Reader Questions About My Background & Career

Dec 4, 2012

This month I received some questions from students in the Aurora Game Development Club as part of my being a virtual guest speaker via Skype, and separately from a classmate at Georgia Tech that needed answers about a career path for a class (it’s a different set than what Matt D. recently asked, though where somewhat similar, I’ve gone into different details here).

I’ve written up my responses to some of their questions, mixed together from both sources – plus a few thrown in from another speaking engagement I had later that week – in case any of this information might be of interest to other readers. Not much about this is sequential, so skipping or skimming should work fine.

Q: What was your dream job as a kid? What got you interested in a career in video game design?

I didn’t really think much about a dream job when I was younger. I mostly just read books, played videogames, and focused on doing my best in school, figuring that my career would sort itself out somehow when I got older. I spent a lot less time planning for what 2012 might be like than I did fancifully imagining what 2612 might be like.

I chose to be a Computer Science major intending to be a general programmer, for whichever sort of company needed programmers, since that was a skill I had picked up outside of school. I never had a CS course before college, but was developing videogames just for fun long before I thought of it as a profession, and that’s how I practiced programming.

As to why I was interested in video game development, before and aside from career interests: I’ve always appreciated that design problems in the entertainment space have no one perfect answer. There are often infinitely many justifiably great answers, or many totally different answers possible to meet a complex goal. It’s a space rich for exploration and experimentation, full of decisions and surprises. Videogame design isn’t something where there’s a best or right answer, and that intrigued me, but at the same time it’s sprinkled with isolated little engineering challenges that often do have best, right answers – which helps ground me so that I don’t feel totally lost without some sense of progress in the sea of possibilities.

I’ve also really enjoyed that it’s something that I can do either completely on my own, giving me an opportunity to work through my own ideas or abilities, or as a social activity with other people that have various types of talents to contribute, often with skills and interests quite unlike my own.

Q: How did you land an internship with a huge game company [EA] and what was that like?

Because early in my college career my only programming experience was my personal videogame projects and a couple of required courses, I included my game development experience on my resume. That was important in my case, since I wasn’t specifically searching for videogame development work, and if I had stronger non-videogame CS credentials, I might have removed that silly videogame stuff from my resume.

I had helped establish Game Creation Society – a hobby videogame development club at Carnegie Mellon (I’ve got another post about game club structure and process) – and we were trying to bring in guest speakers, because that seemed like an exciting thing for a club to do. I found out from one of our Assistant Deans that the ETC, a graduate program at our school dedicated to entertainment, was having a couple of EA executives in as guest speakers, and that we could probably pull them in for a GCS event while they were in town anyhow. They had a recruiter with them on the trip, who was accepting resumes, so I left one with her. I always had up-to-date copies in my backpack, in case I ran into unexpected career opportunities on campus, and in this case it clearly paid off.

She followed up a little later. The only interesting tidbit I remember about this was that their initial uncertainty was mostly from trying to figure out whether I was lying on my resume, because I seemed to have an absurd amount of experience for someone my age. After their first phone call with me, they figured out nope, I had pretty clearly done the things I had indicated, and on the next phone interview someone on their team was playing a game I had led and programmed.

The internships were great opportunities. I was there two summers in a row as an intern, then came back full-time for about half a year after graduating. The highlight for me was getting to meet so many other developers who, thanks to the short turnover common in the videogame industry, had previously worked at countless other studios on other videogames that I had heard of. I grew up playing Paperboy on the NES, and the development director on our team was one of the 3 guys who worked on the original arcade version of that game, which I found pretty sweet. I had coworkers that had worked on Star Wars: Republic Commando, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Primal Rage, Command & Conquer, 7th Guest, and Aladdin (the game, not the movie, though there were also guys in the studio that worked on Tron the movie, and graphics in the Matrix sequels).

There are, of course, details that I won’t get into, since every company’s practices and personalities are a bit different, but one thing I definitely noticed was that I’d go there for a summer, play a small role on a big team on a war game, go back to school and make several small, weird games, return and they’d still be working on the war game, go back to school and make a few more small, weird games, then when I made it back they were still on the same huge game. That’s the nature of developing huge games, but I couldn’t imagine if I hadn’t had those breaks from it to get my head out of warfare and into silly puzzles, sci-fi, cartoony skiing physics, etc. I had grown so used to working on lots of little games with small teams that I found the very thought of spending too much time on one massive game with a huge team made me restless and irritated. For a lot of developers it was a dream come true to work on big complex games that reached a ton of people. For me it just didn’t feel right.

