UX Game Design Story and 1 FREE Month of Adobe Creative Cloud*
Staff – October 19, 2020 at 12:49 PM
What is experience? That’s a big question to answer because it involves a lot of moving parts, and in the case of Nick Slough, the Co-Owner of Beholder Design, a lot of Photoshop layers too.
Beholder Design is a premium UI/UX design studio for games. Beholder has consulted for Epic Games*, Blizzard Entertainment*, Disney Interactive*, and more. Nick Slough has been crafting custom designs for better, more immersive gaming experiences for years, and he's likely worked on a game you have admired. But how does one get into the UI/UX consultation business? Well, for Nick, it took a few bounces to land there, and it started with web design and painting murals. One constant along the way was the need for high power and performance hardware and software, mainly that of Intel® Core™ processors and the Adobe Creative Suite.
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The Creator’s Journey
Born and raised in the Milwaukee metropolitan area of Wisconsin, Nick attended Art School before moving out to Chicago and running his own web design company at 19 years old. Before, during, and after this, Nick took on any creative job he could find.
“I did anything I possibly could, everything from painting murals on the sides of buildings to web design. I did anything I could pick a book up on and convince someone to give me money for doing because I needed to do something and do it creatively. I thought that was better than getting a job at a local sandwich shop or something.”
Nick’s first “real job,” as he describes it, was for an animation firm called Liquid Generation, where he animated and illustrated cartoons for a pop culture website. Continuing what would ultimately be his preparation for a career in UI/UX consultation, he worked in advertising, animation, graphic design before landing at Blizzard Entertainment* as a Principle UI Lead. There he worked on notable games, such as Heroes of the Storm*, Starcraft 2* & Diablo III*. At Blizzard, he learned a lot about the video game business, everything from technical skills in the field of game development to the ins and outs of shipping products.
“After bouncing around working on flash websites for a while, I got a job at Blizzard Entertainment*, which is like shooting right into the stratosphere of awesome job opportunities. Working there was revolutionary for me, and I learned so much from so many people that I can’t even remember half of it.”
Changing from advertising to the video game industry was a bit of culture shock for Nick, especially in terms of project timelines. While a project in advertising might be somewhere around eight weeks long, a game development project was a commitment that took years of dedication. It was here that Nick found his place in the game development world and never looked back. He would go on to work briefly on mobile gaming projects before connecting with his business partner and starting Beholder Design, where he’s been unquestionably busy ever since.
Beholder Design has worked with several companies to create high-quality experiences and highly usable interfaces for great gameplay and better player immersion. As an outsourcing house, Beholder Design works on everything from conceptualization down to the exact pixels on the screen, which requires a hardcore amount of Photoshop demands, and in 4k no less.
“Over the past two years, the video game industry has shifted to creating assets natively in 4k, which isn’t a problem if you’re talking about a painting or an art concept, but for what I do, I have to do it non-destructively. When I design any screen for a video game, it could have 20 different screens of statement work, meaning I might need to have 800 – 1,000 non-destructive layers in Photoshop, in 4k.”
Even designing something seemingly simple, such as a Friends Chat area within a game, requires multiple screens of statements, each containing all the different buttons and layers that must be presented non-destructively. That requires some high-performing hardware and software. Clients opening files and pulling assets is the simple part of this equation, but for Nick to smoothly work with these layers, he needs tech that can keep up with his creative flow. In almost any line of work, time is extremely valuable, and that’s true for Nick and his work too. To keep up with the evolving speed and technology of the industry, Beholder rebuilds a PC every year using the latest, most powerful Intel processors. When all is said and done, about 50% of Beholder’s cost is in their GPU alone, while the other 50% is in their processor, motherboard, power supplies, and the rest.
Working on Gwent
One of the big projects Nick worked on that transitioned him into starting Beholder was with CD Projekt Red, on their card game Gwent, which is a strategy card game set in the popular Witcher universe. Working with CD Projekt Red, Nick created the art that decorated the individual card packs, the design of the digital game boards, and the animatic slide shows of spells effect transitions. Nick worked every night until 2 to 3 in the morning, communicating with CD Projekt Red in a different time zone, all while still holding down his day job. To help with the time zone difference, an Art Director from Poland was flown in to work directly with Nick, and together they tirelessly worked for months while combating performance bottlenecks. The entire game needed to be created in 4k, and this project started about 4 or 5 years ago, back when that kind of work, on the available technology at the time, was quite a challenge. The project was an exhausting, exhilarating, and rewarding experience.
“We were cutting up files and hemming them back and forth, and it was madness trying to get all that stuff to work. The machine I was running on back then had a bug in the graphics card that would cause everything to randomly shut down once every three hours or maybe once every two days. This was before I used Dropbox, and so when I saw my screen go black, I had to scramble to see what my AutoSave managed to recover. There were days I lost a little bit of work because of it. I just didn’t have the time to build the machine I needed and get it up and running, so I made do with that.”
