Every piece of artwork has a story behind it, not just a story of creativity but also a story filled with challenges, struggles and determination against all odds!
Amanpreet Bajwa, our next pathbreaker, Environmental Artist, works on Assets, Environments & Terrains including the technical parts of game development for AAA games for PC, Xbox & PS4.
Aman talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his first brush with mobile games and animation, which kick-started his self-learning journey in the world of gaming.
For students, as entertaining and as glamorous as it sounds, a career in gaming is built on tenacity and resilience, because it is a very niche industry with immensely creative professionals !
I want to start with a little disclaimer that everything I achieved till now is through trial and error. I kept trying and trying different things until I landed on the right track. Sometimes you need to get lost to be found. I am sharing my journey in brief, I hope you find something useful. My main aim from this interview is to motivate you as well that If I can do it then you as well.
Aman, what were your early years like?
So, I am a 3D Environment / Game Artist working in the Video Game industry since March 2017. I have worked on multiple AAA console, PC and mobile game titles. The Walking Dead, Forza Horizon 4, Epic’s Unreal 5 Valley of the Ancient Demo, Hunting Simulator are some of my notable contributions. You can check out all my work at ArtStation – Amanpreet Bajwa
I come from a small town called Mandi Gobindgarh, Punjab and was born in a small farming family. I was always interested in art, I believe I got it from my mother. I used to participate in Drawing, Writing, Music and Dance, all extracurricular activities. Though I was average at studies, I was known for drawing and often punished for making graffities and doodles in school on blackboards, desks and walls.
I believe I got interested in games when my uncle gave me his Sony Ericson phone filled with games. I had played Nintendo games before, but this was very fascinating to see all sorts of games in hand. Later, when PlayStations came, I used to go to these game arcades and watch people play games. We didn’t have money to buy games, so me and my brother used to help others finish the levels and find the way. I played games at my friend’s home on their computers. Sometimes, they used to take me with them to play co-op games at the arcade where we played Burnout, WWE, Taken, FIFA etc. God of war, Prince of Persia and Burnout were my initial inspiration to be in the games industry.
Computers were another part of my life. We were introduced to computers in 9th Standard when the government made computer education compulsory for kids. I got very much interested in computers. There was so much to learn and explore. There also, I used to make doodles in MS paint. I used to bunk the class and give excuses to be at the computer lab. I used to help the juniors with their exercise, so the teacher also did not mind. She was supportive as well.
One day I found an article in the career section of a newspaper about a career in Animation. It had Pixar movie characters and talked about the animation industry. I decided that I will pursue that career in spite of having zero knowledge about the industry, though I knew how to morph faces in photoshop! I knew that animators did artistic stuff with computers.
What did you study?
I did a diploma in computer science where I learned some coding and some web development. At the end of the course, there was a little section for graphics for websites where they used photoshop.
That’s where I got my hands on photoshop. Until then, I thought that not everyone could get access to the software we use. They provided all the software and study material in the CDs and USBs.
Remember! This is when there was 2G and not everyone used to have multimedia phones. I neither had a computer nor the internet. So, I asked the institute and friends if I could use their PCs to learn. I started teaching computers privately to young kids so I could earn a little and get my hands on computers. I had a part time job of Data entry as well where I used to spend time learning things from blogs and articles.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I wanted to do an animation degree, but there was no local college which had this course. Also, the fee was very high. I thought of getting into a government college for computer science, but I didn’t give the entrance exam as a backup, so that was not possible. Someone suggested that I take this Animation and VFX course from a college which had a tie up with IGNOU for a bachelor’s degree. It was 2011. I got the admission and that’s when I got my first laptop as well. Though not so powerful, it did the job. I still have it at home. I don’t have a count of the hours I spent on that. My family got irritated with mouse clicks all day and night. I was in a 3D Animation related course in which I learned all about producing 3D Animated films.
