Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How I Got Into the Game Industry

Last post, I talked about training to be a game developer. A lot of the discussion centered around where to obtain the skills for entering the field. The sobering, and unsurprising, answer is: practice a lot. Whether via school, at work, or on your own, the more practice you have, the more marketable you are.

However, that's a fairly theoretical scenario. Real life is rarely as clean-cut and well-planned as sitting down for a few years and coming out the other end ready to go. In order to provide a more concrete example, I want to talk about the path I took. It's not the ideal path, and probably not even a common one. But it shows how much a portfolio and work experience can influence hiring, and how persistence and hard work pay off.


Let me clear this up first: I didn't enroll in a program designed for the games industry. I studied physics at the University New Hampshire. It was a good school for physics, but terrible for games. It had zero offerings in game-related studies. Not even a computer graphics lab (i.e. no 3DSMax, which was a bit crippling, in retrospect). I'm not even sure I realized I could be a game developer at the time I chose my major.

Basically, I liked science, had an interest in space propulsion and power production technology, and figured I could turn that into a career as a researcher. Low in-state tuition meant I could go there without bankrupting my family and saddling myself with insurmountable debt. And I had some friends going there, too.

I don't think it was until my junior year that I started to realize my heart was really in making games. All my spare time was spent playing games, picking through their data files, modding them, and tinkering with art software (from DPaint and Degas Elite to TrueSpace 3). I spent a summer working on a Rifts total conversion mod for Dark Reign. I penned a prodigious amount of role-playing game scenarios, settings, rules, and even designed some new systems.
Sprites from my Rifts total conversion for Dark Reign.
In retrospect, I should've seen it sooner. I just didn't think of it as a "real" career. And by the time I started to realize how wrong I was, I was way behind the curve. Spotty art portfolio, barely passable programming experience, one published article about swing dancing in the university magazine...I had a lot of dabbling in all the right areas, but I needed to get my act together.

I did have some things going for me, though. I worked hard to finish my degree, and I took all my courses seriously. I poured my heart into creative writing assignments, and milked the single art class my curriculum was afforded. I designed posters for the local theater troupe, and worked as designer on the school magazine. I got a job in the space science center, scripting tools to work with satellite data. My senior project was working on a Faraday ring ammeter instrument for satellites, which has zero application to video games itself, but sure turns heads on the resume.

I was also an early adopter in the burgeoning field of web development and design. I was fortunate that the campus was quick to adopt site-wide internet access, so I spent a lot of time tinkering with websites. Most of it was tabletop rpg stuff: character sheets, campaign settings, play-by-comment adventures (like play-by-email, but with a webpage thread).

Post Graduation

When the time came for graduation, I tried applying to a few game studios (among other, more physics-appropriate jobs), but I didn't know what the hell I was doing. It showed, too. I scraped together all the art I could find on my hard drive, but no game studios were interested. I still have my rejection letter from Greg Zeschuk, politely telling me they didn't need anyone with my skillset at this time at BioWare.

I did, however, know more than your average person about website design and development. And in the late 90's, knowing how to piece together a webpage was a golden ticket to employment.

Unlike games (and even physics), finding work as a web and print designer in 1999 was dead-easy. Within a few months of graduating, I had a job at one of the biggest publishing companies in the world as a web developer and designer. What's more, it was my ticket to living in a place I've always wanted to: New York City!
Left: My office. Right: My apartment.

First Career

Being a web developer wasn't my first pick for a job, but man, was it an awesome ride. I made friends with folks from all over the world, I worked on a huge range of technologies and design styles, I made great money, and all while living in one of my favorite places.

What's more, there was so much work to be had that I was approached by a coworker who needed to offload one of his clients. In one of the more significant career-coaching conversations, he told me "you're worth $50/hr with this, and he'll pay it. Don't accept less." Sure enough, the client did test the waters, but I was firm at that rate, and got it.

What's more, a lot of the tinkering I did with 3D gave me a huge advantage in the web/print design arena, as it was a novel art asset to bring to bear. I had several smaller contracts and jobs going on the side, for wide-ranging amounts of compensation.

