IMPORTANT: What’s that ungodly sound coming through my speakers/headphones? Scroll midway down the post and find the Flash piece called Bouncing Baby Boys. Then click on the bouncing ball to stop the sound effect. Then pop back up here and keep reading.
i spoke to some students the Toronto chapter IGDA meeting two weeks ago, and it brought back what a terrible struggle it was to bridge the gap between education and career. Last night, i read this obnoxious sob story by Alistair Jones who just wants to realize his dream: to become a video game designer/writer, except without having to do all that hard stuff like programming or drawing. The article is very very long, so i’ll pull a few choice quotes to sum it up for you:
Boo hoo hoo. Life is hard. Waaaahhh wahhh. Violin music. Why won’t anyone give me a job despite my complete lack of ability? Sob sob sob. Colleges are trying to ruin my life. Why does everyone hate me? It must be the world’s problem, not mine. Sniffle sob. Please give me a job in games, because i’m great at playing games.
Like the students at the IGDA meeting, Alistair makes some bad assumptions that are holding him, and many students, back:
- An interest in gaming as a hobby has some bearing on my ability to succeed as a game developer.
- Someone will hire me straight out of school (or while i’m in school) as a game designer/writer.
- Since i trained in x/y/z, the world owes me a living in that field.
- i don’t have to be an expert in any one thing … i can dabble in all aspects of game production and design, and land a job.
Reading Alistair’s article and talking to the guys at the IGDA meeting was painful, because it brought to mind my own struggle, and reminded me that i made the same bad assumptions. i had a lousy time in college, like Alistair, and i moaned about it like a little bitch, like Alistair, with badly-composed prose, like Alistair. i hate Alistair. i hate his article. i see too much of myself in it, and it embarrasses me. But through certain twists of fate, i somehow made it … and perhaps, as he matures and hunkers down and does what needs doing, Alistair will make it too.
As of this month, i became a ten-year veteran of the video game industry. Ten years ago, in April 2000, i accepted a job at Corus Entertainment making video games for the website of their kids’ station, YTV. (YTV is like the Canadian version of Nickelodeon.)
YTV is famous for its (then) live interstitials hosted by PJs (program jockeys, a take on MTV’s VJs/Video Jockeys). Pictured here, PJ Fresh Phil, who many people still ask me about. Yes, i’ve met him. Yes, he’s still preposterously hip.
And as long as i’m bragging, i want to be clear: i’m not talking about ten years in the industry doing industry-related things, like pushing a mop at a video game studio, or making games in my mom’s basement for a few years. i’ve racked up ten solid years of personally designing and creating actual video games in exchange for money. i’m not positive that the story of how that happened could happen again today, but in case it helps any of you, here it is.
Art School Drop-Out
Coming out of high school, i had not taken art. This was due to a conflict with the Performing Arts program which had eaten up all of my electives. i was a drama major, a budding playwright, and had starred in a few musicals by the time i had graduated. i didn’t take computer courses either, except in my final year. The final project for the senior-level course was a video game. While the course was programming-centric, and i had none of the prerequisites, i slipped in by making the case that game development was multi-disciplinary, and that i should be able to take the course as an artist/animator.
So leaving high school, i had no fine arts training and i had muscled my way into one computers course, with no programming knowledge. Naturally, i decided i wanted to be a computer animator.
Toy Story, released a year earlier, had a big impact on my decision.
i applied to the province’s most prestigious art college, and was accepted into their Art Fundamentals survey course (“art is fun for mentals!” as the students called it). The computer animation program was a post-grad course, and the Animation and Illustration programs were filled with actual talented artists. A month before classes started, they offered me a spot in the Illustration program, because someone wasn’t able to pay his tuition, and i was next in line on their ranked list of portfolios. i took the slot. After four months of growing keenly aware that i was out-leagued by far, far better talent, i dropped out.
Lesson: If you’re in over your head, best to admit it early and switch tracks while the damage is minimal.
Community College (or: When Does the Hurting Stop?)
i slid over to another college almost immediately, and took their computer animation program. This was NOT a prestigious school by any means. Clueless teachers proudly plastered the walls with plagiarized student assignments. The classes were filled with international students who didn’t speak English, and ate up the instructors’ time asking them to slowly, clearly explain rudimentary instructions (“Click file … SAVE. No – not ‘shave’ …. “) i had a lousy time.
The program had one interactive course in Director. i really took to it. Lingo, the scripting language, was simple enough to allow me to make button rollovers and responses, which was almost all i needed to make a simple first-person graphic adventure or puzzle game like MYST. So while most other students struggled with Director, i really had a good time with it. Our final assignment in that class was to make a program that had a title screen with five buttons on it. Each of the five buttons would link to a scene demonstrating a different animation type: tweening, mouse-tracking, straight-ahead, motion path, and i forget. i knew the other students would blow off the assignment and animate a bunch of meaningless circles and triangles around the screen (i was right!), so i made something called Bouncing Baby Boys:
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The school ostensibly had a co-op placement program, but like so many schools, they only had three industry contacts which were quickly exhausted. It was up to the students to find their own placements. i found one on my own in the Durham Board of Education (Durham is a district East of Toronto). The school hired me on contract as a technology tutor. i taught junior kindergarten kids how to use a mouse, i taught fourth-grade kids how to use a word processor, and i taught a sixth-grade gifted class how to make animated movies on the computer.
