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.

Education

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.
Lucrative!
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.

BioWare

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.

10 comments:

  1. Very informative. Thanks for x/posting this to GameDev!

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  2. This was very insightful and also inspiring! I go to a university that was honorably mentioned for its Games Program and yet I have been self teaching myself so you're not the only one. It's awesome to see your passion wouldn't be stopped because of the resources your school may not have had for you to do better. Thanks a lot for this because it helps people like me know that there's still a chance for me to do what I want.

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  3. Glad I could help! I really think one's success comes from within. It can sometimes be delayed by outside forces, but not stopped!

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  4. You should do a post about specialization. Tech art is the odd ball in that we were looking for generalists with a strong focus on being able to leave your comfort zone. You were neither good programmers nor good artists. Not that you didn't have the aptitude, but your hours devoted so far were spread across so many talents that it would be silly to expect otherwise.

    If you really were vying for a pure art position, you'd be up against people who have focused all those training hours spent on that one goal. That might not be a fair fight, but it's reality. I think a warning or public service announcement about avoiding this route is in order for those that are looking for those positions.

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  5. I agree specialization would be an interesting topic, though I disagree that tech art was the odd ball in terms of mixed skill. I found that there was more of a continuum of skill balance in the various roles at BioWare (and beyond).

    It's true that programming training could be a distraction and hindrance if I were going for some artist positions (compared to those who used the time to hone their craft). On the other hand, many artists benefitted from technical aptitude and programming skills.

    E.g. shader artists, riggers, mocap clean-up, collision meshes, visual effects, etc.

    Outside of the art discipline, there are a few roles that come to mind which benefit from mixed skills as well. Quality assurance is a big one, where breadth of skill can really help in finding and diagnosing bugs, writing test cases, and automating processes. Art and programming knowledge also made me a better producer, I'm sure. It helped being able to talk about art and programming tasks with some understanding of the underlying principles, rather than rote memorization. Project management would similarly benefit.

    Tech design (80/20 design/programming, or the inverse, 20/80 game system programmers) are arguably more valuable than straight designers.

    I think specialization is the way big studios prefer to operate, but that doesn't mean one skill to the exclusion of others. Rather, it means deep subject matter expertise. Sometimes, that subject matter straddles disciplines.

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    1. The positions you bring up do benefit from having a technical background. But, it's an additive skill that's on top of their baseline art skills. I recall that were all filled by people who were well on their way into their 10k hours - not by any green recruits.

      I do however remember a fresh college grad that was placed into QA for automating processes. But that's more of an exception than the rule. Much like we make exceptions for tech art. There's really only room for a small handful of such positions. You need people that do the perspiring day-to-day work - not just building better mousetraps.

      The key limiting factor for everyone is the time you have to spend on honing your skills. Every minute you spend that's not on your core specialty, is a minute you're lagging behind someone who spent it there. If you spend your 2000 initial hours spread over a wide domain, then while it may be beneficial in the long term, your utility to the company is going to be low. Add to that fact that preference for bridge roles are given to personnel within the company and you're climbing a extreme uphill battle if you're attempting to come into the industry like this.

      I say tech art was different in that we couldn't find enough people who would push far enough beyond their comfort zone. We had already quite a few artists that were quite good at what they do, but also had enough inkling to make their own jobs (and others like them) easier. These ARE technical artists, but their bread-and-butter role for which Bioware hired them was still their career focus. In a way, it's a self-selecting group because those that are skilled enough to be hired into an art track wouldn't have had that much spare time to dabble far elsewhere.

      The second generation of technical artists, whose task was more of a full-on support role couldn't draw from this same pool. We needed people who could more easily break way from any specific specialty - and who at the same time wouldn't feel gun-shy about jumping in knee-deep into random roles. The ability to liaison between art and programming was also given priority. These two skill requirements fought each other. The later tended to be a skill easily found in industry veterans but then veterans tend to stick with what they know. And if we selected for the first, the second became hit and miss.

      You popped up at the right time. You weren't afraid of new challenges. But your past technical managerial background and ability to converse with clients was what made me dance with joy. That's not something easily trainable and the fact that someone else already spent 10k hours worth of money to get you to that point helped.

      You took a very long route to get into the industry and is a good illustration for people who are already well into life itself looking to change get into the game. But for people just starting out, who are a lot younger than you or I, I would suggest focus. At least then your chances are at least greater compared to aiming for a role that rarely hires externally or without experience.


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  6. You're right that aiming for generalist skillsets is risky in our industry. I definitely didn't want to suggest that one *should* be going wide and shallow in their training. And that may be especially true of university training since, as you point out, fresh graduates will likely have an easier time of getting hired if they're narrow and deep in a viable field.

    In many ways, I got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time, with the right resume and portfolio. For someone with my skillset, that's going to be a risk. I think what you're saying is that someone with near-100% dedication to their craft, be it environment modeling, network programming, or whatever, is going to have much higher hiring chances. Someone like this has more right places and right times to choose from than someone like I. I think you're right about that, particularly in large organizations dealing with large projects.

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    1. Ya, that about says it more succinctly than I. For what it's worth though, I'm glad you took the route you did :)

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    2. Me too! I count my time on our team as one of the highlights of my career :)

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