A conversation with Myles Lambert, Freelance Environment Artist

January 2, 2021

Myles Lambert is a Freelance artist who has worked on series including Wolfenstein, Gears of War and Batman: Arkham. Git.

I became familiar with Myles’ work over ten years ago, when he was an aspiring games artist on Moddb.

Since then, he has worked in a number of studios across two countries. These days, he enjoys the variety and unique challenge of working as a freelancer.

Following the positive reception to my interview with id Software’s Robert Hodri, I thought I’d give Myles a nudge to see if he’d be keen to share some insight and reflection on his career to date.

He agreed. Nice guy.

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One of the many environments Myles worked on for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus by Machine Games.

One of the many environments Myles worked on for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus by Machine Games.

The trials and tribulations of being a freelance game artist

ED: Hey Myles, thank you for agreeing to speak with me about your work. It’s only the second such conversation I’ve hosted on my site, in what I hope will become a series of interesting perspectives on both the industry and the various pathways into it.

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first – if you had to pick one, what would your favourite game of all time be and why?

ML: That’s definitely tricky – nostalgia is going to be a strong influence on this choice but the original Fable was a very exciting game for me at the time.  It was the first game I played that was very clearly made in the UK, a lot of British accents and humor. It was the first time I got really enthralled with all the hype and media attention the game was getting. 

I’ve gone back and played it multiple times – the combat definitely hasn’t aged well but pure nostalgia carries me through.

ED: Is that your main hope for the new game (which has now been confirmed as a reboot), that they maintain the humour and feel but perhaps give the combat approach a bit of an overhaul? Are there any other modern conventions you hope to see them incorporate?

ML: Definitely! I really love how Playground Games were able to capture a slice of idealized Britain in Forza 4, so it gives me high hopes that they can bring the same to Fable. There’s been a tendency for medieval fantasy games to lean more into Americanised depictions of those settings so I’m really hoping that Playground will be able to build something that feels authentic.

ED: So you’re currently freelancing and contracting as an Environment Artist after almost ten years of working in various studios in the UK and Scandinavia. What’s that transition been like for you? Has it been a difficult adjustment?

ML: I started my career working remotely so I was somewhat prepared for what to expect, though I won’t lie that I definitely miss being surrounded by talented artists.

Usually the biggest transition is loss of the office routine and social osmosis that comes with it but since we were already working from home due to Covid that wasn’t as much as a shock as it could have been.

Some of Myles ZBrush sculpts of cliffs intended for an upcoming environment.

ED: How does your day typically break down, as a freelancer? If you had to summarise an average day as a list of tasks, what would they be?

Typically I spend more time syncing with the client and making sure that everyone’s expectations are inline for the delivery than I would during a ‘normal’ job. That and tracking hours properly to make invoicing easier. Otherwise it’s just getting the work done like any job.

ED: What would you say the main pros and cons are of working this way?

ML: The biggest benefit that I believe everyone should take advantage of when freelancing is finding a routine that works best for you. The typical 9-5 really isn’t for everyone and if you’re freelancing you can often do the bulk of the work at hours that are convenient for you. Take long lunches, work earlier in the morning or later at night.

The biggest dangers of freelancing I’m wary of are difficult clients and working too much in isolation. Both are going to happen at some point when freelancing, I’d really advise people thinking of freelancing to make sure they are in an environment where you still have connections with people outside of work.

Environment artists can be as responsible for tiling materials as they are for unique 3D props.

ED:A lot of people dream of freelancing, but acknowledge that they lack the discipline or perhaps there’s too many distractions at home. Have these been issues for you?

ML: You’re going to face plenty of distractions in an office environment as it is, I’d say even more disruptions in an open layout. I try to stick to regular hours so my partner understands when I’m working – but really I’d say the flexibility is the greatest thing about freelancing, so people should make the most out of it.

As long as the work is delivered on schedule and to quality I try not to stress myself too much about it.

Myles Lambert – Cobblestone study

ED: That’s a good point. I suppose many consider freelancing more susceptible to distraction because you’ve often no physical distinction between your professional and personal environments. It sounds like self discipline has been key for you in either case – is that accurate and if so, what would you advise someone who is struggling to maintain that discipline for themselves?