In Nick’s experience, the best part of a project depends on the role a person plays in it. When he worked for a company, the best part of a project were the tangible moments, such as the actual shipping of a game. In those instances, there was always a big celebration, and everyone involved could take a breath and enjoy that together. However, after starting his own company, Nick discovered that with a project like Gwent, it’s the strategic wins that he relished in the most.
“The most satisfying moments are when a client can say, ‘Wow, we spent four months banging our heads against the wall on this, and you took two weeks to get it unstuck. It's solved!’ Those are the moments I feel the most accomplished.”
Design Hurdles Solved by Technology
The creative flow is a vital part of the design process. Problems arise when technology bogs down that process, knocking creators out of their flow and setting them back. The latest Intel processors are a must for Nick to get the most out of his creative software and avoid bottleneck issues that disrupt flow. A technology bottleneck for a game developer is like if someone periodically moved the car that a mechanic was trying to fix, never telling them where they put it. It’s safe to say mechanics don’t typically deal with such lawless valets as just described, but for artists, it’s common to be held up by performance issues that slow down an entire project. In Nick’s experience, he’s been most thankful for two, often overlooked technological advancements—reference and speed. Both of which many creators take for granted, but undoubtedly help them to stay in their flow.
We live in a world where finding a reference or an answer to a problem is often in our pocket. The beauty of online reference is the community of it and the collaboration, all for the simple, idealistic purpose of bettering what’s produced and shared. Ten years ago, online reference was available and useful, but now it’s vast and paramount.
“I can type anything into a window and get an instant reference for what I need—videos, photos, audio, tutorials, all of it. I have a garage full of reference books because back when someone would come to me for a World War II-themed project, I would have to go to one of those books to find aircraft symbols and see what the rust looked like on the tanks. You have to pull from these references to make something look and feel accurate. It's so much faster now.”
For Nick, speed is a philosophical approach that requires a powerful technical application. Creators work fast, even when they think they’re not. The need for fast technology is imperative for staying in the creative flow, and that need is often ignored until after the technology fails to keep up, completely stalling a project. That’s why Nick looks to build his computers with the most high-performing, powerful components available. As a big proponent of flow, Nick does all that he can stay in that zone, everything from wearing over-ear headphones to block out noise, to having a backup computer to switch onto in the event that one begins to hitch and slow down. If a problem takes more than 15 minutes to fix, then Nick will unplug and move to his other machine because for his creative process, staying in that flow is where he as a creator can make his best work.
The Evolving Technology and Design
Looking toward the future of design and what’s in store for Beholder, the continuous advancement of technology is both thrilling and inspiring. In his tinkering with emerging technologies, Nick predicts that applications within VR environments, especially in 3D modeling, will be significant in game development in the next five years. But will creators and artists be able to use it? Not all creators have the time it takes to pick something up and learn all about how it works, how to use it, and how to get the most out of it. Luckily, technology is more readily available and easier for artists to understand, now more than ever. The barrier of entry for creators is shrinking thanks to simple artistic concepts informing the latest digital tools. Not too long ago, computers weren't able to render in real-time, and the existence of that one ability has changed the way we create. Those advancements on the horizon have Nick excited to see how VR and 3D technology changes and simplifies the work of creators like himself are doing.
“Getting spatial relations in a 3D environment is huge. There are tools out there that allow an artist to manipulate a digital 3D object, much like how you would pull, stretch, and play with a lump of clay. Someone much smarter than me is going to throw a ton of hardware and processing power at something in this field to make it all seem so much easier and less complex for creators to understand.”
Advice to Creators
Nick has been around the block and visited several more, so when he thinks about advice for other creators, the first word that comes to mind is Authenticity. Creators all want to be original, and some often get in their own way, trying to work with this myth known as originality. Everyone has been influenced by experiences, as well as other people's experiences. So, nothing is truly original because it all has a reference point.
“We often have people come to us and say they want to be conceptually original, and my business partner will tell them that’s impossible because everything is referential. The only thing you should want is for your work to be authentic. Creators need to focus on being authentic to themselves, their project, and the goals they hope to achieve.”
Going hand in hand with that advice, Nick would also urge creators to be true to who they are, and not try to be who people say they should. It takes a lot of hard work to be successful in this field, and it starts with the creator embracing their creativity and vision and sharing that with the world.
“Getting your foot in the door in a creative spot at a video game development studio in 2020 is an uphill battle that will take a lot of grit and hard work to achieve. There are people lined up outside waiting to take those jobs, and you have to be better than them. Be true to your work, travel to conferences, and constantly look to get better at everything you do. And when you get your foot in the door, set expectations, deliver on time, and don’t be a jerk.”
For those considering working for themselves like Nick, he would advise they get some experience as an employee beforehand and gain the confidence they need to be successful later on. Confidence is a huge factor because a creator should never doubt their skills, especially if they've put in the work. Furthermore, a creator must disassociate from their work to sell it as a product. That will be one of the biggest hurdles to get over. The hard parts are not going to be the work or the acknowledgment of that work. The hardest part will be all the other stuff a creator has never done before.
“You’ll screw up for a while, but that’s alright as long as you’re out there trying. Analyze everything to see and always figure out how you can get better, and you will.”