys the role of Art Director on an as-yet undisclosed video game title.-
“My day consists of managing a team of artists to create cutting edge video game graphics,” says Asmussen. “This includes helping establish the ‘look’ of the title, assigning the art team to tasks and representing the art department in meetings. Ultimately, I am responsible for making sure that the art team delivers assets on time, that everyone’s work is consistent and that we are focused on the style we have established as a team.”
Asmussen says the artists he manages are a primary reason for his – and Sony’s – ongoing success.
“My team is very talented and experienced,” says Asmussen. “Each day I learn more from them individually than they learn from me. I try to understand each artist’s approach and techniques and share those with others to help solve problems.”
Asmussen’s duties also include a fair amount of work that your average teenage boy would gladly sacrifice his summer job for: playing and analyzing games.
“I watch tons of television and play tons of games,” confesses Asmussen, undoubtedly inspiring jealousy in high schools nationwide. “I not only dissect the visual aspect of games, but also the story, design, etc. I constantly ask myself, ‘Do the visuals help maintain the integrity of the story and design? Is the graphic theme consistent throughout the game?’ I often see a certain effect or visual technique used in a game that leaves an impression with me, which I then try to re-create or reverse-engineer.”
While a day in his shoes probably sounds like a dream come true for some gaming enthusiasts, Asmussen is quick to dispel the notion that creating video games is all play and no work.
“Last week alone,” he recounts, “I probably put in 90 hours. It’s gotten to the point where my wife calls herself a ‘video game-maker’s widow.’”
Despite the time crunch, Asmussen feels his results are worth the effort. While he might have achieved international fame had he carried out his original plan to design buildings in the real world, it’s likely he’d never get as big a rush as he -- and millions of his wide-eyed, trigger happy fans -- will in a virtual one.
“One thing is for sure,” says Asmussen: “I picked the right career.”