Womenize! – Inspiring Stories is our weekly series featuring inspirational women from games and tech. For this edition we talked to Stefanie Curth, UI Artist at InnoGames. She speaks about the importance of adapting and learning new skills, overcoming mental health struggles, and encouraging others not to give up on their passions. Read more about Stefanie in this interview:
Hi Stefanie! How did your background in digital media and games, combined with your journey in the industry, contribute to your unique approach as a UI Artist?

I was the artsy kid growing up. If you do something everyday for years you get better at it and people noticed my “talent”. I was also a super awkward child in social situations and drawing was something where I could connect with people. They started talking to me and gave me compliments. Appreciation was something I was not used to so it encouraged me.
I always knew that I wanted to work as an artist – also I thought this was the only thing I was good at. In my teens I discovered my love for games and I have wanted to work on them since. I never thought of myself as an UI artist though. If you think of game art you think of concept art, especially character design and illustrations. That’s what I wanted to do and started looking for a university to study games. Back in 2009 the only public university advertising “games” was in Trier so I moved 8h away from my hometown. In the end it turned out to be only one course of character design and storyboard in one semester. The whole “study games” part was greatly exaggerated and seemed like more of a hobby to some professors. What I found instead though was an extremely diverse degree program. Suddenly I had a ton of different directions I could develop myself into. It broadened my mind to all the possible working fields in design and art.

Even though I loved to do all the different courses I still had only one goal. In 2013 I moved to Hamburg to study the first public games master I could find back then. This actually turned out to be exactly what I wanted to do – developing a prototype in a team over the course of one year. The education part was lacking but I gathered my first actual development experiences during this project and many Game Jam’s.
I wanted to gather experience at an actual games company as well. Making a livelihood with the thing I love instead of random service jobs and also getting my foot in the door. Since I had to gather some of my university credits through an internship as well, I started applying for open positions.

It so happened that at the same time some friends of mine started their own games studio and began development on their first game, “Sir Eatsalot”. They were looking for someone to help with concept art and 2d animation. While not a paid position, there was a profit sharing model and I could gather my missing university credits. In the end I worked on this project for almost 3 years, staying until the game was finished. I discovered my love for 2d frame by frame animation and finally did character design for a “real” game.
During the same time a group of people I knew from my university also started a company and were looking for an illustrator for their game “Orwell”. This project was actually paid and the style was really lovely so I applied and got a part time position. It was another step in the right direction. This project was so successful that I worked as a freelancer on the sequel one year later.

I had a small team of talented people for the Game Jam’s I participated in. They started a company during this time as well and I began to work as jack of all trades for them. At some point we wanted to actually publish one of the Jam games “Doki Doki Ragnarok” on a bigger scale on Steam and mobile. This was the first published game where I did the art direction and worked on everything art related, from concept to advertisement and also UI.

With “Sir Eatsalot” and both “Orwell” games coming to an end in 2018 and finishing my master’s thesis in 2019 I started to look for a full time position intensely. After working in 4 different teams I learnt one thing about myself: I love to work broadly diversified. I appreciate doing concept art, illustration, 2d animation, 3d, getting into various art styles but also advertisement and print – in the end it boils down to learning new things constantly.
In the same sentiment I started to apply for different jobs. My portfolio was a reflection of my diverse work. Looking back now I understand why it was so difficult to find a job in a bigger company where you need specialized people.
I applied to all major studios in Hamburg. This didn’t work out so I tried in other parts of Germany and even Europe.

At some point a friend asked me why I’m not looking for UI positions. Up to this point I had never seen myself as a UI artist. Sure I had done UI before but more as a “needs to be done” subject where I always felt like I lacked the knowledge and deep understanding to be good at it. I also had the feeling that it’s not working on the “actual” game anymore. In my head it was pure conceptual work, menu design and placing buttons, even after my fully illustrated UI in “Doki Doki Ragnarok”.
Nonetheless I started to apply for UI positions and to my surprise I got invited to multiple trial works and interviews in a short amount of time.

How your daily work looks like as an UI artist totally depends on the project you are working on. In my case my wide spread portfolio and interests as well as my strong focus on illustration got me the job I’m in now. Yes, I do my fair share of conceptual work, mockups and placing buttons but they are actually fun to do. I mostly work on event games inside of the big game, almost like a lot of big Game Jams. I don’t have to commit to one thing and I can still do concept art, illustration and 2D animation and most importantly I learn new things every day.

Could you share a specific project or experience that had a significant impact on your growth as an artist and game developer?

While I love doing the actual development work the main reason for me to do games is to give people experiences. When I started gaming it was a whole new world for me where I could be whatever I wanted to be and have awesome moments and experiences. Most impactful for me is the moment when the game is actually released and I can see how people react to it. Their emotions, whether good or bad, are what drives me. 

