Hmmmm, a tricky one for the game artist and possibly the biggest part of any game studio is the team who works on a games environment. Games have reached a point now where environments can be ultra-realistic, an exact re-creation of anywhere or any place on the planet, whether it be a race track in Gran Turismo or Paris in Call Of Duty, realism seems to be a big demand from the gaming community.
I think we should start by looking at what constitutes environment design with the game world, the environment is what is more commonly known as a 'level' in the gaming world. Everything a gamer can see within the location is the environment, the environment could be a city or it could be an open, featureless desert, but it is the location within the game which the player needs to move through in order to progress through the game. But if a person were to paint an environment, it could just be made to look pretty, that person would not have to take into account the function of the environment or the practicality, were as an environment artist working on a video game environment needs to consider how the player will move through the environment, how they will interact with the environment both in game and visually. I suppose the most difficult job for the artist is to create the illusion of freedom within the game world whilst still directing a player towards the objective, without feeling forced and whilst continually ensuring the player's interest and attention is kept, from anything like the placement of a building to a rock or piece of rust on a wall.
I think some might argue that somewhere along the line, or at least gradually, our creativity is being driven out by the demand for realism, but I just don't think this is the case. If we look at games like Dead Space or Uncharted, these games are not re-creations of anywhere in the world, nobody could actually go to these places, but everything appears real, the environments aren't fantasy, the aren't real p[laces, but they consist of real things, buildings, trees, the property's of the materials appear real, and even though these places don't exist they make the experience feel more real.
I have a very keen interest in becoming an environment artist, I feel the role provides much more freedom than a character artist in that the role isn't just focused on one aspect, even items, weapons, assets, vehicles become part of the environment they are in and need to be consistent within the style of the game.