Some people like stability, and the large company environment created lots of opportunities for lateral and promotional job changes, but I just couldn’t see myself there long-term. I discovered I’d rather be a big part of something small than a small part of something big. I knew I’d prefer a situation where I could shift between projects far more frequently, and work with a smaller team, even if that meant I was sacrificing some stability in order to do so. That’s of course what led to me being at the startup after.

Q: What was the typical workload like in normal day?

At the companies where I worked in an office, we tended to start a bit later than typical companies, say 10am or 10:30am, and go until somewhere between 6pm and 8pm (on rare occasions before deadlines, even later) depending on how much there was to do. But we often took a long lunch, in many cases a lot of us were staying a little late because we enjoyed the work we were doing and wanted to do the best we could with it, etc. My timing there was actually only shortly after the ea_spouse class action lawsuit, so if anything, unless there was a big milestone right around the corner, management was actually pretty eager to kick us out as soon as we had worked 8 hours on any given day.

As I’ve heard from friends had become pretty common practice elsewhere too, both companies I worked at often started the day with short group meetings to get everyone up to speed on how everyone’s progressing, and what coordination might be needed between people throughout the day, but otherwise the day was mostly just making progress on whatever our current tasks were. Occasionally meetings would need to happen to get the right people together for making certain decisions, signing off on a decision, etc. But for the most part we just figured out what piece we were supposed to be working on, and happily did that.

When I was independent but still doing commercial work, workload timing and intensity varied wildly. There were times when I was working from the time I woke up until the time I went to sleep, day after day, without breaks, and there were spells when I’d get virtually nothing done for a week at a time.

On my hobby projects, done with school clubs and otherwise, I tend to put one or two nights a week into making progress on them.

Q: What opportunities for work-related travel exist? What percentage of your job was traveling?

There was virtually no work-related travel when I was working for other people. When I was working for myself I had to make a number of trips to other cities to show my work at fairs, to speak at conferences, to have meetings with potential business partners, and so on. It was still probably a smallish percentage of the time, maybe 2%-5%. I could work from anywhere though, so being away from where I lived was still valid time to get work done.

Q: Did you train or supervise others?

Since I had been an intern at the studio for two years before starting full-time, I was informally in a position to help out with intern and new hire events with EA. Otherwise I wasn’t doing any training or supervising there.

When I was independent however I was regularly supervising others, although not on a daily basis, and only in touch-and-go interactions. I was hiring subcontractors to do specific things (sound effects, animation, character illustrations, music, etc.), and it was up to me to give them direction, feedback, sign off, and payment.

Q: How would you recommend someone get a job in your career field?

Here are some slides I put together in 2006 talk about game jobs – but that was focused on console-scale corporate work, back before the bubbles appeared, swelled, then quickly (over?) saturated for console downloadable indies, casual games, iOS games, and Facebook games.

Speaking of which, that’s actually a really hard question to answer because it’s such a quickly moving target. Where investment in the industry goes varies tremendously every 5 years or so, with shifts in popular game genres or platforms, changes in economic models, and so on.

Generally though: I’d say get a relevant degree (from a well-recognized institution if possible), teach yourself as much as you can about the type of work you want to be doing professionally, find opportunities to practice and get experience doing that type of work, and actively go after potential job opportunities. For some the outside experience is sufficient to help them land the type of work they’re looking for, though others find a relevant master’s degree helpful in increasing their skills, connections, and credentials.

Q: What, if any, big changes or trends in the industry do you foresee in the next 5 years?

Gee whiz, this one is tricky. It will definitely be a different landscape in 5 years, although it’s impossible to say exactly how. 5 years ago in 2007, virtually no one could have anticipated what has been happening with mobile games and social games. 5 years before that, no really saw web casual, the Wii, and World of Warcraft coming as such dominant forces. And goodness, 5-6 years before then, (single) analog thumb sticks on videogame controllers were new, multiplayer deathmatch was just beginning to grow beyond LAN and university settings, and Super Mario 64 was introducing console gamers to fully 3D environments while Quake (pre-3D acceleration hardware) was doing that for PC gamers. 5-6 years before that was the start of Super Nintendo, Street Fighter 2, and the RTS genre in its semi-modern form.

And the changes have only sped up. In the past 5 years not only did mobile games and social games both blow up to unimagined proportions, but to a degree those spaces rapidly over-saturated with eager developers and – for so many people involved – that bubble has already burst, seemingly long ago (obviously within the past few years at most).

