Gavin Goulden is the Lead Character Artist at Insomniac Games, having recently released Spiderman PS4. Prior to this, he was the Lead Character Artist on Bioshock Infinite, Character Artist on Dead Rising 2, The Bigs 2, Damnation, and contributed to titles like FEAR 2, Dragon Age, and many independent projects.
He has been working in the game industry for over fifteen years and “started doing pixel art for really old cell phones before the iPhone came out. Before that, [he] was actually a certification tester on the Nokia Ngage.” A veteran like Gavin is very special and rare and we had a great opportunity to sit down with him to talk about his career in the business.
“I grew up in eastern Canada and I was at a place called the Center for Art and Technology. It was neither of those things. Here’s what happened. It’s my fault because I didn’t research any of this sh*t. But I was a kid and I knew I wanted to go into games when I graduated [High School.] In order to get an animation degree, I guess that’s what game developers have, I don’t know. Looking in [the Center for Art and Technology] magazine, they had a character and so I wanted to get into there. I started trying to get a fine arts degree and fail miserably at that because I’m not really a fine artist. I just wanted to make digital stuff. which I know. is kind of maybe counterproductive or something like that. I mean [the fine arts school was] expecting a portfolio of abstract f*cking art and I’m drawing wizards and dragons and superheroes. Just trying to rip off Frazetta as much as I can but obviously I didn’t get in. So I’m panicking because I’m a kid in high school and, like man, I put all my eggs into this one basket… I’ve been drawing my ass off for like years now. Literally, I got a magazine [shortly after] and I look at the back and it had the Center for Arts and Technology and I’m like, ‘Okay!”
After a year of study at the Center for Arts and Technology Gavin clearly wasn’t learning what he wanted to learn to get him closer to his goal. “The second year rolls around and at the time I think the school was $20,000 a year or something like that. I think it’s like f*cking five times that now… I wanted to be a character artist guy and it’s what I always wanted. I told [the school] that’s what I’m going to do and they’re like ‘no you have to do storyboarding.’ and all this other stuff. [I told them] I’m gonna make what I want and you can grade me on that. And they said no. So I’m like ‘Okay.’ Then I quit, and I left. I literally packed everything I had into a bag and hopped on a train and moved to Vancouver. I was a line cook for a while and I did that and just modeled stuff on my own time until I got my first job.
Learning how to 3D Model for Games
“I learned XSI in school and a little bit of Lightwave which has no relevance in the games industry, of course. I was doing 3d the whole time and I really liked pixel art. It was a hard one because I wasn’t trained to do that, I just kind of did it. I used to do it when I was a teenager. I would mod like Doom and stuff like that and kind of did sprites. So I knew a little bit about it but I never got trained to do it. I just kind of figured it out as I was going. In those years, because I didn’t know sh*t, I was trying to figure out what 3D was in games because I basically learned film modeling then sprite like pixel art. So I knew both opposite ends of the spectrum. But I didn’t know how do you model things right and there was no like normal maps or anything at the time. So it’s just kind of like painting old Quake characters or something like that. That’s kind of where I started developing more. It’s like getting the old characters into the Unreal Engine and like Quake. Or stuff like that.”
The Dawn of Normal Mapping
“I’ve been through three generations so far and going from like PS1 to PS2 or PS2 to PS3, wherever normal map started. It’s great! That was a crazy time because it was like the f*cking Wild West, nobody knew how to do shit. You’d have guys that would just model, I remember, Quake 4. I think they had [the Quake] art book and was just modeling everything. And you just had this crazy high definition model and they’re no ZBrush, right, because it wasn’t a thing. And then Prey came out and [everyone] started doing ZBrush. It was sculpting and then people would start kind of trying to do that but some people were painting normal maps by hand and stuff. There was no order. You just kind of did whatever worked and it was crazy. Just trying to wrap your head around how a texture could bend light to make it look like a high poly model. What kind of fucking sorcery is that?! So I think normal maps are the result of the best programmer art I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Not Compromising and Working Where I Want to Work
Early in Gavin’s career, he had always known what he wanted to do. He had a set of standards and would move from place to place based on his happiness on the projects he was working on. His first move was transitioning from making pixel art to making 3D characters, “I wasn’t really having a ton of fun making a 16 by 16 like guys running around on the screen so actually ended up quitting. As you’ll find a theme of my quitting out of spite and usually doing a lot of things out of spite. But yeah, this one was I just needed time to make my own stuff and get a portfolio that would give me a job. And yeah, I took a few months and built out a few characters.”
