Area 5’s Jay Frechette and game producer Erin Ali met a few years ago when they were both working their way through game design programs at different schools (Jay at The Art Institute in San Francisco, Erin at The University for Advancing Technology in Phoenix, AZ). In Splash Damage, the duo discuss their experiences — the positive, the negative, the insightful, and the just plain funny — at game design school.
Erin: The most important piece of advice that I have for students or individuals wanting to break into the game industry is to get involved in a project. It’s an amazing way to get experience working with a team — and better yet, working on a game.
Considering how significant mods and indie games are, you’d be foolish not to take the chance to work on something before you even landed an industry position.
Jay, did you join any student projects while you were in school?
Jay: I completely agree. I was part of a couple of teams that tried to make mods. It was strictly extracurricular, so it was really hard to keep students interested in the project. Participants never agreed on what kind of game to mod, or only freshman showed up. These freshmen had passion, but most of them didn’t have any skills to bring to the table. I ended up spending most my time planning events and working on administration.
How did you get your projects off the ground?
Erin: By treating them as professionally as possible. The projects that fell through usually failed because everyone wanted their work to be the “it” game. They wanted it to be the game that would define who they were as designers/artists/writers. Because they had such huge ideals, it was harder for them to push forward when the work seemed mediocre and not worth moving on with.
The one team I was with that really opened my eyes was a mod called Counter Organic Revolution, a total conversion mod for Unreal Tournament 2004. When I was recruited for the project, I could tell that they were very protective of their current team.
They put new members on a probationary term where you weren’t really considered “official” until they deemed your contribution and efforts were up to snuff. So I had to prove myself by working hard, showing up to meetings, and also participating in crunch time.
They treated the entire project as a game studio would. The leads and the team took deadlines seriously, cut the fat when students slacked, and made sure that the mod was of quality. It wasn’t the end-all, be-all mod of mods, but it was enough to show off talent and land students jobs.
Did you see anything like that at the Art Institute?
Jay: What we lacked was leadership. When we first started, we had a room of twentysomething guys and gals that didn’t know each other. We didn’t have any kind of structure to fit into.
Like you said, everyone brought their pie-in-the-sky ideas that they dreamed up when they were 12, but they no had idea how to execute them. If an idea got shot down, the author typically lost interest in the whole thing altogether.
It would’ve been much better to have senior students embedded in leadership roles to assign tasks and guide the overall production from the start — this sounds like the approach your team took with COR. The problem was that most of the senior students were too busy building their own demo reels to make the commitment.
How did you guys handle scheduling with classes, finals, and breaks?
Erin: Actually, I think if the students were able to get a solid mod together, they could submit it to be an independent study course. You’d get a professor as a sponsor and could earn credit for it. So it helped the students a ton — but you could still fail the course.
Another obstacle was team members graduating or becoming interns. When COR launched we already had three to five members of the team on out-of-state internships. We had to get creative.
So the leads held meetings over Ventrilo or Skype, and we all had a working knowledge of our tasks, what we had to accomplish, and the time frames in which to finish them. The team also had a very active internal forum where we posted all of our work. So no matter where you were, you could check-in and show progress.
Jay: That’s great, and honestly, this is the only way I can see something like that working in a college. Sure, we had prototyping classes later on, so every student eventually got the opportunity to work on a mod. But — much like my situation –without structure and someone guiding the process, it’s easy for everything to fall apart.
This really goes back to what you and I have both been saying for the last couple of blogs about taking an active role in your education. I felt like a lot of students just didn’t really care, so it was disappointing to see apathy in the face of such opportunity. Working with teams on projects in other classes helped me learn a lot about myself and revealed where I would fit best in the industry.
Erin: Sitting and waiting for the industry to come to you is just waiting for failure. And just doing the required materials in classes guarantees that you’ll produce a profile similar to the work of many other students.
Joining a project not only helps you hone your skills in the role you want in the industry, but it also gives you a taste of what you’d be doing in an internship, or better yet, an industry job.
Don’t forget — a good number of developers are probably still active in the mod community and have side projects. There’s always a chance that they’ll see your work.
So, in short: Join a project, don’t try to create the best game in the world, build a solid skill set, and see it through.