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‘I was the worst in my class’: How Sofya from Karagandy Got Dream Job in Australian Game Company

‘Being an artist is not a real job’. A long personal story that proves it wrong

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all photos provided by Sofya Medvedeva
all photos provided by Sofya Medvedeva

Sofya Medvedeva, a game character artist born in Karagandy, was just an art student in Vancouver when she turned down job offers from industry giants, Microsoft and Electronic Arts (EA). She returned to Kazakhstan after her studies and spent a year designing characters for mobile game developer MadOut. Today, the 24-year old works for Motorsports Games in Australia.

Read how Sofya grew from an absolute beginner with zero knowledge in Photoshop to a highly-skilled professional in the interview with QazMonitor below.

Have you always wanted to do game art?

I always knew I wanted to draw. When I was 18, I didn't know there was such a thing as game art. I heard that people worked in games, but I didn't know there was a place to learn. When I told my dad about it, he really didn't like it at first. He wanted me to be a psychologist, saying "an artist is not a real profession". But now he is happy that he supported me. He says he's proud.

Why did you choose VanArts? Did you get a bachelor's degree?

It's more of a certificate program. My parents paid for my tuition. It wasn't that hard to get in, but it was hard to study. I chose that school because I had never been interested in academia and just needed the practice.

In our industry, no one cares what your education level is, as long as you have a decent portfolio. If you're a great artist, education is a plus - but it's never the main thing. Even if you don't have a bachelor's degree, you can still get a job in the video game industry.

Was it hard to study?

I have very high standards for myself. I wanted to get the most out of my education. But when my course began, I was pretty much the worst in the class. It was so frustrating. I kept thinking: "How could this be?" (laughs).

When I did my first assignment - a 3D-head (I modeled Anne Hathaway, but you would never guess) - I looked at others’ works and realized that I still had a lot to learn. My "head" couldn’t even pass off as an alien.

I had never worked on a computer before, as my background was in traditional art only. I had spent four years in art school and had been painting since I was a child. I didn't even have any Photoshop skills, so it was pretty challenging in the beginning.

What was the driving force for you in your studies?

When I made that head, I had to present it in front of the whole class. I didn't like it very much; I didn't want to show everyone my ‘creation’. My senior instructor - he had worked on Mass Effect video games - said that he expected more from me. This phrase echoed in my head all the time. I was in panic.

I sat at my desk thinking ‘what if game design is not for me’, ‘what if I had made a mistake?’. I remembered all the words other people had said to me that I would never make it. And then I thought: I'll prove them I can do it!

I proved myself in my final work, a portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio. This was at the end of my studies when I was already starting to get job offers from companies, such as Microsoft and EA Games. That same instructor then bragged to everyone, saying "that's Sofya, one of my best students.”

How did you get to this point?

No one wants to admit it, but my classmates and I would hide inside the university after classes. It was me and a few other crazy people who tried to maximize our time and build our portfolios. We stayed there at night, hiding from the security guards under desks [laughs]. The guards decided there was nothing they could do about it and didn't bother us. I didn’t have a good computer nor all the softwares I needed at home. VanArts offered a decent set-up with two displays.

Did you stay overnight at the university?

Many, many times. It was a real adventure. It is one of the best years of my life so far - I had a lot of fun. I was learning new things. That’s the whole romance of taking your first steps in character design.

I bought myself a big blanket from Costco [a low-price, membership-only retailer], laid out big drawing paper sheets on the floor where I would curl up in my blanket for a couple of hours. Then I would wake up and get back to work. Energy drinks and coffee were my saviors.

Tears, fears, and true gangster fits

Why didn't you accept the job offers from Microsoft and EA Games?

I couldn't accept them because I couldn't get a work visa. My hopes had been high, so my return to Kazakhstan was unexpected.

To tell you the truth - on my first day back from Canada, I lay down on my bed and just started to cry. I was hysterical. My mom kept said, "What's wrong? You're okay, you're home," and I sobbed, "I want to go back to Canada" (laughs).

It's not that I don’t like Kazakhstan or anything like that. It’s just that [Kazakhstan] does not yet have an ambition to grow in the area that I'm interested in. To be honest, I didn't have a clue about what to do at home. At that time, things were quite sad and scary.

How did you cope with that? Did the subsequent work in Nur-Sultan help you?

In Nur-Sultan, I worked on character design and 3D models for MadOut, a major game developer that is known for its GTA-like game. Vlad, our main developer, made me a job offer. My mom helped me move to the capital, since she was worried about me. I was only 20 years old.

