From Xenus to Starfield. An interview with Ilya Gulyaev, a Ukrainian artist working at Bethesda Game Studios
I met Ilya Gulyaev by chance. I posted on Twitter a photo of discs of old Ukrainian games from my own collection, and Ilya commented: “My path from Xenus to Starfield, my first job in game development, freelance 3D Modeler on Xenus, I was 14 years old.” As it turned out, Ilya managed to work not only on well-known Ukrainian games, but also on a number of AAA projects abroad, at Gameloft and Ubisoft, and now he is working on the most anticipated game of 2023 – Starfield. Of course, we arranged an interview.
Good afternoon, Ilya. To begin with, tell us who you are, where and with whom you work, and what is a Senior Environment Artist anyway? What is such a person responsible for, and what exactly do you do for Starfield – planets, ships, interiors?
Hello, or as they say in Quebec, “Bonjour-hi”! I am 35 years old and currently work at Bethesda Game Studios in Montreal as a Senior Environment Artist.
In game development, the Environment Artist / Level Artist is responsible for building locations from mostly pre-existing components created by other 3D and 2D artists. Yes, sometimes I need to start 3ds Max or Substance Painter to create something like that quickly, but it’s less and less. And to be honest, I’m fine with it, more creativity and fewer issues with modeling and UV layouts. I’ve managed to work as a 3D modeler in my 20+ years in the industry.
If we talk about Bethesda, we still have a moratorium on the distribution of information about who is responsible for what on the project, so I can only say that in game development, in general, the Senior Environment Artist is responsible for locations that require more attention and experience, story locations, etc. When I say “locations”, I mean interiors, exteriors plus some landscapes.
How much does an Environment Artist work on a game the size of Starfield, or Watch Dogs: Legion, which you worked on before? Do big studios outsource a lot of this kind of work?
I won’t say anything about Starfield, it’s still a secret, but, for example, about thirty-five Level Artists from three Ubisoft studios (Toronto, Montreal, and Paris) worked on Watch Dogs: Legion.
This work is done exclusively internally, it is mostly outsourced for game objects, cars, etc.
I understand that you can’t tell anything about Starfield itself yet. But tell me, how much does the work of the Environment Artist affect the final game? Can the Senior Environment Artist add his own vision to the game, any ideas of his own, or is the Art Director just pushing his own style? What is this to me: was it possible to insert some Ukrainian motifs into Starfield, as some of our studios like to do?
Of course, as an artist, you have the opportunity to add something of your own, and what’s more, it’s expected of you in cool studios, especially Senior. The initial vision from the art director and chief designer on location is the basis with which you already work, but everyone is ready to listen if you have a better idea than the one already proposed. But the art director will still have the final say.
And now let’s go back to where our acquaintance began, to Xenus: Boiling Point. It was probably 2003-2004. I understand that it was a dream job for a schoolboy. How did you get into Deep Shadows in the first place, what did you do for Xenus and where did you study, because no courses or tools existed back then, as far as I remember?
I am a typical self-taught person. My father bought a PC in the early 1990s, and my mother often played Doom (it’s interesting that now the Doom trademark belongs to Bethesda itself, the circle has closed – ed.). I think I was lucky to be born in a progressive family! Of course, in my childhood, I also mostly played games, but sometimes I drew something in Photoshop, made school business cards in Corel Draw, animations in Gif Animator, etc., I was a creative child.
But the real genesis in game development for me was the game Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis (2001) from the Czechs at Bohemia Interactive. I liked this military game so much that I wanted to learn how to make mods for it. I started with weapons, waited for the SDK, spent a lot of time in the forums, and learned to model.
At the same time, in the process, I learned English, because I noticed that on Russian-language 3D forums the beginner got more hate than help. That’s why I mainly hung out on English-language resources for 3D and rendering, where they gave good feedback, not demotivation.
My father noticed that I was serious, and gave his 14-year-old son a good piece of advice: pick up a Home PC (wink ;)), write down the names of all Kyiv studios, find their phones, call them and offer yourself as Padawan freelancer. Deep Shadows liked my work, and after completing the test task, I was commissioned to make cars and machinery. 3D and textures. That was my start in gamedev.
