Category Archives: Blog

Indie Game Dev Goes Down in a Blaze of Glory

For some people in the video game industry, this is where the debate about games-as-art will be tried in the court of public opinion.

Until today, indie game developer David S. Gallant was a part-time customer service rep in a Canada Revenue Agency call centre. David did not enjoy his job, and wanted to make games instead. Desperately. So he committed to spending one day a week at the Untold Entertainment offices to learn whatever he could about the industry and our craft. After leaving Untold, David made a few games on his own, including I Get This Call Every Day, a game he used to express his frustrations about his job.



Today, after an incendiary Toronto Star article in which the reporter appears to have tipped off the office of the Canadian Minister of Revenue Gail Shea (David was always guarded about where he actually worked), David was fired from his job.

Never Again the Burning Times

The claim by TOJam co-founder Jim McGinley and others, who are seeing red, is that the Star article (and the Minister’s reaction) reveal a distinct bias against video games as an art form. Jim asserts that if David had expressed his frustrations through any other artistic medium – writing, painting, stand-up comedy, film, interpretive dance – he would not have provoked the same reaction.

As someone who has been fired from his job for being critical of his employer, i’m not so quick to call this an anti-games witch hunt. A few years ago, i remember being so aghast at the incapability and apathy of the students at the HervĂ© Velasquez School For the Digitally Inclined (my nickname for George Brown College), that i wrote a pair of articles called What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges (Parts 1 and 2) expressing my frustration. In those articles, i went much further than David did in his game, by actually naming my employer (among other schools), and by being a general dick about it. The Dean at GBC sniffed out my articles in a Google vanity search, and i was fired from my teaching position shortly thereafter.

i regret to inform you that your employment is hereby terminated immediately! (How’s THAT for a catchphrase?)

Sidenote: i regret nothing. When you’re so unhappy with a job that it oozes – achingly – into your art, getting fired is an absolutely blessing … a fact i truly hope David will come to realize in time.

Gag Reflex

The best consolation i received from anyone about being fired from George Brown was that in this new age of digital media, old institutions like schools (and governments, in David’s case) need to control the message. And thanks to blogs like this one, where i can freely criticize George Brown College, these institutions’ inability to control the message drives them completely bonkers, and they feel that their only recourse is to aggressively dig out the cancerous cells with a spoon. Bleeding be damned.

There. We’ve burned this relatively-unknown novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. That’s the last we’ll be hearing about THAT.

Of course, as we’ve seen so many times, these institutions don’t stop to consider the backlash their knee-jerk reactions cause. In my case, after my firing was widely publicized, i was able to single-handedly dismantle all heartless Ontario college diploma mills and replace them with tightly-focussed, effective programs that produced skilled and educated students (and uh … and then i woke up.)

In David’s case, the video game community is rallying to his cause with Twitter hashtags like #saveGallant (David is currently trending on Twitter in Canada), and organizations everywhere are encouraging people to buy and upvote his game. (PROTIP: By paying more than the $2 minimum donation suggestion, you can help float David for the next little while until he finds a new job. Give generously!)

So does the Star’s article betray a bias against video games? i’m not sure it does. Plain and simple, you can’t bite the hand that feeds you, even if that hand is also strangling you and periodically feeding you shit. Did i do something wrong for slagging off George Brown College? Yes. Am i thrilled that i’m no longer working there? You betcha. Did David do something wrong by criticizing his call centre job? Most likely. Will he one day be thrilled that he’s no longer working there?

You betcha.

Reeling From It – Part 3

This is the final collection of anecdotes about my trying times between graduating from a completely useless accelerated animation program at a community college, and trying to find work with a crummy demo reel.

Flew the Co-Op

The first tip i give to many students is that if your school offers a co-op placement, be very careful where you place, because you’ll likely end up there for the next few years. This was true for me and many of my classmates. The girl who placed at her uncle’s trucking company is probably still working there to this day. My own three-month placement at an elementary school led to a job at a technology summer camp with the same board of education, which led to a year-long position as a technology tutor at another school within the board, which was probably followed up with another board summer camp, for all i can remember.

The last thing i wanted to do after spending sixteen years of my life in school was to end up back there.