ML: It really depends on the person but what works for me is to have a routine for when you’ll start working. The act of starting work has to happen almost as muscle memory rather than a conscious decision. I have to constantly work against that instinct to check email, slack, change music ect for the first 30 minutes or so. There’s also an instinct to start self critiquing immediately – something that I find to be counter productive in the first stages of working. The “pomodoro method” has worked for me in the past, especially in regards to when to self critique and when just to keep pushing on the work.

Ultimately waiting for motivation to start is rarely an option.

Reference materials can mean the difference between an okay model and an excellent reconstruction.

ED: You mentioned to me previously, that your last studio role was at Arrowhead games as a Principal 3D Artist. You were there for six months but felt it wasn’t a great fit. Could you explain a little more about what you mean by that? I can’t imagine it’s a great position to be in, but I think it’s important for people to hear what it’s like to recognise a place isn’t right for you and do something about it.

ML: Absolutely. Firstly I just want to say Arrowhead is by far the nicest company I’ve worked for. They’re a great bunch of people and my decision to leave was more of a reflection on me than the company.

I think it’s quite common for developers to feel they “grow out” of a place, they get itchy feet, grass starts looking a little greener elsewhere and slowly you feel less and less certain about your current situation. There’s nothing wrong with those feelings but it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy – once you go down that road at a certain point you can’t really turn back.

In my case with Arrowhead I started having those feelings quite early on. When I left MachineGames it was to make some sort of change, I saw my career going into more of a managerial one and whilst it was the right choice at the time, it wasn’t what I wanted long term. I saw myself going down a similar path at Arrowhead. I think it’s really important to identify when something isn’t working and resolve it before you get bitter.

ED: A lot of people would be hesitant about leaving a place without an alternative already lined up. Was this not a concern for you? Was the decision to go freelance out of necessity or did you pretty much know once your mind was made up, that you wanted to do contract work instead?

ML: There’s definitely an element of the unknown that I think you need to get comfortable with when freelancing. I ensured I was in a position to support myself financially to give some runway for finding work. In a perfect world I’d recommend people build up some online presence and a secondary revenue stream such as selling assets, tutorials or plugins. In my case I’m using the connections I’ve made over the past years to help get leads on work.

ED: I don’t expect this was a situation you expected to be in, but the ‘real world’ has a tendency to introduce the unexpected and it’s up to us to adapt our thinking constructively. How much would you say your ambitions and expectations have changed as your career has progressed? I’ve known a few people who go into industry quite single minded and admirably focused about ‘this is what I want to do’, but then along the way recognise new opportunities and things they enjoy. What’s that been like for you?

ML: In some ways little has changed – I’ve always really enjoyed conveying moods and developing interactive spaces. The longer that I’ve been working in environment art the more areas of expertise I’ve discovered, there’s so many facets to explore and get better at that I truly don’t believe I’ll ever get tired of the subject.

That being said I have had opportunities to try out different disciplines at varying capacities – lighting, tools, level design – all have an impact on the final look of the world and are a good way to avoid getting fatigued.

It’s quite common for people to initially want to work at the biggest and most prestigious game studios  which is understandable but I think honestly there’s plenty of really great opportunities for personal development and a greater sense of teamwork at mid sized studios.

ED: Your time at Arrowhead followed successful stints as an environment artist at MachineGames, Splash Damage and Blitz. Was there much difference in the culture and working models at these places? Anything you could share to demonstrate that?

ML: From my experience there’s always quite a large difference between working practises of studios, sometimes it can take quite a bit of time to adjust to but I also think it’s really valuable to try out different companies to know what works best for you. A lot of this is going to depend on how large the company is, how their projects are funded, relationship with the publisher, management styles ect.  

For example Arrowhead had a very design orientated approach to games development which often required artists to jump around on different tasks. MachineGames had artists focus on specific levels for almost the entire production meaning you ultimately had a lot of influence on the final look. 

ED: What kind of impact does the nature of funding have on a studio? I’m assuming that funding from a publisher may entail more caveats or outside influence on the overall vision, than if it’s generated independently?

ML: I can only really speak to how this can impact developers but the most clear impact I’ve seen is work-for-hire development vs internally funded. During my time at Splash Damage we were clients for other game studios – there’s a lot of additional pressure in being constantly presentable, putting your best work forward and proving your capabilities to maintain the clients trust and confidence. This responsibility can often fall heavily on art departments before the game design has matured enough to stand on its own. Contrast this with internal funding where typically the expectations are set by the studio.

ED: How would you describe how the role of an Environment Artist changes when moving from junior to senior? Are you more involved with creative decisions? Does the day to day workload change much?

