Video Game Artist Salary for 2016

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This article is part of the Video Game Developer Salary series. Read about the annual salary ranges of all video game jobs, and get advice on maximizing your paycheck throughout your career.

young video game artist

Does video game art pay better than finger painting? Or is it just slightly less messy?

Table of Contents

  1. Game Artist salary: Overview
  2. Game Artist salary: Factors
  3. Game Artist salary: Details
  4. Other factors that affect Artist salary
  5. Demand for Game Artists
  6. Should I become a Game Artist?

When I first started playing video games (way back in the 1970’s!), the “art” was pretty terrible. A game’s screen could only show a few colors at a time, and often the “character” you were playing was little more than a colored square. Games were so simple that it was common for a single developer to do everything by herself – all the design, all the coding, and all the art.

But that all changed over the years. As gaming systems grew more powerful and made the leap from 2-dimensions to full-color 3D, the video game artist’s job became too much for one person to handle. Now, the job that was once done by a single artist has fragmented into many different art specialties, each with its own suite of tools and techniques that take a lifetime to master. But when it comes down to the paycheck, not all art jobs are created equal.

How much do video game artists make? And how much could you make as a game artist?

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Video Game Artist Salary: Overview

If you’re considering a career in game art, you should understand that there are many different types of art jobs. What kind of art speaks to you? Are you drawn to 3D modeling? Or do you prefer breathing life into characters as an animator? Maybe you love the exploration and architectural bent of environment art? Each one has its own job title, support community, and salary range.

Before we dig into the details, here’s a quick overview: Game artist salaries start at around $30,000 annually for entry-level art positions. They can grow to as much as $90,000 per year, and even higher for senior or lead positions. So, how is game artist pay determined? (All salaries shown in US dollars.)

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Game Artist Salary: Factors

Like most jobs, game artist salaries are based on years of experience, areas of expertise, and whether there’s a “lead” or a “senior” in the job title. The more experience you have, the more you’re likely to get paid.

However, one of the challenges of being an artist is finding a job at a game studio that is a strong fit for your particular art style. For example do you excel at a colorful-anime style of art but you work at a company that requires gritty, sepia-tinted first-person shooter art? If so, you may find that you hit a “glass ceiling.” You might be able to make more at a company that values your anime style. So finding a company that’s a strong match for your skills and style is important.

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Game Artist Salary: Details

Okay, let’s take a look at the numbers in detail. These figures are generally from three sources: GlassDoor.com, Game Developer Magazine’s annual salary survey, and my own experience working with artists in the game industry.

One way to break down the numbers is to look at experience. Here are the average salaries for game artists with various years of experience.

Video Game Artist salary by years of experience

Under 3 Years 3-6 Years 6+ Years
Game Artist / Animator
$55,000 $65,000 $78,000
Lead Artist / Tech Artist
N/A $71,000 $105,000
Art Director
N/A N/A $110,000

Note that there isn’t data for Lead Artists or Art Directors until they have 3 to 6 years’ experience. This is because artists normally must accrue several years of on-the-job experience before they can be promoted into leadership positions.

Another way to break down the numbers is to look at each game artist salary based on job title. I think this is more useful because it gives a salary range. It also shows the differences between the various areas of art expertise, rather than lumping them all together under a single job title.

Video Game Artist salary by job title

Low/year High/year
Game Artist (Generalist)
$40,000 $90,000
Concept Artist
$45,000 $100,000
Character Artist
$45,000 $65,000
Environment Artist
$50,000 $120,000
Technical Artist
$40,000 $105,000
Character Animator
$35,000 $100,000
2D Artist
$60,000 $75,000

Other Factors That Affect Game Artist Salary

The numbers above are averages from many hundreds of artist salaries, so they’re very general. In reality, there are other factors that can affect how much an artist is paid.

  • Company/studio size. Larger companies generally have bigger project budgets, which allows them to pay their game artists higher salaries. For example, GlassDoor.com indicates that some concept artists at Riot Games are being paid as much as $200,000/year. That’s almost double the top-range artist salary at most other game studios.
  • Stylistic Fit. Most artists have particular styles they excel at. While a great artist may be able to simulate other art styles, it certainly slows them down. If you can get into a studio that is a great match for an art style that you can do well and do quickly, then your earning potential will increase.
  • Ability to Specialize. Or to Generalize…┬áSmaller game teams can place a lot of value on artists who can work in many different art styles in many different roles. They don’t need to be great at everything, but they do need to be able to pick up any work that might be needed. On the other hand, larger teams tend to value an artist that is highly specialized in one area, and can consistently do high-quality, expert-level work in that area. Finding the right team and studio that values your generalist or specialist skill set is important.
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Demand for Game Artists

The game industry is a boom-and-bust business, and unfortunately it’s often the art jobs that are hit the hardest during “bust” cycles. It can be particularly devastating when a big company like Zynga lays off dozens of artists and they’re all looking for new jobs at the same time. Fortunately, games can’t be made without art, and many companies are willing to hire artists on a contract basis until the “boom” cycle starts again. The chart below illustrates the demand for game artists, based on the number of monthly job postings that include the terms “video game artist” in their description at Indeed.com (a job-posting aggregator).

Note that this approach can give a lot of false positives. For example, a given job posting might actually be for a Game Designer but it might show up in the data if it mentioned “must work well with artists.” But that’s okay for our purposes because we’re interested in the trends, not the absolute numbers.

video game artist Job Trends graph

This chart shows that demand for game artists has some serious ups and downs, but is steadily increasing over time.

Should I Become A Game Artist?

If you’re passionate about making games and you can’t remember a time when you didn’t draw or paint whenever you got the chance, then you might just love making art for games. Few artists outside of games get a chance to have their work brought to life by an army of designers and programmers. And there’s nothing like seeing a player become totally immersed in the environments or characters that you built with your own hands.

