I recently visited Seattle to catch up with old friends at Bungie, during the launch of their latest game, Destiny. I was touched that they invited me to the midnight launch party, loaded me up with swag, and included me in the credits, even though I stopped working there in 2011. But perhaps best of all, some of my favorite artists and designers agreed to take an hour out of their launch day to meet with my CIA class via Skype. Jason Sussman organized the event prior to my arrival – he even invited his friend Adrian Finol of Valve to join. So in total, we had these fine fellows speaking (in no particular order):
- Jason Sussman – Senior Environment Artist, Bungie
- Chris Carney – Lead Mission Designer, Bungie
- Steve Cotton – Staff Environment Artist, Bungie
- Coolie Calihan – Environment Artist, Bungie
- Adrian Finol - (Senior) Programmer, Valve
Dummy that I am, I forgot to take photos of the event, nor did I record the excellent Q&A. So before this brilliant moment slips into distant memory, I’m going to share some of the thoughts from that afternoon. The following questions and answers are paraphrased from memory. They barely capture all the things that were asked or said, but hopefully you get the gist. I should also stress that the opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect that of any studio. In other words, they were strictly speaking from their own experience, not representing Bungie or Valve.
To get a job in the industry, how beneficial is it to work on a mod?
Working on a mod is very beneficial. Many of the professionals we talked to got their first or dream-job that way, even without college or prior professional experience. If done properly, it shows that you can work with a professional engine and it exposes you to the game-making community – visibility is key. In Adrian’s case, Valve contacted him the day after he submitted the final build of his mod, Front Line Force, to the community. Which brings us to the most important point about working on a mod: you must finish the project. Studios want to know that you can fully execute an idea; that you’ve dealt with all the problems that occur during the production of a game. Also, work submitted to an asset store (Steam, Unity, GameMaker: Studio) is another way to get noticed by an established studio.
What is the relevance of having a college degree in game design, then?
A degree simply gives you the tools to do noteworthy things. Just because you went through a college program doesn’t mean a studio can determine where you stack against everybody else who took the same courses. What will set you apart is what you did with that knowledge – the portfolio you create, the games or mods you make. In and of itself, the degree doesn’t matter that much.
Work ethic is more important than talent or experience?
This question was based on an answer Coolie gave to the question, “Work ethic, talent, or experience?” during his “Breaking In” interview on bungie.net. Students are always worried about the lack of entry-level positions, so can work ethic really trump experience? Yes. Worth ethic is what gives you the ability to develop your talent and build experience. But, keep in mind you can’t easily demonstrate work ethic in a few portfolio images or during an interview. It’s a quality that you develop long term, and it has a positive impact on the scope and quality of your work.
What is the value (or danger) of spending extra-long hours on a project? On a related note, what is the work-life balance in the games industry like now, and when it is wise to burn the midnight oil?
There are several dangers. First, is the obvious risk that a prolonged period of “crunch” can harm your health and strain relationships. Second, the quality of your work will diminish. These circumstances have been understood (but not always respected) for a long time. But for students there is another risk of working that way: you misrepresent your ability. If you can’t sustain a certain level of effort 5 days a week, all year long, year after year, then think twice about acquiring a job on that pretense.
When it comes to the benefit of extra effort, each of our guests talked about it as a personal matter. Everyone agreed, though, that having the freedom to choose when to put more hours into something you *want* to work on is rewarding. But as the industry grows up, everyone is invested in keeping the work environment professional and sustainable. It’s about passion for your work tempered with the desire to do it for the rest of your life.
When applying for a job or internship, which approach is more effective – shotgun or laser-focused?
There was consensus that one should start focused on the studios with games that you want to make. When in competition with a large pool of talent, it will be obvious who has greater interest in the company, who has more relevant ideas, and so on. Focus also allows you to prepare work that really applies to the job at hand. That said, Coolie mentioned that there is a time and place for a shotgun approach. If your preferred studios don’t have an immediate position for you, meeting a wider field of possible employers can benefit you in intangible ways. Plus, it’s important to work while you’re searching for your dream job. If taking a job keeps you healthy while you improve your portfolio and demos, then it’s a good one. Take it and keep applying.
Before I land my dream job, should I keep working on my portfolio or just get any job?
You have to eat and keep a roof on your head. So work. Everyone in the room agreed that they all held jobs while they put in the 1 or 2 years between deciding to work in the industry and landing their first gig. But even so, your portfolio should never stay static. Even while working, keep enhancing your demos, mods, and portfolio.
Advice you’d give your younger self?
Read a book. Meaning, learn from others. Trying to learn everything unassisted isn’t efficient. It may feel great to accomplish something on your own, but you grow more slowly when you don’t exploit the expertise that’s already out there.
Don’t let fears (of rejection or failure) keep you from trying the work you want to do, or applying to the job you want.
Finish something. Give yourself a limit and hit it. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be seen.
So there you have it, my recollection of a pretty cool and unique interaction between game design students and seasoned professionals. To top it off, here's a picture of the class, wearing the exclusive Bungie shirts I brought back from the trip!