" INNOVATION IS A LABEL APPLIED AFTER THERE’S BEEN A CREATIVE SUCCESS."- KWAMÉ BABB, PRINCIPAL VFX ARTIST & MANAGER, SCHELL GAMES
Each morning from my desk at Schell Games (pre-pandemic, obviously), I can look through the Station Square windows at the Monongahela River and the skyline of the city of Pittsburgh, which if you’ve never visited is probably one of the most beautiful in America that not everyone knows about. On occasion over the past 14 years, I’ve been visited by the same fleeting thought.
This was never the plan.
I’m not saying that with regret, but with a sense of wonderment at this journey I started in 1997. I was an artist-turned-game designer polishing resumes, fine-tuning a not-yet-finished portfolio, and preparing myself to head to gaming hubs like California, New York, or Texas, where the majority of large game development studios were based.
But then, one of my professors at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh told me about this young company based in the city and run by a former Disney executive who also taught at Carnegie Mellon. Before I knew it, I think I was the 13th employee at Schell Games, a studio with no HR or marketing department to speak of that was doing contract work for big-name companies but living in anonymity under airtight NDAs. Gradually that veil lifted as we began producing original IP. Today, I might find myself working on a VR fighting or mystery game or an awardwinning educational game.
I started as a 2D and 3D texture artist, even though I had a portfolio brimming with lighting work, modeling, level design, and countless art disciplines. Looking back, I wonder if I might not have felt trapped if I had stuck to “the plan” and joined a AAA studio. Before long at Schell Games, texture art gave way to lighting and then to world-building and then VFX, where things really took off.
My ability to explore was buoyed by an emerging company culture that encouraged employees to find their creative truth without constantly worrying about being “innovative.” I feel chasing innovation can be quite misleading. For me, innovation is a label applied after there’s been a creative success. So to “innovate” actually means being unapologetic with your creativity until it creates significant energy that forces people to focus on it and recognize its uniqueness.
The future is bright in this industry. I’m excited to see more and more games that are blacker, and queerer, and more ethnic, games that present more underrepresented perspectives. I’m proud to already be on the right side of that conversation, all from this underappreciated hub of technology and art here in Pittsburgh. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if I could say the same things if I made a different decision 14 years ago. Maybe I wouldn’t have lasted 14 months!
There are two truths I would pass on to someone aspiring to be a game developer or VFX artist. First, don’t think you can’t do it. Second, study like crazy. So much of the art we create is inspired by the elements. Wind blowing through a tree. The way water splashes as it lands in a fountain base. Movement, ambiance, and the energy that moves it is everywhere. Always be taking in the world around you and creating with what you’ve learned. And then, if you can find somewhere that lets you experiment and try different things, even if you fail, you should weigh those factors against the charted courses.
Don’t worry about chasing innovation or being outside the box. Build the box. And don’t worry if you don’t have a plan. Inspiration rarely does.