Expertise and experience

One of the most common pieces of advice for someone trying to get into the industry is to specialize. Larger companies tend to have large staff that are thoroughly compartmentalized; char artists, env artists, etc. So the idea behind the advice is that instead of trying to master a wide array of subjects, you should stick to one in order to get experience in it more quickly, improving your chances of landing a competitive specific position.

I'm young enough to have first started modeling in order to mod counter-strike source. For a year or two the vast majority of my output was just guns. I became a very good gun modeler. But when it came to modeling anything organic, or even something with different forms like a car, it was like starting over again.

As I got older and counter-strike lost my interest, I finally started switching up subject matter. I still made guns, and still love to, but finally I was focusing on the entire spectrum of game art instead of one sliver.

For me, the switch was incredibly enriching. Even though I was technically an experienced modeler, I encountered a million modeling problems which my experience hadn't prepared me for. Making guns poses only a certain set of problems; in focusing only on guns, I had learned how to solve those problems like a surgeon, but I hadn't been exposed to new ones in a long time.

Quoting Max Hazerman on negotiation:
"Thinking rationally about [a problem] requires that you be able to discern [it's] most important aspects, know why they are important, and know what strategies will be most effective to ... maximize your outcome."
This is expertise - the quality of getting better results more often. It requires the ability to recognize generalities between problems that are different on the surface. An expert is more likely to get good results the first time he ever tries a specific problem, because he can apply generalized solutions to generalized problems! Someone without that abstract layer of knowledge is essentially solving the problem for the very first time. And while you can't get experience modeling every type of thing on Earth, you CAN apply expertise to any modeling problem you ever encounter. Which of course is the sentiment behind the saying:
"Jack of all trades, master of none; certainly better than a master of one."
So what do you think? If you live as a specialist, do you ever expose yourself to other sets of problems in order to improve? Will you be specializing in your niche for the rest of your career? And if you're a generalist, do you feel limited (or unemployed) by a lack of significant experience in one field? Which do you think is the stronger path in the short term - when you need a job yesterday?

Replies

  • skylebones
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    skylebones polycounter lvl 7
    In the changing landscape of today's industry, with the rise of smaller studios making casual, social, mobile, etc. I find that being a generalist has gotten me more job opportunities whereas a few years ago I had more as a specialist when it was large studio or nothing. I have found I enjoy being a generalist much more after ten years of only doing environment art.
  • Bruno Afonseca
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    Bruno Afonseca Polycount Sponsor
    I think there's space for all kinds of good workers in this industry. We have a very wide spectrum of games being made!

    I'm a generalist myself, doing mainly environment art and animation as a close second. Did a couple of PC games and a bunch of mobile ones. I usually work on different stuff at home to balance it out (and maintain my sanity).

    So, my advice is: Do what makes you happy, and do it really well. Someone will pay you for it!
  • Skillmister
    When i first signed up to PC everybody said 'be a specialist, don't be a jack of all trades'.

    I'm starting to hear more and more of the opposite as time goes on.
  • artquest
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    artquest polycounter lvl 7
    So, my advice is: Do what makes you happy, and do it really well. Someone will pay you for it!

    Fonfa is onto something here. :D

    My goal has been to become a T shaped individual in terms of knowledge and skill in 3d related topics. Deep knowledge in one area of the pipeline but the ability to do or atleast understand many areas involved in game art creation.

    This has served me well so far. When one project was finished with 3d asset creation I was able to take a rather large role in concept art and pre-production on the next.

    This is kind of a what works for you question... if you have no interest in learning other areas of the pipeline then don't because your work wont be as good if you don't love doing it.
  • DashXero
    When i first signed up to PC everybody said 'be a specialist, don't be a jack of all trades'.

    I'm starting to hear more and more of the opposite as time goes on.

    I like to look at it this way: for just about every piece of advice received, you will eventually hear the exact opposite. Both are true/valid.

    One who walks his own path never wastes his time - even if he walks to his doom.
  • EarthQuake
    One of the most common pieces of advice for someone trying to get into the industry is to specialize. Larger companies tend to have large staff that are thoroughly compartmentalized; char artists, env artists, etc. So the idea behind the advice is that instead of trying to master a wide array of subjects, you should stick to one in order to get experience in it more quickly, improving your chances of landing a competitive specific position.

