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Committing career suicide, telling true stories about game development

Why I left my AAA game development job and what about that experience forced my hand to start Game Dev Unchained, an honest and unfiltered game development podacast exposing the true stories of game development for game developers.

Larry Charles, Blogger

September 17, 2018

17 Min Read

He looked towards my face, eyes unable to meet with my own for just a second as he said “We don’t have a magic pool of money to fix problems like these”. I sat still and silent for a moment, realizing I had just quit my job at Sledgehammer Games. “Ok” as pleasantly as I could muster was my explicit and direct response, “no problem” as I gathered myself, lifted from my chair and returned to my desk. The feeling of working a fulltime job during crunch, and two part time jobs while delivering a game had become stale. I wasn't going to subject myself to three more years of that “life”. “It’s just business”, I told myself, feeling better about the approved counter offer I had already secured from my new company ahead of time. But the taste of that moment stained the memory of my experience there. That day was a Friday, and to my coworkers it was a normal Friday. To me, I was seeing the threads of bonds formed beginning to unravel. I felt myself detaching from the area I called home for nearly 3 years and from the project I was so proud to be a part of, knowing that I was not going to be there anymore. I remember the taste of the envelope touching my tongue as I sealed my resignation letter that Monday morning. I can still feel it pressed between my two fingertips as I drove to work, anticipating exactly how and when I was going to turn it in. The moment that envelope left my hands I felt an uncertainty wash over me, but I also felt relief simultaneously somehow. I looked back at it for a moment, and in that very moment I felt unchained.

The end of that job was the start of my story, which I only tell to prime you for the real reason that I write this. I quit my job and decided to start a podcast. My college friend and coworker of the same company and I shared many walks around our building decompressing with jokes to cope with things we didn’t appreciate about our jobs, our careers and about the game industry in general. We found a common thread in our disbelief that things “had” to be this way. We believed in mutually beneficial employment opportunities and knowing your value. The more we talked the more conviction we gained, thinking something had to be done. “We should start a podcast” I remember saying as we talked over skype while reconnecting one night after work at our new jobs. “We should commit career suicide, and actually tell the unfiltered, unadulterated truth about working in the game industry” I said. Brandon laughed much louder than I did at that statement because I was scared to death and only half joking about the career suicide part, but I meant what I said, and he bought in.

“Game Dev Unchained” our hour long, weekly interview podcast on game development for game developers was created on a September night in 2015. As I write this essay, I’m listening to our 156th consecutive podcast episode. I’m writing to both celebrate the milestone and to also to reflect on the experience. Where we thought our podcast was initially going to only focus on accountability and ethics, we instead found that our product needed to be uplifting and informative. We wanted to fix what we thought was wrong about game development and the game industry from the bottom up. We wanted Unchained to mean something to people who listened. We wanted our colleagues and fellow developers to realize their skills need to be valued, that their life’s opportunities aren’t all tied to their primary paycheck. So each week we imagined a listener who wanted to better themselves in a game development related area and secured a guest who could guide us and them forward. During our interviews, we represented the voice of our listeners, asking questions or for advice from our professional guests in hopes that we would indeed be helping people recognize more doors, shortcuts and opportunities available to them.
Three years in, I feel no less worried that there may be more employment opportunities lost or blocked because of the work we do on Game Dev Unchained, but at this point our small podcast has grown to be about something much larger than our individual lives and impact. We now have a community of supporters, and we still have an industry that we love and wish the best for. We have students that listen for getting into the industry advice. We have seasoned developers looking for tips on getting their next job or getting their value appreciated at their current job. And lastly we definitely have a lot of industry veterans listening for just that one bit validation or motivation to help them make their exit from employment in order to finally try something on their own. Game Dev Unchained is no longer about my story, or Brandon’s story. It’s no longer our podcast about our reason why we started it, now it’s about everyone else’s reason, so we keep doing it. Every Tuesday morning, rain or shine there’s a new episode waiting. So to anyone currently reading this who already knows about our podcast and supports what we’re doing, I want to thank you for being our reason and our supporters. To everyone else, reading that got sucked into the opening storytelling, thank you for making it this far. It’s been such a journey and most importantly an honor to talk to our esteemed guests and cover the subjects and topics we have over the years. I have no idea where the pinnacle or the end of this podcast will be, but the view looks good from where we are right now.
In honor of our 156th episode, I’ve pulled some of the Interview highlights from our past year episodes to share here as a final parting gift. Thank you for your time, and attention. I hope you’re living your fullest life.