Around the start of my third year, the college introduced a game-dev course which I asked if I could join, but it was not possible to switch courses. I was discouraged a little and discussed this with others. Then, one of my seniors talked to me and introduced me to tutorials. That word was new to me. I bought a HDD and he filled it with tutorials, software and study material. I wish someone had introduced me to these in school and given me access to the internet. That would have been a different scenario. From there on, my journey of self-learning began. Though we graduated in 2014, we passed out with a vague idea of the things. It was a new concept in careers and so I don’t blame them. I understood this very well when I graduated.
I started watching more tutorials and started learning from those. I was good at learning by myself, and I learned a lot from the videos. I got my first Android phone in 3rd year and my friends had wifi. I used to leave my phone at their house to download youtube videos of tutorials. 3D Buzz, Arrimus3D, Unity channel, Digital tutors were my first source of learning in my Game dev journey. I learned to code a bit and re-made a few small android games like Space Invader, Mario, Chrome Dino game to learn to make games. I specialized in Rigging and Animation for my graduation. So I had a mix of knowledge in all aspects.
“I want to reflect here that learning without producing output is a waste of time. Learn a thing and then create something out of it. I was watching tutorials, like the latest season of a TV series. You don’t need to learn everything. Just make your fundamentals strong. No one expects you to be a master on your first job. Just be patient and ready to learn.”
Tell us about your career
It was not an easy journey. I had only one chance to show that I could do this, and I want to do it. But the job market had something else in mind. I was a jack of all trades, and it was difficult for me to find a job because companies wanted a specialist. Also, jobs were more in the fields I was not interested in, and less less in the Games industry I started to think that if I wouldn’t have gotten admission in Animation, my father wouldn’t have sold his land to send me to college. I started to doubt myself, thinking I wasted all the money and could not find a single job.
When I was looking for a job, I realised that I still lacked the skills and that I was not fully ready for the industry. I believe it is the same story for most of the engineering students as well, which concerns me a lot. Occasionally I think about changing this. So basically, nobody knows how things work and what skills you need to reach where. It was a lucky throw for me. Though I learned a lot, I still lacked direction. I stopped thinking about games and started working towards getting a job, any job. I made separate portfolios and resumes for Modeling & Texturing, Lighting, Rigging, and Animation. I deleted all those files from the internet, but I have attached some of that work I did which I found on the drive.
<<First job as a teacher>>
In the end, I did what a jack of all trades is suitable for, teaching. I got an opportunity from my teacher. I taught hundreds of students at a few institutes. But deep down I felt I was not doing justice to teaching. I felt I needed to experience the industry before I could give the students industry knowledge. Though I did study about the topics from an industry perspective and tried to teach them something new, institutes had a strict curriculum. Rather than helping, it brought with it more problems. So, after roaming and teaching in Mumbai, Gujrat, UP and Delhi, I came back home and decided to try a job in industry
<<First job in the industry>>
Now, parents being parents will ask you to earn. They were furious that I quit without any reason. I did talk to my elder brother regarding why I left, he supported me a lot during my journey. Then, in the pressure of finding a job, I joined an Arch-viz studio (architectural visualization through 3D rendering) in Chandigarh with a reference from a college mate who worked there. Though work was good, there was something new and a lot to learn, there was neither work life balance nor respect. We were not appreciated for the work we did and had to sit late and sometimes had to do work at home at night. Life became a living hell. I reached my limit when I was sick and they didn’t let me leave, and released me only after I finished my work. I went home and fell sick for 2-3 days. After a lot of sleep and bed rest, I got well. I went the next day and quit the job. I have realised that nothing is worth more than your life and health. I don’t blame the workplace for that. I blame myself, I put myself into that position by saying yes to all their requirements. Though they said that they will improve, I had enough and the most important thing for me was looking for a satisfactory job where I could learn.
