Sach Steffel – Principal Artist

Sach Steffel – Principal Artist

“Always curious.”


Hey Sach, it’s been a while! So glad you can make time for this chat.

Thanks Marcus, It is great to be in touch again.”


Where are you working now?

I am currently at Zynga.”


What is your job title at Zynga?

I am a Principal Artist.”


What are the responsibilities of a Principal Artist?  That title sounds fairly broad.

“It is! It depends on the team and project. I have done everything from storyboard to art direct. Currently, I do modeling, concept art, outsourcing, some previs/storyboards, some character art.”



Zynga’s Cityville

So many different hats to wear.  You are a jack of all trades.  I’m sure this keeps you busy.  Can you describe what your typical work day is like?

It depends on the type of game, and also where you are in the lifecycle of the game. It is a busy time right now – we usually start off with a quick scrum, and move onto regularly scheduled tasks. There is some firefighting that usually comes up. We try to minimize time spent in meetings, collaborating as needed.”


Zynga is not your first game job.  I worked with you previously at Backbone Entertainment.  Can you list some previous companies you have worked for and some of the titles you have helped to create?

Yeah, we worked on several memorable projects there! I started out on PS2 at 3DO,  in the days of Sarge’s Heroes. I think I’ve worked on 20-something games, including shooters for Namco, Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone for Konami, Rock Band for Harmonix. I’ve since moved from console onto web and mobile – games like Cityville, Farmville.”


I didn’t know that you worked at 3DO.  We were probably on opposite ends of the building! You seem like you have a pretty wide skill set.  Did you go to art school?  How did you learn your trade?

Yeah, it was the beginning of the tech boom and 3DO was rather large and palatial! I went to art school, but for traditional hand-drawn animation. I was hired as a modeler, although I didn’t quite know what a polygon was, when it was mentioned in the interview… I replaced sleeping with modeling for a little while. I feel fortunate to have met people who were willing to take a chance on me. I found 3D in particular and games in general to be a fun new world. Starting with modeling, I was also able to work in concept art, animation, storyboarding, lighting, cinematics, comics and promo art within the first couple of years. I don’t know if I realized it then, but it was a fantastic, fast paced, real-world learning experience.”

“Something that sets apart the Shrunkenheadmen (the SJ Animation/Illustration people) is the spirit of collaboration and mentorship. It was intensely competitive, but we always helped each other. You also had to have a very strong work ethic to survive – I value this every day.”


That’s kind of crazy.  You didn’t have the 3D experience, but they were willing to train you, but this was somewhat early in the 3D era, so I imagine finding experienced talent was challenging.  Such a great opportunity!

It really was. The economy was different then, too, and people were more likely to take risks with new hires. I was also lucky that the people who hired me valued core foundational skills, and felt that tools were secondary.”


I have heard that a strong foundation makes you a better artist.  Just learning how to model and use ZBrush doesn’t automatically make you a great artist.  A knowledge of traditional art will make your 3D art stronger.

ZBrush has democratized entering the 3D world in some ways, so it’s relatively easy to get started and experiment, and see results. Core traditional skill will still definitely make your work stronger. Conversely, working in 3D can also make you a better artist outside of the machine.”


So, a well rounded exposure is best.  What art school did you attend?

I went to San Jose State. I happened to luck into a wonderful, widely respected program. I feel very fortunate that I had that experience, and still maintain close ties with the talented people I met there. It felt like a second family, with some of the professors taking an almost parental interest in us.”


Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone

Zombie Apocalypse: Never Die Alone

I’ve heard that San Jose State has one of the best art programs around.  Many of the best artists I’ve seen have come out of that program.  So, you feel it was essential to your current success in the industry? Were there any key lessons you carry with you today from your time there?

Something that sets apart the Shrunkenheadmen (the SJ Animation/Illustration people) is the spirit of collaboration and mentorship. It was intensely competitive, but we always helped each other. You also had to have a very strong work ethic to survive – I value this every day. I see politics govern careers sometimes and it’s definitely not something that I am comfortable with, having learned to progress through work at an early age. We also spent a lot of time carefully honing how we represented ourselves in the world (what art we chose to put out there). We went ahead and made the art we dreamed of working on, rather than waiting for the opportunity to present itself.”


It sounds like it took a lot of hard work to get where you are now.  I’d like to step back and review how you arrived to your current position in the game industry.  Where did you grow up?  Where are you from originally?

I grew up in Sri Lanka, oblivious to summer fog. [Smiles] Growing up on a small island, you were always looking out into a big world. That feeling, that very different and interesting things are out there to be found, has stayed with me into adulthood and beyond.”


Has art been something you were interested in from an early age?

“I always drew as a kid, yes. My parents both set aside their true interests to pursue “regular” jobs, and they wanted us (my brother and I) not to have to do that. They always encouraged us to work in what we really wanted to do.”


Choosing to come to the States and pursue art in school is pretty gutsy.  When did you think, “I want to be an artist.”? When and how did you decide this might be the career for you?