Eric Valdes – Sr. Character Artist working on God of War
When asked about students wasting time in art school, he explains.

“It is expensive man, do not waste your time. It happened when I was at the Art Institute, there was a gaming room and a lab room right next to the game room. There would probably be six of us in the lab, and there would be 30 people playing games or whatever right?. At some point you have to make a decision, at least for me it’s a lifestyle right? It’s a career choice. It’s not just a hobby or something I do on the side. Every person that was in the lab took it as a lifestyle, some of them worked in the industry and then they got out of it, some of them are still working in the industry. Personally, I don’t know if any of the students in the gamer room are working in the industry. It’s sad bro. It’s an expensive school and you come here to play games? Come on.”

Klaus Pederson
How he and his 17 schoolmates turned a school project into a fully funded indie game studio.

“So what you do is you start out doing some kind of game in a week with the 18 people, its very much trial and error to understand where each other are. Then you do some small tasks along the way to get the team to know each other. The core of the whole study is six weeks. But that’s why roles are defined prior. You are programmer, or artist or designer. It’s much more how you interact with each other that’s all just left for the team to find out”
Derek Liu
What top 5 things you can add to your game or project to make it trailer friendly?

“Well it depends on the type of game that they have. Camera controls are a big one, especially for 3D games. Usually with a first-person shooter or a third-person game, you want everything to be very responsive. You know you want to move the stick and everything happens right away so you can turn around and shoot someone or something like that but you don’t want that for capturing because you want all your camera movements to be very smooth. I want to be able to move the thumb stick and then have the camera gradually start and then gradually end, at the very end and there are different ways to do that. Making the dead zones bigger, or changing the sensitivity according to the thumb stick position or camera smoothing which is averaging out the inputs over a certain amount of time. Being able to freeze time, that’s useful especially Third person games. That’s a really good one to have because certain things are time sensitive so just being able to stop the clock and position the camera to where you want it to, that’s really good. Skipping around levels, teleporting, being able to like spawn enemies anywhere you want. Sometimes you just find a section of a level, it looks really pretty but you killed the guy and you have to reload the level, but if you just could spawn them again, that is really handy. But camera options are really the top one I say, and then like sensitivity controls, especially if they’re sensitivity controls that are sliders.

Matt Viglione & Robert Zubek
What it was like leaving AAA to start your own indie company and how to plan for unknowns
“It was sort of a mixture of experience and gut reaction, we’d do something that we stole from Rob’s co-worker at Microsoft which was swag scheduling which is Stupid Wild Ass Guess, you focus on one thing and go Ehhhh, that’s a week? Maybe a week and a half, No a week, No a week and a half. And then you sort of settle on a number and you put that on a spreadsheet so you look at it and say an area design, Ehhh two weeks?”

“And it’s funny, we started by just chopping the entire game that you have in mind into smaller bits and it can’t be too small. Once you get into the weeds you lose this sort of, the flexibility. So chop it up into week or two week size chunks. One or two weeks is ideal. Take your vision chop it into little bits, you take each bit annotated with how much you think it’s gonna take, then you pad the heck out of it. There’s gonna be so many unknowns. You don’t know how to make that, how to do this. We had like this achievement line Item. I’ve never implemented achievements…. Ehhhhhh a week. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it happens faster, sometimes it happens slower but it all kind of averages out.”

Nina Freeman
Asked about burnout and work life balance as an independent developer

“I don’t really think I’ve figured it out, I’ve basically accepted a bunch of commission while I was working on Tacoma, and even I was, we shipped Cibele when I was working on Tacoma. The teams of collaborators have varied, but myself and my various collaborators have shipped like 3 or 4 games while I was working on Tacoma and that’s crazy. SO the time management stuff was pretty simple for me because like, I only have after work and the weekends to work and that’s not that much time so I would use all of it which was pretty bad and unhealthy and I had no social life for a long time because of it. Really only very recently when Tacoma finally came out was I like, I sat back and was like Why do I feel so awful? So then I was like I’m not going to work on anything new for a while at least until we really start doing something new for Fulbright. As far as like side projects go, I just haven’t started a new one since Tacoma came out, just to like recover from shipping that many games and shipping Tacoma. So for me it’s just been like, force unlearning that behavior.”

