10 min read

Three lessons learned while developing our internship program

Some insights I took away as an artist-turned-project manager after overseeing several batches of art interns. The goal is to come up with a comprehensive and mutually beneficial internship program. Here are the things that have worked so far.

This article was originally published on the Popsicle Games blog: It appears here in its entirety.

People are a company’s greatest resource.

There. If you take nothing else away from this post, then at least learn that and know it to be true.

During the first couple of years of our company’s operation, my friend and business partner James devoured business books by the dozen. He encouraged me to read some of the ones he thought were highly useful, and I did bother to look at, well, a handful. These books dealt with different industries and all sorts of diverse and sometimes contradicting advice. One thing that was consistent, however, was what I just stated to open this post.

People are a company’s greatest resource.

Hey, I knew that all along. I’ve read books. I’m well-read. I’m ready. I’ve done my homework and I’m ready to tackle this thing head-on. It goes without saying, right? People are important.

I knew the words, but I never really understood what they meant until I earned that realization inch-by-inch amidst sleepless nights, many bouts of silent frustration, and more than a few episodes of self-doubt about myself as an artist, an educator, and as a leader.

But this post isn’t entirely about myself. I want to talk about the state of Popsicle Games’s internship program, and how it has grown into something that I can be proud of, although it’s not quite where I want it to be yet.

Making games is a terribly complicated business. You gotta come up with stuff, and you gotta program stuff, and you gotta draw stuff, and you have to make that stuff move, and then you have to put all that stuff together and come up with a Thing meant to enrapture the masses well enough for you to turn a profit. It’s science. It’s art! It’s alchemy.

That means equal parts sitting in solitude, silently staring at a screen and trying to untangle the inevitably tangled mess of your project through sheer force of will, and sitting in a room while bouncing the most inane ideas back and forth with a group of people whose brains work in totally different ways. Unless you work alone -- and as a disclaimer, I’d like to point out that some incredibly intelligent and determined people have managed to become successful in the games biz by their lonesome but you’re probably not one of them -- you’re going to have to put your game’s future in the hands of people who are not yourself, and trust that they don’t screw it all up too badly.

I myself have died several private, mental deaths as I handed off my ideas to be mangled, modified, or misinterpreted by someone who doesn’t, you know, get it.

This is where that inch-by-inch battle comes in. It’s never one big thing, but a collection of little things that drags a project down. Maybe someone (maybe including me) isn’t motivated enough or skilled enough. Maybe they don’t believe in the concept. Maybe they say yes too often. Maybe they ask questions too often. Maybe they don’t ask enough. Maybe you just don’t like the way they say your name when they need you. It happens, and it has happened, and these little things all add up to a project getting confused, delayed, and ultimately ruined.

That was back when the Popsicle Games internship program was a one question affair. Can you draw stuff? All right. Draw stuff for us and learn while you’re drawing stuff.

Not all of the interns who worked with us at the time were less-than-stellar, of course -- some who crossed paths with us during this time turned out to be the very best people that I would want to work with. More than enough of them, however, had enough issues that affected me in a negative way, and after a little more time than it should have taken, I decided that dealing with these people was running me ragged.

And so we became stricter in our evaluation process. This turned out to be the first step in building a mutually beneficial internship program. Where we used to evaluate skill, we evaluated character. Where we used to seek talent, we sought passion. And we never, ever accepted anyone who seemed like they were going to be annoying.

1 - The Elevator Test

This is the first big lesson I learned from the journey: it doesn’t matter how smart or skilled a person is if they annoy you to no end. You’ll be dealing with them on a daily basis, after all. We like to call this the Elevator Test. The Elevator Test asks one simple question: would you mind getting stuck in a elevator with this person? The beauty of this is it basically throws objectivity out the window: it’s your company and your team. Not everyone is going to leave a positive impression on you personally, and those who don’t are better off seeking opportunities elsewhere. Don’t even try to be fair (whatever “fair” means in this regard). Just go with what your feelings tell you.