ML: It changes a lot between companies but seniors can be expected to take on more responsibility and take ‘ownership’ over specific areas of the game. Where as typically juniors should have a mentor that helps guide them with tasks. Environments can often be overwhelming when you begin so having somebody that can guide you through the process is always beneficial. As you get more experienced with the process you learn where to spend your time and what will matter to the end result. There’s also a sort of confidence in the process that you develop with experience, knowing that however rough the environment is looking, you have to stick with it and work through all the stages.

ED: So if someone wanted to follow a similar path to yourself, how would you suggest they break down those goals into bitesize chunks? For example: get a job, work hard and your time will come, or do you need to be conscious and in pursuit of something specific?

ML: Personally I’ve never set goals to work on ‘x’ game or at ‘x’ studio. I’m not sure you can really plan out your career specifically, and even if you can I’m not so sure it’s the healthiest way since you’re always going to be looking for the next best thing. And typically that attitude will build up a studio to be some sort of mecca where as in reality it’ll be like any other studio – full of real people and various hurdles to overcome.

Once you’re working at a studio just make sure that you can surround yourself with people who are going to push you to do better and that their work inspires you. I usually try to use my personal work as ways to overcome my weaker areas and things that I typically would shy away from in production – for example the past few years I’ve been doing more sculpting and next I’ll probably be working on more landscapes/ nature scenes.

Material artwork for Dread Hunger

ED: Some of the titles on your CV are instantly recognisable, including Wolfenstein, Gears of War and the Batman: Arkham games. Is it at all intimidating or exciting to work on such well known and widely scrutinised IPs, or are they all seen in a similar light when your focus is on the work?

ML: I’ve definitely been really fortunate to get to work on some great IPs. Honestly when working on these you’re just trying to do the best job you can within the constraints of the IP.  I remember when we were working on Gears Of War Ultimate we had access to all the original source files – including sculpts from some of the masters like Kevin Johnson, so getting the responsibility of bringing their work to the latest generation definitely put some pressure on us.

That being said, working on new IPs can be just as daunting. When working on expanding an existing world you have a blueprint to follow – a sort of goal post based on the previous works. When developing something new this doesn’t exist and really makes it much easier to second guess where you’re going and if you’re making the right decisions.

Myles' art test for Splash Damage

ED: Is there a particular project you worked on that has a good memory for you? Without meaning to skirt NDA territory, can you explain what made this experience special?

ML: Honestly as time goes on I remember less and less of the minutiae of a project and more of the interactions and relationships built with other developers. Sadly we hear more about “rockstar” developers, and less of great teamwork and collaboration – but realistically it’s exactly those sort of experiences that make building games rewarding for me.

To pick one example from many, during Batman: Arkham Origins I was paired with a level designer for the duration of the project where we’d both work on levels simultaneously. He was responsible for ensuring the level played well and me on the visuals – we challenged one another, made suggestions, questioned why each other had made specific changes/ decisions. Ultimately this made both of our work better – and you can be sure there were disagreements sometimes, but I believe this is the sweet spot of game development. Some artists want to avoid this way of working but for me personally – this sort of tug of war is something to thrive on.

Various screenshots from Myles' work on the Batman: Arkham series.

ED: Similarly, how have you adapted to negative criticism? When working on such high profile games, it’s inevitable that there will be people who do not like what you do.

ML: Dealing with negative criticism is something artists should get comfortable with early on in their career. For better or worse environment art rarely gets called out individually – usually lumped in with level design or overall visuals.

When working on larger productions I’d say the most important thing is to learn when to focus on what you’re responsible for and when to look at the project as a whole. Game Development can be really turbulent, sometimes the game won’t be any fun weeks before release. That’s where it’s fundamental to just make sure you’re doing the absolute best job you can at what you’re responsible for and trust others are doing the same. Earlier on in production I’d always advise people to try and get a holistic view of where their art fits into the game and question how it can serve its purpose better.

Pathways to industry

ED: I remember seeing your work on moddb, bloody years ago, quite frankly. I was pretty amazed not just by the standard of work, but by your age. I think you were 14 at the time when I know most people on there were closer to 19 or 20. What compelled you to get into this stuff so young?

ML: Haha! Yes that’s right. My father is of the generation that grew up with StarWars being on the box office which really influenced him to have an interest in VFX, so I remember seeing him using Lightwave 3D when I was very young – in fact I think he was an early beta tester for NewTek. 