The extra work was both educational and lucrative. I had my (modest) student loans paid off within two years of graduating, was debt-free, and was able to start saving. I learned how to manage clients, assess requirements, and work without supervision.
I also learned how devastating overwork could be to stress levels.

Career Burn-Out

By this time, my full-time role had evolved from web developer to project manager and lead designer. I had a small team under me, clients to manage, websites to keep running, and development teams to liaise with.

My freelance life was no less demanding, it just used my free time instead of business hours. I got calls and emails at almost all hours, had many late nights, and pulled at least one mid-week all-nighter.

And all this time, I had a growing feeling that my heart just wasn't in it. The novelty of my first job, first apartment, and the big city were all wearing off. I still wanted to make games, not publishing and medical journal websites. Even some of the more exciting website IPs, like Elvis, Dr. Seuss, and Playmobil paled in comparison to the possibility of working on the next Neverwinter Nights or Elite.

My employers were good sports, allowing me to add web games to our portfolio of offerings, but our clients needed websites, kiosks, media players, and back-end technology more. My job was simply not the right venue for what I wanted.

Bootstrapping a Game Portfolio

Realizing that web development wasn't the end-game for me, I redoubled my efforts at building a portfolio in my spare time. I offloaded my lucrative web client to a friend, and started reaching out to game studios and projects.
My online portfolio, vintage 2004.
A buddy of mine, already in the games industry at this time (a then-recent animation grad of Pratt Institute), helped me to understand the prevalence of 3D Studio in the games industry, so I obtained a copy and taught myself modeling. I also set forth on learning to code. It was a whirlwind of self-education:
  • I bought a Wacom tablet and started teaching myself to paint in Photoshop.
  • I modeled and textured vehicles and weapons for an Unreal mod (unpaid)
  • I did sprite work for a side-scrolling computer game (paid $50)
  • I bought a book detailing the character modeling process, and followed along with my own character.
  • I did some 3D character prototypes for an action-adventure game (unpaid).
  • A web-acquaintance and I combined efforts on a Herzog Zwei remake, just for fun. (Sprite and terrain texture work, mainly)
  • I wrote a side-scroller prototype in Allegro C
  • I wrote an asteroids-clone, a particle physics demo, and some funky header procedural animations in Flash.
  • I made a spaceship model in 3D Studio and wrote a DirectX app to fly it around.
  • I took a traditional animation course at a local art school.
All the while, I applied to every job and recruiter I could find, within reason. If the job involved games and looked even remotely applicable to my skills, I applied.

Fishing for a Job

I had a few nibbles. Raven Software got back to me, offering me an art test from none other than childhood hero, Kevin Long. They were working on a new iteration of Quake, and asked me to do a 3D model of a muscular arm with cybernetics. I fudged something together, sent it in unfinished, and never heard back. An important lesson here, for any readers that missed it: either do the art test 100%, or not at all. Nobody likes a half-assed job.

My buddy also tried to pull some strings at his studio, Cyberlore. Alas, they didn't have room for greenies like me. He did help me quite a bit with polishing my portfolio and website, though. Having someone with a critical eye to say "that one's not worth showing, focus on these, and beef-up this area" was a huge help.

One bite which went a bit further was a call from Turbine. They needed an art intern for their upcoming MMO, Dungeons and Dragons Online. I dressed up in my interview suit, hopped a train to MA, and met my interviewer in the parking lot...wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and body piercings. Employees hushed and whispered as I walked the aisles, and later, I found out folks thought I was their office's lawyer.

Despite that, the interview went well. I spoke with several team members and managers, and was shown around the project space. However, when it came time for the offer, I was in for a surprise. "I don't think we can give you this internship," he said. The job was unpaid, would end after the summer, and there was no promise of renewing my contract. Despite my willingness to sacrifice my career and relocate for the job, it didn't sit well with them.


In February 2004, I sent my resume to BioWare again. A lot of the positions I applied for so far were either 3D or 2D artist positions, or interface/graphic designer roles. This one was a tech artist position.