That was step one, and it turned out to be easy! There will be some who will fall through the cracks, and there will be some whose personalities just don’t immediately bubble to the surface after one short interview. That’s okay. That just means you’ll have more red flags to look out for next time.

Despite what I might have led you to believe, however, character isn’t everything. All the world’s well-adjustedness won’t save a person who is incapable to accomplishing their assigned tasks. We did a significant shift here too.

2 - Seek the Desire to Learn

Lesson number two: the capacity to learn far outweighs all the other things that a prospective intern could do at that singular point in time. We’ve accepted interns in the past because they did amazing art and animation, only to discover that they have mentally locked themselves in a particular “style” (and it pains me to use that word) or “method”. Interns will be expected to contribute work for all sorts of game projects that all look and behave differently. There is no style. There is no method. There is only learning and application, and the best people’s styles change in accordance with what they have learned, and how they choose to apply it.

This wasn’t the easiest trait to sniff out right away, and James was adamantly against basing our decision on an applicant’s grades and academic accolades. I eventually boiled it down to seeking any signs of intelligence or critical thinking, combined with a natural enthusiasm for games. I like to believe that people who play a lot of games are learners and problem solvers to some degree, and I haven’t been proven wrong about that yet.

Don’t get me wrong -- for artist interns, the portfolio still counted big time. We’re all for learning and character here at Popsicle Games, but we do account for taste and a basic understanding of art as well.

In case you were wondering, there was also a lesson three, although it came much later, after we had weeded out the applicants who were not a good fit for the team, and had accepted the ones who seemed like they were.

Our current batch of interns had already been working with the team for a few weeks when James brought up the idea of a Pitch Day -- a time for our employed developers and artists to pitch their own game ideas for possible future projects. I thought it was a great idea, but Erick took the proposal one step further by suggesting a company-wide game jam: two teams, both comprised of a mix of regular team members and interns, and two working game prototypes after eight hours of collaboration.

3 - Set Them Free

Lesson three: unshackle! After the interns had a chance to learn the ropes and the culture, we let them (and the rest of the team, for that matter) come up with their own ideas for a game that can be designed and completed in eight hours. We set a day, we gave them their briefing, and they worked for eight hours.

I have never taken part in a game jam in my life, but the results of our little game jam was any indication, there’s no wonder more and more are being organized every year. The resulting games were thematically rich, and had some clever gameplay ideas that could lead to any number of improvements. Most importantly, the games were the kind that never would have seen the light of day if we had adhered to the traditional trickle-down format, where all the ideas come from us and the team is just there to do the execution. These were games that reflected their creators, and they were good.

There’s a quote from Plato that I learned from hours and hours of playing Zeus: Master of Olympus, although I really would like to be able to claim that I read it in a book or something: “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Swap eight hours of game jam in there, and it still holds true. We observed a lot of things during the exercise: how people interacted, how some took charge, and how some came up with solutions. The themes were reflective of attitudes and interests, and the gameplay mechanics of prior game experience.

It was eye-opening, to say the least, and like I said, it resulted in two very promising prototypes for future games.

We’ve decided to further develop the game jam games into full Popsicle Games releases, with the development teams respectively getting full credit for their work. I think it’s a win-win for everyone involved: we find out more than we had previously hoped about the abilities and character of our interns, and they have a published game to their name to show for it.

I really am hoping that our most recent batch of interns will walk away from the experience with actual insights about a possible future in the industry. I want to write so much more about learning, and personality development, and collaboration, although that might have to be a whole other post. Suffice to say that these three steps have worked to better inform me about the people who will be coming to work with the team, whether in a temporary or (who knows?) a more permanent capacity.

My ultimate takeaway: look for people with character and passion, who know what they want and are willing to learn to achieve those goals. Those are the people who will create amazing things.

Screenshots from the games created during our first game jam

I thought it would be interesting to share the evolution of these games from 8-hour product to the final store build. The first two images of each set are from the original game jam.

Olympus Run



Darkest Light



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