I had originally planned to read English, at university in Sri Lanka. There was a war going on though, and the universities were closed when I finished high school. I worked as a writer at an advertising agency while waiting for University to reopen. At the ad agency, I thought that the production artist’s job looked like a lot more fun than mine. So, the war didn’t look like it was going to end, and after a few months, I decided to go to school elsewhere, and art seemed like the way to go.”


That’s hilarious.  The artist’s job looked like more fun!  So, how did you end up selecting San Jose State?

I had friends in the Bay Area, and picked San Francisco for college. When researching around, San Jose State looked like it had the best accredited art program. I’m really happy I made that choice.”


I’ve seen your art.  I’m happy you made that choice as well!  So, was 3DO your first game job?  If so, how did that opportunity come about?

Thank you! Yeah, 3DO was my first foray into games. One of my teachers in college happened to be a consultant there and he thought it would be a good experience for me.”


ArmyMenSargesHeroesYou make it sound easy-peasy.  Someone made a call and the job was yours!  This relates back to what you were saying, your art program really supported you post graduation.  The game industry is strong in “who you know” dynamics.

It’s true. I rarely go to a studio where I don’t meet a Shrunkenheadman (San Jose State Alum). That support is largely positive, although I’ve also come across the occasional ex-former-studio enclave who’s unwilling to open their doors to people who are not from their group.”


Did you always want to go into games?

“No, I had intended to animate, but I graduated at a time where not only was 2D animation pivoting, but video games were really coming into its own and growing in scope and opportunity.  So, I adjusted course.”


2D animators did feel a big pinch as more and more things moved to 3D.  Although in mobile, 2D animation seems to have made a comeback.

Yes, there’s some resurgence of 2D, or hybrid animation. There’s usually still a need to work through a pipeline and interface/integrate with the game engine. It is funny, a lot of the old lo-poly skills from PS2 days are also resurfacing, in working in mobile. Phones can handle more and more, but we also want to pack so much into our games.”


What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

The first time I shipped a game under my own art direction, might have a moment where I felt that I’d taken a big step in a long journey.”


What game was that?

“I am having to reach back a bit here… It was at Backbone, I think it might have been Rock Band.


Thinking back, look over your career and your journey to get here, is there anything you wish you did differently? Anything you would change?

I come from a restrained, introverted family (with a few noted exceptions). If I were to relive my professional life, I might have spent a little more time advocating for myself, not just focusing on my work. Working at Zynga, I’ve also had a lot of opportunities to volunteer as an artist. I wish I had looked for ways to give back, sooner.”


What traits or skills are most important as a Principal Artist?

Communication – visual and verbal. Communicating out to other artists about what we want them to aim for. Communicating what you think would be the best outcome for a piece of art. Communicating with the team to make sure we are all working to a common, desired goal. Communicating with other artists to make sure their needs and questions are addressed.”


Are there any specific tools, plugins, or brushes you can’t live without in your daily work?

I work mostly with Maya, Max, and Unity currently. I’d like to see us use more Substance and ZBrush, but it depends on the need of the game.”


“Don’t stress tools over fundamentals. Develop a strong work ethic. Represent yourself carefully – edit the art you put out there.”

How do you stay up on the latest trends in the art world?  Are there specific websites you visit?  Slack channels you participate in?

“I learn a lot from my peers. I’m lucky to work with, and have former colleagues who are really good at what they do, and love to share. I also participate in art forums like ArtStation, and attend workshops like the ones run by Schoolism.”


What is the greatest misconception about what you do?

It’s not often that I actually come across people who have any idea of what I do, accurate or otherwise. There’s usually some confusion about what an artist would do in a game (“so, do you draw… the characters?”). In some ways it’s a testament to the immediate connection that games make with players, that they don’t objectively identify layers of art that they interact with – they just feel that they enter a different world.”


What trends interests you currently in the game industry or game art world?

“I see a lot of new work in VR that sounds exciting. I’d like to work more in shader creation – not necessarily new to games, but something I have not spent a lot of time doing.”


How do you like to spend your free time?

I spend a lot of time with my son. He loves games and I’ve learned a lot from watching him play and talking to him about his thoughts on games. It’s also been a strange full-circle experience watching him learn rudimentary coding. We are also pretty outdoorsy, we do a lot of camping and hiking, walking our gnawbeast (german shepard pup).”


What advice would you give to someone pursuing your career?

“Don’t stress tools over fundamentals. Develop a strong work ethic. Represent yourself carefully – edit the art you put out there. Soft skills are very important, no matter how specialized of an individual contributor you might be.”


Where can people find you or your work?

If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say?  What is your tagline?

Always curious.” [Smiles]


Sach, I really enjoyed this conversation.  I learned so much I didn’t know before.  Again, thank you for your time!

“Thanks Marcus! It has been great to talk to you – thank you for the work you are doing, I’ve enjoyed reading the interviews and look forward to seeing more.”

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