As mentioned before, I love learning new things. So key moments for me are those where I feel like I’ve acquired a new skill. In my master project I learned 3D rigging and animation as well as motion capturing. During “Sir Eatsalot” I learned frame by frame animation. During Orwell I learned their super unique vector style and how nice it feels to get paid regularly ;D. During “Doki Doki Ragnarok” I learned how to be responsible for a whole game and what it’s like to push through even when things get tough.
Now at my current job I have learned a lot about UX and UI and yet there is still so much more to learn.  Since my employer is a much bigger company than the ones I have worked at before, I am also learning a lot about communication and workflow within a large team of people.
Those are all impactful experiences that shape me and what I want in the future.

Mental health is a crucial aspect of one’s journey, and you mentioned overcoming existential and mental health crises. Can you elaborate on how you managed to overcome these crises and do you have any advice for other fellow artists struggling in their quest for opportunities and well-being – especially in such a demanding industry?

I started applying for jobs during my master’s study. Getting in contact with people from the industry during events like Game City or Indie Treff here in Hamburg made it clear that the industry is repleted. I knew it would be hard. A lot of my applications got rejected or not even answered at all. It felt devastating.
“The only thing I’m good at is not good enough.”

Financially and mentally this time was super draining. All the games I worked on didn’t pay well. Indie development is awesome because you have a lot of freedom but more so often there is no job security and low or no financial compensation.
Additionally I worked in a service-industry job, took on illustration gigs and had to write my master’s thesis. The latter would require 4 years as well as therapy to finish.

The thing with making your passion into a job is that you put something really personal out into the world for others to judge. I was raised to believe that only work that pays well is worth something. Not having a full time position and living from paycheck to paycheck, even needing financial support from family or the government took its toll on my self worth. I felt stuck even though I worked a lot and on really cool games. I got lost in self doubt and distanced myself from friends and family. Some of it was self protection but mostly I was ashamed of not succeeding. It felt like drowning. If you are stuck in a depression everything gets tremendously harder. I couldn’t do my work properly, I couldn’t do daily chores and I couldn’t write my master’s thesis. The thesis was especially frightening because it meant there would be no excuse anymore for not working a “real” job.
My grandma and best friend told me how much I’ve changed and that I should look into professional help. I had already thought about going to therapy but getting reassurance from outside was the last straw to finally getting active. I probably had the biggest luck ever with my therapist. I called 2 or 3 places and my first interview was with a tiny elderly woman. We clicked instantly. She didn’t have the capacity but still wanted to help me. Even after she went into retirement I had a few more sessions that she didn’t charge for since she knew of my financial situation. My therapy never ended properly due to her retirement but it was still enough to get me out of the hole. I could finally write my thesis.

The time afterwards was a lot of ups and downs mentally and it still is. Stabilizing my financial situation was not the everlasting cure – who would have thought.  Depression and all its accompanying symptoms have a tendency to come back. What I got on my hands is a guideline on what I can do to keep control though.

I know there are a lot of people that are struggling mentally out there:
If you can relate to my story I want to encourage you to seek help. Yes, the mental health care situation is really bad and finding a therapy place can feel like an overwhelming task. It’s still worth putting in the effort. In the end we all have to live within our own heads our whole life so it’s worth healing. Aside from therapy it’s always a first step to seek out comforting and safe people and talk about your problems. Your problems are not minor or silly and you are not weak because they pull you down.

Regarding job struggles as an artist I can only say everyone has to decide for themselves if it’s worth it. For me it’s still a big yes. For you it can be a no and both are absolutely ok. If you want to work in the games industry as an artist it can take years until you are in a stable position. If you are the type of person you can always try freelancing. I still freelance now and then but it’s a whole different feeling when it’s not connected to existential struggles.

Here are some points that I think will help whether you are looking to be a freelancer or work at a games studio:

  1. Seek out industry gatherings even if you are a socially awkward couch potato like me. You will meet like-minded people and make connections that will be beneficial in the future. Most of my jobs I got through knowing people, sad as it is.
  2. Join Game Jams. There are online Jams almost every week as well as Discord servers where people talk about them and are looking for team members. Maybe you even find some Jams hosted near your location. You won’t be alone. I found my best friend because he asked me to join his team.
  3. If it’s financially possible for you, look into game studies. You won’t be the top employee everyone wants to have afterwards but you’ll probably never have such a long intensive time with like-minded people ever again. The connections you build here will help you on the way.
  4. Look for work outside of your comfort zone, especially as an artist. I never thought UI would be something I could really appreciate but here I am. A lot of jobs in games really depend on the project. You have to fit the project but it also has to fit you.
  5. Don’t give up. If you really want to make it happen you will.
Thanks for this interview, Stefanie!

Stefanie’s links: LinkedIn

Womenize! – Inspiring Stories Feature by Madeleine Egger