Esther Chen AviName: Esther Chen

Job Title: Lead Artist.  I managed the art team; give out assignments, train, interview, mentor, review/produce/fix assets. I wear many hats depending on where I’m needed whether that is 2D, 3D, animation, rigging, or particle effects.

How long have you been working in the industry?

I think it’s been at least 3 years now.

Can you tell us why you chose the video game industry and the path you took to get there?

I’m a planner, but deciding on my future was something I went about by the seat of my pants – very rare for me. I was virtually on my own as a teenager when I was college searching.  My parents were not born in America and they wanted me to enter a science field so all they had to offer was a list of names to Ivy League schools.  At some point they finally let me pursue my dream of entering an art field. The one caveat was for me to pick a career that was related to technology instead of fine arts which I was okay with.  Graphic design seemed to be the most common choice so that was the starting point for me.

During a family trip to California, relatives who lived in there told me I could live with them if I wanted to go to school there.  We toured the school I was considering, and the person who gave me the tour noted they have multiple options for degrees including game development.  This was the moment I realized that game development was even possible and the thought of having the ability to create a world I envisioned cemented my decision.

We got a flyer from the school listing all the scholarships available. I applied for every one I was eligible for.  My family was initially skeptical, but remained supportive, saying that they believed I could do it despite the odds.  This gave me even more motivation to prove my worth, so I spent a large amount of time on this one particular competition that awards the first place winner with a half tuition scholarship.  I worked really hard on it and submitted my entry early on accident (deadline was the 31st and I read it as the 13th).

I won first place and got the half tuition scholarship, along with a couple other smaller ones.  The rest of my tuition was paid for by my aunt and uncle who very graciously revealed to us that they put some money in stocks for my brother and I’s education and wanted to help my parents who were struggling. I was very blessed to have everything work out the way it did.

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The school I attended had its faults. It was a for-profit school that didn’t supply the education needed to ensure success.  Many of the students were targeted due to their low-income status and many of them wound up dropping out as a result. I had to supplement my education by finding resources along with practicing my skills outside of class.

One of my older friends from college mentored me because he saw the potential I had to do something great in my life.  He moved on to work at AAA studios and wanted me to follow suit.  After he asked, I stopped and reevaluated what I wanted out of this field. My reasons for entering the field had more to do with me realizing my dreams of creating something beautiful I could share with the world, yet I felt like the path I was being encouraged to take would make me nothing better than a factory worker.

People have different reasons for entering the game industry and it becomes apparent where their priorities lie when simply talking to them.  Some are idealists like me, some want fame or recognition, some simply see it as just a job to get through life.  Currently, I’ve been dabbling in the indie scene because I decided that, if I was to pursue my dreams I may as well do it while I’m still young with nobody depending on me to live.  At any point I can take up a job with better pay if it becomes enough of a priority.  Some people look down on me for deciding to do this because there are people out there that think position and status actually means something.  I don’t like being acquainted with such people.

What are the highlights of your career and current job so far?

I really enjoy my job and hope I can continue to do what I have been doing as there is a satisfaction in knowing that I have the power to take care of my team.  Many of the artists we hire become good friends with me because I’m very understanding of people’s needs and accommodate them the best I can.  I’m there to offer an ear and lend support when they need it (sometimes the quiet ones can be a little shy and are used to being ignored).  I make it known that there will be no judgment from me and encourage everyone to speak their opinion if they want to contribute with their ideas in discussions.

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It’s really important to me that the people we interview are people that are genuine and are respectful of others.  I like knowing this is the work environment of the company, that we are not simply hiring a person for their talent alone.  As a result we have many people from many backgrounds and I feel comfortable with all of them.  I feel like I shouldn’t need to especially note this fact but there is unfortunately no shortage of pompous assholes in the industry.

Do you have a portfolio or links to past projects that you would like to share?

Here’s a cinematic I did as an artist while in school and sample art I’ve done.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZY6MFGVsFE&w=560&h=315]

Sample Art
Additional sample art courtesy of Esther Chen

Any advice or words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to someone interested in the business?

The industry is for people who are truly passionate.  In its current state, there are a lot of obstacles to overcome, as it’s a very stressful industry to be in.  Some people think they’re cut out for game development because they love playing games. That is the most common mistake I’ve seen people make.  Ethical debate aside, it is pretty much expected of people to sacrifice their well being for their work in the industry.  The good news is that bad business practices like that are starting to improve.  The bad news is that, like all things, change takes time.

Also….develop thick skin.

I’ve been judged because I am a woman, look young, dress well and have a slight accent. Despite that, I do not let it detract from my work and focus. Thick skin is key to thriving in this and any field.

Since this is about games and gaming, can you share a list of your favorites?

That’s a difficult question because what makes a game “great” can be influenced by so many factors. Just because the story element is great does not mean the systems or gameplay features are as well.

Great games: Dota 2, FFVII, Ocarina Of Time, Dark Souls, Megaman X.

Personal favorites: Dota 2, Ocarina of Time and Link’s Awakening, Final Fantasy IV- Final Fantasy IX,The Incredible Machine and Gunbound. These particular games I have a bias towards because they captured me on an emotional level. Others include Ragnarok and Harvest Moon games.


Black Girl Nerds would like to thank Esther for sharing her story!

If you or someone you know is interested in being featured in our Diversity in Gaming series, please email jamie@blackgirlnerds.com or contact @iamlaurenp on Twitter.