In my opinion, Xenus pioneered a lot of ideas that were then used by other open world shooters, like Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3. As someone who worked on both Xenus and Far Cry 6, and on Watch Dogs: Legion, do you think Ubisoft followed the steps of Deep Shadows, or were those ideas just on the surface at the time?
I don’t know for sure, but I think that the process of reintegration of already existing ideas is ongoing, in game development as well, and this is natural. Therefore it is possible!
And let’s go back a bit. You did not stay with Deep Shadows for Xenus 2: White Gold, but went to work at Nikitova Games, which was one of the first in Ukraine (along with Boston Animation) to start gaming outsourcing. Why? (The Kyiv part of Nikitova Games is Persha Studia, which in 2012 became Wargaming Kyiv – ed.). What games have you worked on at Nikitova Games?
Yes, Persha Studia was my first “office” job, it was in 2005. They were looking for 3D modelers for the project X3: Reunion (yes, this game, like many other famous video games, was also partially made in Kyiv – ed.), and at that time I already had several spaceships in my portfolio, and that is why they were interested by me Plus, I had an acquaintance there who helped by recommending me.
I was the youngest worker at that time, 17 years old, and I was very worried while the exam period was going on. But everything went well, I was in good company. At Persha Studia, I managed to work on X3: Reunion, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow, Medal of Honor Airborne, Heatseeker, and several other projects. Outsourcing was a kind of school. You have the opportunity to get acquainted with various project specifications, learn a lot in a short time, sometimes it was stressful. But I was young and in general, it was also an important experience. Now many specialists from Persha Studia work all over the world, I personally know several dozen such people.
The next stage of your career is 4A Games, where you created levels for Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light. Which of these two games are you more proud of than the others? What do you remember from working at 4A Games?
In 2007, I decided it was time for a change. I was intrigued by the project Metro 2033 and the very story of 4A Games, the same developers of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.! At that time, they were already perceived as modern living legends of Ukrainian game development! Therefore, when I received an answer and was invited to an interview, I was very happy.
At Metro 2033, I worked on locations D6 and Ostankino. Dmytro Zenin was in charge of these levels, he was previously the main artist on the “Cossacks” project. I played Cossacks A LOT when I was a kid, so it was a real thrill for me to work with another legend.
Separately from Dmytro, I created the Sukharevskaya station level for Metro 2033.
On Metro: Last Light, I worked mostly by myself, my biggest contribution was the 16th chapter of the game, the big swamps on the surface of the destroyed Moscow.
In general, my experience at 4A Games was very positive! We had a cool and fun team, and the years were good.
I understand that you are directly related to the well-known joke “Roissya vperde” from Metro: Last Light. Tell me how this inscription appeared.
So. I had a destroyed building in the “swamps” for which I had to come up with a name, and I decided that it should be a store. And when I started to decide which one, I somehow remembered a joke I came across on “Lurkomorye” (an informal, humorous Russian-language online encyclopedia built on the MediaWiki engine. After being included in the Russian list of extremist materials and blocked by Roskomnadzor, stopped functioning – ed.). It was a Chinese plate on a belt with a tricolor and the inscription “Roissya vperde”(“Rssuia is in deep shit”). I made a layout of Latin letters in the shape of the logo of the defunct fashion brand Roissy AV Perde and I liked that it sounded very fashionable. I didn’t tell anyone about it, no one noticed! (until Metro 2033 came out and then it caused quite a “fire” in the “swamps” – ed.)
In general, the Metro series has many references to Ukraine and Kyiv, some of which are unintentional, and some of which are 100% intentional. Russians consider the same inscription “Roissya vperde” to be russophobia. So you were russophobes back when it wasn’t mainstream? Or were these innocent jokes?
