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Changing The Game & Beyond With Artist Jaime Lau

Art is sometimes described as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination; a medium that transcends various experiences and senses, ultimately coming together to make something transformative in some shape, way, or form. Jaime Lau is one such transformative artist, a concept artist by trade, but an artistic dynamo of an art director majority of the time.

Known for working on distinctively Southeast Asian works, often created with a variety of styles, we had the opportunity to interview Jaime on the realities of freelance artist work in the current digital landscape, and on his most recent achievement – being a part of the winning team for YSEALI Game Changers.

Tell us about your journey as an artist.

Surely, no different from the norm! Doodling self-indulgent comics in tattered exercise books when I should’ve been doing my homework, end up developing no other profitable hobbies or interests, be thankful for parents who let me professionally pursue that hobby as marketable labour, and now making the best out of an industry that is notorious for financial instability and work-life imbalance!

In all seriousness, I’ve always believed that the art of entertainment plays an essential role in humanity’s continued survival—and I know in my heart that if nothing else, I love to entertain. Had it not been art, it could’ve been theatre, film, literature, music, sketch comedy, and more!

All these forms of art are precious to my growth as a person, and in spite of it all I know I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. Even if I was slaving away in an office cubicle to generate profits for CEO Daddy BigBucks, I’d still use whatever pittance Daddy CEO doles out to pursue art in some form.

Have you always wanted to do concept art for games? How did you get to this role?

When you think of “concept art”, your mind thinks about beautiful, rich worldbuilding illustrations and detailed character concept sheets printed in high-value artbooks sold at Kinokuniya for high fidelity AAA games like “Final Fantasy”, “The Last of Us” and such. In a lot of ways, this is the height of aspiration for a concept artist.

So, I’ve always thought that concept art would be a cool trajectory for my artist career, but honestly I also just kinda fell into the role. The breadth of my expertise is also specific to a concept artist who has worked more with smaller teams, and is incomparable to one that works in big studios—not just the obvious gulf in technical skill, but also types of workload.

For example, I end up doing a lot more UI/UX concept art than expected (compared to illustrative or design work), because in a smaller team you have to do jobs for a lot of different roles. A game doesn’t need many character concepts if you don’t have enough character modellers on staff, but all games need an attractive and accessible user interface (UI). And most laymen (in my experience) don’t associate UI with the work of a concept artist! Surely unexpected, but it is a boon to be able to oversee multiple creative directions of the game in pre-production, because that’s the development phase where you have the strongest creative input.

That’s part of why I like doing concept art. A lot of concept art is done during pre-production, because this phase is all about asking and answering questions about your game—and ultimately, your ability to create interesting concepts is oriented around your innate curiosity about the world. One of my favourite go-to inspirations for concept art is people-watching, fashion and art movements (both historical and modern), because I sincerely believe that familiarising oneself more about the living, breathing stories walking around us on Earth is integral to being a well-rounded creative person who will never run aground of interesting ideas.

What’s it like being a freelance concept artist in Malaysia?

I’ve had a smattering of art gigs in corporate where my job was just: do the thing that your client asks you to do, no questions asked. So far as a freelancer, I am happy to be drawn to projects with a smaller team that are open to more creative input. Asking high-level questions about the story, the world, the marketing plan, the product output and all that… It may be an arduous process that many (understandably) don’t want to go through for a simple paycheck, but to me, it’s ever so rewarding to learn more about the whole process and use that knowledge to craft a richer experience—whether it is in a comic, game, cartoon, etc.—for the creator and the consumer.

The irregularity of my income is a source of anxiety, but I daresay it has been a creatively gratifying and enriching experience so far. I don’t believe it is sustainable long-term in Malaysia, but I will admit that I am privileged enough to be in a position that allows me to be “freelance” in the first place.

That being said, a nefarious scourge that haunts me as a freelancer is having one’s career presence be directly linked to the capricious whims of the Social Media Content Creator Generation Cycle Algorithm. To my fellow freelancers—you are not alone. Far be it from me to provide comfort in this area, but I hope this interview gives you some piddling hope that it’s possible to make something of your career without 10k followers on Twitter.

And even so, some people would tell you 10k followers doesn’t amount to much for job prospects. I believe them.

What are some projects you’re especially proud of?

I’m genuinely proud of my recent accomplishments as Art Director and Lead Artist on both “Burnt Out Capital” and “Suku Suku Separuh”, but I think ultimately I’m still especially proud—and fond—of my work as a character designer on BabblegumSam’s TTRPG “Capitalites”. (Now available on itch.io!)

“Capitalites” has the substantive honour of being my first proper experience as a working professional artist, let alone a commercial project that bore my name as one of its main credited collaborators. (Shout out to Maria, the layout designer whose immaculate work can be seen in the playbook!)

I was specifically sought out by BabblegumSam to work with them after seeing one of my card games developed for school, so it’s hard to forget the anxiety of feeling unprepared for that level of responsibility! Here I am, a fledgling student with a pitiful online presence, being recruited to have my character designs on the front cover of your game! Are you sure about that?

