Monday, April 16, 2012

Behind the Graphics: A Video Game Industry Round Table

On Saturday I sat in on a game industry round table where Allen Turner, lead game designer at Wideload Games, moderated.  The panel of local game developers gave a behind the scenes look at what developers do and how to get hired as one.

Allen Turner introduced himself first as the director of Wideload Games, a local game development company he helped found in 2003.  His credited games include Stubbs The Zombie (Xbox, Mac, PC), Hail to the Chimp (Xbox 360, PS3), and Guilty Party (Wii).  Stubbs The Zombie was the first title Wideload Games released.  Following a short Machinima trailer for Stubbs the mic was passed down the panel for further introductions.

Matt Degen currently works at High Voltage as an animator.  He has been working in the game industry for three years now, but pointed out that it took eight years for him to break in.  Most recently, he worked on the new Star Wars Kinect game.  He played us a 49 second clip of some Clone Wars-esque space battles and after explained the requirement of long hours in this industry.  He worked 60 hour work weeks December to February just for that short clip.

Sitting next to Matt, Ryan Wiemeyer sported a Mad Hatter style hat and he listed his credentials next.  Ryan currently co-owns The Men Who Wear Many Hats, a name he explained is the type of work one must do as a developer.  His credited game, Organ Trail, is a retro style game similar to Oregon Trail, but with zombies.  It has been a free-to-play flash game for a while, but now Ryan aims to take it to the mobile platform and has already surpassed his Kickstarter goal of $3,000 by an additional $13,000. 

Cef Grima, art director for Disney Interactive has been making video games for 17 years.  Unfortunately, as a director now he does very little art.  The last game he worked on was Guilty Party (Wii) back in August 2010.  Initially he wanted to get into comics, but ended up getting into the video game industry instead to get work.  His first game industry job was at Take 2.

Kyle Baily, a programmer for NetherRealm, most recently worked on Arkham City Lockdown for iDevices.  He got his start in the industry at Midway before they went out of business.  In order to break into the industry he interned after attending school out in Seattle.

Dan Loane was last to introduce himself as a game designer, or more accurately, a technical designer at Wideload Games.  He explained that as a technical designer he is tasked with all sorts of random things.  In order to do his job you have to be a jack of all trades.  He got his start working at a video game store.  One day a programmer at High Voltage stopped in.  They talked for a couple of hours and the programmer recommended he apply as a game tester.  He went and applied and didn't get the job.  Later, a creative director at High Voltage came in and talked with Dan.  He was told to apply again.  He mentioned the first application and his hesitance for trying again, but the director was insistent.  He got the job and has worked in the industry since.  Allen talked a bit on how Dan is one of the only people to take and pass the box test.  The test consisted of pulling five to ten objects from a box and describing a game you could develop incorporating those items.  After pitching he had to revise the idea two more times.  This process was to see how he could work through the process that is common to game development. 

Due to time constraints, the panel moved onto Q&A

What got you into games?  What would you recommend to people who would follow you in your specialty?

Matt - I always played video games.  It wasn't until I played Silent Hill 2 with the story and environment.  I was just in awe.  I wanted to convey that much emotion and draw the player into the world as much as possible.  I learned texturing, modeling, concept art [more].  It's like being a master of all trades, but a master of none.  Don't do that.  Focus on one thing and do it well.  If you want to know how good you have to be, just take a look at any of the video games out right now because if you're not that good or better, we'll probably go with someone else who is.

Ryan - I've been playing games since I was little and I always wanted to make games.  It was the first thing I remember I wanted to do.  Growing up my brother was handicapped and so we played a lot of video games together.  He's actually in the industry as well.  It's what we both wanted to do, so we did.  It was really the path of least resistance.  When I was little I drew maps of Sonic the Hedgehog levels, made a RPG maker where I learned to do sprite work, and learned how to code.  I took programming in high school, and went to DePaul for college.  It was the first year they offered the game degree and I've been constantly making games since.  Just keep doing it, though, because basically you make shit until someone likes one of the things you make.  I am the master of nothing and its been working for me.  I do it because I'm passionate.  I entered every competition I could.  When you have passion, it doesn't matter what you do, you will be good at it.  Doing it will be what gets you a job.

Matt - [Agrees with Ryan] A degree means nothing.

The panel laughs, but all at the table agree that what you have done matters more in looking for a job.

Cef - I had been trying to get into comics - doing free lance work, it was 2D back then - and I put a portfolio together.  Paper games were cool as I was getting into the industry because you learn a lot. It's a great creative avenue.  I know people who work on projects like The Lord of the Rings [movie], and they'd tell me "I got to work on that rock!" And that's what I love about what I do, I get to do more than texture rocks.  Take something from scratch and rig it up.  Get some stuff out.  As far as what I would suggest, it's good to know a lot of different things.  If you want to get into the making of characters or environment, make sure you learn the craft of art before anything else.  Don't learn to draw from comics or manga.  They can be great inspirations, and at times are what you need to use, but what an artist needs is to develop  their own style.  If your work looks like Alex Ross, that's great, but you need your own thing first and then the other things when you need them.

Kyle - I had a friend who would program in basic and he would always alter this monkey chucking bananas game.  I took a programming class in high school.  Going to school for video games is learning programming.  I got an internship and went from there.  A lot of the programming that gets taught isn't the same languages game programmers use.  Our main language is C++ or C#.  If you don't know those it's no good.  Get good at it, study languages, and become awesome.

Dan - I'm a technical designer, which means I'm not quite good enough to be a programmer.  I do high level programming aka I can't really screw anything up.  When I was little my family had a commodore gaming system and it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  This meant I could put a tape into the machine wait 20 minutes, turn over the tape, wait another 20 minutes, and then play a stick hitting a ball game.  I thought it was the coolest thing of all time.  In high school I blew out my knee so I was home schooled.  What this meant was I could finish all of the year's worth of school work in about three months, so video games replaced school.  I played Quake 2 - who needs social interaction - and I made little mods and stuff.  I went into game programming.  The one thing that worked and is super important to me is that I am extremely detail oriented.  I don't just see a character or a menu, I see the different parts and I try to figure out how they work together or how I think they should work together.  As far as when you're testing my code I do sometimes make mistakes, but I check my code three or four times before turning it in.  Somebody needs to find the bugs before they go out to the public.

Allen - It's not just something you do, it's a lifestyle.  That same kind of intimacy needs to go into what you do if you're entering the industry.  You need to find the fun in what's put in front of you.

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