Throughout this time, i really felt like i was stuck at these elementary schools, and i felt that teaching computer skills to kindergarten-to-eighth-grade kids was degrading. (In retrospect, i’m thankful for my teaching years. What, at the time, felt like a completely disconnected diversion from my chosen profession has turned out to be a complement to the work i currently do creating software for young children).

Do the Hustle

So during my stint at the schools, i was constantly out hustling and putting my demo reel into as many hands as possible. This was when there were actual hard costs to duping a VHS tape, and every time i parted with a reel, i heard that cash register “ca-CHING” sound.

Here’s four dollars for you to throw in the garbage. Enjoy.

One of the aspects of being a grad that i try not to forget is that unless your school did their job (and i guarantee you, they didn’t), you’re completely clueless about the local companies that could potentially hire you. You’ve heard of Disney and Dreamworks and Digital Domain, and once you’ve exhausted those choice leads, you’re in the dark. It’s very difficult to apply to places when you don’t know they exist. (This is why today, i try to help grads out by creating things like the Ontario Interactive directory.)

i clearly remember three crummy experiences from my life as a recent grad – three indignities, each suffered at the hand of a different villain: The Doubter, The Liar, and The Cheapskate.

The Doubter

When you apply for jobs out of school, nobody replies. That’s why i try to reply to everyone who applies to work at Untold Entertainment, even if it’s just to say ‘no thanks’, which it often is. Sometimes i’ll get applications that are so misguided or terrible that i’ll respond with (hopefully gentle) advice on how the applicant can improve the offering, because i hate to think of that applicant continually wasting everyone’s time (and his own). If an application has bad grammar and spelling errors (especially if the applicant is a programmer), i’ll usually speak up. If it’s a 3D artist applying to our 2D shop, another common error, i’ll say something. If someone applies with a form letter saying “i love your studio’s work”, i’ll call bullshit and ask the applicant to name something we’ve done.

But i try, through all of this, not to be a giant dick about it. Because one Wednesday afternoon many many years ago, i found myself in the Hudsucker Proxy-esque office of The Doubter, and i don’t wish to inflict his treatment of me onto others.

The Doubter was a high-ranking guy at CBC. He needed someone to develop props for the Canadian “comedy” series Royal Canadian Air Farce. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Air Farce is to comedy as a plate of steaming corn-speckled dog turds are to food. And here, for once, i do not exaggerate.

Air Farce cast members pose in front of the chicken cannon. Stop, stop! My face is hurting from laughing!

The job was this: let’s say the wacky Air Farce cast wanted to shoot their Gallagher-style chicken cannon at the target of the week – say, rude drivers or the Ontario Premier. They need a prop image to put on the chicken cannon easel. CBC was hiring a prop artist to create that image. Or if the cast needs a prop newspaper or a set needs window signage, the prop artist creates it. On a computer. Using Adobe Illustrator.

Adobe Illustrator.

i’d used Illustrator in school, a whole lot. i was the top of my class at using the software, and was regularly praised by the Illustrator teacher. My demo reel did not showcase any Illustrator work (except for a few textures here and there), because why would it? It was an animation reel. i popped the tape into The Doubter’s VCR and showed him the reel.

After it had finished playing, The Doubter tented his fingers and looked apprehensive. “Hmmm … yeah. This job is for someone who knows how to use Illustrator,” he said. “i know how to use Illustrator,” i said. “i used it throughout my program. i’m very good with it.”

“Your tape doesn’t show any Illustrator work.” “Yes, that’s true, but i DO know how to use the software. The job posting wasn’t very specific – otherwise, i would have brought more Illustrator work to show you.”

And then he paused, looked at me skeptically, and said “Hmmmmyeahhh. Even though you say you know how to use Illustrator, i don’t think you know how to use Illustrator.”

Then, he twisted the knife: “Your portfolio makes it seem as though you’d like to become an animator. Have you considered taking animation at Sheridan?”

“i … ” i stammered a little. “i just came from school. i did attend Sheriden, and Seneca College after that. i just completed an entire animation program. i’m OUT of school. i’m looking for a JOB.”

“Hmmmm….well,” he purred. “Good luck in your search.”