We used to make short little films together that he’d add in various star wars effects which really opened my eyes to what was doable. When he made my first pc he installed a copy of Lightwave and Unreal Tournament. It wasn’t long until I started trying to make my own maps and box-modelled spaceships. When we got the internet a few years later that really opened up this huge online community of modders sharing all their work – the skill range was huge and that really drove me to want to get better and learn.

Depth Unreal Tournament 3

Before releasing as a commercial title, Depth was a mod for Unreal Tournament 3 from the makers of Killing Floor, which Myles had also worked on.

ED: That’s boss! Has your father played any of the games you’ve worked on?

ML: Actually he was never much of a gamer – but amazingly VR caught his imagination and has been a gateway into gaming for him.

ED: What were your tools back then and how did you learn to use them?

ML: I really got into 3D with Maya since it was one of the few programs at the time that offered a ‘learning’ edition of the software, I remember it came with a huge manual that included step by step tutorials. Polycount was (and is) a fantastic resource for learning, I also learnt quite a bit from the tutorials Sjoerd De Jong had for Unreal.

ED: Has this toolset changed much in recent years? Do you find yourself largely doing the same processes but faster, or have software developments completely removed components that used to be mandatory?

ML: There’s been a lot of really great additions in workflow over the years, scanning, 3d painting with full pbr, procedurals, gpu baking, high resolution realtime cloth sims, CAD software ect.. I do find myself using photoshop less and less but it’s still used daily but for different reasons – quick paintovers, masks/ brushes. There’s been some toolsets that have come and gone like ndo & ddo, but even they have their place.

For the most part I’d say overall things have gotten more complicated, there’s more specialization in applications and many different ways to get to an end result. I think this often really over complicates the process and I see a lot more artists struggling with committing to applying one specific methodology. 

Everytime software that has offered some magical solution comes with some sort of caveat that still keeps the ‘traditional’ methods valid.

ED: You studied Fine Art and Psychology at College, at the same time (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong) as you were working for Tripwire Interactive. Did you not seek University level education at all? Have you ever considered doing so?

ML: Yep that’s right! The mod I was part of, Killing Floor, got picked up by Tripwire to make it into a commercial product, so I got to do some part time work for them. I dropped out of college in my second year to try and find work in a studio. Mostly this was because I was in a rush to start working fulltime – I knew I wanted to make games, seaking any higher level education felt like a distraction. In hindsight taking things a little slower would have been fine. The benefit is not having any student loans, which in the UK can be pretty substantial. 

I’d say to anyone else – there’s no requirement to have a higher education in game dev, but it can be a great opportunity to have more spare time to hone your craft and become a more rounded person. 

ED: How important would you say the balance is between technical knowledge and fundamental understanding of your practice? Furthermore, would you say this is true of the industry at large, or do developers of certain sizes, styles or genres typically prioritise one over the other?

ML: In general I’ve seen far more developers joining the industry with a strong knowledge in the process and some technical skills and far far less with a fundamental understanding of art principles.

In general the smaller a company the more necessary it is to have supplementary skills and to be able to solve your own problems. However technical knowledge of processes can nearly always be taught whilst you’re on the job – if two artists apply for the same job and one has more technical knowledge and the other has a better portfolio – nearly always the one showing themselves to be a capable artist will be chosen. I’d really love to see more artists joining the industry with a better eye for composition, shape language and abstraction of detail rather than a lot of technical knowledge which will be outdated in a few years.

Some of Myles' earliest game artwork for Killing Floor

ED: If you could advise or warn your younger self of anything before going into the industry, what would it be? I expect moving to another country may have presented challenges of its own?

ML: Moving to another country should be something nearly anyone who gets into game development should consider being a possibility, especially if you’re not in one of the hot spots.

Primarily I would have advised myself to be more patient, enjoy the process of learning and improving, worry less about comparing yourself to other artists and just make sure to keep focused. Not that I’d expect my younger self to listen, of course.

ED: On that note, what would you tell current students who want to pursue a career in environmental art and design?

ML: I’d suggest students try to identify what it is in environment art that interests them. Over the past few years I’ve seen an influx of students who primarily just have substance materials and a few props in their portfolio. And whilst that work is valid it’s a very small part of the whole process and misses a lot of the key skills I’d expect from an environment artist.

I’d love to see more students with portfolios of small dioramas and 3d sketches of scenes. Seeing application of textures and understanding of how to build visually interesting spaces is really valuable.

