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.
Jay: The thought of moving cross-country to San Francisco didn’t frighten me at all when I learned that I’d been accepted to the Art Institute. I was excited when my Dad and I flew out for the weekend to see the school and city. I wasn’t nervous at all when my Mom and I flew out the next month to set me up in my new apartment, with a new roommate, in a new city where I didn’t know anyone.
I was standing alone after saying goodbye to my Mom for her flight home to Michigan when reality set in: I was on my own, starting from scratch, and my life was going to be very different now. It was a little terrifying.
Erin: UAT was only 40 minutes from home, and I ended up living with girls that I’d known in high school. The terrifying feeling that I had didn’t come from starting in a place where I didn’t know anyone — it came from feeling inadequate once I started meeting the students.
I was the kid who didn’t know what HTML was and had never worked with Photoshop. I thought that it’d be totally exciting to meet students who loved games in the same way I did. In all honesty, while it did warm my heart to have people to talk shop with, they would one day pursue the same positions as I would…and they probably knew more than I did at the start, too.
Jay: I felt the same way. Another big adjustment for me was the culture shock of living in a very different environment. I’d never been to the West Coast before, and it’s much different than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. And this was the first time that I was immersed in geek culture.
Before attending the Art Institute, I kept my passion for gaming and my social life pretty separate. Other than working at Gamestop, I didn’t really spend a lot of time with hardcore gamers. At first I was worried at how I would connect with my fellow students. But I found that even though we came from different places, we were all there for the same reason. We love games, and we wanted to make them.
Erin: I found that even with our shared love of game culture, the school took on the same cliques as every other group that I’d seen before. It had the role-playing kids, the shooter kids, kids who only were there to land a job, etc. I was so driven to make it in the industry that all of it just took a backseat. I probably became the kid who just did everything I could to land a job.
Looking back, I kept a lot of my work groups and fun groups of students separate. It wasn’t until I joined the Counter Organic Revolution mod team that I really started combining the two.
The aspect of school that I was most concerned about was that everyone I knew could be a potential coworker…and being a jerk or a jackass now meant possibly getting rejected for a job by someone I knew in school. Every action I took had some consideration for the future.
Eventually, I realized that I didn’t want networking people that I couldn’t call a friend and eventually scrapped the entire movement in college. And then I really tried to enjoy myself.
Jay: We had the same cliques at the Art Institute. You could usually tell when someone turned in a project what kind of genre or art style they were comfortable with. Some would draw everything in an anime style; others would create gritty characters and environments. What I really liked about that is I got to see a lot more variety, and it gave me more perspective of what’s out there.
For instance, I didn’t get a chance to play a lot of PC games growing up, but hanging out with PC gamers and seeing what they’ve learned from playing those games exposed me to new ideas and genres.
You make a good point about your classmates being your future contacts in the industry. Do you still stay in touch with people from school that have gone on to jobs in the game industry? It’s helped me a lot to have someone else that I can talk to for some new perspective or advice when I feel stuck.
Erin: I do stay in touch with a good number of students that I used to work with. The great part is that they’re everywhere. And I mean everywhere. And like you, former classmates give me a new perspective on things when I come to them for advice. At the same time, though, I have classmates that I haven’t talked to in awhile who will contact me about positions.
It can be extremely difficult because when I was in college, I worked on teams with classmates that felt subpar. Now that I’m in the industry, people who I’ve had those experiences contact me about positions. Responding to them can be hard.
Have you had to deal with anything like that?
Jay: Certainly. It’s just like I’m always keeping my ears and eyes open, and other kids I went to school with do the same. I was approached a lot when word got out that I was working at 1UP, and if it was something that I didn’t think would fit them, I tried to be honest but always constructive. It goes to show you how important it is to make a good impression and at least attempt to have good relationships with your classmates. You end up setting a great network ahead of time for you career and create some wonderful friendships to boot.