Elise Motzny

Welcome to She Builds Games!  This week’s interview is the third in a series of three artists that have shared their experience with being a female artist in the video games industry. Elise “EJ” Motzny makes 3D art for games, movies, & simulations.
Game Art Portfolio:
Four games EJ has worked on include Luminus, Undertakers, ArmyDillos, and Yeti’s Quest. See the artwork she did for these games at http://elisemotzny.com.

EJ has attended the prestigious Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), volunteered for the 3G: Girls, Gaming, & Gender summit, is actively involved in promoting geeky women & minorities through Chicago local groups Sugar Gamers and  Voxelles, and is currently accepting offers for work.

3D Artist

Columbia College of Chicago: Bachelor of Arts in Game Art

LinkedIn Profile

When did you first start playing games?

My father built a computer for me when I was a toddler. He made a spaceship game. Whenever I pressed any buttons, rockets would explode or shoot across the screen. My favorite story involves my cousin Michael and me playing Wolfenstein 3D (pictured below) with my dad, with each of us sitting on one of his knees. Dad would control the character movement, I would control the opening & closing of doors, and Michael would control the shooting. Every time a dog would jump out on the screen, I would yell, “Don’t shoot the doggies!”

“Wolfenstein 3-D”

What made you want to start making games?

I used to spend a lot of time modding Sims games. I was really infatuated with trying to get 3D models and specific objects into the game. (The first Sims game didn’t really have a lot of choices back then.) The first tutorial I ever found for 3D modeling was how to build a leg that looked like the Leg Lamp from “A Christmas Story.” *laughs* It was for a program called MilkShape 3D, which is now known as Blender.

“Try not to be too discouraged by the things you make.”

What’s a game you recently played that inspired you in some way?

ōkami and similar works, such as a book called Goddess of the Celestial Gallery (pictured below), inspired my artwork in Yeti’s Quest. Speaking of art, Salvador Dali and Georgia O’Keefe inspire me too. I always try to have some dreamy qualities in my work. ōkami has a very cartoonish, calligraphic feel. For my personal work, I’m currently inspired by Disney’s princess films, like Sleeping Beauty’s beautiful environment backgrounds painted by Eyvind Earle.

“Goddess of the Celestial Gallery”

Artists’ styles are also important to me in video games. When creating personal works, I stay away from realism. I feel depicting reality is mundane while illustrating my imagination and the wonders within fantasy to be fascinating.

How else do you create art?

I really love painting, a lot. I learn a lot about lighting a game from painting environments. While the methods are different, the general moods and emotions can be the same. Painting just feels more natural. I love creating moods and emotions in art. I think the lighting process is a very emotional process, whether to make an environment feel relaxing and beautiful, or uncomfortable and horrific.

What programs do you make art in?

I use Maya, ZBrush, PhotoShop, Unreal Engine, Unity, Marmoset Toolbag, Crazy Bump, and Quixel.

What is the one most important aspect of a game that you feel elevates the good games above the rest?

Keeping your player interested constantly. Immersion. There are too many times where I’ve gotten bored with a game and set it aside.

Is there any game you’ve worked on recently that you’d be excited to talk about?

There’s a game I worked on called ArmyDillos, it’s on Kongregate. (That means you can click here to play it right now. It’s best played with a friend!) You’re a little armadillo, rolled up in a ball. The object of the game is to knock your opponent off the stage three times. It’s only two player, but it would be really fun as a party game. It was a weekend game jam game where we raced to make a game in 2 days.

“ArmyDillos,” models made by Elise Motzny

Could you talk about the work flow you use when designing art for a game?

Have a solid game plan. Once you have a solid idea, it’s easier to fall back on, in case anything should go awry. Planning is extremely important, and too often, artists and game designers skip the concepting phase or don’t do it enough. The more you can plan, and see what affects what, the easier it will be. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right on the first (or fifth) try.

Try not to be too discouraged by things you make.

“Perhaps women employees are discouraged from being outspoken in fear of receiving backlash from the ‘unfortunate’ side of the game community. To them I say, Please stand out. Please mentor other female game developers!”

Are there any development roadblocks you’ve run into more than once, or for an extended period of time?

Oh ugh, yes! *groans* Lack of belief in myself and my own artwork has been my biggest challenge, because I’ve sometimes been blind to the fact that I wasn’t believing in myself.

How did you deal with the roadblock and keep progressing?

Trudging through it and talking with my friends is how I dealt with the roadblock and kept progressing. I wouldn’t stop making art; it didn’t matter if it was good or bad, I just made it. If you shut down and choose not to talk about it, you’re not giving yourself a chance. So seek aid! Seek someone to talk to! It doesn’t even have to be a professional game artist, it can just be a friend who knows a little about your game. You just need someone to say, “No, what you’re doing really is cool! I believe in you!”

Are there any other roadblocks you’ve faced?

