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Networking FTW!

As a videogame design student stranded in one of the driest states, Iowa, I knew I would have a challenging time breaking into the industry. This is my success story...so far.

Nathan Sherrets, Blogger

January 28, 2011

12 Min Read

A little bit about myself to start with:

I'm 32 years old, I went back to college when I was 31 attending Full Sail via their online game design program.  I've been very impressed with the program so far.  The old moniker is true, you get out of it what you put into it.

The worst part about starting this education and ultimately a new career path is that I live in Iowa.  Iowa isn't known for its game development.  When you ask someone about Iowa, they usually say, "Isn't that the state with the potatoes?"  I'm here to tell you, it isn't.  We do corn, and wrestling, and sometimes people talk about our football...but not very often.  Most often they speak about the fact that we're a hole in the middle of the United States.  I guess you could say we're known for our politics too.  The Iowa caucuses are always a big deal.

Since starting this education path, my mantra has been to support locally made videogames.  And I'll tell you why.

This is where my story gets exciting!

Literally the month I started at Full Sail, October of 2009, the CEO of PhantomEFX was giving a seminar at the University of Northern Iowa about Darkest of Days.  I'd never heard of either the company or the game.  So I did a little research, found out that Darkest of Days was being developed by a company called 8Monkey Labs.  IN IOWA!  It was being published by a company called PhantomEFX.  IN IOWA! 

As soon as I discovered this, my friend and I made the trip to Cedar Falls from Cedar Rapids, about an hour drive, to go to this seminar and see what Iowa videogame developers are like.  If you've never been to a college campus, they can be confusing.  We cruised around the campus of UNI for at least twenty minutes looking for where we needed to go.  Eventually we found what we thought was the building and a parking spot.  We parked and started making our way up to the building.

As we were walking, there was an older couple approaching on the sidewalk and they spoke to us, "Are you guys going to the videogame presenation?  Do you know where it's at?" 

Of course we do, we chimed in, like we knew what we were talking about.  We offered to show them where it was at, and they followed us to the building, where we had to ask the guy at the desk where it was.  As we're walking with this older couple we were chatting a bit, telling them that my friend and I were budding game designers.  They said that was interesting, their son does that too!  As we finally find out where we're going, we lead them down to the basement of the building, and we're just standing there with that older couple chatting away like it's no big deal while all of these students and who knows who else is wondering around.

Eventually a tall man, 6'3" or 6'4" comes walking up to us, and the older couple said that was their son, the CEO of PhantomEFX.  Holy what the crap, Batman?  Talk about serendipity!  We just happened to run across the parents of the CEO of the company who was giving the presentation, and had been nice and chatty with his parents.  Huzzah!  Anyway, we nodded politely and wandered off, not wanting to intrude.  Apparently his parents mentioned to him that we were budding game designers and he made it a point to come over and introduce himself to us.  Holy extra large what the crap, Batman?  That was awesome!  He invited us to come see their new digs(they had just recovered from the flood of 2008), and went in to do the presentation. 

We watched in awe!  This was a videogame developed in Iowa!  For the PC and for the Xbox 360!  Many of you may be saying, "But Darkest of Days got bad reviews for the 360!"  And I say, "Shut your face."  Darkest of Days did some really cool stuff.  Historically accurate content, great trivia, accurate guns and uniforms and cultures, an interesting story and concept(who doesn't want to mow down ancient jerks with machine guns?), and a few really cool things I want to point out next. 

Innovation and immersion?  You betcha!

At the beginning, you are part of Custer's group at Little Big Horn, and you get shot with a Native American's arrow.  You are told to sit down and just shoot them darn injuns.  And you know what?  You can totally see your legs when you're sitting down!

Quick!  Name 5 first person shooters where you can see your legs?  You can't do it, can you?  But right here, right at that moment, you could see your characters legs.  And when I played the game and discovered that little moment for myself I was in awe.  It was awesome.  Like a million billion hotdogs, sir.

Awesome thing number 2!  You all remember when Dead Space was coming out and how cool it was that your menu didn't pause the game when you brought it up?  How it was part of the real world and you could get attacked while you were viewing that holographic image?  Darkest of Days had that too!  To view your map you totally had to pull it out, risking getting shot every time you wanted to look at the map.  That's immersion for you folks, legs in a first person shooter AND an in-action map!  Now, you may again be saying, "But Darkest of Days got horrible reviews!"  And again, I say, "Horse hockey!"  If you want to see what these companies went through to make this game, read the post mortem, it's an eye opener.


Not only did they release a game that had huge potential and has quite the cult following, even internationally, but 8Monkey Labs and PhantomEFX didn't close down during all of the economic troubles.  How many companies made a game for a console and then had to close?  Or how many never even got their game released, and still had to close?  Hundreds, that's how many.

I call that a win for PhantomEFX and for 8Monkey Labs, good job guys!

Back to my story!

We watched the presentation, just soaking it all in.  The CEO of PhantomEFX, a charismatic man named Aaron, was a little larger than life to us.  Not only is he a big guy, but he's charismatic, vocal, expressive, and was the CEO of a videogame development company in Iowa.  Right at that moment, Aaron was my hero.

So afterwards, we all get to line up and talk one on one with some of the designers.  If you aren't familiar with Darkest of Days, much of the gameplay is escort missions.  Nobody likes escort missions, right?  So I decided I wanted to ask the hard question.  "Why the heck would you base an entire game around escort missions?  And how did you pull it off without the players wanting to kill themselves?"  I asked it, and Aaron laughed!  He actually laughed!  He thought it was a good question, and gave me solid game design answers.  They made several design decisions that made the missions act differently and feel differently than escort missions, even if fundamentally that's what they were.  Great!  He wasn't offended!  He remembered us from an hour earlier, and again invited us to come see their new office!

