Ex­pert mode

A panel of in­dus­try leg­ends tell us how they got their break in games – and of­fer ad­vice for do­ing the same to­day



MY STUD­IES I did an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in women’s stud­ies, oral nar­ra­tive, film and fine art, and I mi­nored in com­puter sci­ence. Then I went to grad­u­ate school in com­puter sci­ence for many years, and that’s where I started work­ing on games. And then I left for the game in­dus­try be­fore fin­ish­ing my PhD to go and work on The Sims.

MY BREAK I ba­si­cally did a lot of vol­un­teer­ing when I was a stu­dent with the IGDA, and teach­ing in work­shops at GDC. I worked on cur­ricu­lums for teach­ing game de­sign. And then later, much later, af­ter I was a suc­cess­ful game de­signer, I ended up go­ing back to academia and get­ting hired at UC Santa Cruz and now I run two pro­grams there. So it’s kind of a full-cir­cle thing.

MY AD­VICE I al­ways tell peo­ple to vol­un­teer their time and to meet peo­ple who are like-minded, and think of in­dus­try con­nec­tions, and break­ing in, as find­ing your home as op­posed to net­work­ing. When you ap­proach it from the per­spec­tive of, “How am I go­ing to get a dream job?”, you may end up get­ting some­thing that is more about the ti­tle or the money than it is about the ac­tual day-to-day ex­pe­ri­ence, and that’s a real recipe for un­hap­pi­ness.

MICHAEL CONDREY Stu­dio head, Sledge­ham­mer Games

MY STUD­IES I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started at the Univer­sity Of Wash­ing­ton in Seat­tle. The US ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem gives you some time – to take some pre­req­ui­site classes and try and fig­ure out what you’re pas­sion­ate about. I thought I was go­ing to go into medicine, so I started study­ing bi­o­log­i­cal sciences. In my sopho­more year I be­came re­ally en­am­oured with scuba div­ing as a pas­time; I be­came a scuba-div­ing in­struc­tor. Seat­tle’s a lot like Lon­don: it’s cold, it’s dark, and the wa­ter isn’t par­tic­u­larly fun to dive in. So af­ter my sopho­more year I de­cided to head to the Caribbean for a year. I went down to Grand Cay­man, I taught scuba div­ing, I drove dive boats, I had the time of my life, and I fell in love with the sea. I came back to the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton and I thought, well, I want to be a marine bi­ol­o­gist – marry my pas­sion for scuba div­ing with my ed­u­ca­tion. I thought, well, you know what else I re­ally like to do? I like to travel, so I want to be a marine vet­eri­nar­ian. I want to travel to Kenya and help pre­serve dol­phin pop­u­la­tions. So I started study­ing biotech­nol­ogy. I fin­ished my un­der­grad with a dual de­gree in biotech­nol­ogy and eco­log­i­cal con­ser­va­tion.

MY BREAK The sum­mer af­ter I grad­u­ated, but be­fore start­ing grad­u­ate school, I took a sum­mer job as a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant at Elec­tronic Arts. Be­cause, you know, I had ‘tech­nol­ogy’ in my re­sume! It hap­pened to be biotech­nol­ogy, which meant it had no

“When you love what you do, you’ll do the best work of your life”

ap­pli­ca­ble value to game mak­ing, but I liked games and it was a sum­mer gig, so I started at the very bot­tom. I had a re­ally great time, and I was of­fered a job as an as­sis­tant pro­ducer, work­ing on FIFA and Need For Speed. At the end I was like, “I gotta go to grad­u­ate school.” EA said, “Look, grad­u­ate school will al­ways be there. But you like us, we like you – just give us a year. We’ll teach you how to make games, then you can go to grad school.” Twenty years later, I’m still mak­ing videogames.