<<First Freelance and looking for a job>>
I decided to work on my portfolio and reach out to all the friends and students in the industry to refer me for a job. I applied to so many companies and gave a lot of interviews. No luck. Meanwhile I needed to earn, so I started doing freelance projects and started taking small gigs here and there from friends. I started working on revenue sharing projects online and helping teams that needed help with modelling and animation. I was not enjoying the freelance because it was not impactful. I was not proud of what I was making. What is the point of making things which you cannot proudly showcase to others? So, I decided to quit the freelance gigs and focus on my portfolio and add more good quality work to it. At this stage, I was still confused about which department to choose, whether I should get into characters or into environments, but at least I was sure that I wanted to get into games. You can see my old character and Environment/Prop work here, Previous & Old – Amanpreet Bajwa in addition to the modeling showreel above. So, after making a portfolio, I applied to all the gaming companies in India and faced rejection. At that stage, I was rejected from all the places and had no clue what to do.
How did you get your first big break?
<<Interview and Test from Dhruva, My last hope>>
I applied everywhere except Dhruva, because I knew it was a big and well-known studio and I had no chance of getting there because other smaller studios had rejected me. In the end, I tried my luck and applied as a character artist there and instantly got rejected. Then I saw that they had an opening for a Game/Environment Artist as well and I applied for it. I distinctly remember that day, it was the occasion of Lohri, 2017. I got a call from the recruiter that they would like to have an interview. I agreed, but deep inside I felt it might be a scam as well. How can they directly take the interview because there is usually a test involved. So, I got ready for the interview on the day, where they asked about the work I had done, in terms of my skills and software, and what I could do.
They asked me if I had anything more to show, to which I said that I had a lot of unfinished work. They said, “No worries but if we give you another task, will you finish it completely?”. I knew they were talking about the art test to which I agreed. After 3 days, I submitted the test which you can also see here https://skfb.ly/ZN8w . They called me the next week and said that they would be sending me a job offer and asked me if I am comfortable to join in Bangalore. I was not able to believe it. It was totally unexpected. They did send me an offer and I ran to my parents to tell them about the good news. Everyone was happy. Things got sorted in 2 week, from not being able to get a response on a job application to a job offer.
<<Living at Dhruva>>
I joined Dhruva in March 2017 at their Bangalore office as a Junior Game Artist. This was the first time I travelled by plane and came to this far corner of India, but I was happy that I was in the Silicon Valley of India. I stayed at their guest house for two weeks and they helped me find a place. The first few weeks were light, with Introduction to the team, people and leaders. I got to see a lot of cool stuff people were doing there. I have never seen a culture like this. There I felt equality where people don’t judge you by status, look or anything and actually know you from your work and appreciate you for your work.
After looking at people doing so many different things, I understood that I needed to learn a lot. I previously watched tutorials and videos. I gained just software knowledge. I lacked basic skills and techniques. I understood that High poly + Low poly = Bake is not all in the gaming pipeline. In the beginning, I was living in constant fear of getting fired, and so I asked for help from seniors who were also concerned about my lack of performance. I was open to accepting my mistakes and open to learning anything. That’s when I emptied my cup and started learning all the good stuff that they required.
I asked them, “Why did you hire me?”, after my probation period. I know it is gutsy, but I needed to know so I could understand myself better and work on it. They were surprised by this question as well, but they (AD) replied ,”We knew you lacked skills but we saw in your eyes that you wanted to do something and we wanted to see what you could do with this opportunity. We require that passion from an artist. We can teach the skills but cannot put the zeal of doing something. Plus you knew all the industry standard software like max, maya, zbrush, painter and speedtree”
I started at Dhruva by making props. Most of the interns and juniors there would get to do easy, small props to start with. Quality was a must, and so we made all the assets with quality. That was most of our day, making assets for the studio clients. There was a slight change in the pipeline and naming of the assets according the requirements, otherwise there was nothing different from the traditional pipelines, basically looking for a reference for a prop for shapes, dimensions and texture details. Then blockout, high-poly, low-poly and texturing after the texture bake.
