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