MY AD­VICE There was a lot of good for­tune in my story – right time, right place. The in­dus­try was young and I had a good ed­u­ca­tion, but not a par­tic­u­larly ap­pli­ca­ble one. I have two pieces of ad­vice: first, find what you’re pas­sion­ate about, be­cause when you love what you do, you’ll do the best work of your life. Se­condly, if you know what you’re pas­sion­ate about, there is a pro­gramme out there to get you ahead. Whether you’re a de­signer, an en­gi­neer, an artist, or you want to learn how to be a man­ager, there are univer­sity pro­grammes out there to­day that’ll get you ahead and pre­pare you far bet­ter than I was.

And I think that’s a pre­req­ui­site now. Pas­sion goes a long way, but it’s a com­pet­i­tive in­dus­try. Your re­sumé has to find a way to stand out. We have a very high bar at Sledge­ham­mer, and there’s a higher im­por­tance on pre­req­ui­site skills than when I got in.

We have a group of de­sign­ers com­ing out of USC right now and they’re the smartest peo­ple I’ve ever seen in my life. They are pre­pared to suc­ceed in this in­dus­try, light years ahead of where I was. If I had to com­pete with that now, re­sumé to re­sumé, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

CLIFF BLESZIN­SKI Co-founder, Boss Key Pro­duc­tions

MY STUD­IES I was com­pletely self-taught. I’m 42: when I got started, there were only com­puter sci­ence pro­grams, there weren’t game de­sign pro­grams. I was a bit of an in­tro­vert. I was in drama, which I would do, but I was also an in­tro­vert at the same time – it’s the clas­sic case of an in­tro­vert who has to try and be an ex­tro­vert. So I had a lot of spare time on my hands. I wasn’t dat­ing a lot at the time; I just wanted to make games. I’m a col­lege dropout.

MY BREAK I made a game. I made crappy lit­tle ad­ven­ture games that no one bought, so I made a game called

Palace Of De­ceit, and then I sold that out of my mom’s house, and I sold a bunch of copies to pay my bills from high school un­til Jazz Jackrab­bit came along. Then I ba­si­cally hooked up with Epic on Com­puserve, and they had the dis­tri­bu­tion method to make lots of copies of the game, which I did not. Step three: profit.

MY AD­VICE Pick a pri­mary abil­ity and be bet­ter than any­one else at it. It’s okay to have a sec­ondary abil­ity, but don’t be the jack of all trades, mas­ter of none. When I ask some­body what do they do, and they’re like, “A lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing”, I’m like, “Yeah, then you’re pretty bad at all of it”. And make some­thing. I al­ways say, if you want to be a chef, burn some food. Get go­ing. Your first work’s go­ing to be ter­ri­ble and you’ll get bet­ter and bet­ter and bet­ter over time.

DEB­BIE BESTWICK Co-founder, Team 17

MY STUD­IES I was do­ing my A-lev­els in Not­ting­ham, but dur­ing the sum­mer hol­i­days I took a job in an in­de­pen­dent videogames shop. I fell in love with the game in­dus­try and never went back to fin­ish my A-lev­els!

MY BREAK Within two months I’d be­come man­ager of the store, and six months later I ne­go­ti­ated the sale of the com­pany to Wake­field-based en­tre­pre­neur Michael Robin­son, who at the time owned UK re­tail chain Mi­crobyte. Robin­son, who also owned 17-Bit Soft­ware, which pro­duced share­ware demos, wanted to be­gin mak­ing games to sell within his own re­tail stores. He asked me, along­side 17-Bit’s head, to form a new com­pany, Team 17.

MY AD­VICE Our in­dus­try is so cre­ative and di­verse, the only thing that can hold you back is lack of drive or abil­ity. So, keep pas­sion­ate, be tena­cious, ab­sorb all you can and al­ways try to learn some­thing new each day.