Develop taste, know what you like and develop the vocabulary to be able to describe it to other people is immediately valuable when you begin collaborating with other artists.

ED: I actually get a lot of people closer to my age or even older, who want a career change and are aiming for the games industry. Often, these people are at a disadvantage because they can’t necessarily jump into full time education. What would you suggest to someone who wants to become an environment artist, but only has their free time to work towards that?

ML: Some of the colleagues I’ve learnt the most from have come into games later in their careers, and from my experience they’ve always brought something to their work that’s invaluable. Game developers are a pretty homogeneous set of people and personally I’d love to see more people with different backgrounds applying to start working in the industry.

That being said of course there’s a high bar of entry and environment art can be extremely time consuming to get into with the wide range of tools, middleware and skills that you are expected to have. Even once you have years of experience, building whole scenes is a time intensive task – there’s little way around that.

What I would say to people with limited time is to focus on fulfilling the requirements for the specific job you want. Even if that might be a dream job – there’s bound to be other companies that value those same skills. Start with fundamentals and don’t get caught up trying to master specific software straight away, just make stuff – even if it’s just copying artists that you’re inspired by to help you get started.

There’s also a huge amount of online communities, tutorials and mentors available – reach out to people, make connections.

ED: In regards to freelancing specifically, what is the best route in your opinion to working this way? Are agents important or can you go it alone with a strong enough portfolio?

ML: I don’t have any experience using agents, outsource houses or collectives so I can’t really speak to the benefits of each, but I believe you need to be open to any source of work you can get. Having a strong portfolio is always going to be a must for freelancing since it’s rare people want to take a chance – they want to see exactly what they are looking for.

Planning for the future

ED: I’m not sure if you saw the UE5 demo, but they talked about photorealism and high res. I’ve asked this of Robert who I interviewed previously, but do you think photogrammetry and laser scanning are more likely to become part of your work and of environment artists? If not these particular technologies, what do you think will most impact your workflow over the next ten plus years?

ML: Photogrammetry can be applied to many different degrees depending on the setting, budget and art style. For example in the past I’ve used photogrammetry for sampling albedo values and creating zbrush alphas which has a much broader usage than using photogrammetry directly, which is definitely becoming more common in larger studios – especially for natural settings.

I’m not anticipating anything drastic workflow wise. Lowpolys & UVs aren’t going to disappear overnight – we just spend less time optimising them. I’m really looking forward to working with fully realtime global illumination in a production environment rather where we can quickly preview the final result.

ED: We still don’t know much about the technology, but do you expect a thorough understanding of traditional pipelines (optimisation, retopology) etc will be important and are worth learning in the short term?

ML: Absolutely. Even with everything UE5 promises, it’s worth considering that most AAA studios aren’t using it. What’s considered ‘optimal’ is going to be different for each engine and project, but staying optimal regardless of your constraints allows you to keep on adding more layers of detail that otherwise you might have to cut. Consider what you’re creating assets for.

ED: What’s your general approach to staying up to date with trends, pipelines and expectations? Is it something you grow with naturally, or do you dedicate time to researching, practicing or learning other things?

ML: It’s pretty much impossible to stay up to date with every development,  especially once you’re working at a studio. Hopefully you’re going to get time between projects to learn but that being said – I’ve met some people in studios that aren’t even up to date with PBR, you’re going to have a really hard time getting a new job if you fall that far behind.

For example I’ve still not had experience with Marvelous or Blender – but I know if I have to work on something that requires it I can use that as an opportunity to learn.

Environment art for Gears of War.

ED: And finally, from your own personal perspective and tastes, what do you really hope to see happen within the industry over the next ten years?

ML: We’ve seen environments getting much much bigger over the past decade, but I really feel they’ve started to get more repetitive and world building has fallen a little to the wayside with some genres. I want to start seeing more games develop worlds that really feel curated and thoughtful, not just in environment art but in how game design is used to create more immersive  or thematic experience. The trend of systematic game design is a hollow representation of what games can be and often works against enveloping players in the spaces we create.

Of course I might be a tad biased as an environment artist.

ED: Thank you Myles for taking the time to answer my questions and share your journey into game art.

If you’ve enjoyed reading about Myles’ work then please do pay his Artstation a visit. Likewise, please do give my Interview with Robert Hodri a read if you’re interested in learning more about what it takes to become a 3D artist.

Thanks for reading!