Welcome to our 2017 By Day/By Night series. Here we profile a range of design teachers from our tertiary institutions to find out what projects they’re involved in outside of work hours, and how their personal creative endeavours feed back into their teaching roles. First up we speak with Alexey Botkov, Game Art and Development Tutor at ACG Yoobee School of Design.
Yoobee Game Art & Development Course: The course is a 2 year diploma. The first year covers the fundamentals, theory of game design, asset creation pipeline, project management, programming basics, how a game engine works, all the core prerequisite literacy in game making. In second year students go more in-depth into production and make games, building up their prototyping skills, working towards publishing and releasing games. Find out more at: www.yoobee.ac.nz
Hi Alexey, can you tell us a little bit about your background, your career path, and how you got into teaching.
I’ve always been into technology and making. My favourite pastimes as a kid were Lego and video games. I must have been around 15 when I first got my hands on Photoshop. I saw some amazing things people would do in it and it snowballed from there. I would also find all these small tools people made that let you change textures or models in various games and at the time I would replace cars in a game called Need For Speed High Stakes using this obscure homebrew 3D program. Those things really got me into graphics and digital art.
Moving to New Zealand from Russia when I was 16 was a big shift for me. Our education systems are very different, and in New Zealand I was able to actually study what I wanted, so I did a lot of arts and graphic design.
I did my bachelors at AUT majoring in Digital Design. We were only the second intake to ever do it, and by that time technology was already capable of impressive CG graphics. My first “proper” job out of uni was doing VFX work for Weta Productions in Wellington. I worked on a couple of documentary films, animating and comping things like planetary ocean currents and kangaroo MRI scans, the usual nature documentary type stuff.
When that was done, I moved back to Auckland and got a job at Gameloft when it was still tiny. I worked there for 3.5 years, seeing the studio grow from 15 to 150 people.I quit to do my Masters back at AUT in 2014, and at the same time co-founded an indie game studio called Frogshark with a couple of friends. We were lucky that our game Swordy got picked up by ID@Xbox, which allowed us to work on it full time for a while. It was tough. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Being in a startup studio of 3, you of have to do a lot of things. It’s never just an artist role or a designer role. I would make 3D assets and sound effects, write music, record and edit trailers, email hundreds of youtubers and press people, create blog posts and podcast episodes, keep track of contacts and promo keys, write a tiny bit of code, make tee shirts and giveaway merch among many other things.
I did some teaching assistance and part time lecturing jobs at AUT to keep afloat, but eventually I had to move onto something more stable and sane, so it was a natural path from there. There’s always stuff to learn and figure out though.
Outside of work hours, what creative projects and/or research are you involved with?
I love participating in game jams whenever I can. A gamejam is like a 48hr film festival, but for games. There’s a theme, some limitations and a weekend to make a game from scratch, sometimes with people you’ve met for the first time. It’s really fun, pushes your creativity, design, planning and production, with extreme time constraints and is actually one of the best ways to get into game making. There’s lots of support from peers and our local gamedev community is very welcoming.
My biggest hobby right now is UAVs. I design, build and fly custom made drones. Mostly the racing and acrobatics kind, the ones you fly in first person using a remote camera. It’s all about that feeling of flight, it’s surreal, but I also love the process of building, researching and picking components, designing parts to be 3D printed or cut from carbon fibre, it’s fascinating.
What are you inspired by, and how do you keep the momentum for your personal work alive?
I like tinkering, learning new technologies and building stuff. I like building stuff that isn’t digital as well so I’m not staring at a screen all the time. Model aviation is a great hobby for me. It can be a bit of a rabbit hole, but it gets me learning new things about flight, engineering, electronics, and I get to go out flying in parks. Some days I play games, read or do research. Some days I just relax and mindlessly browse the internet.
Momentum is a tricky word. It implies some kind of constant of productivity and output, but you can’t always be like that, it can get unhealthy. I’ve brushed close enough with anxiety just trying to get stuff done in the past that looking back at that particular time, all I can say is that wasn’t productive at all, it wasn’t my best work.
You have to budget to maintain momentum. Not just for time and money, but for the mental costs as well. Because creativity isn’t just pulling prepackaged ready-to-go ideas from the air. Being creative is a lot of critical thinking and problem solving, and after that putting the time in to actually produce the stuff, is a lot of hard work, and if you don’t budget for the mental costs, the work will suffer and you will break, and I know this first hand.
How does your personal practice feed into your role as an educator?
Diversification is the most important thing. It’s important to be interested in variety of subjects, actively research and do things outside of games. Exposing yourself to people and things outside of your trade not only improves your skills and capacity to do more things, but also expands your empathy and perception. It gives you tools to apply different ways of thinking and approaching problems. I always tell my students to diversify. Every time you learn something new, you don’t just reap the benefit of the new knowledge, you expand your capacity to learn more things, to share that with other people and create opportunities to connect. As more dots reveal themselves to you in this world, the more effort you put into connecting them, the better you’ll get at making those connections. Figuring stuff out is an invaluable skill, especially given how fast this industry and the world is evolving.
How do you balance these two very different roles? Are there any particular benefits and/or challenges?
It depends. I think the key word here is balance, and what even is that? People tend to segregate their activities like that, “I’m a developer” they go home and now they’re an “artist”, “hobbyist” or “parent” or whatever. It doesn’t work like that, you’re one and every one of your roles all at once. Just like I sometimes think about drones, games I want to make and places I want to be or whatever when I’m doing work, I also think about how to make a subject more interesting to my students or how to present a concept more effectively while I’m having dinner at home. Blurry lines are everywhere and the balance is in finding effective ways to navigate the chaos of things, prioritising and doing things in a way that deals the least damage to oneself.
The challenge and the benefit is in understanding managing these mental resources and priorities. You are immersed in one more thing. Wouldn’t it be great to just have one thing to focus on and put 100% of our attention to it? But it doesn’t work like that because there’s dinner to be made, car to be fueled up, people to be made happy, and money to be accounted for. So you have to go ok, here’s one more thing, what’s the best way in which I can say I’m ok and I can handle this? You either get rid of something, re-prioritise, making room for this new thing, figure it out, and go on handling it.
What are the best bits about working at a place like Yoobee?
One of the most important things is the immediate support network. You just don’t get that when you’re your own boss. You start and put out your own fires at all costs, all the time, where at Yoobee, if I have a problem I have multiple people to go to. If a student is having a problem, they have people to go to. There are structures and protocols that make things move forward with the help of everyone, and the world isn’t on your shoulders.
The other thing is, I get to learn a lot. You know that thing where you don’t realise what you don’t know until you have to teach it to someone? It’s absolutely true! For a creative practice as dense and complex as game development, a lot of it you just learn through doing and exposure to the medium, experiences, talks, conferences, youtube videos, games you play etc. It’s the tricky task of packaging this spectrum of experiences into a digestible unit of knowledge that can be evaluated, and it doesn’t always work, but you find better ways to relate and talk about it and it evolves your own understanding because you have to be so critical about it.
And, finally, where can we see more of your own work (links to websites, portfolios, etc)?
runningtap.com is how to hire me to help you do cool stuff with technology
nomand.co is my wheneverly blog thing
twitter.com/nomand is where I’m most active and responsive
instagram.com/nomand is all my drone stuff
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Alexey!
See more from Yoobee by clicking here.