Where did this terrible russophobia come from in a Russian-speaking guy from the south of Ukraine in those days? Let’s recall… The first is Tuzla (conflict over the island of Tuzla between Russia and Ukraine in 2003 – ed.). The second is the coverage of the First Maidan in Russia and the interference in our elections in 2004. The third is the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. This was enough for me. But of course, against the background of everything that happened after, it all looks like an innocent joke, they deserve more serious jokes, which the Armed Forces of Ukraine is currently working on.
Let’s go on. Gameloft is already Canada and mobile games. How did you end up in Canada in the first place and how different is it from an Environment Artist perspective to work on mobile games compared to PC and console games? What Gameloft games have you worked on and how interesting was it from an artist’s point of view?
Yes, it was already 2012, a friend of mine, who has worked with me since the First Studio days, went to Canada and after a while after settling in, offered to introduce me to Gameloft Montreal (by the way, the studio Gameloft is also in Ukraine, in Kharkiv and Lviv – ed.‘s note). Why did I agree?
By this time, I had already traveled to Europe several times as a tourist, I wanted to get out of the nest and get to know the world around me. The search for a new job abroad continued, but it was still hard at the time, not all studios in not all countries did visa sponsorship. Canada and Australia were exceptions to these rules plus Gameloft is a big company that regularly invited people from all over the world. So even if I never dreamed of working there on mobile games, it was a ticket to the world that I took advantage of.
At Gameloft Montreal, I worked on Modern Combat 4, and helped out a bit on the Gangstar and Asphalt series.
Moving from Montreal to Toronto at Ubisoft Toronto. Do you feel like working on big games again? In general, what does it take for you to be hired by such a famous studio, to work on projects in the development of which hundreds of millions of dollars are invested? A strong portfolio, incredible skills, experience of other projects?
Of course, having worked in Ukraine on AAA projects, I was waiting for the opportunity to go further. After getting a Canadian residency permit in 2015, I started looking for a job again and was invited to an interview at Ubisoft Toronto.
I would like to add that at that time another friend of mine from the time of Persha Studia was already working there, and he recommended me. Here is a piece of advice for young people: of course, you have to be a professional and have the experience to get into such a studio, but another nuance that will make your professional path easier is to communicate and have a lot of contacts.
I understand that Canada is a kind of Mecca for big game studios. Montreal and Toronto are home to a bunch of very well-known companies, and employees change jobs from time to time. Why so? Canada is cheaper than the USA and it is a kind of outsourcing, as with TV series, many of which are filmed in Canada?
Yes, Canada has done and is doing a lot to develop game development. Favorable conditions are created for companies, and agreements are concluded at the provincial level, which gives a tax break or benefits for companies that want to open an office or make a large investment. Life here is a little cheaper than in the USA, and it is easier to get a visa. I think this is the main thing.
Well, how do you like working on projects with an open world? Is it true that artists here have almost an order of magnitude more work than in “corridor” games? How interesting was it to recreate real cities in games: San Francisco in Watch Dogs 2 or London in Watch Dogs: Legion? Is there not enough room for creative imagination?
In Toronto, I started working on Watch Dogs 2 (San Francisco). At Ubisoft Toronto, we were responsible for a part of the game map – Silicon Valley. This project was led by Montreal studio Ubi, with others helping out.
But Toronto was in charge of the development of Watch Dogs: Legion (London). I was on this project from start to finish, and I think we did a titanic job of recreating the London of the near future. You can argue about other aspects of the game, but I’m very proud of the art.
As for fantasy and own ideas, you can always find a place for them. For example, when I was working on the plan of one of the districts of London for Watch Dogs: Legion, I noticed that in old times there was the Euston Arch (built in 1837 – ed.), which was destroyed in 1962. At the time, it was an unpopular decision, and Michael Palin, one of Monty Python, even advocated for its reconstruction. I’m also a fan of classical architecture, so I ordered it from our “builders” and installed it, and now virtual London has this arch again. :)
And finally, Bethesda Game Studios, where you work now. Back again from Toronto to Montreal. By the way, which city is more comfortable to live in?
Yes, in 2021, we were still finishing Far Cry 6, then I moved back to Montreal for personal reasons and worked for Ubisoft Toronto remotely for a while. But they couldn’t do it permanently, so I started looking for a new job. After 6 years and 3 projects, it’s time for changes again.