Slowly I was shifted to the biome team because I wanted to learn more. Knowledge of Speedtree was another reason they put me in the biome department, and I became the core part of the biome team. Foliage/ Vegetation/ Biome are types of geographies that can all be called differently. Our job was to make Biomes from tiny grass and scattered leaves, to big trees and forests. Like props, vegetation are also treated as a prop and have a similar pipeline. You need to make high-poly branches to bake on the place to make the leaf cards. We need another session to explain all the terminology. You can follow me on Youtube, I will be making videos on this in the future and meanwhile you can look at this article to get an idea. Now back to the story
I kept learning from others about other parts of environmental development and started practicing techniques at home. After a year of learning, I decided to participate in an online challenge and work on my portfolio again so I could showcase what I learned. I participated in 2 challenges in 2018 and worked harder on my portfolio. The same year I got promoted to a mid-level game artist. So, everything was going great. I contributed to 5 different AAA game projects and learned a lot of different pipelines and techniques.
In the same year, a lot of fellow artists got the opportunity to work abroad in big studios and so I wanted to try out my luck as well. I asked all of them about the process and how to get a job abroad. Everyone’s answer was “A good Portfolio”. So, I dedicatedly got into it, spending lots of time finishing the artwork I was working on for a year. You can have a look at it here – ArtStation – The North Kingdom. If you scroll to the bottom, you will see the student work I made in the final year which was in my portfolio when I applied at Dhruva. This artwork was my best work at that moment and showcased my learnings in 2.5 years at Dhruva.
<<Exploring more opportunity and Freelance>>
After publishing my artwork “The North Kingdom”, I got recognized by a lot of studios and they started reaching out to me as well. Soon, we got the news of Dhruva>Rockstar merger, in other words shutting down Dhruva. I was disheartened by this because a legacy will be gone with this. That culture, that zeal of doing something great and rewarding learning and growth, I am not sure if other companies have it. I haven’t seen any other company like this. So, this gave me an opportunity to explore those options and I left Dhruva in July 2019. I gave interviews in most of the big-name companies in India again. Some rejected my application, some didn’t reply, and some didn’t offer a good salary, and so after a lot of interviews and discussions, I was left with disappointment. #strugglers_for_life
That was not the end of things, some international studios reached out to me for freelance work and I worked with them on some really nice projects. Side by side, I kept applying for suitable jobs at studios abroad. I heard back from many and started getting interviews. Most of them required long experience (min 5 years) and extensive skill sets. Fortunately, I had a good portfolio and nice projects up my sleeves, and so I was getting attention from recruiters. I didn’t have long experience in the game industry, almost 2.5 years, which was not enough, but I could not do anything about that as well. So, I portrayed my skills and work to every studio. I showcased what I learned and the work that I did at the studio and at home because I was practicing on different areas. I tried to learn the things I was not doing at the studio, like technical stuff and other areas in the pipeline. In the end, I had a good resume and a portfolio supporting each and every word of my resume. I could talk about all the things I had done and explored in an interview. Giving a lot of interviews makes you confident as well. I can’t name all the studios but one of them was Hangar13.
<<Moving to Europe and joining Hangar13>>
Things went well with H13 and they sent me an offer which was promising. They supported relocation and all the visa work. Hangar 13 is situated in Brno, Czech Republic. It is the second largest city in Czechia behind Prague. Honestly I never heard much about Prague or Czech Republic before. I learned all about the place after I got the offer. I will not talk much about life there because the experience of cultural shift is another topic of discussion. H13 arranged a guest house for me and I settled down very well. I met really skillful people there and learned a lot. Big studios tend to have their own tools and software which might be tricky to learn at the start. Depending on your learning skills, it will take time to learn. So you have to become a self-learner at one point.
I found my own home and set up everything and before I even thought about exploring, lockdown hit, and everyone had started working from home. It was a very new thing. On the work side, we managed the work with team meetings, but personal life wasn’t there. Lockdown hit hard on my mental health As I was WFH, nothing was open except groceries. I didn’t know the language, so it was hard to make friends as well. I didn’t even know people from the company that well. This is where the HR team helped me a lot when I reached out to them and raised the concern about my condition.
“I am sharing this story just to spread awareness on mental health. I cannot stress it enough to reach out for help, don’t try to cope up with issues alone. I always had this strength to reach out, and I know that not everyone does. So don’t put yourself in dark places, you are not alone.”