If you’re not sure what you’d like to do within games, or want to gain more ex­pe­ri­ence, then QA is al­ways a great place to get your foot in the door. Work­ing in QA can help widen your un­der­stand­ing of all the dif­fer­ent roles within the pro­duc­tion and de­vel­op­ment side of the in­dus­try, and it doesn’t re­quire spe­cific qual­i­fi­ca­tions. We just look for a keen eye for de­tail, pas­sion for gam­ing, and good com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

DAVID ALLEN Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, Bungie

MY STUD­IES I stud­ied com­puter sci­ence as an un­der­grad at the Univer­sity Of North Carolina. Then I went to grad­u­ate school at Carnegie Mel­lon. I was in a pro­gramme called en­ter­tain­ment tech­nol­ogy: it’s an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary grad­u­ate pro­gramme that ends in a Masters de­gree where they bring to­gether peo­ple of var­i­ous back­grounds – artists, sound de­sign­ers, en­gi­neers and so on – and a lot of it is fo­cused on mak­ing pro­jects. A lot of peo­ple that grad­u­ate there end up in videogames, or things like mu­seum ex­hibit de­sign, theme park de­sign, that sort of stuff.

MY BREAK While I was at Carnegie Mel­lon I got an in­tern­ship at Tre­yarch be­tween my first and sec­ond years. I was a pro­duc­tion intern on Call Of

Duty 3. Af­ter I went back to school, one of the as­so­ci­ate pro­duc­ers there, Matthew Burns, ended up go­ing to Bungie to work. When I was look­ing for work I talked to him and he said, ‘We have this en­try-level pro­ducer con­tract, you should ap­ply.’ So I started as a con­trac­tor, moved out to Seat­tle, and they kept me on. Here we are.


There’s a lot of ways to work on games these days, whether that’s find­ing a group on­line that’s work­ing on mods, or whether it’s mak­ing some­thing on your own. Just build things. It’s a lit­tle trick­ier as a pro­ducer, be­cause you’re do­ing a lot of or­gan­i­sa­tion, which means you need a team. But there are groups you can find; there are game jams. Do what­ever you can to make games and show that pas­sion – that goes a re­ally long way.

Some of the best ad­vice I got at grad school that I al­ways try to keep in mind is, once you get your foot in the door, al­ways ask ques­tions. Ask as many ques­tions as you can, of as many peo­ple as you can, with­out be­ing a to­tal nui­sance. It’s much bet­ter to ask ques­tions – be­cause peo­ple are gen­er­ally re­ally ex­cited to talk to you about what they do – than to pre­tend you know what you’re do­ing and find out later that you did not.

And if you run out of work, ask for more. Ask your man­ager, ask the per­son sit­ting next to you; just try to be help­ful. That re­ally helped me un­der­stand what every­body was do­ing. On a big game with a big team, there are so many

“Ab­sorb all you can and al­ways tr y to learn some­thing new each day”

peo­ple with so many dif­fer­ent jobs. As a pro­ducer, the more you can un­der­stand about how the pieces fit to­gether, the bet­ter you’ll be.

STE­FAN STRANDBERG Cre­ative di­rec­tor, DICE

MY STUD­IES I stud­ied art his­tory! And I wrote a the­sis on pinball games.

MY BREAK I be­came a self-taught recordist. I started with flight sim­u­la­tors do­ing en­gine sounds, and my break came when DICE needed a sound de­signer for a rally game [ Ral­lisport

Chal­lenge 2]. My ex­per­tise was in en­gine sounds; I was build­ing up a li­brary and I was sell­ing it to other com­pa­nies. I worked with au­dio for years, which is the most, I would say, cross-dis­ci­plinary, well, dis­ci­pline, be­cause they’re last!

MY AD­VICE It’s not about what’s in your port­fo­lio of things you’ve done, your ex­per­tise. It’s about the con­vic­tion, cu­rios­ity and pas­sion that you bring. You need to want it. You need to want to be in this in­dus­try. You can tell that from a per­son on day one, whether they’re in it be­cause they love what they’re do­ing or not. Then you need high an­a­lyt­i­cal skills. If you can’t break stuff down to their core com­po­nents, you don’t re­ally un­der­stand what you have in front of you. It’s some­thing you can get bet­ter at. Ul­ti­mately, you have to pur­sue the thing that’s clos­est to your heart. I started as a mod­der, chang­ing sounds I thought were bad, and that be­came my line of work. You have to start there: what do you want to do?