Weeks went by with nothing more than the auto-responder to tell me they received my application. However, almost two months later, I received an invitation to interview by phone! I could barely contain myself over the next several days. Anticipating that call was all I could think of.
The hallowed halls I yearned to enter.
The call itself went well, and I was given an art test to gauge my abilities. My test consisted of modeling, texturing, and lighting a section of sci-fi hallway illustrated in a provided concept sketch. I was given a polygon budget, a texture file size budget, and instructions for sending the materials back when done. It had to be done in 3D Studio Max, and I was told to keep track of my time spent working on it. Color scheme and areas beyond the field of view in the illustration were up to me.

Unlike the Raven Software test, this time I followed-through. Every part of the test got my best effort, and I made sure not to leave anything unfinished. Some areas were more polished than others, of course, but nothing was left incomplete.

It was another two weeks before I heard back from them, and this time, it was for an in-house interview. Interviewing is a complex-enough topic that it could warrant its own post (or book, even). However, suffice to say that I was polite, professional, honest, accommodating, and eager. (I again wore the suit.) I was required to relocate away from my favorite city, and my starting salary was a huge pay cut. I'd have to climb the ladder all over again.

I wanted it, though, and was willing to work for it. I got the job.

Post Hiring

It'd be tidy to say that that was it. I got hired, and the rest is history. I could sit back and enjoy the spoils of my victory.

However, I didn't look at it that way. And I still don't. I continued to operate in "interview mode" for pretty much my whole career there. Every single day at BioWare was a chance for me to prove myself worthy of their taking a chance on me. Humility, eagerness, and diligence were my tools of choice, and I credit much of my success there with those traits.

99% Perspiration

Looking back over this story, that's what made everything possible. Keep working hard. Work honestly. You know when you're putting in 100% and when you're dogging it, so don't cheat yourself. It took me six years of kicking my own ass after I decided in mid-university that games were for me. Six years of part-time portfolio-building for games, mixed with full-time, tangentially-related IT work. And six years of rejection letters (if any response at all).

And even then, I got the role because I made a good tech artist, not because of my artistic skill. In fact, when I asked point blank whether I could fall-back on an artist job if I wasn't a good tech artist, they told me "no." In retrospect, I'd likely have needed years more practice in art if I wanted to go that route. Tech art just happened to be a growing field at the same time I was (unknowingly) training for it.

So work hard. Put in the requisite time, and practice. Don't give up. It won't be an easy ride, nor a short one. But if it's what you want, you'll work for it. And employers will notice the applicants that do.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Training to be a Game Developer

Recently, I posted a massive brain-dump on /r/gamedev, in an effort to further disseminate some of the info I've collected here. The results were very positive, and I'm thrilled that so many people found useful topics to peruse.

One question came up, however, which involved an underrepresented topic on my blog: training. Further, another developer pointed out that most of my advice was more applicable to folks who already had skills and experience in game development.

With that in mind, I thought I might share some of my experience on training and skills in game development, both as an indie and a former decision-maker in hiring at BioWare.

How to Become a Skilled Game Developer: The TL;DR Version

If I were to summarize this post in one statement, it would be this:
Learn and practice your chosen craft full-time for 5 years.
There. That's it. That's all you have to do. Figure out what it is you want to do as an indie or game industry employee, and start learning and practicing the craft full-time. That means 8 hours per day, 5 days per week, taking time for holidays and vacation. Do that earnestly, and you'll be a skilled game-maker and master of your chosen craft in about roughly five years.

Already have a job? Cut the hours per day down, and add an appropriate number of years. E.g. 4 hours per day instead of 8 with 10 years instead of 5, or similar.

What About School?

That's a good question. What about school?

Consider [the way we define] a master's degree. In much of the world, a master's degree represents professional-level mastery in a practice or field of study. It is typically about 2 years of advanced study after completing a 4 year bachelor's program.

According to the ECTS standard, that equates to roughly 1500-1800 hours of study per year, over 6 years. By comparison, one year of full-time work represents roughly 2000 hours.

Masters program = 6 years * (1500 to 1800 hours per year) = 9000 to 10,800 hours.
5 years full-time = 5 years * (2000 hours per year) = 10,000 hours.