    I'm young enough to have first started modeling in order to mod counter-strike source. For a year or two the vast majority of my output was just guns. I became a very good gun modeler. But when it came to modeling anything organic, or even something with different forms like a car, it was like starting over again.

    As I got older and counter-strike lost my interest, I finally started switching up subject matter. I still made guns, and still love to, but finally I was focusing on the entire spectrum of game art instead of one sliver.

    For me, the switch was incredibly enriching. Even though I was technically an experienced modeler, I encountered a million modeling problems which my experience hadn't prepared me for. Making guns poses only a certain set of problems; in focusing only on guns, I had learned how to solve those problems like a surgeon, but I hadn't been exposed to new ones in a long time.

    Quoting Max Hazerman on negotiation:
    This is expertise - the quality of getting better results more often. It requires the ability to recognize generalities between problems that are different on the surface. An expert is more likely to get good results the first time he ever tries a specific problem, because he can apply generalized solutions to generalized problems! Someone without that abstract layer of knowledge is essentially solving the problem for the very first time. And while you can't get experience modeling every type of thing on Earth, you CAN apply expertise to any modeling problem you ever encounter. Which of course is the sentiment behind the saying:
    So what do you think? If you live as a specialist, do you ever expose yourself to other sets of problems in order to improve? Will you be specializing in your niche for the rest of your career? And if you're a generalist, do you feel limited (or unemployed) by a lack of significant experience in one field? Which do you think is the stronger path in the short term - when you need a job yesterday?

    I think in reality it is very difficult to genuinely be a specialist, ie: know very little of other disciplines and actually function as part of a team in the games industry. Everything is so interconnected. To be a good modeler you need to know how rendering engines work, how geometry and texture usage effects performance, how topology effects animation, etc.

    So while I do think that in general, it is helpful to be very good at one specific task, its even better if you have a wide understanding of as many other fields as possible.

    I wouldn't really suggest that anyone focuses on *everything* though. Its better to be a master of 1 and have working knowledge of the rest than having a slightly above average knowledge of everything but be mediocre at all of it. It will be very hard to stand out and actually get jobs if you're not a total bad ass at something.

    Though with smaller studios the *jack of all trades* sort of skill set is a big benefit. Smaller studios are also excellent places to learn that sort of skill set, as you will likely be required to wear a lot of hats.

    I think more so than any specific skills or experience, critical thinking, problem solving and self critique are the best skills you can have in the games industry, which will allow you to transition through different subject matter with minimum fuss.
  • Skillmister
    DashXero wrote: »
    I like to look at it this way: for just about every piece of advice received, you will eventually hear the exact opposite. Both are true/valid.

    That goes without saying. But there is a definite switch in peoples opinions, and it's not just on PC i'm hearing it.
  • glottis8
    The way i see it... you can be specialized, or more generic. But something that you always have to try to keep in mind and expand upon is being technical oriented.

    Whatever you do, if you have a technical mind you will solve a lot more problems and be more efficient in whatever you do.

    This was mentioned above... but its sometimes overlooked. The industry is always evolving, and with it the capabilities of what we can do. You should be able to adapt to it, and that be your profile. With that you should be a stronger asset to any studio out there.

    At least that is what i believe.

    Good thread.
  • Joe March
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    Joe March polycounter lvl 10
    I always believed that you should focus on something specific but have enough knowledge in other areas to augment the main skill even more so.

    I myself am a Character Modeler, but I think having knowledge various other areas can lend itself to you even better in the field. Knowing particle effects can make your main skill look cooler, or if the character itself is posed within some kind of mini environment would help tell the story better.

    So, sure I believe that I need to focus most of my energy in one skill, but having others to make your main skill better is what I think is the winning ticket.
  • Mcejn
    So what do you think? If you live as a specialist, do you ever expose yourself to other sets of problems in order to improve? Will you be specializing in your niche for the rest of your career? And if you're a generalist, do you feel limited (or unemployed) by a lack of significant experience in one field? Which do you think is the stronger path in the short term - when you need a job yesterday?

