Friday
Mar302012

Origin Story: Jessica Daniels, Designer | ZeniMax Online

What was your first job in the games industry?

The first thing I ever did in the gaming industry was support – tech support and then in-game customer service. I’d had a lot of IT experience and a huge love of gaming, so I thought my life couldn’t get any better than that at the time.

 

Did you find it difficult to get your first job given that you had no prior experience?

Sometimes, I feel like my entrance into the games industry was a fairy tale story. I was working in another state and going to school full-time near home to get certifications for my IT career. I wasn’t really passionate about IT, but I enjoyed helping people and really liked the pay. It was the typical grind my days away to support playing games at night. Luckily, at the time I lived just around the corner from a gaming studio. They’d made the first MMO I’d officially beta tested. It was also the game that was eating up all my free time. So, when they posted that they were hiring for technical support, I sucked up the pay cut and went after my passion. I found that doing support for a game company where I could talk about comics and games and dorky movies on my breaks was completely worth it! And better yet, it got me closer to the job I’d just realized that I’d been dreaming about – making video games.

 

What sort of training or education did you complete in advance of applying for your first position?

I learn best by getting my hands dirty – trial and error – so I’m mostly self-taught. I had years of failed attempts at making my own board games, a couple of poorly built modules, and a huge passion for the gaming industry. It didn’t hurt that I got my foot in the door through customer support. That was, after all, the industry that I’d worked in for years.

 

What is your job today?

Today, I’m a Content Designer. I fill my days making fun stuff for folks to do. It’s a lot of hard work to make things appeal to a wide audience. Sometimes, I just have to scrap an idea and start over. Often, the idea I’m in love with at the time is too quirky. Quirky doesn’t always play well. I think the quests that I’m most proud of are the quirky ones that really turn out well.

 

For someone interested in starting a career making games today what is the main piece of advice you would offer them?

A lot of game design in general is trial and error. You come up with a prototype system or module and then test it until your eyeballs want to fall out of your head and your fingers are about to fall off. Then, you revise and start again. Be persistent and patient. Play everything. Read everything. Try everything. Inspiration is everywhere.


Wednesday
Mar282012

Kickstarter and the Value of Video Games History

Today guest blogger Rusel DeMaria shares with us the value of gaming history, his thoughts on Kickstarter, and notes about his current project

Why History? Why Kickstarter?

My name is Rusel DeMaria. I am an author, game designer, consultant and analyst. I am running a Kickstarter project to fund a 3rd edition of my book, “High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games”. 

Why History?

For many younger game designers and developers, who likely grew up on games, the history of the industry is probably less important than the technological advances, the newest game engines, and the new opportunities that exist in the world of games. With social, mobile and casual games, this is a great time to be designing games. The barriers to entry have been lowered to the point that just about anyone with a modicum of skill, timing, originality and a bit of luck can hit the jackpot. 

However, what makes games good, what makes companies succeed or fail, how do partnerships work, what games mean to us in our world today – all of these are, in part, the lessons of history. As a new designer seeking to get into the business, it’s not a prerequisite that you know game history. It’s just an added bonus that you know what has been done before, because every game designer you admire had something that inspired him or her. Sid Meier had Seven Cities of Gold. Will Wright had the Pinball Construction Set. What did you have? How did it shape your directions as a designer? 

And even past the informative aspect of game history, it makes a great story. Writing High Score was a great adventure for me, and I heard the stories of dozens of the pioneers of the industry. I wrote the stories as best I could to bring you closer to the people and to their challenges and successes as they built their companies, made their games and explored the boundaries of game design, marketing, finances, technology and the many pitfalls of success and failure. It’s a good read, and you never know what you’ll take away from it. 

Why Kickstarter?

At this time, Kickstarter is a new and potentially valuable source of funding for indie developers. Many small projects are getting the money to proceed and launch new titles with support from fans and people who want to see new games come out. I’m not talking only about Double Fine or InXile, which were hugely successful projects run by famous game designers, but about smaller games, like the D-Day Dice Board Game, which exceeded its initial goal by 1,321%! Or small projects with small budgets that have succeeded, like OutReach the Search for Mankind, School Daze and Spike: A Love Story Too. 

