Everyone has their own journey to get where they want to go in life. Like many of you, I decided at a young age, that I wanted to create video games. There are many valuable lessons that one can learn from the journeys of those that have traveled the path before, and while I have high hopes for sharing many of these stories on Game School Prep, and have already been in contact with several friends in the industry across many professions who are happy to share, I wanted to start with my story.
Specifically, I wanted to tell you about some of the rougher edges; the things that my friends may not be comfortable sharing. These aren’t my brightest moments; they are embarrassing, and do not reflect my values. The biggest reason most people don’t succeed in following their dream is because they give up in moments like these – I want to share so that you can see that by persisting you not only survive, but often come out stronger on the other side. These days we’re inundated with positivity – people tend to only post “the good stuff” on social media, and so it is easy to fall into a trap of thinking it is easy for everyone else, or everything is always going well for them. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth; in fact, there is no way I could have achieved any level of success if I had not made mistakes like these along the way to teach me the valuable lessons that I needed to learn.
When I was a kid in a small town elementary school, it was easy to feel like I was one of the smartest kids in the class. I did well at math and on tests, so after a couple of years I was identified as “gifted” and as a result I skipped Grade 4. This is when the trouble started. While I may have been strong at math, I now found myself in a class of strangers who had high expectations of me across the board.
The year started out well, but soon things started to slip. I was in over my head, but was worried about keeping up appearances so I didn’t ask for help. This spiraled further out of control; as the semester continued, it became even more difficult to ask for help, as in doing so I would have to reveal just how bad things had gotten. This all came to head with the test at the end of the semester: I hid the textbook in my desk, and copied the answers out in the middle of the exam. At first it seemed like I would get away with it, but after the exam I was confronted by two of the only students that had befriended me at the beginning of the year. As you can imagine, they were no longer interested in remaining friends after that. As an 8-year-old, I was devastated and totally felt like a fraud.
So while it may have been a bit therapeutic for me to get a 23-year-old secret off my chest, why share this story? What does this have to do with games?
Game Schools tend to attract a lot of kids that come in thinking they are pretty hot stuff – many were the best artists in your high school, strong at math, or who had a head-start in 3D software or programming. These kids come in with the biggest natural advantages, but I’ve seen them crash, burn and drop out of programs at an alarming rate. It is really simple to fall into the trap that I described, and I have brushed up against it myself at more than one point in my career. Getting in over your head and being too embarrassed or proud to ask for help is one of the most common reasons people quit.
Another related trap that is a result of starting strong is that it is easy to get a warped point of view. If you start from a perspective of “I am the most talented student”, and then your work is criticized, it leads to an internal conflict – how could my work be bad if I am the best student? This often creates a false dichotomy in the student’s mind: either a) I am not very talented, or b) The teacher is biased, unfair or his/her opinion is subjective. In reality, the answer is usually that the student is talented, but their work contains flaws, and if they don’t acknowledge and accept the criticism they will never improve.
Both of these problems often introduce unexpected challenges for those that would otherwise have a straightforward path to success. The real shame here is that this tends to rob us of the very people who had the potential to be bright stars had they been able to push through.
While in school for Classical Animation, I struggled somewhat with the hand-drawn animation, but as soon as we started our 2D computer animation class (using Adobe Flash) I felt like I was going in with the advantage. Unlike many of the other students in my class, who had come from a mostly fine-arts background, I had heavy experience with computers, and had already been playing with various 2D and 3D animation programs for years.
As soon as we all started working, I couldn’t stand using Adobe Flash. It didn’t feel as powerful as Maya or 3DS Max which I had used for 3D animation, and was filled with bugs and crashes. I found it extremely frustrating to get the results that I wanted. I was determined that I was going to succeed at this, so I learned Flash inside and out, and became the local expert for how to use particular features or how to create a desired effect. Things started progressing reasonably well, and most of the other students in the class were perfectly happy working with Flash, and many were getting good results.
Everything changed when, late in the semester, I stumbled across a little animation program called ‘Moho’ (now called Anime Studio). Moho exported to Flash format, but it allowed you to rig a 2D character with joints, use weights and animate them using the joint system. To someone who had come from a 3D Animation background, this felt like a breath of fresh air. It made so much more sense to me than the Flash tools did, and they had some stunningly fluid examples on their webpage. I downloaded the trial, and, while there were some major problems (that I was conveniently blind to), it seemed to live up to the promise, and in a matter of a couple of hours I had some results that surpassed anything I had been able to do over weeks in Flash.