Nevertheless, my contributions on “Capitalites” as a collaborator were taken seriously—not just in technical skill, but also my penchant for narrative and character writing. In the process of conceptualising 22 character playbooks (count it: 22 character designs!) for “Capitalites”, Sam and I (and their other collaborators) shared so much about our lived experiences as Malaysian urbanites, and used those collective anecdotes to flesh out character archetypes that—with love—earnestly portray contemptuous idiosyncrasies of contemporary Southeast Asian people.

(Another way of saying that is we just complained a lot. Again, with love!)

Suffice to say, we bore our hearts and minds raw into a game that is undeniably Southeast Asian in metropolitan flavour and substance. I couldn’t have asked for a better launching pad, and I’m immensely grateful to Sam and the project. (Also, I got to do an awful “Capitalites” roleplay live on Twitch! Isn’t that a rare opportunity?)

What’s your dream project to work on? Can you describe it?

I have a range of personal projects that I would love to see realised. It would also be a dream to be a meaningful contributor in every artistic medium, like leading my own game project, writing my own comics and novels and scripts, running my own show, acting in a thing, voice acting in a thing, emceeing in a thing… Hopefully someday!
I do also have a half-joke answer: my dream project(s) would be a long-running game franchise where my work has such a trademark appeal for the franchise that they have to hire me back for every new entry just to placate the fans. Think Tetsuya Nomura, Shigenori Soejima, Nobuo Uematsu… they created their own job security! Wish that were me.

You were recently part of one of the winning teams for YSEALI Game Changers. How was the experience?

My team and I prototyped and pitched Jelly Shop”: a simple click-and-drag game playable on web and mobile where you navigate a hostile e-commerce platform deliberately tricking you into buying the item you didn’t want to buy. Now that we’re responsible for this much money, there certainly are big shoes to fill. I personally hope I don’t let anyone down!

I wrote a commemorative post on my LinkedIn after the workshop, and my feelings of humility still ring intensely true even after a month has passed. I do not take for granted that my modest application was approved in a gruelling selection process for 200+ applications, and I forever am indebted to the organisers at Biji-biji Initiative for bestowing me this opportunity, but I will not mince words: I felt like a terribly unqualified and uneducated simpleton next to the rest of the participants flown over from ASEAN, among whom are honest-to-god activists, government workers and all-in-all worldlier folk who are here making waves in the world with their diverse life experiences in tow.

It was a perennial reminder to always surround yourself with people who are “better” than you, people who inspire you to do better, no matter how intimidating they seem. I learned a lot just by being in the same room with them.

I would also be remiss to highlight the unparalleled professional conduct from the individual organisers, mentors, coaches and partners in the U.S. Embassy Kuala Lumpur, YSEALI, Biji-biji Initiative and Synapze—at its second iteration, this has consistently been the most well-organised game jam I’ve ever attended. They’ve concentrated all their efforts on inviting not just underrepresented developers and activists, but also underprivileged laymen interested in social impact as a whole. Not only that, you’re invited to seize priceless knowledge from international experts and utilise their undivided attention during a jam-packed 4 days to make a game, all with provided lodging, transportation and catering with nary a dime spent. The sizable mentorship grant is a fantastic incentive too, but I emphasise that the 4 days spent at this workshop gathering knowledge and jamming with new friends is already such an extraordinary time.

I’d encourage everyone who is interested in making a difference through the world of games to participate! 10/10, would recommend and play again.

You were also previously part of last year’s Games Bagus programme as well. How different was that experience versus the recent YSEALI one?

To clarify further: I was not part of any winning team during the last programme. My team and I prototyped and pitched “praSANGKA”, and I still am proud of what we put out. I was then offered an artist position by the team behind “Wicked Wok” literally right after the workshop ended, because they apparently had noted my performance throughout the workshop and were eager to see what I could bring to their table. We went through the mentorship programme to develop the pitched prototype for 3 months, and thus launched the revised “Burnt Out Capital” alongside the other winning teams at Level Up KL 2022 to—I daresay—buzzing reception. 

Many attendees noted our game’s striking promo visual—depicting our burned out candle characters with anguished faces—as the main reason for approaching our booth, and their attention was retained when we explained our game was about crunch culture and burnout in the local game development industry. Our playtest slots were almost always full, and some players would not leave until they finished all the levels in the game.

I was humbled to know that so many people cared about this issue, as the issue of normalising crunch in the name of passion is a deeply personal topic to me as an artist.

All in all, the Games Bagus workshop foundation was already very strong. The aspects retained from Games Bagus stayed about the same for the YSEALI workshop, but was made better with YSEALI’s involvement with the programme. More prolific speakers and experts, additional cultural nights and mingling events typically associated with YSEALI programmes, and of course the added benefit of becoming YSEALI alumni.

In essence, I already gave immense praise for Games Bagus during my participation, and YSEALI Game Changers managed to take that airtight formula and polish it further, which was a delight to experience twofold. I guess now I’ll be experiencing the mentorship programme twice as well!

What’s next for Jaime Lau?

I’ve got projects under my belt till the end of the year and I am looking forward to minuscule profits and a nap after they’re done. After the year ends, who knows? 

Any final thoughts?

I go by “JLicious” on pretty much all social media platforms. 

In addition, I encourage everyone to say “I love you” more to each other—platonically, romantically, etc.—without reservation. Meritocracy is a lie. In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make. Thank you for interviewing me. I love you.

– 

Follow Jaime on Twitter, Instagram, and ArtStation!

 

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