Don Daglow's 8 keys to a long career in the game industry

Don Daglow's illustrious career in games has lasted 45 years. At GDC, he laid out 8 tips to help other developers have similarly lengthy careers.

Don Daglow's illustrious career in games stretches from pioneering RPGs and sports games on university mainframes in the early 1970s, to the groundbreaking Intellivsion simulation game Utopia, to the first graphical MMORPG, Neverwinter Nights. He also played key supervisory and executive roles at Mattel, Electronic Arts, Broderbund, and Stormfront.

At GDC, he gave a talk on how you, too, can have a lengthy career in the games industry. He broke it down into eight specific tips.

1) Whose Dream Is It Anyway?

The first step to fulfilling your dream of a rewarding career in game making sure that it really is your dream.

"Our dreams pick us," says Daglow. "I thought i was going to be a playwright."

But creating his first interactive text adventures on a university mainframe set him on a different path. "Once i did it, making games felt like what i was put on this earth to do," he says. "After 45 years of doing it, that feeling hasn’t changed."

2) Games Are Like Pancakes

Daglow describes the experience of trying to create creative, unusually shaped pancakes for his children. It seemed like it would be straightforward. It wasn't.

"Pancake batter is one of most unforgiving artistic mediums, he said. "I'd try to create a lovely stegosaurus. It usually came out looking like a sunflower...if I was lucky."

Daglow says that the game medium is equally hard. Even if you have a perfect vision of what you want to create and you're certain it's going to be great, it often isn't. "If we’re going to work in an art form," he says, "we have to be prepared for not just the joy of people loving what we do, but for when a game fails because of a stupid thing that we did."

You can also succeed in ways that you never expected--Daglow says that Utopia was merely meant to be a "line filler" that would balance out Intellivision's slate of more action-oriented games, but it became a huge hit.

He stresses that you should take risks regardless of the uncertain outcome. "I don’t want to make the same old little round pancake every time," says Daglow. "But you have to accept that you will have steady stream of failure throughout your career in this industry, whether it's short, medium, or long."

3) Groundhog Day and the Wizard of Oz

Daglow says that these movies have a lot to teach developers.

"In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray discovers power of iteration," he says. "He learns that he can only do one thing--he can iterate himself."

If you want a long career in games, you need to make a point of constantly learning and growing. "In this industry, tech changes, systems change, companies rise and need to iterate not only your product but yourself," he says.

Wizard of Oz is instructive because "it's a team of dysfunctional individuals who succeed because they found each other and worked together." Surrounding ourselves with a team 

Daglow says people frequently ask him if he's nostalgic for the early years of the industry, when one person was their own engineer, designer, and artist. "I feel nostalgia for the era, and for the time when my kids were little," he says. "But if i’m leading everything on a game, and i say or do something stupid--then the game ends up being stupid. Now that we work on teams, when I do something stupid there are people to tell me, 'Um, Don? That's stupid."

4) Sometimes, It Really is Brain Surgery

"In the old games industry, there were a lot of people who knew a lot about everything--art, tech, audio, everything," says Daglow. "But now,  it's getting harder and harder for somebody who's educated broadly but is not master of certain specific things."

"You need to ask yourself, what are the specialized skills i can develop?" he adds, noting that he goes to at least a half dozen meetups a month trying to learn about entirely new things.

5) We Should Strive to Be Renaissance Men and Women

At the same time, Daglow stresses that it's not just important to develop specific high-level industry skills--you need to steep yourself in the liberal arts.

"Look at shooters," he says. "They all take place in historical era. Even in a scifi game, that world has its own future history. That game needs storylines, missions, character arcs...literature, that’s what that’s called."

If game developers want to create something unique, they need to be able to do deep research, to grasp art history, and know how story works. "The soft skills, the liberal arts skills, are still relevant in a tech-driven world," he says.

6) Study the Big Picture

Daglow stresses how empowering knowledge can be. He says that during the great crash of 1983, when Intellivsion went from 1200 employees to five, a Mattel exec who understood the toy industry took him aside and explained to him why the entire industry seemed to be dying. The toy exec said that retailers were no longer buying any consoles or cartridges because they believed that games were a fad that had completely run its course, like Pet Rocks or Stretch Armstrong. 

"After that, I was still worried about my career and my future, but I felt better because i understood what was going on," says Daglow. "Ultimately, games are very different from toys, but our industry has its own idiosyncrasies. Study the big picture of the game business. It's a good way to not feel like a victim."

7) The Star-Making Machinery Behind Popular Song

Daglow confesses that he's a huge fan of American Idol. "A lot of us sing in shower and think we’re good," he says. "Then we audition and...we're not as good as we thought."

He points out that there are lots of good musicians working 7 days a week, playing clubs, driving from show to show, not seeing families. These people are maybe halfway up the music industry pyramid, and Adele is at the top. It's the same in sports and movies--and games.

"We all want to be Adele," says Daglow. "We think about joining the tiny number at the top of pyramid."

"If I'm only thinking about being the next Adele, I wont notice when I sing out of key," he adds. Similarly, if we dream of being the next Hideo Kojima, we lose sight of tech vital creative teamwork that goes into making games.

8) There Are Over 20K People at GDC...And It's Still a SMALL Industry

"Games are a big business, but a small industry," says Daglow. "People keep working with the same people over and over again, and they remember what it was like to work together. Whatever you've done will live on after you move on from that project."

If you cheat or take advantage of the disadvantages of those around to you, you can't expect that it will never come back to haunt you. "I'm amazed at how often it comes home to roost," he says.

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