NATHAN VELLA Pres­i­dent, Capy Games

MY STUD­IES I went to film school at Ry­er­son Univer­sity in Down­town Toronto, Canada. I fo­cused on post-pro­duc­tion, mean­ing edit­ing and vis­ual ef­fects. I was su­per in­ter­ested in how tech was chang­ing film, and spent most of my time there teach­ing my­self Fi­nal Cut Pro, Af­ter Ef­fects, Pho­to­shop and all the rest.

MY BREAK I made my own break, along­side the other co-founders of Capy. At the time, there were only one or two game stu­dios in Toronto. So we started one in­stead. We worked on it as a hobby for a cou­ple of years quite se­ri­ously, and once we fin­ished our first pro­jects we were able to get the help of Flash­man Stu­dios, a games agent, to start do­ing small work-for-hire games. That’s how Capy started, and how my ca­reer started. In hind­sight, it was a great way to get a start. I had no idea it would lead to be­ing a part of run­ning a cool (I think?) in­de­pen­dent stu­dio, with some of the most tal­ented peo­ple in games as my co-work­ers and friends.

MY AD­VICE My only real ad­vice is to start mak­ing games now. Make your own games, or work with peo­ple to make games to­gether. Suc­ceed or fail, you’re not only cre­at­ing a port­fo­lio, but also fig­ur­ing out what as­pects of gamedev in­ter­est you. Far more than what school you went to or what cour­ses you took, the games you make are your foot in the door. It’s not go­ing to be easy, but it’s the best ex­pe­ri­ence you can get.

KOJI IGARASHI Creator, Blood­stained: Rit­ual Of The Night

MY STUD­IES It was all self-taught. I had to buy books, I didn’t re­ally learn from school or any­thing. I would read books and think, “Oh, I want to make that kind of game.” So I de­cided to study other games that I en­joyed. In col­lege when I was a stu­dent, I was study­ing film­mak­ing: in terms of cre­at­ing some­thing and show­ing it, that’s some­thing that’s al­ways been with me from the very be­gin­ning.

MY BREAK How I got into the game in­dus­try is kind of co­in­ci­den­tal. My col­lege class­mate was part of the in­dus­try, and he in­vited me to be part of his com­pany and cre­ate games, and I was like, “Yeah, why not? I’m free!” That’s how I started. I didn’t have a proper ed­u­ca­tion, but once I got into the gam­ing in­dus­try, that was my ed­u­ca­tion – I learned from look­ing at other peo­ple’s code and things like that.

MY AD­VICE You’ve prob­a­bly heard that the gam­ing in­dus­try is a war­zone. But the first thing I would say is that you have to know what is fun and what isn’t fun. If you want to cre­ate your own game, you have to know ex­actly what part of the game is fun, what would make it fun – cer­tain as­pects, in de­tail.

Sledge­ham­mer’s Michael Condrey be­gan his ca­reer at EA work­ing on FIFA, but one of his ear­li­est cred­its is as an as­so­ci­ate pro­ducer on Euro­com-de­vel­oped N64 game 007:TheWorldIsNotE­nough

Jazz Jackrab­bit gave Cliff Bleszin­ski his big break. It spawned a se­quel, but a planned third game was can­celled. Never mind: Bleszinki cashed out his stake in Epic, and was an early in­vestor in Ocu­lus

Robin Hu­nicke quit her PhD stud­ies six months be­fore grad­u­a­tion so she could work on TheSims

David Allen’s Tre­yarch in­tern­ship led to a pro­duc­tion credit on Call Of Duty 3. While some of the more se­nior mem­bers of our panel lucked into the in­dus­try, Allen’s route seems well planned – though he ad­mits a good dose of for­tune was still in­volved, since a friend alerted him to a va­cancy at Bungie

Given DICE’s fo­cus on Bat­tle­field and Star Wars Bat­tle­front, it’s easy to for­get its his­tory of rac­ing games. Had the stu­dio not made Ral­lisport Chal­lenge 2, Ste­fan Strandberg’s ca­reer might look very dif­fer­ent

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