There were only three of us on the team when I joined. They told me right away that the game characters they had were taken out of the market because they weren't good enough. I redid pretty much the entire character design. In a year, I created both male and female characters with different face structures, hairstyles, and clothes.

We tried to make the shirts match any pair of pants so you could mix and match at random. The gangsters had a capsule wardrobe [laughs], sandals with socks, and Adidas-inspired pants, obviously. A style for real gangsters.

That sounds like fun. Is that when your fears completely receded?

It happened when I went to Australia. Until then, I had my moments every now and then. I'm a pretty ambitious person so working for a small company my whole life is not for me, though I don't judge people who might choose to do that. My dream is to start my own company, but that's a long way from now. I first want to achieve one big thing before moving on to the next thing.

Carrot and stick

Why did you decide to get a bachelor's degree in Australia? You already had good work experience, didn't you?

I wasn't going to get a bachelor's degree, at first, but I had to get one because many countries guarantee a work visa if you get a degree. I chose design in 3D animation. My undergraduate program was two years instead of three because I was able to transfer some credits from VanArts.

I've noticed that at universities in my industry, people aren't ready to go to work after they graduate. They don't get the right skills and they don't have enough discipline. There has to be some kind of carrot and stick.

You probably didn't feel like you were the worst in the group anymore?

I felt like I knew everything. [laughs] I’m joking of course, but I already had a teaching background and work experience, as well as a portfolio. I was rather bored than challenged. It was more academic, involving more presentations, videos, and research.

Since we were covid students in Australia, half of our assignments were COVID-related. "Make a thing to make people want to get vaccinated" or something like that.

How did you manage to get a job in Australia?

On my first day of university, I signed up for a creative coding course. I came to the lecture with my iPad. After class, I introduced myself to the lecturer, told him about my work experience, and showed him my portfolio. He was very impressed and said that he knew one company that might be interested. After a while, I got an email from Fika Entertainment, a company that works with motion capture. I got an internship there quite easily; they liked my work and took me on a paid project in the first week.

What projects did you work on before Motorsport Games?

At Fika, we animated character dance for BBC’s Scream Street. Besides that, I worked with two American startups. One of them was a project called SoWork, which created a virtual workplace in the metaverse. They had an office where you could walk up to an employee and start a conversation. I started working at Motorsport Games in December of last year.

Not a cog in the machine

Was it difficult to get a job at Motorsport Games?

A friend of mine already worked at Motorsport Games and told the company director about me. Since they are developing a realistic racing simulator, it was important to them that a job candidate was capable of creating realistic game characters. At the interview, I showed one of my works - a realistic rendering of Margot Robbie. After the interview, the director sent me an offer right away.

The portfolio is only 90% of your resume. Soft skills matter. No employer likes people who complain all the time. No matter how many years of experience you have, you should always be open to feedback - especially if you're a junior and you were just told to re-do your work.

Those who don’t develop themselves and act like they know everything don’t last long in the industry.

How do feel about your current job?

Our director, Zach, cultivates a great work environment. At our company, everyone is allowed to voice their opinion, even if you're a junior. If you think something should be changed, everyone will listen to your feedback. They may not necessarily implement it, since the company has its priorities, but they will listen to your feedback. The company tries to show that every employee is important, which is very nice. You don’t feel like a machine part that can be replaced.

Also, when we have some company-wide gatherings, the company pays for everything: lunch, dinner, and daily work expenses. I've never had that before.

You said you’re working on a racing simulator. What's your role in the project?

I make the drivers, but the project puts more emphasis on the cars, of course. Still, I try to do my best. The only thing that keeps me from testing the limits of my skills is deadlines. We have a set release date for the game. Since our simulator is still in development, I can't tell you much - but I will say that "the story is based on real events."

Do you stay overnight like you used to back in the days?

We do the opposite here (laughs). We are working remotely because of the pandemic. The office is being prepared for our return.

What are you going to do after the game comes out?

I won't say too much about it yet - I don't want to jinx it. Maybe I'll leave, maybe not. Only time will tell. I am happy with the way things are now. The team, the company, the salary - it’s all great. I have no complaints.

After all these years, how does your family feel about your job now?

They're glad. Once I told my dad about my new job, and he went "wow, motorsport”. We don't really talk a lot about work. I remember one time I was talking with my grandma. She asked, "Sofa, do you eat? Do you have money for food?" I said, "Grandma, look at my face; of course, I do!" She saw my couch in the background and asked "Is that your bed? Why is it so small?" I said, "Grandma, I have a one-room apartment. This is my couch." Anyway, she's worried that I'm starving here (laughs).

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Success story
Designer
Game industry
Australia