I could do the lazy thing, and just parrot what so many others are predicting: the glut of relatively high quality, very cheap, highly accessible games may severely disrupt the retail console economic model we’ve become used to in the past few decades. However digital distribution on every platform other than iPhone and Steam is still pretty badly a mess, keeping that from being something that everyday users are really doing as an alternative to conventional retail channels. Given how many massive companies have desperately struggled to copy that model and failed miserably at it – including Microsoft, Google, Sony, and Nintendo – it’s apparently a deceptively complicated problem to solve.

I could make an anarchist-style prediction, suggesting that as tools improve in quality, means of distribution become easier, and computer literacy rises, more and more people will be making videogames that they share for free, and that maybe that will disrupt the games business in unforeseen ways. However I don’t think that the overabundance of free mp3s given out by desperate bands on the internet has displaced the mainstream desires for corporate music products like Lady Gaga, Nickelback, or Carly Rae Jepsen, and unlike free mp3s given out on the internet, new barriers are being added on every major operating system that make it ever-harder to download, install, and run an application made by an independent developer rather than a trusted source. So that may not be as disruptive as we might hope.

I guess my prediction is that 5 years from now, we’ll look back on all the big changes and trends people predicted, and they’ll all have been way, way off.

Q: I recall that you’re in graduate school at Tech – are you working on Master’s or Ph.D.? How would this help a career in video game design?

I completed my Master’s in Digital Media, and I am currently working on my Ph.D in the same program. I came here specifically for the Ph.D, to increase my opportunities to do grant-backed research, to gain access to opportunities to teach at a university level, and to be better prepared in skills and connections to make contributions to the game studies community besides the software that I develop. I have friends though that have certainly found it helpful to obtain a relevant Master’s degree – here at Tech for DM, or at USC’s interactive media program, or in Carnegie Mellon’s ETC, etc. – to find their way into their current career paths, which in many cases would not have been as likely to work out for them without those couple extra years of credentials, skills, and networking.

Q: I’m intrigued by the 219 daily experiments that you did. In Last One, you said “It has been a good run. I have found what I set out to find; the experiment has served its purpose.” What was the purpose and what did you get out of it? How did you know you had reached the stopping point?

Although my purpose changed throughout the process – when friends asked why I was doing it I sometimes joked that my answer would be different each day – my overriding interest was figuring out if I could use my videogame development background to create things that appealed to non-videogamers. I wanted to inform, or intrigue, or intellectually challenge, or otherwise earn the interest of people that don’t find what they’re looking for in typical entertainment videogames. One way I’d explain it was that the bookstore is rich with dozens of varied categories: Business, Computing, How-To, Philosophy, Self-Help, History, and so on, plus a massive part of the store was fiction for story-based entertainment (occasionally with separated shelves for very common genres, like Sci-Fi & Fantasy). I felt like videogame stores had only the videogame equivalent of a bookstore’s fiction shelf – especially that Sci-Fi & Fantasy chunk – and I wondered whether different uses of the technology might speak to different parts of the population than we had been reaching with conventional videogames.

I felt like I was making little useful discoveries along the way, but it was actually quite late in the process that I began to feel like I was starting to succeed at that goal. One of my coworkers at the startup, a former Google engineer that didn’t like playing videogames, found my swirly interactive particle effects projects (“spaqoids”) interesting to play with. Examples of spaqoids include Amor, Tumult (I later made a higher quality version), Jish, and Ozymandias.

One of the main discoveries I came away with though is confidence that there is a ton of unexplored potential in how we can reach people with videogame technologies. My sense is that I barely scratched the surface. In other words, I came away believing that (a.) there are indeed software artifacts of the sort that I was setting out to find (and b.) the space to be explored is vast, but mostly empty/useless, and I’d never be able to explore it all on my own.

I’d like to revisit that type of work sometime in the future, perhaps working daily with a small group of others instead of doing so much of it alone.

Q: What are some of the best experiences you’ve had while developing games or publishing them?

Well, speaking of those 219 experiments: when I was working on that InteractionArtist experimental gameplay series, it was a pretty lonely experience. My roommate at the time and fellow game developer John Nesky was playing them each day, and a guy named Baz overseas had stumbled upon them somehow and would leave me some comments, but otherwise literally no one in the world cared about them. That was, to be totally clear, not the best experience.

