“Borders are only there to waste time.” Robbert-Jan Brems has been tinkering with games since he was 13 and has worked on international success series such as Tomb Raider and FIFA. The 29-year-old from Leuven is currently working as a technical artist at Unity Technologies in Vancouver, where he comes up with technical solutions for challenging creative problems. We spoke with him about his exciting, rapidly growing career abroad.
First and foremost: can you explain what a technical artist does?
In game development, technical artists bridge the gap between the artists and the programmers. They ensure the flawless implementation of assets while respecting the artistic vision as well as the technical limitations of the game platform. A simple example: a 3D artist has made a tree and wants to implement it. This has both artistic and technical implications. How many trees can we display on the screen at the same time before the memory is full? And how many details can those trees contain? The technical artist solves such translation problems between art and technology.
How did you come into contact with game development?
When I was 13, I noticed that I wasn’t very good at playing games. I thought I would solve this by making levels myself so that I would have a better chance of winning. That didn’t actually happen, but my curiosity about making games was awakened. In my spare time, I taught myself Photoshop and C++ and became involved online in the Counter-Strike community. Because I wasn’t a typical student, teachers did not see me as one of the smartest, and I was left on the side-lines at school. I often felt like a dumb guy because of that, and that was when I got a lot of support from that online community. With another two years to go, I read that in Kortrijk the Digital Arts & Entertainment (DAE) course was starting. I really wanted to study this, so I became very motivated.
Have you always wanted to go abroad?
Due to the limited possibilities in your own country, you were almost automatically pushed abroad in 2011. After my internship in Finland, I developed a very popular feature (Xoliul Shader 2) for the graphics programme 3DS Max together with my fellow student Laurens Corijn, after which the job offers flowed in. I got the opportunity to start with Codemasters in the UK, where I was able to work as a technical artist on the new F1 Race Stars. From there it went to Eidos-Montréal, where I was a technical artist for Thief and Rise of the Tomb Raider. The authorities in Montréal also organised French lessons at work for three hours a week. A very important lesson that I learned is that colleagues greatly appreciate it if you make an effort to learn the language. I also met my girlfriend there, who dreamed of building a life in Vancouver. I was able to start working at EA Vancouver without any problems where I worked together with my colleagues on FIFA 18, which is quite funny, because I’m actually not that mad about football.
So why choose this project in particular?
I joined the gaming industry to learn, and as a technical artist, you face new challenges in every project.
I get tired of things quickly and am part of the gaming industry to keep learning all the time.
The development of a football game is very different from a racing game, and an action game such as Tomb Raider poses entirely different problems. And who am I to say in advance that something will be a bad experience if I have never experienced it before? In the end, I learned a great deal from a gigaproject like FIFA. It’s not because you don’t like to play something that you don’t find added value in making it.
What exactly are you doing at Unity now?
After my experience with major developers, I wanted a job that was completely out of my comfort zone, and now, for the first time, I’m on the other side. Unity develops technology to make products, and my job is to ensure that customers get the most out of them. Whether it’s the development of games, movies or architectural visualisations, I listen to what they need. Based on these objectives, I can recommend features that they can use immediately in production or indicate that something is in development. The nice thing about this is that Unity is used in many creative ways by a wide range of customers with the result that I can solve a lot of different problems.
Are you definitively beyond the stage of making games?
Not at all! I grasped the opportunity at Unity with both hands, but when I play something as terrific as God of War in my spare time, I see myself working on something similar one day. But I don’t make any real plans for the future and prefer to focus on the process rather than the end result. If I want to learn as much as possible and experience new things, I really don’t want to know what’s going to happen. So I think one day I’ll be making games again because there’s so much to learn from them.
How do you look back on your DAE studies?
For me, DAE was the best experience I ever had as a student. I really was able to do something there that I truly liked doing.
It’s better to study game development in Belgium than in the United States or Canada.
The teachers are fantastic and constantly want to improve the training. I tell everyone that it is better to study in Belgium than in the US or Canada. First of all, I recommend that everyone should live in another country if the opportunity arises. Getting to know new people and dealing with cultural differences just makes you richer as a person, that’s for sure. Secondly, the training is less expensive there than for many American courses, and, finally, many DAE alumni have started a great career. Not only are they professionally successful, but they are also quite simply top people. So these are, after all, a lot of good reasons to go to Belgium.
How well known is the Belgian gaming industry in North America?
At Unity, they now know Belgium through Antigraviator. I also have a Belgian colleague, Carl Callewaert, who tells everyone about Belgium. We are proud to be Belgian, even though we no longer live there. I am convinced, however, that Belgium can do even more because a lot of talent is also going abroad now.
Belgians need to learn to boast more about their achievements.
Perhaps Belgian studios could focus more on using game technology to solve problems in other sectors. The return on that can be used to make games that are fun to play. Oh, and you really need to learn to boast more about your achievements.
You have already achieved a great deal in your career at a young age. Do you still have any big dreams?
In my spare time, I have developed a problem language based on the principles of game technology that I use to teach people with anxiety and depression to see the opportunities in their problems and to use them to draw strength from them. If I ever get a little less busy, my dream is to use this methodology to teach the world how to deal with their problems. Not by solving them, but by teaching them how to draw strength from them, how to gain self-confidence and how to come up with solutions of their own that they otherwise wouldn’t have.