About cities, to put it very simply, Toronto is a small New York, and Montreal is a kind of hybrid of old Europe and America. Here it is an old dispute, which city is better, I do not take sides, because I was happy in both. I think you can say that Montreal has more charm and charisma, there are a lot of expat Europeans, plus young people and students. My first three years here were a lot of fun, going to raves and private parties all the time. Here it is easy to find friends from all over the world. It is a city with almost tropical wet summers, colorful warm autumns, and cold winters that last until April. There is no spring as such here, just “bang!” and immediately summer in May. It is also cheaper to buy and rent housing here than in Toronto.
I understand that you joined the Starfield team at a stage where everything was almost ready, just finishing the details and catching bugs. Is there room for creativity even at the final stage of development?
Yes, I had two years to contribute, which is ideal for me, because at the beginning of a big project, it is very difficult, I know this from my own experience. For now, I’m proud of what I’ve added to the game, and when it finally comes out, I’ll be able to show and tell.
How different are the studios and corporate culture at Bethesda and Ubisoft? And what is it like to work in such a famous studio on SUCH a game? Do you feel the weight of responsibility, pride, fear?
I can say that in both studios the attitude and culture are very good and similar in the main – unlike my experience in Ukraine, here people are very concerned about work-life balance, that is, it is not very customary to stay at work here. Of course, they will not stop you if you want to work late or on the weekend, but they will be concerned to ask if you really need it, and even convince you to go home.
At Ubisoft, most of the time I worked in the office, like in the ancient pre-war days. But at Bethesda, I almost exclusively work from home. I think that it suits me very well and I work better that way. During my professional life, I have already served my time in studios. But of course, sometimes it is interesting to come to the office and physically meet with colleagues, go to lunch, etc.
What advice can you give to young Ukrainian artists who dream of working in game development? What tools to master? What to study? What should be included in the portfolio? Where to start a creative path? And is classical art education important? I understand that you didn’t finish the art university?
The main thing first is to choose the right course, to understand exactly what you want to do – levels, characters, effects, weapons or equipment, or maybe you want to be a versatile artist? There are a lot of roles for artists in game development. Of course, I’ve seen people change profiles on the go and everything was fine, but they still wasted some time.
Let’s say if you want to be like me, you need to know one of the 3D modeling packages like 3ds Max, Maya, or Blender. One of the engines on which games are built, for example, Unreal Engine or Unity 3D. And one or two programs for creating textures, such as Substance Painter / Designer or Photoshop.
Having mastered all this software, you can make a good portfolio and start looking for your first job.
How to learn? Watch tutorials, chat, read, create, make mistakes, spot them, and improve. If you are a fan of a game, try making a mod for it. It was my way. As an alternative, there are already numerous courses and programs in game art and design, but I know almost nothing about them, except that the best graduates from such programs in America and Canada are sometimes hired by companies like Ubisoft.
There has been a lot of talk lately about AI, including image-generating AI. These tools have already started to be used in games, I even know one Ukrainian game in which both code and graphics are created by AI, at least that’s what the developers say. Should game artists fear competition from AI? Is all this just a pastime, a fad?
Answering the previous question, I barely restrained myself from saying – that’s the end, forget it … don’t study anything but AI, but there are nuances here. First, I will say that I am an active user of AI, at the stage of interest and just experiments. My position on AI is simple – it will change everything and no one will ask permission or wait for you. Realizing this, I try to keep up and learn what is happening in this space. Changes in the field of AI are many times faster than, for example, during the active development of the Internet. Now, every few weeks, everything moves to a new level. 2D, 3D, music and sounds, texts… everything is generated. For now, a person sets the meanings and directions, but it is possible that soon AI will be able to generate original ideas and new directions by itself. These thoughts both scare me and inspire me.
What are the risks? For example, you will learn to make characters for five years, and it will turn out that you can generate them better and 1000 times faster with AI than the best artist or even the game itself can be generated in the evening according to your mood, a kind of Holodeck from Star Trek (a space on board a spaceship where a realistic environment can be reproduced with the illusion of solid objects, a kind of game/movie in honest 3D with tactile feedback – ed.) in everyone’s home. We are not there yet, but we will be there.