Then months after the InteractionArtist series, when I made my first self-published iOS app, Burnit (based on the InteractionArtist project FireWriter), I made it free, and used the About screen to call attention to my InteractionArtist series. That finally led to a trickle of traffic, with random people checking out the site based on the about screen.

One day, about 10 months after I finished my work the InteractionArtist series, I lucked out when “Karmen” over at found out about it, presumably through Burnit or someone that found it through Burnit, since I had no other way of drawing attention to it. She wrote this article, which led initially to a tidal wave of traffic, and has continued to be a source of visitors ever since.

Lots of people still didn’t get it. “What the heck? These aren’t even games!” But enough people did seem to get it, including Karmen, that I finally felt slightly less crazy about having done the whole thing. That was easily the best experience I’ve had while developing games. For seventeen months I had felt almost completely isolated in my strange ideas, and ever since I’ve had conviction that even if it seems like something I’m working on isn’t making sense to people now, if I at least finish it and put it out there it may eventually find its way to whatever sort of people can really appreciate it.

Related to that – and as I’ve discussed on HGD before – my other favorite moments are when I receive a positive comments on one of my more esoteric projects, the sort of “games” that I felt for sure no one else would understand or care about. When millions of people play something I worked on, that’s nifty of course, but when I hear a comment from someone about one of the more oddball things that I’ve made, I feel a little more understood, a little less like a rambling mad scientist, and I enjoy that brief feeling of connection.

Q: What are some things that you have learned over the years that you wish you knew when you started making games?

You don’t need anyone’s permission to make what you want, you just need to make up your mind to work within your limitations, and to be open to learning new things on an as-needed basis. Too many young developers out there are waiting for someone else to read their mind, share the same idea of what’s cool, and then offer a job to work on that thing. That’s just not how it works.

Go start making your cool thing right now. If you don’t feel up to the task quite yet – and that’s of course totally reasonable if you’re inexperienced and have ambitious goals – then go start learning how to make other much smaller and simpler things as practice that have bits and pieces in common with what you’d like to eventually make. That can help you get to the point at which you’ll be comfortable doing it, or potentially the kind of strong background necessary to enlist the help of others to make it possible.

Also: plan, but don’t plan every little detail in advance, and be open to plans changing during development. It’s important to always have a tentative plan, a direction, a light at the end of the tunnel that you can move toward as soon as you start and always thereafter. But be willing to adapting the project as you go. So much gets learned about the game and what works about it in the process of putting it together that would be impossible to have known before starting down a path that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Q: How do you pump out so many games within a small time period?

I don’t get caught up on trying the make the best game ever – or even my best game ever – I’m just happy to keep on making things, letting each one be different so that I’m always exploring and trying new ideas and approaches. I’m always making apples and oranges, which helps keep me from getting fixed on trying to up the ante compared to my previous project, which for how long I’ve been doing this would have led to a Tower of Babel (which it kind of did anyway in 2004, it was called The Guinea Pig, and it’s one of my very few unfinished projects).

I also find that it helps me to juggle projects – when I was starting out I’d definitely focus all of my attention on one game at a time, for a few weeks to a few months at a time, but after enough years making videogames that way I became comfortable enough to tinker on a few projects at once. This allows me to procrastinate one, or to take a break if I hit a wall on it for some reason, by making progress on another.

Juggling multiple projects at once also decreases the odds of me shoving some unexpected idea that I fall in love with into the wrong type of game. Every now and then a project can be dragged down (or, when lucky, made way better) by a surprise idea coming to mind during development. When only working on one project at a time, it can be tempting to shoehorn in that idea, no matter how much it does or doesn’t fit the game’s concept. I can at least ask myself, of all the games I’m working on right now, which one would this idea fit best with? The comfort doing multiple games at once also means that if it doesn’t fit any of them, I can come to terms with that, and just spin up a new game (or little experimental project, or technical tutorial, or whatever) built entirely around that idea.

(Another HGD entry relevant to pumping out small games: Doing More With Less: Short Game Design)

Q: You’ve made many games between the years 1996-2006, but you only gave a few of those games have a 5/5 rating. What elements do you think your highest rated games had that the others didn’t?

First to say a few things about those ratings: I made up the scores myself, of course, to help guide visitor attention to the projects that I’d rather them see. I know that most visitors are unlikely to browse through all of them. I did it as a compromise between the pure Photographer’s Algorithm (throwing out or hiding most of the output that didn’t come out as well) and a flat-organization of my complete collection, because on the one hand I’d like to show my best work, but on the other (a.) part of what I wish to show about my games work is that I’ve done so much of it (and b.) occasionally those lower scored projects still fit someone’s interests.

