An interview with James Zhang
26 Jun 2012 by iclover
Q. Hi James. You’ve been involved in a number of high profile projects throughout your career, but how would YOU describe your day job?
‘Day job’ is probably a great way of putting it since I also have a night job of working with our UK partners and our China-based artists.
My day job is great. About half of my time is meeting with some of best and most brilliant minds in gaming: CEOs, art directors, entrepreneurs, artists, businessmen, etc. We’re talking about their games and how we can help them. The other half is looking inward at our projects in development to make sure our projects are going well and the management team have what they need to successfully run projects. I also sneak out a bit of time to plan and work on our own stories/projects.
It also helps that we have a great office. I look out the window at beautiful downtown San Francisco and get the sunset every day.
Q. When are you happiest?
Good question! I definitely have my moments. I think entrepreneurs tend to not stop and smell the roses and I am certainly guilty of that. If you would have asked me this question 2-3 years ago, I would have said, ‘I’m happiest producing fantastic art’. These days, I’m happiest when our projects execute well, on time, on quality, and on budget. Seriously!
Recently, our friends at Lightbox Interactive sent us a signed poster thanking us for our contribution in their latest game: STAR HAWK (published by Sony). Brilliant game! And our clients were kind enough to remember us and send us a poster. That’s great.
Q. You’re talking about the evolution of art in social and mobile games at the Develop Conference. Can you give us a sneak preview into the kinds of topics and trends you will be discussing?
Hmm…it’s quite a large topic for this forum. I think the meat of my speech is what follows after a quick assessment of the evolution in social/mobile game art. It’s in the ‘effective development’ techniques portion, the second half of the talk. I go into examining the art director position. It’s such a critical position for any studio that cares about AAA graphics.
The common traits in the best art directors I’ve worked with might surprise you. AAA art knowledge is NOT the most important ingredient. It certainly helps, but it also can hinder the art direction process. For example: If your art director is one of the BEST artists in the industry, how did he/she get there? Probably by painting/drawing every day, at all hours. And if he/she is spending all their time doing art, what do they NOT have time for? They might not have time to learn communication and management techniques that are critical to directing people.
Q. In which direction do you envisage the relationship between art development and gaming will head next, and why?
There are two ways the relationship will go. One is games as entertainment apps. I would categorise this as your gambling games, fantasy sports, even Farmville to a large extent. Where the experience is in collecting, winning, and bragging. The other direction is more of a pure gaming experience where fun becomes the priority. It’s the fantasy of playing as Master Chief, Mario, a Mafia lord, or a big puffy angry red bird.
For the prior model, art is not as important. It only helps peripherally to make something feel fun and entertaining. For example, do you really care your slot machine game is drawn well? No! The experience is about getting three things to line up.
In the latter model, it’s critically important, as part of the experience is the fantasy of being immersed in a game. Art is not the only thing you need, not by a long shot, but it is what will get people in the door. Strong gameplay mechanics are what is needed to retain and monetise the user. It’s like selling a comic book. The cover and art will get you to pick up the book off the shelf and perhaps even pay for it. The writing and story will convert you to into an enduring fan.
Q. Concept Art House has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the past few years. What do you think has been the secret of your success?
There are no secrets really…
1. Lots of really hard work… at all hours.
2. Making decisions with a clear understanding of the dynamic opposites in passion/creativity vs. logic/business.
3. Being nice to people.
Q. What, in your opinion, is the most invaluable working attribute to have in a career in animation/illustration, and why?
I actually think Neil Gaiman said it best in his commencement speech to the graduating students at the academy of art this past year. There are three working attributes that you should have, but two out of three are fine. These are:
- Do great quality work
- Be on time
- Be a pleasure to work with
Here’s an excerpt from his speech:
“People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today's world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They'll forgive the lateness of the work if it's good, and if they like you. And you don't have to be as good as the others if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.”
The full address is here: http://uarts.edu/neil-gaiman-keynote-address