My Job: Art Manager At a Videogame Company

A common misconception about working in the videogame industry is that it’s more play than work, says Fred Galpern, 36. “Everyone thinks it’s like Tom Hanks in ‘Big,’ where we just sit around all day trying out different things and seeing what’s fun, but it’s not,” he says.

Mr. Galpern is the art manager at Blue Fang Games LLC, a videogame developer based in Waltham, Mass. He says his job is a lot like being a movie producer  — much of his days are spent managing a staff of 10 artists, keeping projects on schedule, within budget, and coordinating with the company’s other departments.

He’s currently working on an expansion of Blue Fang’s zoo-simulation game “Zoo Tycoon 2” called “Endangered Species.” On average, a videogame can take two years from the initial concept to market, he says. The concept is turned into a design document, which resembles a movie script, describing each aspect of the game in detail, he says. Mr. Galpern’s work starts at this stage, building an art schedule based on the design document.

“About half-way through that, I realize we are trying to squeeze too much into the game, and I start making cuts to nonessential parts,” Mr. Galpern says.

He says he cuts out complex elements that could take weeks to create but are only peripheral to the game, like a complicated tree for the zoo grounds. Once he drafts an initial schedule, he assigns members of his staff different aspects for development.

The group works on a six-week schedule to hit certain milestones, such as creating an elephant for the zoo. Typically, his workdays are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but as deadlines approach, these hours can stretch to 10 a day or more as he shepherds the project through, serving as intermediary between the company’s art department and its design and engineering departments.

As with every job, there are trade-offs. He once had dreamed of becoming a comic-book artist, but, after internship in that field, he concluded his talent wouldn’t take him to the highest levels in the business where he wanted to work. While working for graphic-design companies, he learned 3D design and decided to pursue videogame design. He took his current job with Blue Fang in 2002. “Comic books and videogames are really storytelling, while the digital art is the essence of the game,” he says.

Although he is integral to the artistic aspects of the videogame, he isn’t, as a manager, creating the art.

“It took me about a year at working at my job now before the switch flipped, and I stopped missing art as much and really took satisfaction in managing,” Mr. Galpern says.

Among his duties are critiquing each piece of artwork and evaluating the work of his 10-person team.

“With something like art, deciding whether it is good or not is very subjective,” Mr. Galpern says. “My background as an artist allows me to be able to talk to them and provide constructive criticism.”

Coaching the people who work for him is the part he takes most satisfaction in.

“I enjoy seeing the people that work for me succeed,” he says. One way he helps them do  this is by addressing any problems early on, instead of waiting for a formal performance review.

This also can be the most difficult part of his job.

“The hardest part is when someone doesn’t take their responsibilities seriously, and I have to have a private conversation, or, it’s only happened once, that I’ve have to fire someone,” Mr. Galpern says. “I am a pretty emotional guy, so I was almost in tears when I had to do that.”

He says it took him a while to realize managing played into his strengths.

“It really has helped me to realize that my people skills are in many ways more valuable than my art skills,” Mr. Galpern says. “I am pretty confident that I am a good artist. I am starting to learn that I am a really good manager.”


By Stephen Grocer

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