OK – so far, this doesn’t seem so bad. What was my big mistake?
I was so excited about the promise of Moho, that I enthusiastically shared it with the other students. I showed them how powerful it was, how it could make their projects better, and how, in my opinion, it was completely superior to Flash for our purposes. In only a couple of weeks the class started falling apart. Because my peers regarded me as a software expert, my opinions carried much more weight and authority than they should have. Students started demanding that the school switch over to Mojo. Others wanted to re-start their class project, or were upset that the school had taught us ‘inferior’ software (of course, this was largely biased because of my influence, and Adobe Flash was, and still is, the standard for much TV animation and Game interfaces).
Eventually the teacher pulled me aside to tell me how much I was dragging down the class, how I had become a toxic influence, and how I was putting not only my project, but also the projects of other students, at risk of not being completed. This hit me like a ton of bricks. I genuinely thought that I was trying to help, but had almost wrecked not only my chances of graduating, but also that of others.
Group dynamics are a fickle beast, and you shouldn’t underestimate the impact of one or two negative people on an entire class, or even on an entire game team. I have had to fire multiple members from major game productions because they were dragging down the team. I’m not saying you have to agree with everything all the time, or always be cheery, but there is a big difference between that and actively undermining the efforts of leads or management. Sometimes it is possible to work with a toxic team member to turn them around, but often, companies want to act quickly, because these employees tend to have a detrimental effect on the productivity of several others, or even an entire team.
This applies equally to almost any team or group dynamic, and is particularly insidious because, like me in college, you can find yourself in this situation as a result of noble intentions. Due to this fact, from your perspective it can genuinely appear that you are helping, and it is extremely difficult to recognize when you are, in fact, causing problems. If you find tensions are high, solicit feedback from others: teachers, employers or peers. Ask for their perspective on whether you may be causing undue stress on the team. This takes an extraordinary amount of self-control, but making this effort will go a long way to succeeding in a team environment.
After I graduated, I spent a depressing few months applying to a bunch of animation jobs at smaller TV studios that I wasn’t particularly interested in. I had convinced myself that I could settle for one of these jobs for a while to gain experience, but then things got even worse when I couldn’t get an interview, or often didn’t even get a response. This all changed when EA contacted me; a major player in the exact industry I wanted to get into. I did an initial interview by phone, and then they invited me to go to an in-person interview, as they were on a major recruitment drive and were visiting Toronto.
I was so excited by the possibility of getting a job at EA that I wanted to do anything to make sure the interview went well. I studied for the interview, polished up my demo reel and website, wore my best shirt, and psyched myself up before going in.
There were three different teams from EA Canada that were hiring, so I was getting a lot of different questions from all angles: could I do low-poly? how about high-poly? what about animation? fx? lighting? I felt like things were going well, and my answers to the question were solid. All of a sudden, a question sprang up that caught me like a deer in headlights: “Over on the FIFA team we use XSI. Do you know how to use this software?”
I had never touched XSI in my life. My thoughts were racing; I had always been told that 3DS Max and Maya were the most popular programs! Had my school lied to me? Would not knowing how to use it ruin my chances of employment? XSI couldn’t be that difficult to learn, could it?
Mostly out of panic, I blurted out a simple ‘Yep’, followed by a slightly more re-assuring ‘they taught it in the Digital Animation Course at Seneca’. This wasn’t entirely untrue, as there was a full XSI programs next door to my class, but I conveniently left out the part that I had never set foot in that class.
Eventually, I received an offer from EA, and was thoroughly relieved when they said it was on one of the other teams, who used Maya and Max – both programs I was very comfortable with.
On my first day of work, everything came crashing down. I came in confident, calm and ready to impress, until I received my first assignment: due to the project falling behind, they wanted me to help out the FIFA team, and they were overjoyed that I knew how to use XSI, as most artists there weren’t familiar with it. Major panic time.
OK, so pretty obvious lesson here: don’t lie on your interview.
The more interesting lesson is that my instincts weren’t entirely incorrect, but my answer was. What I should have said was ‘No, I haven’t used it, but I consider myself to be very agile technically, and a fast learner; I taught myself 3DS Max, and am sure I could pick up XSI as well. If there is a chance that I could be assigned to a project using XSI just let me know and I’ll jump in and start going through some tutorials to get a head start’.