Kickstarter is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult. It requires hard work to set it up and to maintain it to success. Believe me, I made mistakes and had to learn on the job, so to speak. I worked my ass off getting the word out, refining my project and beating the bushes for support. I went way past my comfort zone. In the end, I was successful, but it wasn’t without its low points and times when I didn’t know if it would work. I have a ton of people to thank, without whom I could not have succeeded, and among them are the backers of my project who were extremely helpful. Some offered sound advice about what works and what doesn’t. Others even offered new incentives, such as a custom-made comic just for my project. 

Not all Kickstarter projects will succeed, and there are any number of reasons why. So if you are interested in turning to Kickstarter, or any crowd sourcing method, do your homework. Look at the section on “Ending Soon” and you’ll see a bunch of projects with hours to go that won’t succeed. It’s a good idea to learn from those that fail as much as – or even more than – those that succeed. 

In any case, if you want to make games, there’s lots of good information on this site. I would ditto a lot of it. Best of luck. I hope to see your games in the future, and maybe they’ll be in the 4th edition of High Score.  

Rusel DeMaria began playing video games in 1967. Since then he has been a writer and editor, designer, consultant and analyst, founding editor and creative director of strategy guides for Prima Publishing and author of more than 60 books. He is currently running the High Score 3 Kickstarter project at http://ow.ly/1HTdLa.

Wednesday
Mar282012

Networking Tips for the Aspiring Games Developer

As you continue to research how to get a job in the games industry you will hear time and time again that networking is one of the most important things you need to do in order to reach your goal.  This advice sounds easy to follow in principle, but in practice it can be quite difficult.  See, it's unlikely that you know anyone in the games industry at this point to network with making it seem impossible to get started. You find yourself caught in a catch-22 of needing to know someone to network with in order to start networking.

So what is an aspiring games developer to do?  Here are my thoughts on how to crack this nut: 

  • The real goal of networking should be to help other people.  This is how you can best create lasting relationships and establish long-term credibility with others.
  • As an aspiring developer you most likely do not yet have much to offer established developers in the way of help.
  • Therefore, my advice is to seek out and help other like-minded individuals.  In other words, focus your networking efforts on other folks who are also looking to become game developers.

Why should you do this?  Because eventually some of you (hopefully all of you) will indeed get jobs in the industry.  If you've positively contributed to their journey then perhaps they will be in a position to help you down the line.

 The alternative, blindly reaching out to established developers to connect online, is unlikely to yield positive results.  In the same way that you would not want to accept a Facebook invite from a complete stranger, developers do not typically accept a LinkedIn invite from people they do not know either.

What kinds of things can you do to help others?  Offer your support in their projects and modifications.  Provide feedback and assistance on their resumes and portfolios.  Share information that you find online, such as job postings or this website, with others who may benefit from this knowledge as well.  

By joining or creating a support group to help each other out in a variety of ways you can eventually build your network from the ground up.

In closing, here are a few additional tips of varying degrees of difficulty:

  • Move to a game development hub such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle or South Korea. The proximity to many studios and developers makes it easier to meet others and network effectively.
  • Join the IGDA, the International Game Developers Association welcomes developers and aspiring developers alike and is a great avenue for meeting other like-minded people.
  • If you can put together a compelling mod for a game, try reaching out directly to the developers of that game to show them your work.  
  • If you can create a compelling independent game, try reaching out directly to other developers to share your work and ask them for thoughts and feedback.
  • Offer to assist local schools or clubs and share the knowledge you've learned so far with the younger generation.  
  • Network online via appropriate web sites for your desired discipline.  Share info that you've learned, the work you have accomplished so far, and don't be shy in letting them know that you are looking for work. 

Above all else remember that successfully networking means to provide valuable help to others.  Do this enough and the universe will eventually take care of the rest.

Monday
Mar262012

The Nerve of Activision

Gamers love to bemoan sequel-itus and voice frustration over the big publishing companies who often appear unwilling or unable to take risks.  Recently however Activision took a huge risk, one that I greatly admire, which has has paid off substantially for both the company and for us gamers.  This spectacular bet seems to have gone relatively unnoticed so I'd like to provide what little exposure I can and offer a sincere round of applause to both Toys for Bob and Activision Blizzard for having the nerve to create Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure.