Today, kids, we’ll learn how to set page margins and right-justify header text.
When that was over, i returned to the college to cut together my demo reel. i purchased a plane ticket and a pass to SIGgraph (Special Interest Group – Computer Graphics), an international conference in Florida where it was rumoured that big studios like Digital Design, Industrial Light and Magic, and PIXAR would hire graduates. i booked the edit room for three days and hastily began cutting my reel together over the weekend – my flight to SIGGraph left Monday. In the middle of that ordeal, the facilities manager kicked me out of the edit suite because i was no longer a student (my co-op placement had ended the week prior). i remember tearfully appealing to the school president in her office to let me finish cutting my reel. She begrudgingly agreed, but warned me that i was never to return to the school. i haven’t. To this day, i’m careful never to mention the name of that school, in case they ever try to claim me as a success story. Karma, friends.
Lesson: don’t take no for an answer, and don’t leave school without a proper portfolio. That portfolio is why you’re paying the money and spending the time.
BJs for Career Advancement: NOT a Myth
SIGGraph was a bust. i managed to weasel my way into a number of parties, including one at the top of the hotel overlooking Walt Disney World, where i spoke to the VP of Disney’s feature animation department. i realized the entire time that i scored a lot of party tickets because the gay men at the conference wanted a piece of my sweet cherry ass. Absolutely true story. (i didn’t give it up though! Let me repeat that fact for absolute clarity: i was then, and remain today, an ass virgin.) Despite meeting with a number of surprisingly high-ranking (and lascivious) people from various studios, i did not land a job at SIGgraph. And despite the header title of this section, i also did not blow anyone to get those tickets.
This is what they actually mean by “stiff competition”.
Lesson: There is always some legendary conference where desirable companies reportedly hire students. GDC has a career fair. i’m sure there are others. Don’t believe the hype. If you’re really that great, you won’t have to leave home to get noticed. And if your portfolio-fu is weak, you’re not getting a job, no matter how well-connected you make yourself. Unless you give up your man-hymen.
Seething at the Ceeb
i had a few misadventures in Toronto trying to find a job. Please understand that my hastily-slapped-together demo reel was HORRIBLE. i wouldn’t have hired me. i had one meeting at the CBC for a job making props for an unfunny show called Royal Canadian Air Farce, which is Canada’s second most toxic by-product next to pulp and paper mill runoff. They wanted signs and posters created with Adobe Illustrator. i showed the producer my hideous demo reel. He suggested i go to school. i told him i’d already been to school. He said i didn’t know how to use Illustrator. i protested that i DID … i was one of the best in my class. But since my portfolio didn’t contain any of my Illustrator pieces, i didn’t get the job. The guy actually said to me “Well, since your portfolio doesn’t have any Illustrator examples, despite what you say, you don’t know how to use Illustrator.” Not “i don’t THINK you know how to use Illustrator” – just “you DON’T know how to use Illustrator.”
Lesson: Tailor your portfolio samples to the job for which you’re applying. Employers can’t take you at your word.
In another instance, a guy went so far as to show me around the office and introduce me to the employees as someone who was going to start working there soon. He never called me back.
Lesson: Be consistent, follow up, and hold people to their promises. And unless there’s ink on a contract, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.
At a complete loss, i took a few more jobs with the Board of Education. The second job was teaching kids how to make games and mousetrap cars at a technology summer camp. The third was as an on-site technician for TVOntario’s Virtual Classroom project. i did that for a year.
Lesson: Inertia! Don’t be surprised if your first real job continues from the job you took as your college co-op placement. This means you should try your damndest to make your co-op placement as good as possible.
Objects in education tend to stay in education.
i was two years out of computer animation school, and i had nothing to show for it but some experience running an NES emulator during recess to distract two elementary school kids with rage issues from beating up the other kids on the playground. i had a number of near-misses, including one freelance job at City TV (a local Toronto teevee station). My college education had not panned out. i decided to admit defeat and try for a University degree. i enrolled at Trent University, and majored in Cultural Studies for one year, paying tuition with the money i’d made at the Board of Education, and my ongoing job as a clerk at a video rental store in my home town. The boss there kept his Adult section stocked with some disproportionately freaky stuff (in spite of the mostly sexually vanilla population), and screened most of it himself in his office in the basement. He was constantly on my case about my clothes not fitting properly – i had gained a ton of weight in college. This, friends – this was the low point for me. This is when i would have written my Alistair-style sob story on Gamasutra.
Lesson: Don’t write an Alistair-style sob story on Gamasutra. You’re low enough already.
Summer came. i had finished my intro courses in University. Since i had already conceded defeat and had taken the status quo measure of attending University, i figured i’d further submit to mundanity and get a summer job planting evergreen trees in a deforested chunk of Northern Ontario. i had heard it was soulless, back-breaking work, plagued with sunburns and black flies. With utter abandon, i started searching the online job site Monster.ca.