Another roadblock I’ve run into is when people show great passion & enthusiasm, and make promises, but don’t follow through. That is the biggest red flag you can ever see when it comes to working on projects as a team. When someone says they’re going to do something but they don’t, it not only causes problems for you, but it also causes problems for the team and lets the game down. Things can just dwindle and fall apart.

How did you deal with that?

That person either needs to be confronted immediately or dropped from the team and replaced. Yes, it will be difficult to do that, especially if this person is your friend, but if you want the project to get done, you just gotta do it. There’s no sugar-coating it.

“Stop convincing yourself not to go to industry events because you don’t know what you’ll gain. Just go. Too often we feel like staying home in our caves rather than reaching out to others.”

How do you stay organized while working with other people?

We use Plastic SCM version control software. I even use it for my own personal artwork and encourage other digital artists to learn and use it too! It makes organizing a file history completely painless because you’ll no longer have to enumerate your files.

I really Google Drive and Google Documents that anyone can edit online at the same time.

Where do you get your best work done? (In an office? From home?)

Right now, at home in my office. I feel really fortunate to have my own home office. Most artists at my stage in life don’t have that benefit. Sometimes I go to coffee shops, but I spend tons of money on coffee! (I love Julius Menil and Soho House!) At home, however, I have the distraction of my cat, Blu, who loves playing fetch!


How do you meet like-minded developers?

I met some of the people I work with currently at Columbia. I met developers at 3G: Girls, Gaming, and Gender summit, where I volunteered. 3G was all about being a mentor to young girls in gaming. Cindy Miller and I helped bring the ideas of those young girls to fruition. This was with some really high profile indie game devs, like Erin Robinson (Indie Game Designer, (“PuzzleBots,” “Nanobots,” and “Gravity Ghost“). I first met Erin at the Chicago Indie City Games meeting, and I’ve been playing Gravity Ghost ever since. I played it in its infancy! *laughs*


Created by Erin Robinson, “Chicago’s Indie Video Game Darling

I also meet awesome people like Sarah Sexton(!) at Chicago Video Games Industry Night. GDC is cool, but make sure you go with a goal in mind, such as, make one awesome contact that you will keep in touch with after you leave San Francisco. But stop convincing yourself not to go to industry events and meet ups because you don’t know what you’ll gain. Just go. Too often we feel like staying home in our caves rather than reaching out to others. You never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to learn. I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I didn’t benefit from an event, convention, or just going out somewhere. I want you to go to these game industry events so I can meet you!!!

“Stop telling people what to do during games and just let them figure it out and have fun.”

What sort of games do you think there are not enough of? (What direction to you want to see the industry take?)

Cooperative party games that are really fun. I feel like there has been a lack of fun multiplayer cooperative games in the adventure genre. I’m a big fan of Skyrim, and it would have been fun to cooperatively play through games like that on my couch. Games more fun with friends while playing in the same room. I used to play Duke Nukem and have something like 13 computers in the same room and that was how I spent every birthday as a kid. I could actually see and hear my friends’ screams of agony as I blew them up with a bazooka or tripped them with a laser beam!

How would you involve women with the gaming community, who otherwise might not become involved on their own?

My friend became more interested in games by me just handing her a controller and letting her do whatever she wanted without yelling at her. Stop telling people what to do during games and just let them figure it out and have fun. I call that the Mom Test – if my mom can’t figure it out, it’s the game’s fault. I think too many hardcore gamers forget that it’s not just about acing every level. Not everyone needs to come in first place to have fun; some people just want to ride the snowboard down the mountain while laughing hysterically, but enjoyed every minute of it.

What can big companies like Microsoft do to bring more women into gaming?

Stop trying to address the female audience directly. I feel like that doesn’t help, it hinders. A game should be able to be diverse. For example, I loved Unreal Tournament but I hated Barbie. I just feel like if your audience is not having fun playing a game, they’re not going to care, and they won’t be impressed. So stop targeting the female audience directly and just make good games for any audience. Just because it’s pink with sparkles and has Barbie plastered all over it doesn’t mean we’ll like it. I feel like when you address the female audience directly, you’re addressing a different problem regarding gender stereotypes.

As for game devs, publish more lady game dev and lady artist interviews! It seems like every tutorial I look at is made by a dude! I know there are more ladies out there because I’ve seen & met them! Big studios should share & interview their female developers. (Although perhaps those women employees fear backlash from the ‘unfortunate’ side of the game community. To them I say, Please stand out. Please mentor other female game developers.) If big studios could do what you’re doing, Sarah, by interviewing a lady game dev, other women could see that and be inspired by that.

Do you think people with diverse backgrounds impact the development community?

I think they keep games from being one-sided. It’s not even about “diversity,” it’s about having enough people that think differently. If everyone on your team thinks the exact same, what value is that worth? Not much, in my opinion.

Thank you, Elise, for your great stories!


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