Of course, hindsight it 20/20 – if i could go back, as people later suggested, i would have said “i don’t know how to use Illustrator, eh? Put me on a machine NOW, bitch. i’m about to ROCK this.”

Lessons learned: 1. Don’t be that guy. 2. Find out as much as you can about a position before showing up for an interview. If the posting is vague, a phone call is not out of line. 3. It’s okay to suggest that someone improve the quality of their portfolio, but suggesting the applicant go back to school is insulting.

The Liar

The most audacious interviewer i met was named The Liar. He actually liked my work and brought me back for a second interview. During that interview, he marched me around his studio and introduced me to everyone, saying “This is Ryan – we’re bringing him on as our newest animator.” Then he SHOWED ME where i would be sitting, and said “This is where you’ll be sitting.” i went home after that interview, and despite frequent follow-ups, i never heard back from him.

You dick!

Lessons learned: 1. Don’t be that guy. 2. Don’t listen to a word anyone says until there is INK on PAPER, and even then, be wary.

The Cheapskate

The Cheapskate worked in the interactive department at Much Music, which was Canada’s answer to MTV before MTV Canada, which is Canada’s answer to TLC. The Cheapskate wanted me to do some interface design for some sort of music player. i worked remotely, having never been in a client/freelancer relationship before. i also had no idea what proper UI design was all about – this was years before it was a subject Ontario colleges would think to teach. i didn’t do a very good job, and i worked for a few weeks on it before The Cheapskate said that it was all going in the wrong direction and he needed to “cash out”. i felt absolutely sick making out my invoice for my work that he obviously wasn’t going to use.

The bottom line on that invoice? $120.

Lessons Learned: 1. Don’t be that guy. 2. What seems like a lot of money to a recent grad usually isn’t a lot of money to someone at a large media shop. 3. If freelancers need a little hand-holding due to inexperience and because their schools didn’t do their bloody jobs training them, be gentle. That’s why you’re paying ten bucks an hour instead of forty.

The caveat to this is if the current year is greater than 2000, don’t hand-hold for NOTHIN’. i recently had a graduate working with me on a game and she didn’t know how to write an invoice, so she asked me instead of doing a Google search. This, dear friends, is a no-no. Don’t embarrass yourself. Type the phrase “how to write an invoice” in the Google search field and save us all some embarrassment.

She was far from being the first graduate from a particular Ontario college who didn’t know how to use Flash or write an invoice. i actually wound up writing to the school and requesting they get their shit together and properly train their students in this.

Righting Wrongs at $0/hr

During this tricky time in my life, i would have killed for an opportunity like the one i currently provide to students and grads. i don’t pay grads, because they usually suck, and i don’t end up using most of what they produce. i mostly put them on make-work projects, like populating the Ontario Interactive site that i mentioned above. But they get to sit in a studio and see me struggle through client feedback and revision requests. i show them the financial realities of running a studio. i show them my invoicing process. i talk to them about my strategies for keeping the lights on at Untold, both short term and long term. It’s a very valuable opportunity (despite what certain people have to say about it). When i was a recent graduate, that’s all i ever needed – just to be able to sit in a studio and get a feel for what was expected of me if i was going to contribute value to the industry.

And i halped!

Much of how i conduct myself these days, from the way i act at industry mixers to the internships and mentoring i provide through Untold Entertainment, are due to the lousy treatment i received after i graduated. It’s a tough time, especially as Ontario’s lacklustre college system continues to churn out a gross number of poorly-trained graduates well beyond what the local (or even national or international) video game industry can bear. i only hope that i’m able to ease the passage a little bit for students and recent grads, and that in return, i am simply able to enjoy the bounty of their sweet virgin bumcakes.

Further reading: TENure.

Reeling From It – Part 2

Want the whole story?

In the last article, i posted my student demo reel from 1998. The reel got me very nearly physically kicked out of Seneca College. i produced it in a single weekend as i nervously clutched a plane ticket to Florida, so that i could use it to seek my fortunes at the SIGGRAPH convention. This is the story of what happened next.

But before we get into that, here’s another artifact from 1998. This is a Leica reel for the animation starring that Jell-O-headed underwear-clad character from my demo reel, Dr. Delicious.