How i (Almost) Spent My Summer Vacation
The Turning Point
That’s where i found it: a job posting for a game developer. i couldn’t believe my eyes. Could NOT believe them. Monster.ca was in its infancy, and was mostly packed with data-entry jobs and jobs selling knives door-to-door. There was never anything like THIS on that site. An actual game developer position. i freaked out.
Never settle. Take the best damned door-to-door knife sales position you can find.
The job was to use Macromedia Flash to create video games for YTV.com, a kids website. i spent my teen years watching a lot of YTV, and was smitten with their (then) purple, orange and green colour palette. This was too good to be true. A game developer at YTV. i was going insane.
i wrote a cover letter to them. A spazmodic one. An INSANE cover letter. i packed it with as much enthusiasm and passion as i could muster. It was an absolutely deranged cover letter. i attached my resume, and told them i had a demo reel. (You couldn’t run video online then like you could now, so people had to view your demo reel in person. Today, of course, you MUST put your stuff online, or it will likely cost you the interview). Within the week, YTV called me in for an interview.
Lesson: If the job is really, really important to you, it’s alright to show it. Geek out about it. Don’t send a static, staid letter. Do NOT send your form cover letter. Every employer wants to hire someone who really, REALLY wants to work there. Don’t be afraid to go off-book and fly your freak flag a little.
i brought my friend along he day of the interview, and we went shopping for suitable interview clothes that fit my more considerable stature. This was YTV, so i chose an orange T under a loud Hawaiian shirt, a pair of cargo shorts and some sandals. i must have looked like a cartoon character. And really, that was the point.
Lesson: Dress appropriately for your job interview.
This is an actual photo of me from March 2000.
i showed them my demo reel at the interview. They weren’t impressed. No one was. It was a terrible reel. They asked me what my favourite show on YTV was. i had my answer ready: Nanalan’. This impressed them.
Lesson: Research the company before the interview.
They asked me if i knew Flash. i didn’t – i knew Director. BUT, the week of the interview, i had downloaded the free 30-day trial of Flash. i completed the 10 tutorials that shipped with the software. i took all the graphics and animations from the Bouncing Babies piece from my college Director course two years earlier, and recreated it in Flash. i showed it to them. It got me the job.
Lesson: Show the employer exactly what they’re looking for.
i remember the phone call vividly. i remember exactly what i said to the woman who hired me. Through elation and tears of joy, i managed “THANK YOU. Thank you SO much. You’ve changed my life.”
Programming by the Seat of My Pants
And that’s how i found myself, on day one of my first job in the game development industry ten years ago, sitting at a desk with my own computer, my own phone, and a contract for a $40k annual salary (which, adjusted for inflation, is like a $41k salary). This was at the peak of the dot com collapse. My official title was “Game Developer”. i had not made a single game in all my life. The first day on the job, the producer asked me to create a game for a financial client who wanted kids to learn the value of saving. i built on what i already knew how to do, and built this, my first-ever professionally-produced video game:
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The goal is to flip all the coins to “heads”. When you flip a coin, all of the coins in the same row and column are flipped. The game has three difficulty levels with three different animated endings. Art, animation, voice-over and sound effects were all by me, with (i think) a deadline of one week.
i learned on the job. i expanded my skillset with every game they asked me to make. i leaned heavily on the expertise of the more experienced game developer there, and barraged him with questions. He was very patient. He told me later that of all the applicants for the job, i was the only one even remotely qualified, as unqualified as i was. No one else showed them any work that was youthful, kiddy and cartoony. No one else showed the same amount of promise or potential.
Lesson: Be in the right place at the right time, and be very, very lucky.
Wanna be a superhero? Just get bit by a radioactive spider. How hard is that?
Ten Years After
i built over fifty Flash games at Corus for YTV, Treehouse TV (their preschool brand), WNetwork (their women’s brand), and corporate side-projects like The Big Rip collection of kids’ virtual worlds. i have created games for blind children, and games for deaf children. Ten years since landing that first real industry job, i own my own game development studio. i meet people like those two guys wanting to be hired as game designers/writers, and i read articles like Alistair’s, and i wince. It’s a familiar angst. i knew then, and i affirm now, that to get into this industry, you need to be a skilled at one of two things: art or programming. It’s very unusual to skip the queue, so don’t hold out hope. Instead, devote yourself to being useful or talented at something.
Lesson: Is this really your dream? Do you REALLY want to get into this industry? Then stop whining, stop playing World of Warcraft, and stop cooking up new and impossibly large game designs for RPGs and MMOs. Stop mistaking your notebook full of game ideas with actual completed game projects. Stop confusing game playing with game development. Stop equating your knowledge of games with some mystical birthright creating games.
i can name every boss character in every Zelda game. That’s a useful skill. Hire me.
Instead, devote yourself completely to doing whatever it bloody well takes to succeed: that means starting small, and finishing something – then starting slightly larger, and finishing something else. You may not have the luxury of doing that on someone else’s dime as a salaried employee, but i guarantee you won’t get where you’re going unless you translate angst into action.