If you’re interested in checking out some of the top game art schools in the country, just enter your zip below. The info is free, so it’s a great place to start.

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Image: David Castillo/freedigitalphotos.net

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17 comments on “Video Game Artist Salary for 2016
  1. Felicia says:

    This is very resourceful information. I’m trying to get a grasp on this because it’s something I’m very interested in and no one seems to understand it. I’m twenty years old, nearly finished my Bachelor of Arts is History and I’m dead set on becoming an artist in the gaming industry.

    I’m having trouble finding a school with the proper credentials and teachings that’ll enable me to work successfully. I’ve had a lot of negative responses from family/friends etc. but this is a more sensible break down of the realities and I thank you for it. I’m already an artist and I know I’m naturally talented at anything creative so I feel this not only would suit me professionally, but make me extremely happy.

    Any advice on what schools to attend to qualify for this? I’m interested in all of it (and still trying to decide if I should do 2D, 3D or both).

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Felicia. Unfortunately, it’s common for parents and peers to not really understand video games, or the video game industry. Most people don’t understand that it’s a multi-billion dollar industry with thousands of jobs, many of them very high-paying compared to the average.

      I don’t recommend one school over another on this website – you’ll have to do your research, ask around, contact some schools to get more information and make your decision. But if you definitely have a passion for game art and you’re good at it, then any art school that focuses on art for games or interactive media should prepare you for a job in the game industry.

      While it’s important to become comfortable with 2D art techniques, its absolutely critical that you focus on 3D art if you want to get into games. Good luck, and have fun!

    • Kaitlynn says:

      Hey Felicia, I was reading your comment and I had to reply. I’m currently enrolled at Full Sail University for my Bachelors of Science in Game Art, they even have an online course, and they send you a laptop and any other things you may need. I hope this helped!

  2. Diran says:

    Great information on this page. I’m currently 21 years old and have always wanted to become an animator. However the stories I heard about the employment rates, the hours on the job and the salaries do deter me.

    Do you think it would be good to get a degree into animation or would it be better to skip the degree and try to get an internship and get some work experience under my belt?

    What’s the best way to start out and break into the industry?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Diran, you’re right to be slightly deterred by the long hours and lower-than-average salaries. The game industry is competitive, and some studios take advantage of young peoples’ enthusiasm to work overtime to ship a good product.

      You may have a difficult time getting an internship unless you already have an animation portfolio to prove to potential employers that you have talent. If you don’t yet have enough work to build a portfolio, then getting an animation degree would be one route. There are also some non-degree programs that might be good for you – for example I’ve heard of great results from Animation Mentor.

  3. Joshua Eudy says:

    I’m 13 and really interested in being a artist do u think it would be good to be a game tester while I’m getting my college degree

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Joshua! Yes, if you are able to get a part-time job as a tester in the same town where you go to college, then that would be a good way to earn some extra money and learn more about the industry while you go to school. But if you can’t get a testing job (maybe because the game companies in your town only offer full-time positions) then any job you can get to pay for school will be fine – the important thing is to get your degree.

      • Nicksonder Examar says:

        Hi Jason, I’m 17, I will be 18 in December, I finished high school this year but I didn’t graduate because I didn’t pass the reading requirement, I don’t know what career I’m going to do yet but I’ve been thinking about game artist. I took art in my senior year, I learn something a little bit in art but I think I still have a lot to learn , so, I have two questions for you : Can anybody be a game artist ? We all know that to be an artist you need to be able to come up with a lot of ideas, I have nothing in my brain, is going to school and get a degree in art will help me develop my ideas ?

        Please, help, thank you for responding !

      • Jason W. Bay says:

        To be a game artist, you need to have talent and skill in creating game art, and you need to know how to use various art tools. If you haven’t spent much time yet growing your art skills, then you might need to practice more to build your skills and your portfolio before you can get hired. Going to art school can help, but art school isn’t guaranteed to make you succeed if you don’t have some talent and passion for art already.

  4. Greetings, I really liked this Article, I am one of those artist who loved drawing since i was born, I continued and graduated from the Art Institute, while my passion and education is high for 3 years since i have graduated i have not been able to find an art job anywhere that would hire me. I am really focused, do no drugs, have no criminal record but its seems I am treated that way, Maybe you can tell me something I am doing wrong, I have applied for so many jobs. please look at my portfolio. https://www.behance.net/AnsarsMasterPieces

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Ansar, I’m not an art director so my feedback on your art portfolio wouldn’t be helpful (although I do think you have some cool stuff!). I’d recommend you try to get some constructive feedback from an art teacher, or an artist or director in the game industry – maybe connect with them on LinkedIn or at a game dev meet up in your area. Or, if you’re getting job interviews but aren’t getting an offer, then it’s possible that your interviewing skills need more work. My best advice is to get some honest feedback from other artists.

  5. Albert says:

    Why are Character Artists so low-payed in comparision to the others?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      That’s a good question, but I don’t know the answer. If I had to speculate, I’d say maybe there are more artists interested in doing character work, or more schools teaching character skills, so there’s more competition for those jobs. I’ll do some research with art directors I know, and see what I can find out for you.

  6. zz says:

    In uhhh.. what country are these salaries happening?

  7. Hayden says:

    For the longest time, I worried about not having the technical skills to cut it as a professional artist. Nowadays, its more about the prospect of long hours and little pay.. If you want to be a family man, it’s surely next to impossible?

    That said, if youre married to your work.. well! its a perfect job I’d say?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      It’s definitely not impossible — I know dozens of artists who have families, children, pets, hobbies, etc. It can be a balancing act during times when your project is crunching to ship, but most of the time it’s like any other day job.

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