    Most important thing I have to say about this whole topic is never.stop.learning.
  • Snader
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    Snader polycounter lvl 9
    When people talked to me about expertise and jack-of-all-trades, I usually told them something like "be decent at many things you might need, and excel in one of them". I later read that Valve takes the same approach, and calls it a 'T-person', or something similar. A wide base, and one skillset at a high level.

    What this means is that anything that might be thrown at you, you can do - albeit not perfect. This is very useful when you need to be flexible; during crunch for example. While simultaneously having a USP, a Unique Selling Point. In the case of AHH, being very skilled at guns.
  • Snefer
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    Snefer polycounter lvl 10
    Being a specialist is good for breaking into the industry, getting a first gig at a big studio etc. The smaller the studio, the larger the skillset needs to be. Its way harder to be hired as a generalist without a pretty broad portfolio and experience, obviously. But a good team needs a mix of generalists and specialists.
  • Mask_Salesman
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    Mask_Salesman polycounter lvl 8
    I've often viewed this over the years as you unlock new areas the greater your skill increases. eg;

    Props (learn basic workflow, modelling,UVs,Normals) -> Env ( modular workflow, subD -> Zbrush -> more organic env) -> Vehicles/Weapons (advanced subD,Zbrush) -> Characters (encompasses/requires all previous skillsets)

    While this may sound opposing to "The Specialist" its not, specialist just means you focus and hone one area more than the others.. This however does not mean you exclude those other areas...

    I'm not saying that ordering is absolute; Some people may specialize right off the bat into characters for example; but to succeed as a professional character artist they will need to learn those previous skillsets anyway.
    Even if some peeps choose to never go into characters they will still probably end up learning the technical aspects in their area of choice that would be used by a character artist, just excluding the anatomical studies.

    Same can be said back in the other direction, you may avoid modular env workflows specializing as a character artist but you will end up making a shit ton of modular character parts most likely so your going to learn modular workflows one way or another haha.


    So to summarize, it's more about Picking an order to learn in, never excluding unless you want to stop learning ;P

    But that's just about general learning, not about "getting in". That has a whole load of other variables to worry about along side lol.

    So all that text is pretty useless hahaha, but yeah being awesome more than someone else at something specific is a good place to start :D
  • Mark Dygert
    Specialists are people who haven't branched out and start mastering other things... yet...

    I think the end goal for most people to be really good at a variety of things. They may disagree now
    "Oh no I will always love bla bla bla for ever and ever!
    Even though they have only been doing bla bla bla for 2 years and will be working for the next 40+ years. Generally as peoples careers progress they start to get bored and try out other things and find that there is a lot of skills that cross over.

    There is a danger in spreading yourself too thin and being mildly mediocre at a bunch of things and never being "hire-able" at anything but that just means you should narrow your focus for a while so you are at least employable then you can start to branch out.

    That's just my view of it, as a guy working at a smaller studio who happens to find a lot of stuff interesting and likes to learn new things.
  • Rockley Bonner
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    Rockley Bonner polycounter lvl 6
    I personaly think that learning other skills can supplement your own skilset.
  • Nick Carver
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    Nick Carver polycounter lvl 9
    I like to work in as many areas as possible and I think the main reason that drives me to keep broadening my skillset is the idea that one day I'll have gained the necessary skills to accomplish any creative task that's put in front of me. I'm finding that the more I learn, the more I see connections between different facets of art and design. I think that once you can really understand the fundamental elements that make a piece of art successful and satisfying that you can then analyze and apply that key knowledge to a broad range of subjects. Or, that's my theory at least.

    Of course, there will always be a level of detail or minutiae that only a specialist will truly understand, but I think that an observant generalist should be able to discern the most important qualities of a subject and 'fake' the expert knowledge pretty convincingly. That's my hope, anyway.

    Personally, I just love learning about different things and I find the the experience of 'leveling-up', regardless of what I'm learning about, to be very addictive and rewarding. I don't know if it makes me more or less employable, but it's definitely the thing that keeps me interested in making art.
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