The big gamble

Slot machine artists find inspiration in and out of the office

Dan Martin, an artist for Bally Technologies, thinks that the future of slot machines may lie in looking and feeling more like video games.

Dan Martin, an artist for Bally Technologies, thinks that the future of slot machines may lie in looking and feeling more like video games.

Photo/Josie Luciano

An art career that involves high pay, making work every day, and the chance to show your art to a constant stream of new viewers seems too good to be true. But that’s the job for the thousands of people involved in game art—a term that, in some Reno circles, is synonymous with gambling art.

Designing slot machines is a business that employs more artists than any other industry in the state but still seems to fly under the radar in terms of artist recognition and accolades. This is partially due to its commercial (as opposed to fine art) status, partly by design (artists work heavily with engineers, sound designers, and math techs to produce an anonymous final product), and somewhat because of the stigma that surrounds the gambling industry itself. In the U.S., 3 million people identify as “problem gamblers” with twice the national average living in Nevada.

According to those in the business, it’s “entertainment” and not “addiction” that drives game design. And among those creating the reels, belly art and animations for the games are artists who work hard to keep up with the professional curve of the industry, often dipping into their after-hours art for inspiration.

Design of the times

“I thought I was going to paint cars for a living,” said Dayle O’Brien, a game artist for Rogue Gaming. “And then I thought I was going to be a tattoo artist.”

But O’Brien’s plans changed when she moved to Reno after graduating from art school in the New York area. While taking a design class at the Nevada Museum of Art, O’Brien was approached by another student to do some contract slot machine drawings for the now-defunct gambling company GameTech.

“When I first got the job it was all hand-drawn stuff, and it wasn’t rudimentary, but it wasn’t great, you know?” said O’Brien. “And as you go, you skin your knees a lot, and you get a lot of harsh feedback, but it’s all for the best.”

Like a lot of other artists who came into the industry five-plus years ago, it was not uncommon for those with hand-drawing skills to learn much of their digital training on the job.

Game artist Derek Miller, also came into GameTech with only a traditional art degree and minimal Photoshop experience under his belt.

“I was able to fake it until I was able to make it—the classic thing,” said Miller. “A part of any art degree is a little bit of graphic design, but my focus was in 3-D design and moldmaking. … They didn’t even offer [digital] 3-D courses or anything like that at art school, it was mostly about the fine arts.”

O’Brien and Miller eventually left GameTech and started working for Rogue Gaming with a newfound proficiency in software like Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and several 3-D imaging programs. But beyond the digital luster, their current job still reminds them of art school from time to time.

“[Gambling design] is sort of like an art project in art school,” said Miller. “Here’s the perimeter. Here’s what you need to accomplish, and here’s what we’re trying to address. Whatever it is. We say OK, and we work with it.”

For those artists with a less-than-ideal art major experience, the gambling industry is the academic encounter they never had.

“I left college not learning anything about art,” said Dan Martin, an artist for Bally Technologies. “I’d always drawn my whole life, and I knew that’s what I wanted to study. … I’ve learned way more about art in the last three years at Bally than I did the 30 years before that.”

One of the hardest things that Martin has had to learn on the job is something students don’t always experience sitting through the constructive criticism of college courses—rejection. It’s a harsh truth but a necessary one for a business whose output depends on turning over massive amounts of content.

“At least 90 percent of what you do is flat out rejected,” said Martin. “You might work on something that you think is really cool and it just takes one person to just go, ’Eh, I don’t like that thing. It just doesn’t look that cool.’”

But the most significant lesson to emerge for Martin is discovering the limits of the industry itself. “I actually don’t see much of a future for slot machines unless they change kind of radically. I don’t think anyone is interested in just going and making a bet that they know they’re going to lose. … I think finally people are going to have to start making them more like video games. …Why should playing a video game be more fun than gambling?”

After hours

For creative people like game artists, operating at this level requires more than just professional development—it means finding time for personal artwork too. And after sitting at a computer all day, many artists find themselves going back to traditional media after-hours.

“[Gambling art] kind of fulfills a pixel-based need,” said O’Brien. “Before I started working in this industry, I would get a lot of enjoyment from doing a digital painting. … Now my interests have taken more of a domestic turn.”

After work, O’Brien spends her free time building things for her house—a chicken coop, a bar, a table—projects she feels require more “physical wrangling” than computer work.

Other game artists don’t mind a little digital crossover.

Miller’s work—geometric paintings that often look as though they’ve been printed onto his canvases—are heavily influenced by the clean lines and precision of computer-generated shapes, images that Miller describes as “over-the-top precise.”

Perhaps this level of meticulousness is the reason for Miller’s most recent art venture, a Bob Ross-inspired swing in the opposite direction titled Happy Accidents. Newly finished, the 50-minute performance piece placed Miller on the Potentialist Workshop stage in full Bob Ross drag while demonstrating the late artist’s much-loved oil painting tips and tricks for a live audience.

But even the traditional techniques that Ross was famous for have a virtual callback in Miller’s mind. “Bob Ross was just working within this method of constraints very much like the way that Photoshop works. It’s just a matter of how you know your tools.”

Martin’s art, like Miller’s, also draws on Photoshop for inspiration, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at his paintings. They are lifelike portraits of game characters—Link from Legend of Zelda, Geralt from Witcher, and Martin’s own D&D avatar to name a few—that use a combination of old Flemish painting techniques for layering, and Photoshop for the value study and composition phases of the work.

Unsurprisingly, they also look a lot like images you might see on slot machines if slot machines tracked videogames a little more closely. But as Martin suggested, that might be around the corner.