Carl Armfelt
How he feels about pricing models in the game industry right now

“I think I have a mixed feeling. I think over time, if I’m going to be involved personally in a brand I love, I would like to see a lot of expansions on it. I think that’s just the right way to entertain the consumer. But I think as well, this is a global industry and gamers can be quite picky so you will always strike a good balance between monetization and content. I think that gamers are very informed buyers, I mean it’s not like going to your electronic store and the sales person can tell you whatever and you just pick up a product. People, there’s so many reviewers, so many streamers, people are knowledgeable and very rational where they spend their money. Just look at the data from steam in terms of, if you like a title but you think it’s very expensive you may wait for the first sale, and buy it for 25% discount or whatever. I think the $60 model is going away, I think the two prevailing models will be freemium like Fortnite, which is always going to be the mass market model and then I think it’s gonna be 25-30 dollar base game with expansions. And you have to make a great game otherwise people won’t buy expansions, and you have to make great expansions. I think those two are the prevailing models. At the end of the day the payment models are all successful, it just hinges on what the consumer is willing to pay for.

Kinman Chan
Asked about becoming BFF’s with George Lucas

“They just liked my work sometimes. It was crazy yea, meeting with George Lucas. I think it was kind of like, I was kind of in this weird like, What am I doing here? I only have like one year of experience before that, one year full time experience and I’m up there doing characters and basically everyone else on the team had at least 10 years’ experience or 15 years like my boss. I’m just around these super intelligent insanely talented people and I was like ok, yeah it was all surreal. Kind of surreal. We would post our images on these foam boards and he’d have a collection of stands. So one would say Good, one would say OK it is what it is, and if he really liked it, there was one that said Fabuloso. You really wanted to go for the Fabuloso stand. And a lot of my pieces made it onto that stand, they hated that my pieces were Fabuloso. Who am I in that crowd right? I felt like, I’m just a new artist. George is like, every time George goes in the room, an entourage of like 20 people come over. Basically he’s just critiquing the work so as far as like 1 on 1 time that I actually had with him, maybe 2 seconds? In the beginning he really liked my work, like complimenting my work. I rubbed shoulders with him.”

Adam Saltsman
Gives us his successful strategies when adapting to trend shifts
“I think if you are a game developer / publisher for the next year or so and you don’t make Fortnite, that there are a lot of opportunities that are going to not really be available to you. I think being, I’m more concerned about, you know, it’s not even whether that’s good or bad or if you should be upset or not but just be aware of it, that’s the landscape right now. Keep that in mind when talking to storefronts and trying to look at what your games do and what are storefronts into right now and can you find some kind of shared interest there or some people there that want to champion maybe the weird thing that you made. I feel like we did get people to do that around Night in the woods and that’s a weird game. Yeah it has a main character in it but I mean, you hang around town for a few days. That’s like the whole game, that’s not a normal… you don’t save the world and you don’t have xp and you don’t unlock new fatalities or anything, so I think… but it’s ok because there are other things that people value, the visuals, the sense of place the iconic soundtrack and all these things. It’s a matter of looking around and seeing what people are interested in and what people want to promote and what they value and how does that overlap and I think that’s a very game to game concern, for sure.”

Teddy Bergsman
talks about chasing photorealism in computer graphics at 16 years old.
“I started getting into scanning when I was around 16, I had spent 6 years at that point trying to learn about computer graphics and just having a lot of fun creating assets and I started to become super nerdy about photorealism. I really wanted to learn how to translate something from the real world into the computer and make it look like in the real world. So I started experimenting with a lot of different techniques for capturing 3d and textures and all of that jazz. I remember the first scanner that I built, and you can’t really call it a scanner because it was a bucket of water that I put some black water color into so you had some sort of contrasty liquid and then you lower things into it while filming with my crappy 320 x 240 webcam and you take that video feed and I would put it into Photoshop. This was my first experience with “programming” I would do a photoshop macro and take each frame and for each frame, you would get a slice of that thing that you lowered into the bucket. I would make it binary, just black and white and assign just a gray value depending on where in the sequence the frame was so you would get a height map, and from the heightmap you could derive geometry… That was the first revelation for me, that I can actually take something from the real world and put it into the computer, how cool this is super fun.”

Lucas Gonzalez
The difference designing games for console, pc and mobile
“Maybe if I worked before in RTS or something like that I’d have that background, but I didn’t. So yea, basically the market, all the free to play standard and all the things are to make it about balancing. In my head it’s like, Hey I make games, and I start working on console, and pc, and now I’m becoming more and more experienced on mobile, and now I look like a mobile game designer (resume wise), because it’s been six years I’ve been working on mobile games. But still, you know I have a lot of friends that I used to work with them making console / pc and still sometimes it’s so difficult for them to really appreciate what you’re doing (as a mobile designer).”

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