HR asked my fellow teammates to invite me to private gatherings at home. I met many colleagues there. Honestly, I met more colleagues outside than at the studio. Work culture was great there, I would say 2x more than Dhruva. There, for the first time, I worked closely with different departments. This was a really great collaboration. Story guys would make a mission, designers would make a working, playable logical level layout and my responsibility was to make it beautiful according to art ideas and concepts while keeping it relevant to the story and design. It felt really great being in charge of a broad area. Though there is freedom, you must take care of a lot of things about the player, such as running, jumping and traversing. You have to make clear paths, so the player doesn’t get lost.
<<Moving on and letting go>>
As all good things come to an end, so did my contract. I had a really nice time there, learned a lot and met really great artists. I saw many beautiful places in Europe, and I would suggest that everyone go there once and just look at the sky and see how beautiful even the clouds are there.
Let’s now talk a little about the challenges you faced and how you addressed them?
Apologies if you are bored by reading all this. I like to talk about my journey. It was a rollercoaster ride. Let’s side track for a bit and talk about some of the challenges I faced and how I dealt with those.
Everything that I achieved till now is through trial and error. I have been told that I start sprinting without planning and that’s why I had to struggle. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I was always doing something new which no one had done in my whole family, whole village or maybe the whole town. So, I had to make my own path and had to walk back from cliffs from time to time.
First challenge in my career was to pick a stream and pick an industry. I decided on Gaming after changing a few jobs. I once got a campus job offer for an advertising company which makes motion graphics-based ads. They were paying well for a fresher, but I rejected it because I wanted to work in 3D. Imagine if I would have accepted it, maybe I would have been working in 2D and might have been earning way more than I could ever imagine. Maybe I didn’t have to go through all this grind that I went through after that decision. But honestly, I appreciate my life. It has taught me a lot. When I decided I would get into 3D, I went into it. I decided I will work in games and so I did. You should always respect your decisions.
Second challenge was the portfolio. Like me, I believe there are hundreds of students who don’t know what companies want or what we should put in our portfolio. At the stage I am at right now, I can make whatever I want for my portfolio because I just want to freshen up my skills and want to learn some. But as freshers, we are always confused. Once you choose a stream, then look at other people’s work in the same stream. Reach out to them, ask them simple questions like what to do and how. They are also humans and have been through where we are, and they are always supportive. Look where they work. Look at the company and their careers page and relevant job descriptions. Pick roles that interest you and then make something in that genre. Your goal should be to get a job and experience. If you want to work for a particular company which I don’t suggest your goal should be, look at the games they work on, for example, if they make co-op shooting games and you love those games, then that way you will find a bunch of studios to focus on. Look what type of work they do and try to do similar work and add it to your portfolio. Keep the quality and quality in check. Quality is also important.
Third challenge which is very underrated is the resume. Resume is very important. Sometimes you must write a cover letter as well. You might not be asked for a cover letter in most of the jobs, but when you reach out to a recruiter or HR by email and write a small paragraph on why you want this job and why you feel you are suitable, it is a cover letter. Don’t send cold emails. Research the company, their work, job role and description. Look at what they want, then just state that in your resume and cover letter. Make sure that it is showcased in your portfolio as well because you don’t want to lie. Don’t copy paste from the internet, write from your heart. It will feel more organic, more like a human. Don’t write in a very finely articulated language. Keep it simple, it is not an English exam, it is a simple resume which tells them about yourself and your experience in a very simple way. Just avoid generic text, spelling mistakes, make it brief and unique. For example, saying “Listening to music ” as a hobby is a bit outdated. Everyone listens to music these days. Saying “I love historical folklore podcasts” is unique. If you have never listened to a podcast, then listen to “Lore”. It is one of my favourites. Reading a particular genre of books and stating a few, or making an artwork based on that is impressive.