Mr. Creighton, You’re Trying to Seduce Me

i try my very best to be pleasant and helpful to students and recent graduates. There’s a very good reason for this: there are few more devastating transition periods in your life than moving from your “i’m gonna take the world by storm and kick off my career with a sky-high starting salary” phase, to your “no one will give me a job and my mom converted my old bedroom into a home gym so i’m going to be moving back home and sleeping on an exercise mat for the foreseeable future” phase.

And as of July, you’re no longer covered under your parents’ health insurance.

The two years between graduating from my el-cheapo, rushed 3D animation program at Seneca College, and giving up all hope of finding a job in my field, were two of the most discouraging, difficult, and humiliating years of my life … and i played a silver lamet-clad disco vampire in the high school musical.

Really.

i’m Going to Fizzny World!

When last we left our intrepid me, i had escaped the overly-hostile strip mall campus of Seneca College with my new, extremely mediocre student demo reel and a plane ticket to Orlando to attend SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics convention. Students like to circulate wild rumours, including “starting salary is $60k”, and “everyone who goes to SIGGRAPH is guaranteed a job”. In video game schools today, i’m sure that a similar rumour circulates about the career faire at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

Excuse me, but is this where they hand out the jobs?

Off i flew to Orlando and the show, where lots and lots of dudes were really, really friendly to me. Like, really friendly. i mean, they were promising me jobs without ever even seeing my work. i felt like i was a real talent. One fellow worked for Fizzny, and after a private recruitment meeting of JUST TALKING, he gave me a ticket to this exclusive party at the top of one of the Fizzny theme park’s hotels. His name was Joe. i saw him the next day on the show floor, the day of the party, and other young college dudes like me had apparently been given the same glowing treatment. It turns out, i was not the only one who had been offered a ticket to that party.

Excuse me, but is this where they hand out the “jobs”?

Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

When i finally arrived at the party, Joe seemed disappointed to not have more of my undivided attention. i was trying to work the room. Joe pointed at a guy standing near the buffet, with a small crowd of people around him. “See that guy over there? He’s the VP of Fizzny feature animation.” Joe clapped me on the back and said, in resigned tones, “Go get ‘im.”

Through very careful detective work in my mindbrain, i pieced it together. The realization slowly crept up on me: Joe was gay, and he was spending the conference hunting college dudepoon. He realized he couldn’t have me, because he wasn’t important enough, and (as he saw it), i was a real climber. The feature animation VP was, presumably, also gay. i could go farther in my burgeoning career if i was gay – if i offered any of these gentlemen my sweet virgin bumcakes.

i didn’t end up talking to – or doing anything else with (or on, or in, or at) – the Fizzny VP. i decided i wasn’t quite prepared to sleep my way to the top.

i almost regret not doing something i’d regret. Two years later, after my job search had completely failed, and if technology had allowed, i likely would have booked it back to that party in a time machine, flashing hot pants and jazz hands.

These days, i can’t even blow my way into a five-hour freelance gig.

Apart from that episode, i made it into all the right parties and talked to all the right people at SIGGRAPH. i was even interviewed by Digital Domain, who made vague promises about following up with me and slotting me into one of their departments. That was the first time i learned that people lie to grads, and can’t be believed. But it wouldn’t be the last.

Reeling From It – Part 1

Recently, i grabbed a Groupon for VHS to DVD transfer, and i decided to convert my student demo reel and share it with you all, along with the sordid tale that goes with it. Here’s the reel:



And now, the tale.

The Tale

i graduated from a condensed 3D graphics and animation program at Seneca College, after dropping out of Sheridan. i left Sheridan because i somehow got into their Illustration program despite never taking a single art class all through high school, and i found i was unable to keep pace with my excellently talented classmates. Stepping into Seneca from Sheridan was like leaving Downton Abbey and stepping into Welcome Back Kotter. Or the Wire. It was bad.

Stay classy, Seneca.