My daughter and I enjoy gaming together and you can see her little collection of Skylanders to the right.  She is four and a half years old so our software options are somewhat limited. Translation - many of the games that she is able to play bore me to tears. Skylanders is the first game we found that genuinely appealed to both of us simultaneously, and we actually completed it from start to finish together.  It's an experience that I will never forget and one that I hope she remembers when she is older as well.

What is Skylanders you ask?  Spyro's Adventure is essentially a dungeon crawl game with one heck of a twist.  The playable characters available to you are first purchased as figures in the real world and then connected through a USB portal to your game.  Each figure spawns in the game world and can now be controlled by you.

But wait, there's more!  These figures are equipped with microchips in their base that allow them to store data from gameplay onto the actual model themselves.  As you progress through the game your active Skylander levels up and earns new abilities and gear (in the form of hats). This progress can then be shared with friends by simply taking your figure to a buddy's house and placing it on his or her portal.

While playing this over the holiday break with my daughter I couldn't help but ask myself, "Who on earth had the balls to approve the development of this game?"  The logistical challenges and financial hurdles of creating not only a new peripheral (the portal) but more importantly all of the microchip-equipped figures is astounding.  Furthermore, despite the name and Spyro's presence as a playable character, this title is not a sequel to an existing franchise. The gameplay is dramatically different and Spyro is not featured within the game any more so than all of the other characters are.

This was one risky bet!

And let's talk about the marketing and end cap placement of this thing.  Have you been into a Toys R Us in the last 6 months?  The figures, disks, and bundle sets alone take up a significant amount of shelf space before you even get to the TV's looping gameplay. How did this ever get approved?

Thanks to Matthew Handrahan, writer for Gamesindustry.biz, I finally understand how it happened.

The summary of the story is this:  Take one Lead Character Artist with a passion for hand crafting and painting intricate clay figures, add a programmer who harbors a fascination (and apparently a great talent) for working with electronics, and combine a team of passionate developers and leaders who believed wholeheartedly in their idea, and you have a group of people capable and just crazy enough of pitching this elaborate concept for the first time to Activision with actual working models in hand.

Bravo guys.

For all of you aspiring developers out there wondering how to make an impact and get into the business, take note of this shining example of how powerful the creation of a working prototype can be.

And to both Toys for Bob and Activision? Thank you for having the nerve to see this through. You've created a fantastic memory for my family.

 

Friday
Mar232012

Origin Story: Jim Gray, Independent Developer

What was your first job in the gaming industry?

My first job was a contract (not permanent) programming position, porting SEGA Genesis games to a portable platform called the Tapwave Zodiac.  It was not really "Game Development" since the game was already developed.  My job was simply to make the games run reasonably well on that platform.

I ported Columns (similar to Bejeweled), Golden Axe, and Altered Beast. But as I said, it wasn't really about the games.  It was more about getting the old games to run on a new (at the time) platform. Nevertheless, it gave me a "foot in the door", and since then people have viewed me as a game programmer.

 

Did you find it difficult to get your first job given that you had no prior experience?

I actually had a lot of prior experience in other areas of software.  I was an experienced programmer.  Plus, I did a lot of game programming in my spare time.  Then, when the opportunity arose to port those SEGA Genesis games, it was a really good fit - for me and the hiring company.

 

What sort of training or education did you complete in advance of applying for your first position?

First of all, I had a whole separate career in computer security and cryptography before I decided to go into the games industry.  Once I decided to get into the games industry I actually quit my regular job and spent the next nine months programming in OpenGL. Then I got another job in computer security but continued programming games in DirectX in my spare time for about three years. Finally, when I met the hiring manager for the SEGA Genesis porting project, I had so much games programming experience that it was a no-brainer for him.

 

What is your job today?

Today I am designing and programming an independent game.  Recently I was also Assistant Lead Programmer for City of Heroes.

 

For someone interested in starting a career making games today, what is the main piece of advice you would offer them?

Many paths are possible.  For example, some people start out in the QA department.  It's often easier to get a position as a tester, and if you work really hard opportunities will come your way. On the other hand, if you want to follow a path similar to me, here's my main advice:  

Find a way to make games on your own.

There are many ways to do this, from making MODs, to using free game-making tools, to programming from scratch.  Find a method that works for you, and spend as much time as you can making games.  Then when the opportunity presents itself you have lots to talk about.  You can explain what you've done, what worked, what didn't work, etc.  Potential employers will recognize you're already a game developer, and you're on your way!

 

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