Let me tell you, we were starstruck!  At the time there were only two videogame development companies in Iowa: PhantomEFX and Budcat.  Budcat is now closed, Activision didn't want to keep them open.  But PhantomEFX is independent, so has successfully stayed open and making games.

So fast forward to April. 

I never visted PhantomEFX like I wanted to.  I was too chicken.  Eventually I decided, hell with it!  I tracked down Aaron's e-mail address and asked to come have a tour.  Aaron immediately said yes, we set up a time, and a couple of weeks later I went up there.  The office is awesome.  It's a great environment, everybody he introduced me to was cool and nice and welcoming.  I even got to sit with the monkeys, that's 8Monkey Labs to you laymen (they work in the same office and have a great relationship), and they showed me the next game that they were working on.  I was in heaven.  I then sat in Aaron's office for almost two hours while we just talked videogames and the industry as a whole.  Aaron seemed to like me, he liked the grasp on the videogame industry I had, he liked my thought process.  We got along fantastically!

The only thing that would have been better is if he would have offered me a job on the spot.  He didn't do that, however he did mention that they had thought about adding a new designer in the future and would I be interested in working for a company like his making games like they make?  My answer was a resounding yes!  I was floating for weeks after that!  I was only like 6 months into my degree and he asked me if I could see myself working at his company?!?!

Fast forward to the fall of 2010. 

I'd kept generic contact with Aaron over the months, talking about a possible internship for college credit, mentioning what my classes were like, things like that.  At this point, I just wanted to keep doors open for my future.

In this fateful fall of 2010, I received a phone call from a number I didn't recognize on a Friday afternoon.  It was Aaron!  He asked me if I'd be interested in an internship!  I gathered my resume and what assignments could be considered for a portfolio, put them together and sent them off.  I went in for an interview, a little nervous.  How do you dress for a videogame internship interview?  I went in a tie anyway, even though everyone there was in jeans.

They must have loved me, because they gave me the internship.  It was a paid internship that they offered me, 20 hours a week, and I could work some of it at home and some of it in the office.   I immediately said yes.  I quit my full time, great paying job as a transportation coordinator for one of the largest cereal companies in the world, and accepted a part time job.  Purely for the experience and the foot in the door.  Aaron promised me he would get me on full time as soon as he could, but it all depended on the budget.  Worst case scenario, he said, was 6 months, but more like 4 months.

This was a dream come true!  I ended up driving an hour commute into the office twice a week and working four hours a week from home just so I could have more exposure in the office.  It was great.  Everyone there was really cool, and Aaron really liked everything I had to say and offer.

My job was to build the world and write the quests and fiction for a new game that they were working on.  Holy crap!  My first day, and I'm working on a brand new IP!

Fast-forward to January 1st, 2011. 

Just 2 months after I started, and they made me full time.  I'm a full time videogame designer...in Iowa!

Now for the moral of the story.  (are you sick of reading yet?  there is a point...I guess)

How did this happen?  How did I get this opportunity in a state that is sparse when it comes to videogame development?


That's it, networking.

I went to the seminar and met Aaron.  Granted I was aided by serendipity in meeting his parents first who then pointed us out.

But then I continued to network.  I reached out to him and asked for a tour.  Then I kept up communication.  I e-mailed Aaron about my classes.  I talked about the business.  And I let him see how passionate I was about videogames.

Done properly, professionally, and properly spaced out so you aren't considered a stalker, networking is a powerful, powerful tool.

Purely through having the cajones to reach out first, and keeping the lines of communication open, I now have one of the most awesome jobs out there.  I get to design videogames.  I write design docs, I play games, I write quests, I write dialogue, I world build, I playtest, I play games, I brainstorm new ideas, I work with artists and programmers, I play games, I review internal game ideas and mechanics, oh, and did I mention that I play games?

Getting a job in the videogame industry is difficult. 

Especially with the market flooded with qualified artists, programmers, and designers from all of the companies that have closed the last few years.  Add on top of all of that all of the colleges and universities now offering videogame specific degrees!  Getting a job in the videogame industry in a state that isn't known for videogames or for the companies that makes them is twice as hard.

If I did it, anyone can do it.  You not only don't need a degree, but you can live in some left field area of the United States and get a good job making games.  Granted, a degree helps, and knowing someone in the industry helps, and having connections helps.

But do you know what else helps?  Passion, drive, cajones, and a willingness to put yourself out there.

Have I rambled enough for you?  I'm pretty sure I have.  I've rambled enough for me!  Unfortunately, I just love to talk about myself!

If you're in a funk and can't find a job in the industry and just wanna talk about it, shoot me a message at [email protected].  If you want to tell me what a lucky S.O.B I am and that my situation rarely happens, shoot me a message at [email protected].  If you want to have a flame-war, shoot me a message at [email protected]

All jokes aside.  I realize my situation isn't all that common, I also realize that my situation isn't all that big of a deal.

But let me tell you, it's a big deal to me.  And there are probably thousands of budding game designers out there who would love to have the opportunities that I've had.  Just remember guys, I helped make these opportunities.  You can too.


PS - for the record, I'm still VERY new in my position, am still learning, and I'm still in school.  I just wanted to share a success story and let people know that it can be done!

PSS - yes I have a swollen sense of my own importance!

PSSS - yes I think I'm cool  :)

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