What now, leave everything and bury yourself? No, the final decisions will still be up to the person, your knowledge of anatomy will allow you to correctly prompt the AI when designing a character, or your understanding of composition and lighting will help when querying a location rendering. Therefore, it will still be necessary to have your own artistic experience. And in general, why do we create? Because it’s a thrill, that’s why AI, as an assistant, can simply expand the limits of what is possible for every artist. Even the genius Leonardo da Vinci had many assistants.
Finally, a couple of questions not about your work, but also about games. Do game artists play in their spare time? Or, as in the joke about machines, you can’t see these games anymore? If you play, what do you remember from what was released in the last couple of years? What impressed you as an artist?
For me, it’s really a bit like that joke, but we have different machines.
I have “eternal” games for pleasure, they are almost exclusively strategies: Total War: ROME II, Civilization, Stellaris. I’ve always loved serious simulators like MSFS 2020 and DCS World. Always loved Bethesda games, how much time was spent on Oblivion, Skyrim, and of course, Fallout is scary to imagine!
During my time at Ubisoft, I played a lot of Assassin’s Creed Origin, Odyssey, and FarCry 5; very cool games plus I didn’t work on them so it was interesting.
By the way, the situation with Starfield is different, I can’t tear myself away from the game, even though I’m working on it. This is rare for me, usually when a game is already released, you are not interested in playing it at all after the release. So for Starfield, that’s a good sign!
Everyone finds something different in games, I play to relax and immerse myself in another world, so, for example, I don’t play online games at all.
Since we are not talking about work, tell us about your hobby, and what you spend your free time on. How is it that while creating hyperrealistic cities and landscapes at work, you work in your free time on psychedelic and abstract works that are collected on your personal website? Is this a kind of break from games?
Personal art for me is another way not to “burn out” at work, photography is a lifelong business. Started in 2008, and later it became interesting to make photo collages from unused photo materials. At the same time, I was fascinated by the world of psychedelic and abstract art, I started rendering, painting, and chemistry.
It’s always interesting for me to find some way of using software that the developers didn’t even think about. Creative search is like alchemy, I have to constantly be in a state of discovering the secret. By the way, now in my free time, I am working on my own creative psychedelic project on Unreal Engine. But I hope I can talk about this a little later.
Also, I see you tried to sell your works as NFT? And how is it, are there prospects in this market for artists?
Truth be told, I broke into the NFT world purely by following the hype in 2021, but I quickly learned that this market is less about art and more about “contractors” selling and making money off the hype. I still keep my account, but I don’t do it anymore, there are more interesting things.
And the last question. It seems that after the start of a full-scale war, Ukrainian game development is experiencing a new renaissance. Something reminiscent of the late 1990s, early 2000s, a bunch of games in development, a lot is happening. Do you think we need more games about Ukraine and Ukrainian history? About Cossacks, Ukrainian People’s Republic, Ukrainian Resurgent Army, the current war? Would you like to work on such projects?
Ukraine has always been a country with strong game development, and if earlier many of our developers chose topics not related to Ukraine for marketing reasons, now the situation is changing thanks to the indomitable spirit and heroism of our soldiers at the front, and all Ukrainians who work for victory. Now the world knows Ukraine, and I think that Ukrainian studios will eventually have Western competitors. I do not rule out that after the victory of Ukraine, Call of Duty: Battle of Kyiv or Azovstal may be released. But Ukrainian studios will still have an advantage because all these epoch-making and heroic events happened in their country. I do not rule out that I myself could contribute to similar projects.
Thank you for the conversation, Ilya. All of us, like you at Bethesda, are very much looking forward to the release of Starfield and the chance to dive into this extraordinary adventure. Inspiration in your work and speedy victory for all of us!
Thank you, it was a pleasure to share my story. Ukraine will win!
P.S. All Starfield screenshots are official, we don’t know if Ilya worked on these levels.