Over spring break, I had the absolute pleasure and opportunity to spend a week in San Francisco as part of a class trip for the Game Development program at MSU. In that time, we toured several studios (such as Ubisoft, Double Fine, Zynga, Crystal Dynamics, and GREE) and met with developers in a wide variety of roles, backgrounds, and organizations. We also were able to talk about opportunities in plenty of related fields such as Game-Hosting / Sponsorship (Kongregate), Indie Development (Gamenest), and App / Product Development (Google and Apple).
Going into the trip, I was incredibly excited to meet new people, hang out with friends, and eat some awesome food on fisherman’s wharf (and I did, in fact, eat awesome food on fisherman’s wharf). What I didn’t expect was how genuinely impactful – and almost life-changing – the trip would be. At MSU, we talk a lot to successful alumni and nearby studios to get as much professional advice as possible, so I thought I had a pretty solid handle on what the industry was like. But this trip seriously blew away a lot of my pre-conceptions about what working on a game is like, and in many ways has set me on a path for a brighter, more focused future.
We had some pretty in-depth Q&A sessions with many different people throughout the games market. We spoke to Systems Designers (my personal favorite), concept artists, audio engineers, HR managers, data analysts, and even some executive producers. We got plenty of excellent advice about a lot of smaller things – things like tailoring your portfolio to the companies you’re applying for, not over-complicating UI, and that we should be playing LOTS of video games. But even more important than the snippets of advice were the experiences we had touring the studios and getting a feel for what the environment was like. Information is useful, but the studio-tours were what really set me on a better, more-informed path.
If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have told you without hesitation that I wanted to be an Indie developer. I am absolutely a generalist – I have ranged in roles from designer to artist to animator to programmer to UI designer, and I genuinely enjoy all of those roles. My feeling was that Indy developers not only have more creative control over their work, but are also less restricted to a single, narrow focus. Almost all of this theory has been completely gutted as I have toured more and more studios. One studio that really stood out to me in this regard was Double Fine. Since Double Fine closely resembles a very successful startup and uses Kickstarter for funding and publishing, they have a very loose design structure (they mentioned that in previous games, they didn’t even have designers! Everyone with good ideas helped contribute to the design of the games). They greatly value generalists to help create a development ecosystem where everything flows smoothly from role to role. Not only that, but the studio is fairly small, so the familiarity of the developers with each other and with the content they are creating is very high.
The other thing that I seriously loved about the large-studio scene was the atmosphere. Every single studio we went to had an open-floor plan, with a social environment that was entirely based on communication among the disciplines. Everyone talks to everyone about everything, and the developers function as a game-making community rather than individual cogs in a corporate machine. Crystal Dynamics was our first stop on the tour, and from the moment I set foot in their studio, I knew that AAA game-making was not at all what I thought it was. People sometimes refer to large studios as “corporate machines” where creativity is stifled and where imagination goes to die. In my opinion, it is COMPLETELY the opposite. Granted, publishers are a thing, and people want to make good games, but don’t we all?
Which brings me to my main take-away from the week: it is 100% possible to get attached to your game even if it’s not only you working on it. All you have to do is find your niche, own it, and pour your heart and soul into it. The amount of passion people have for the games they make is not what’s different between AAA and Indie development. Game Developers love making games – it’s that simple. Personally, I crave the social interaction and like-mindedness that would come from working at a AAA studio, and I can only hope that I make it there.
I am also incredibly thankful for the amazing Game Development program / community at MSU. The professors and college worked very hard to put this trip together, and their efforts have absolutely shown. The student community is also something that the program would not be successful without. I have been a part of several academic programs at Michigan State, and there is not a single one where everyone is so friendly, helpful, considerate, and just genuinely kind people. I got to spend this week with a lot of amazing friends, and I made plenty of new ones as well. Trips like this make me incredibly thankful for the awesome people in my life, and for a development community that is so incredibly passionate about what we do. Everyone genuinely wants each other to succeed, and that is a big part of what makes MSU’s program so great.
This experience has been genuinely amazing, and I am thrilled to have gotten this opportunity. I would like to offer a sincere thank you to all of the stops on our tour. They were all incredibly welcoming, and every place that we went to helped shape my idea of the industry more and more. My passion for games has been re-invigorated (not to say it ever really faded), and now I am ready to tackle my work with a more focused approach. This week was an amazing preview of what it’s like to work in the games industry, but next time, I’m going for the whole thing.