Exclusive Q&A: Kekai Kotaki

We check in with the former ArenaNet and Bungie artist to see what he's up to!

If you're into video game art, then it's likely the subject of our Q&A is already well-know to you. Indeed, Kekai Kotaki has spent most of his professional career making sure the games we love to play look as amazing as they possibly can.

Kotaki began at ArenaNet, seeing to it that amazing visuals became a part of the Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 legacy. He departed ArenaNet just before the release of Guild Wars 2, which raised an eyebrow or two. But as he explains, it was all just a part of following his dream. After leaving the only game studio he had ever known, he spent some time with a little company called Bungie working on a game called, let's see...  Destiny, I think it was. Even though he's no longer with Bungie, with any luck, we just may see some of his artwork represented in the game.

His style is unmistakeable, and his talent is immense. Yet he's a great, down to earth guy who just loves what he does and was happy to share some of that enthusiasm with us!

ZAM: It's easy to recognize your talent in the work you do. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got your start in art? 

Kekai Kotaki: Nothing really too special. I was always doing some sort drawing growing up. It wasn't until I graduated high school that I realized that doing art was the only thing I did relatively well and if I wanted to make a living I needed to get my act together. So I flew out to Seattle to go to the art school here and basically dedicated myself to being a professional artist. That was in 2000, wow how time flies.

ZAM: How did you end up in the games industry doing your thing? Did you seek out the games industry or did it find you?

KK: Well it didn't really hit me until I got to art school in Seattle that I could even work in the games industry! I played games growing up but didn't connect that as an artist I could make games. After that I definitely sought out the games industry. After a rough go trying to get interviews, a small company took a chance on me and gave me my first job in the industry.

ZAM: Guild Wars fans the world over are familiar with your work. Your unique style is unmistakable. How did your style develop, and do you feel it's a product of being influenced and inspired by other artists, or working on your own?

KK: It's a little bit of both. Using what you learned and implementing it. But it helped that ArenaNet had a culture that allowed artists to grow in their own ways. I learned a lot on the job and it helped shape my own particular way of expressing myself.

ZAM: Speaking of influences, who are some of yours - from the games industry and beyond?

KK: Oh golly too many to mention. The key for me is to keep an open mind. The more information I am exposed to the greater the ideas I can formulate. Because there is just that much more stuff rolling around in my head. So I'm looking for inspiration and influences everywhere. 

ZAM: When you get ready to start new work on a project, what input or materials are you typically given to begin with, to steer the concept? 

KK: Generally there is some sort of work document with a basic description of what you need to create. You need some sort of context to what you are doing. Now how intense and complex these are can vary greatly. Sometimes it can be as detailed as a characters eye color, and on the other end you get the "Don't care, just make it Badass!"

ZAM: Is the games industry your ultimate destination, or do you see yourself working on other things down the road?

KK: I got my start here. I definitely love here, but as an artist and working professional I wouldn't say that I am adverse to working in different fields of art. I kind of do already; I do quite of bit of illustration work for novel covers. Anything that allows me to be creative and treats me well is open for me. But I'm sure I'll be around the game industry anyway.

ZAM: Many fans were surprised when you left ArenaNet shortly before Guild Wars 2 was released. Can you talk about what was behind your decision and the timing of it?

KK: As you can imagine I get that quite a bit. It was a combination of factors. So I hope I can explain it straight. First and foremost I love that place, it is where I basically grew up in the industry and it was the reason I made a name for myself. So many wonderful people that I am still friends with today. For that I will always be grateful. But in terms of career it was my only job. The industry and world is bigger and is worth experiencing. After nearly 9 years, I made a personal decision to go out into the world and try my hand at it. Another point, as an artist I made to this point by being determined and driven to carve out a living for myself so that I could do art. Reaching that point I felt I was becoming too comfortable and was lacking the same passion I had when I was younger. Not that I couldn't or wouldn't do good work, I would like to believe I am professional enough to do that. But it didn't feel right for me. I didn't get to where I was by resting on my laurels; I needed to recapture that feeling somehow. So all that together spelled out for me leaving ArenaNet. I just finished working 5 years on Guild Wars 2 and it just felt right for me to leave. I have say that even though my coworkers were sad to see me go they felt it was right too, I gave so much to the game. Anyway, that's it in a nutshell.

ZAM: I would be remiss if I didn't ask, as I was disappointed to learn you are no longer with Bungie. I was really looking forward to seeing some of your work in Destiny!  Is there anything you can say about your time there?

KK: It's a great place. At any other point in my career I would have stayed. The reason why I worked there is because it's Bungie, they made Marathon, Myth and Halo right? Of course I wanted to spend time there. Great people over there, very talented and very dedicated to making the next wave of games. Heh, can't exactly say what I worked on but it was fun stuff.

ZAM: So, what's next for you? Do you plan to find another art-focused game studio, or perhaps do your own thing for a while?

KK: I plan on working on my own doing freelance. I plan using this time to experience it, without the pressures of family or mortgage. Not exactly too keen to work in another studio just yet, but eventually I see myself back. I do like working with people. And hopefully I can use the extra free time to work on my own projects. People have been asking for an art book for awhile now so maybe I get that off the ground.

ZAM: Finally, what advice would you give young artists interested in pursing a career in the games industry?

KK: Work hard and don't give up! And be smart about getting that job, there is lots information floating out there so find it and make use of it. 

ZAM: Thanks for your time, Kekai, and good luck with the next steps in your career — we'll be watching closely!

KK: Thank you for having me!

Bill "Lethality" Leonard


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