Being willing to identify and acknowledge the gaps in your knowledge, and showing that you have a plan to address them is a sign of strength. The important thing is to be confident in your abilities, and remember that technical qualifications matter less than a solid understanding of the fundamentals.
In the end, everything worked out well. I came clean to one of the other artists who I became friends with, and he helped show me the ropes in XSI. I stayed late to learn how to use the program, and though the first couple of weeks were rough, I came out of it even stronger, with new skills under my belt and another important lesson learned.
After I had been working at EA for a couple of years as an artist, the opportunity came up to apply for a Game Design position. I hadn’t really figured out what I wanted to do in games yet, but I was very interested in pursuing game design at the time. Although it was an internal posting, I still had to submit my resume, and a short sample game design document. At first, I was excited and confident – I had written dozens of design documents that I was very proud of, and I looked forward to showing off some work that had been private up until that point.
Eventually, as I prepared for the job, I started second guessing myself; I wanted the job so much that I decided to ‘play it safe’. While my passion had always been in Role Playing Games, First Person Shooters and Adventure Games, I convinced myself that I should really put together a design for a sports game – after all, the vast majority of games that EA Burnaby made were sports games. One big problem – I have never been interested in sports, and knew very little about them.
When I went in for the interview, the producer was visibly confused by the design that I had submitted for a “Goalie Mode” for the NHL series. It turned out that they were starting up a new RPG project, and thought I would be perfect for it, but they were so put off by my weak sports pitch that I didn’t get the job.
You need to stay true to yourself. Far too often, people try to appeal to the widest possible audience, and end up making a watered down, generic mess. As author Neil Gaiman eloquently put it:
The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.
The somewhat counter-intuitive reality is that it is often safer to appeal to a niche than it is to try to go after the general public. The work that you do within a niche that you are passionate about, one which you are deeply embedded in, will be stronger and truer, and will ultimately end up appealing to others outside of that niche.
With the exception the aforementioned mistakes, the two and a half years I worked at EA were generally very positive; I was getting good feedback, earning promotions, and getting opportunities to work on new IP and some of the most exciting projects in the studio. Unfortunately, I let it go to my head and I had convinced myself that the only reason I wasn’t Art Director yet was because of the bureaucracy. I allied with a very talented Programmer turned Producer with much more experience than I had, and we both left EA to form an independent games company called PowerUp Studios.
I was so filled with confidence that I was able to convince everyone that I was ready for the role, but upon starting, it quickly became obvious that I was in way over my head. While I could still create 3D art, as I had been doing at EA, I wasn’t able to plan and scope out the necessary work for the game we were making. Without an Art Director or Lead above me, I started focusing on the wrong things. We spent weeks working on useless features like eye tracking that I was convinced would make the characters “come to life”, but at the cost of basic content production.
At some point it became obvious that we were severely off track, and we scrambled to hire a couple of additional artists to help correct the course. Tensions rose, my relationship with my business partner soured due to arguments about priority (again mostly due to me thinking I knew more than I did), and the project suffered as a result. Though there were other complications, eventually we ran out of money, had to lay off our employees, and eventually I left and took another job.
I consider my time at PowerUp Studios to be one of the best lessons I have ever learned. In many ways, it was an echo of all of the other mistakes, and illustrated that I hadn’t really grasped the lessons that I should have learned the first time through. It taught me a lot about humility, about life-long learning, about how to work with others, and, most importantly, about how to really listen.
I’m grateful that I’ve been able to bounce back from all of these mistakes. Much more importantly, I would not have been able to achieve any success without having made big mistakes along the way. In general we are so acclimatized to wanting to avoid ‘failure’ that we would rather play it safe, or worse, give up.
The sooner you make your first five thousand mistakes the sooner you will be able to correct them.
My hope is that by sharing some of the (embarrassing) mistakes I have made along the way, you may be slightly less afraid to take risks and make some mistakes of your own.
If you happen to be my fifth grade teacher, or one of the people that interviewed me 10 years ago, I’d like to apologize for not being very honest back then. For everyone else, please leave a comment, and let me know some of the mistakes that you have made, and how you have learned from them.
Thanks to reader Melinda Stewart for helping to proofread and edit this article.