Later in Gavin’s career, there was a good period where he was freelancing. Although, there were tremendous creative freedom and joy working outside of an office he explains that it came at a cost. “Eventually you start getting in the the mindset of relating everything to money or at least I did. Like I couldn’t do anything. I basically sit down to watch TV and I’m like “Man! It’s like an hour.” Well that’s, you know, however many dollars. So it’s like, well, I might as well be working because if I do anything I’m not making money and I was going crazy. So I ended up actually working with Capcom Vancouver, who just got shut down a little while ago. I worked with them on a baseball game before they became Capcom and on Dead Rising 2. And then left there after a few years to go to Irrational to work on BioShock Infinite as a Lead Character Artist.”
Irrational Games and Bioshock Infinite
Irrational Games is a world-renown studio giving birth to one of the most beloved franchise in video game history. The studio has such a strong legacy that it’s hard to imagine Irrational going through anything but success. But even with a reputation like that, the studio became victim to sadly how AAA business is mismanaged these days. Thankfully, Gavin read the writing on the wall and left before the studio closure. “At the time [Irrational Games were] talking about going flat and doing smaller games. They never talked about layoffs or anything like that. And honestly man, I just I wasn’t interested in it. So well, I didn’t want to be there and no offense to any of you guys if you’re from there, but , I f*cking hate Boston. I don’t jive well with that place so I was just getting tired of it. And I didn’t like it there. And then they’re kind of taking my team away from me and stuff. More like kind of spreading it out. Not literally taking them away, but it didn’t sound like I was gonna have the same job. I didn’t really like that so you know I kind of wanted a change and end up going back to the West Coast. Sunset Overdrive is kind of what drew me and I thought that was an amazing project.”
Working on Spiderman PS4
“I’ve got like a bizarre fetish for a character creation like the customization system. So I mean, so far, like I think on the past four projects I’ve been a part of we’ve had some kind of create a player type system, right, and that’s what drew me in for for sure and now with Spider-Man… I mean that’s like my my childhood hero so I never thought that was gonna happen.” Gavin has finally found a place he loves working at, in addition, on his dream project. To say, that he loves Spiderman would be highly understated. But to have a game that is both critically acclaimed and praised by fans around the world is definitely icing on the cake. “I like it. People are saying it’s good but you don’t know how it’s gonna go, right? It’s been overwhelmingly positive and just the fact that my Twitter feed can go from… (I know it’s not a political podcast) but go from like fucking Trump and just like the dumpster fire that it is. Now it’s just like Spiderman everywhere. So I kind of have my childhood hero just taking over everything and that’s a surreal crazy honor that I never thought I’d have.”
For what drew Gavin to Spiderman at an early age he says “When I was super young I probably couldn’t read what he was actually saying or like the meaning of it, [however] to me [he’s] the underdog. Like, I’m a tiny guy. I’m not a f*cking six foot five brute or anything like a guy named Larry. Batman is the super-wealthy. He’s got everything. Superman is the worst comic character ever. But Spidey, he’s like the struggling human and he is the epitome of a superhuman. He’s a person whose two worlds have to compete with each other and he suffers. What I mean is he doesn’t have a cave that he can just make all this shit. [Also] he’s struggling to pay rent and it’s such a human story.
Although, Gavin sounds like a developer that has been pretty stable working in the industry, he shared that that hasn’t been the case at all. “I think in 15 years [I moved] 22 times. But it’s because whenever I’d be in the city I would just be basically moving around every year. I don’t own a lot of stuff so I have the things that I need and that is kind of like a minimalist lifestyle. That’s the reality.” Larry adds “the most meaningful thing developers come to grips with, even working on amazing titles like [Gavin has], like Bioshock Infinite and now Spiderman, [game developers] always having a luggage by the door. Ready to see a company fail then bug out pretty much.”