As an aside, Malcom Gladwell has written an interesting book about several of the world's great success stories. One thing many have in common? 10,000 hours or more of diligent work in their field. It's not the only thing that got them there, mind you, but I tend to agree with him that it's an important component.

Is School Better Than Self-Training?

That's hard to say, really.

On one hand, an accredited degree program includes much more than simply study of related topics. It includes experience with different learning methods, socializing in different settings, learning to be independent of one's family, access to contacts in academia and industry (including valuable experts, a.k.a. professors), and access to facilities that would often be beyond the reach of a single person.

On the other hand, school isn't always the wise investment it used to be. With tuition rapidly outpacing housing costs, and free educational resources abundant all around us, one could probably have an equal (and sometimes, better) self-directed education.

Some Degrees Are Better Than Others

If you do choose to attend university, carefully consider the program you're following. Some degrees carry more weight, and are more valuable in the world, than others. The same goes for institutions.

When I was a hiring manager at BioWare, I looked at a lot of resumes and portfolios. I not only made decisions on hiring for my own team, I sat in as an advisor on decisions for other teams. When deciding on which applicants to invite for an interview, we looked at three things:
  1. Their work experience.
  2. Their portfolio.
  3. Their schooling.
Numbers 1 and 2 were, by far, the biggest factor across all hires. We wanted to see what you've done, and if that level of quality was high enough that we wanted you on the team. A killer portfolio of work (art, mods, tech demos, etc.) would almost guarantee an interview. Similarly, a significant role on an awesome game or team would get our attention.

In the absence of those two (or sometimes, despite them), school could sometimes tip the balance. Seeing a programmer graduate of University of Waterloo or MIT, or an art student from Sheridan would usually be a worth a second look.

However, unless the school was reputable as a consistent, quality source of students in the given field, it rarely did more than tell us the applicant had enough diligence and social grace to graduate. Important skills, no doubt, but not exclusively learned in a university, and not enough on their own to warrant an interview.

Work Hard, No Matter Which Path You Choose

One thing is certain, though, and that is discipline matters. Whether you enroll in an university program, or decide to teach yourself, take it seriously and work your ass off. Kicking your own ass to learn as much as possible, and putting that into practice, will put you head and shoulders above the sea of applicants around you.

Whether watching online courses and practicing your craft, or sitting in lecture halls and doing homework, the amount of effort you put into your education will matter more than where/if you enroll.

Be Well-Rounded

One thing to be careful of, whether studying in an accredited program or on your own, is to be well-rounded in your curriculum. Skill in your craft is important, but fairly useless if you can't relate it to the rest of the world.

Learn a bit about history, psychology, art, science, writing, and anything else you can manage. Learn the scientific method and quantitative analysis. Learn objectivity, various problem-solving methods, how to brainstorm effectively, and how to find info that you need.

And please, for the love of all that is holy, learn how to work well with others. In fact, make this your top priority. I can tell you with 100% certainty that if you are a douche, your career will be short and painful. You could be brilliant, a virtuoso, or a damned modern-day Leonardo DaVinci. But if you're also a douche, you're out. (Unless you're a rich-enough douche to call the shots, in which case your career will be longer, but probably still painful.)

Also, a note of caution: some crafts are less employable than others outside the game industry. If you can't think of another industry using your skills besides games, you may want to consider making said craft secondary in your studies. Look for complementary, more in-demand areas to study, and use that as a way into games. You can still specialize in your preferred craft, but you'll have a broader skill to fall back on.

As an example, I know quite a few game designers who were programmers or quality assurance before they became designers. In contrast, I know very few designers who started out in the industry as a designer. As another example, most of the tech artists I worked with came from programming or art backgrounds. None of them came from a "tech art" degree program.

What Did I Do?

So how did I get into the game industry? A little bit of everything above, amounting to a mainstream education mixed with lots of self-training in my spare time.

I started describing that process here, but it was quickly turning into a story of its own. So with that in mind, maybe it's best saved for a separate post.

Stay tuned for part two!