Fourth challenge was to look for a job. We have all applied blindly for jobs at some point in our lives. If you got the job in the first go, then consider yourself lucky that you were at the right place at the right time, or be proud that you studied hard to be where you wanted to be. Just as your resume and portfolio must match, the role should also match. It’s always hard to tell the requirements of the company. Sometimes the description is so generic that become confused with rejection although we fulfil all the requirements. I would suggest, stop scrolling Instagram and start scrolling LinkedIn although people get job offers on Instagram as well. Use social media to your advantage. Make a portfolio page and share WIPs there. Add recruiters and other artists or people from similar roles that you want to pursue, to your connections. Interact with people and make your presence known. I got so many interviews from LinkedIn by recommendation from colleagues and by reaching out to a recruiter. So, only apply for a job which you are 100% sure about. You can discuss those points in an interview and reach out to fellow humans for support.
What are you doing currently?
I am currently working as a freelancer. I like to manage my own time and like to work at my own pace. I have divided my time between work and other things. I have many hobbies, so I try to pursue those as well.
Another thing I am trying to do is getting back to teaching. I have a YouTube channel where you can learn a bunch of things. I am trying to regularly post educational content there. Another thing I am trying to do is mentorship. I pick a few who reach out to me for support. So, I give them career guidance and help them with their portfolio. I don’t spoon feed them, I just show them the path and help them where they get stuck.
I am currently working with companies remotely on smaller contract gigs, mostly environment or Biome related. I am working on my portfolio again to refresh my skills and do something of my own. I participated in a challenge recently. You can check it out here. It is not finished as I was not able to put as much time as was needed.
What’s your typical day like?
I work from morning to evening on a bunch of different projects. In between I take breaks for food and exercise. I get up and walk for 5-10 mins every hour. We should take care of ourselves. Health is more important. If you are unhealthy, then work will suffer and so will your learning capacity. Cell phones and computers are making us lazy day by day and so move the body also.
It is always difficult to pick one artwork. Every artwork had its own journey. I read once in the interview of “The Local Train”, where they said that there is a learning journey for every song. We all start with a thing and we keep improving it and untill it turns out way better than the vision we started with. So, I would suggest just go for it, keep it in your comfort zone in the beginning, and keep experimenting and learning from the resources.
As I had mentioned earlier about “The North Kingdom” if you check the description, you will find the link to polycount. You will realise that I took time to make it, taking feedback and improving it with every idea.
Sometimes I had to rework some things, and I didn’t hesitate to make a change. I wanted this to be the work that showcased my growth. As you can see, it has showcased that. Making my first environment for the challenge and getting out of comfort zone was my first motivation. Next was to showcase what I have learned and third was to make something that would get me noticed.
How does your work benefit society?
I am trying to contribute as much as I can and try to help as much as I can. I love to learn, and I love to teach. This is a sweet spot in between, plus games give a lot of people joy which makes me happy as well. In the future, I want to set-up a small studio with a small team where I want to teach and make some small games with a great story, message and entertainment.
Thank you for reading it till the end. If you found it inspiring and useful, then do let me know in the comment or send me a message, if you want to know something, then reach out to me on Artstation or LinkedIn, I will surely reply.
Your advice to students?
If you have passion for games, then you can be a part of it also. It just needs time, effort and patience. If you are ready to put in that energy, then I believe you can achieve it as well.
I am not a fan of institutes and college education because I believe they don’t deliver as per the fee they charge. I am a big supporter of online education, and as I pointed above as well, you must be a self-learner. You could be good at learning from books, from videos, or by someone showing you how things are done. I would say rather than going to a private collage and learning the game dev, pay an industry professional to mentor you. If your parents ask you to do a degree, do a degree in arts from a good college. Don’t spend too much money on it. I believe in the future, everyone is going to appreciate talent more than a piece of paper.
I will share some links to get started with props, vegetation and environment. Take it slow. Start by making some props and then slowly start making an environment or a full scene.
First go through these self help tips for the artists
- Watch Clinton Crumpler talking about the career building.
I admire him from the day I watched his tutorial on Digital-Tutors. I wish I had learned properly at that time.
You can think of him as my mentor as well and a person I look up to.
- Start with props by watching these tutorials
- Once you have good grasp of prop making pipeline then go through this series on environment building
ArtStation – Environment Production
These will be enough to keep you busy for a long time. If you have any doubts or questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.
Good luck with your adventures and I will be looking forward to your creations.