I used the same approach for my star ratings on that InteractionArtist series (full listing). The Top 42 shown on the main page are just the projects that I gave 4.5-5 stars.

My criteria for picking which of my PC freeware downloadable games to score higher than others is based on polish (tons of iteration), overall presentability, whether the game is sufficiently self-explanatory, and how many people played it (this is only one consideration – I pay attention to it, but I don’t let it simply rank nor guide my output). It’s also important to me that the concept or approach is both sufficiently original, and that I feel like my implementation on that particular project did justice to what the concept had the potential to become. If I feel like the project is too much like other games, then no matter how well it came out I won’t be interested in sharing it; if I feel like the project was a great concept but that the implementation didn’t come out that well, then I’ll probably not promote it much after it’s no longer new.

Q: What motivates you to continue to develop games?

At this point in my life, it has become my way of helping other people.

I’m also always curious to see what crazy thing I’ll pull together next. I usually have no idea what I’ll work on next, I just trust that something will come to mind that I’ll want to work on. I’m eager to find out what my next game will be, then while working on it I’m eager to see how it will come out.

It probably helps that I never really get down about anything related to videogame development. I never feel bad about anything I’ve worked on. Some of it has done really well, some of it hasn’t done so well, and a bunch of it has done pretty well for some niche audience or by some particular criteria. It’s all just learning, expressing, experimenting, and generally enjoying myself. However any given project or feature comes out I take it in stride, respect it for what it is, and just keep making new ones.

At a personal level, my videogame work is also how I segment periods of my life, and this has been the case ever since before I was a teenager. My main units of time when I think about the second half of my time growing up so far isn’t divided by which grade I was in, by which movie came out, or by what was going on in my personal life. It’s divided by when I was working on Rowdy Rollerz, when I was working on Fugitive, when I was working on Mind Breaker, when I was working on Zylatov Sisters, and so on.

Q: What is your favorite game that you worked on?

Well, for the rest of the world, it’s definitely either Topple (iOS) or Vision by Proxy: Second Edition (play in-browser).

But to me, it’s either Zylatov Sisters (play in-browser), Transcend (play in-browser), or Alice in Bomberland (iOS).

Q: Of the games that you created with a team, were there any features that you really wanted to see in the final product that did not make the cut? How do you come about such a compromise?

Nope. I’m very much driven by the overall effect, not individual features. I’ll gladly sacrifice a seemingly good feature if it means a better overall game, whether that’s because of an issue with our best implementation attempt, or just how it doesn’t fit with what else is working about the game.

Q: As a programmer working on our game right now, there have been plenty of times where I felt inadequate or that I wasn’t good enough to complete what I was trying to accomplish. Are there times that this ever happens to you? (If so, how do you deal with it?)

I run into things I can’t do, but I don’t see that as inadequacy. That’s my sign that I’m working close to the fringe of what I know how to do, and that is how it should be. I assess what would be involved in learning how to do the thing I don’t know how, or give myself a time limit on working on it before I turn to a more straightforward plan B. Then I either throw myself into figuring out a workable solution, or I just design around it.

Q: What are beginner tips you can give a student that’s new to game development?

Actually, I have a whole talk on this topic! Here’s a video of it on HobbyGameDev: Making Finished Videogames (Student & Freeware) / Video of Slides with Audio.

But here are some additional tips:

  • It’s important of learn how to make your work stand on its own. This is a really hard thing to learn. But once your game gets released, you won’t get to be there to explain to someone before they play what it is and how to play. The game has to do that for you.
  • Testing will lead you to fix critical issues that you completely overlook by habit. Let someone play that knows nothing about the game, and without any instruction or assistance from you. Take notes on where they’re getting stuck. Even better, have them “think aloud” what they’re doing and why, and you’ll get a better sense for what they’ve misunderstood, which can help you figure out how to avoid that happening for other players.
  • Learn to present your work in a compelling and non-verbose way. An action trailer reaches a lot more people than a descriptive video. No matter how much fun your game is, playing games takes skill and non-trivial attentional investment, so having a decent video and some good screenshots will enable a lot more people to at least know about your game.
  • Work with others. It’s really beneficial in a lot of circumstances, even if that means that you’re temporarily slowed down by having to help them get started or figure out how to help. A lot of people get excited about getting into videogame making, and if possible, find a way to help them do that, especially if you can do so in a way that can help you out, too.

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