The school was clearly out to make a quick buck (and not much has changed here in Toronto, with Seneca being far from the only culprit). My program was accelerated, clearly so that they could churn more students through and increase their profits. The “campus”, at the time, was in a strip mall at Finch and Dufferin, across from a peeler joint called Charlie T’s – the outdoor signage of which, on a daily basis, invited me to “come get wet with the hot tub girls”. A good number of my classmates actually DID heed that call, and would come back from the strip club half-soused, ready to “fukkin’ model some three fukkin’ dee”. Their resulting work was often big-titted chrome robo-babes. Sigh.

3D model by Keaton3D (note: NOT a Seneca student from my class. The give-away is that the quality is way too high.)

It was one of those schools where like so many others (Centennial comes to mind), the program “offered” a co-op placement. What this means is that the school really only had a connection with one studio in the city, and could only place two students there – their own pick, naturally. The rest of the thirty students had to fend for ourselves. The co-op “class” was a prerequisite for graduation. One girl got a placement typing up schedules at her uncle’s trucking company. i found my own placement teaching technology at an elementary school.

WHERE’S MY $60k STARTING SALARY AS A 3D ANIMATOR, YOU LITTLE WHELPS??

My on-campus classes ended in May, let’s say, but my co-op position ended in June. At the time, a wild rumour was circulating among students that if you could only arrive at the promised land, the SIGGRAPH conference, you could land a job no problem with Pixar or Digital Domain. Cinchy. So naturally, i ponied up the cash for a plane ticket to Orlando so that i could shop my reel around the conference. The problem was that i didn’t have a demo reel.

A Reel Problem

A week after my co-op placement ended, i booked Seneca’s edit suite for a weekend, with my plane leaving the following Monday. The pressure was intense. i had to assemble and edit all of my school assignments together in a reel in that one weekend so i would have something to show in Florida. What’s more, i didn’t live in Toronto – i had to commute an hour through the worst part of town to my geriatric great uncle’s condo, limited by whenever the buses stopped running. So off i went.

In the middle of my sleep-addled Hell Weekend, the big gruff Eastern Bloc guy who handled equipment bookings stormed into the edit suite. “WE HAV PROBLEM,” he announced.

(you’re going to suplex me?)

“Wh… what’s the problem?” i asked.

“YOU ARE NOT A STUDENT HERE ANY MORE.”

In my defense, i told him that my last class (for that’s what my co-op placement technically was) had ended the week prior. i also pointed out that it was a dead weekend, and that no other student had the room booked.

“TAKE YOUR THINGS, GEEV ME THE KEY, AND GET OUT,” he intoned coldly.

i was in shock. My reel was only half-finished. “What’s the big deal?” you ask, because you are young and don’t know any better. Well, this was in 1998. All of my work was on these thick-as-a-dinner-plate ZIP disks. This weekend predated digital editing – everything was done on tape editing machines. To complete my reel, i’d have to book time in an edit suite in town somewhere, which also had to run 3DS Max and the other software i needed to produce rendered frames. So i was completely hosed.

Nothing says “completely hosed” quite like a ZIP disk.

i walked down the hallway to the President’s office carrying my things in my arms, feeling weirdly like an assault victim. i remember very clearly standing in her office, the stress and pressure of the weekend and my plane tickets bought with money i didn’t have and my lack of sleep weighing down on me, and begging her with tears in my eyes to allow me to finish cutting my reel.

Think about that: Seneca College, which took my money and gave me the bum’s rush, booting me out the door of their computer animation program without even offering a portfolio readiness course or sufficient time to produce a demo reel, made me beg them to let me produce the one crucial artifact that would help me successfully land a job in the workforce. This is why until now, you won’t have caught me mentioning i ever attended that school. i have actively avoided them throughout my professional life.

Proclamation and Banishment

The President waved her sceptre and deigned to let me use the suite for one more day, sternly warning me that i was not to return to the school, and cautioning me that if i partook of any food or drink while i was there, i would be trapped in Seneca’s Finch and Dufferin strip mall campus forever, never to return to the lands above.

i had no urge to return. i cut the rest of my reel as fast as possible, left the place, and have never looked back.

So if i’m ever hard on Ontario colleges these days, i feel justified; they were first hard on me.

Then What Happened?

More on how this steaming turd of a demo reel was received in Florida, and elsewhere, in the next post.