A Clear Vision of Gaming’s Future

From pushing the quality of game visuals to being a force for change from within, Smyth is raising the bar

by Eric Alt on Aug 11, 2022

The hope when one goes to college, is to eventually graduate after four years or so, with a sense of purpose and direction. Allyson Smyth didn’t have to wait that long — she had her “lightbulb moment” just touring the campus for the very first time.  

“I planned on going to SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] to do graphic design, which I wasn’t super excited about,” says Smyth. “Then my tour guide mentioned that she was in the game development program, which I didn’t even know was ‘a thing.’ As soon as she said that, it was an immediate, ‘I have to do this.’”

It was far from the spontaneous decision it sounds like. If anything, it feels almost predestined. Ever since she can remember, Smyth has been entranced by video games — even before she picked up a controller herself. The drive to meld her artistic talent with her love of gaming sent her on a journey that eventually brought her to the role of Associate Art Director at Activision Publishing, working on all Activision Publishing titles including advising on Call of Duty.

“I’ve always felt that an Art Director’s responsibility is to define exactly what the game should look like and how to go about getting it there,” says Smyth. “Games are a visual medium — the experience starts with what you’re seeing on a screen.  As an associate Art Director, I help develop those high-level ideas, and then do the fun part of making them a reality along with my teams.” 

For Activision Publishing Senior Art Director Timothy McGrath, who has worked with Smyth since 2015, her well-honed artistic eye is only part of what has fueled her growth into a creative team leader. “Allyson is unique,” says McGrath. “She has a very diverse skill set and is able to single-handedly create entire scenes, something that normally takes a large team of people. She raises the bar for quality and consistency.” 

Allyson at Otis College of Art & Design, where she mentored students in a unique fashion project inspired by Call of Duty®

And it all started before she even hit Play. 

Finding Her Way

 

Growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Smyth describes herself as artistically minded from the start — so it’s not surprising, especially given her eventual career path, that her earliest experiences with video games were primarily visual. Sitting and watching her older cousins play was enough to draw her in, and that planted the seed in her mind that one day — perhaps while touring her art school campus, maybe? — she’d find a way to combine her newfound love of games with her innate creative instincts. But until then, she was a little on her own. 

“Being a hardcore gamer in Chattanooga, my parents were like, ‘What are you doing? We’re not into this,’” says Smyth. “Even art school was weird for them.” 

Undaunted, Smyth managed to find like-minded friends and started, in her words, to “sink a lot of hours” into World of Warcraft and especially Call of Duty. “I was really competitive, and the competitiveness of Call of Duty was so exciting to me.” It was a deep connection that proved to be her way into the gaming industry . . . before she even knew what she wanted to do once she got there. 

A visit to her school from a game developer — who happened to be working on Call of Duty at the time — provided Smyth with the opportunity she had been waiting for. After showing him her portfolio and receiving rave reviews, she told him directly and in no uncertain terms that she wanted to work on Call of Duty. A week after she graduated, she was hired at Activision. 

Right from the start, getting to meet and work with people Smyth describes as “enthusiastic and fun” set a positive early tone, and her sense of belonging was only further reinforced as she became part of Infinity Ward. She went from having only vague notions of what a job in “the game industry” looked like to being fully convinced she was living her dream. 

“And fortunately, I find that making games is actually just as fun as playing them,” she adds. 

 

Paying It Forward

 

Smyth started out designing props for Call of Duty®: Advanced Warfare, and eventually found that her ability to think like an artist and a gamer proved invaluable as she rose at the company. “Allyson loves to push the boundaries of photorealism and is great at embracing new workflows and technology,” says McGrath. “She’s very much a leader by example. She pushes herself to create new bars for art quality, while also ensuring that others can learn from her example.” 

When McGrath was given the unique opportunity to mentor fashion students at Los Angeles’ Otis College of Art and Design this year, he knew the project — which asked the students to reimagine Call of Duty through the prism of haute couture — would immediately connect with Smyth. “Allyson is a great mentor because of her easygoing nature, her expertise, and her interests outside of games, which make her very relatable to the students,” he says. 

Smyth, for her part, found the project an inspirational two-way street. “Talking to people outside of games can often lead to new ideas. These fashion students — they're not just making military outfits like we would for the game. They’re making Call of Duty–inspired high-end, high-fashion runway looks. It was so cool.” Seeing the students’ wildly unique perspectives on something like Call of Duty - especially with so few having any prior gaming experience - is creatively refreshing for Smyth and her team. It’s a reminder to them that they should step back once in a while and challenge themselves to try new approaches to their own projects. “It pushes us to think outside the box,” says Smyth.

Bringing in new perspectives is something Smyth is passionate about, understanding that she is one of very few women serving as Art Directors in the industry. It’s something she appreciates, but also something she is happy to see changing. 

“School was tough. There weren't many women at all, and in general, I didn't really fit in too much with the game people there,” Smyth says. “However, at Infinity Ward, it was so refreshing to walk in and see they had a lot of women on the environment team already. And now, my whole team is basically women.” She adds, “In my experience, Activision has been really good about that, and in the industry in general, over the past five years or so, it’s been very different. It really is changing for the better, and we needed that.” 

Smyth’s passion for visual storytelling remains as strong as it was back when she was captivated by simply watching others play through games — and it’s that sense of wonder that she and her team continue to strive for, with each new experience. 

“In the next few years, I’m going to continue pushing forward on a technical and artistic level,” says Smyth. “Asking myself, ‘How do we make every game — not just Call of Duty, but every game that we create — really draw people in visually?’  I just want to help the whole industry continue to move forward.” 

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