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Unspoken Demons - Introduction

In the introductory chapter of this series of blogs, Matthew talks about his history with depression, what bought him to Game Development, and what he believes it takes to become a great game developer in the industry.

Not many people know it about me, but I never actually finished high school. I was a grade A student while I was in school, but I was bullied constantly. My daily routine was much like any other child attending high school - and bullies were simply an expected part of the routine. But I was not a particularly tough kid, and the constant onslaught wore me down. My health became bad, I got sick more often. I can't say for certain if I was actually getting sick or if I was just feigning illness so that I didn't have to go to classes, but it was better than dealing with the situation I constantly faced on a daily basis in school.

Eventually - inevitably - the bullying turned physical. However, the high school suspended me with my abuser for the same period of time, despite how often they had been told of my troubles. For my parents that was the final straw, and I was pulled from classes to finish my year home schooled. The bullying didn't end there, however - the constant torment had a permanent effect on my psyche. When I started contemplating suicide, I had enough clarity to know that I needed help. So we saw my family doctor and I got put on anti-depressants.

The years that followed are a blur. We moved to a farm, far away from suburbia - but I spent most of my time locked away in my room, playing World of Warcraft and Halo. They were my escape from the harshness of reality. In them, I became somebody that mattered - I became somebody that, no matter the situation, was able to face the harshness of reality head-on, unflinching. Up to that point I was never really a huge gamer - now, games had become my life. Little did I know, they were the therapy I needed.

It was World of Warcraft that had the biggest impact on me. I simply didn't understand how to handle people - through World of Warcraft, not only did I learn to socialize again, I also learned to lead. It was through a very good friend of mine that I ended out assisting in the running of a guild as co-leader. It built my confidence, and it felt good. But if World of Warcraft was responsible for making me better at being me, Halo was responsible for making me want to be a Game Developer.

I'd attempted a few different courses. I was good with computers (or so I was told), and so I tried an IT course that I inevitably failed as I was too terrified to leave the house. Another attempt and another failure with a traditional art course that followed. But as time went by and I grew up inside of games and decided on my future, I eventually tried again - this time in a Multimedia course. I wasn't just good at it - I was great at it. The other students in the class were older people mostly, people that had never used a computer before in many cases - and I found myself helping them much in the same ways I helped people in World of Warcraft.

During a careers expo in the city that I mustered the courage to attend, I learned that a Game Development course was starting up - but it was out of reach for me, as it required a higher level of proficiency in the classes than what I had managed to achieve thus far. I spoke with my lecturer in the multimedia course, and a week later I received an acceptance letter to attend the Game Development course that I wanted to attend - they'd put in a recommendation that I be allowed to skip several months worth of classes, and the course coordinator had agreed.

This was a defining moment for me. I made the decision that I was going to stop taking my anti-depressants. I consulted with my doctor and was told that it would take several months to be taken off of them due to the severe side-effects. Against their advice (and I do not suggest this to anyone), I stopped taking my anti-depressants all together. And after a month of awful headaches, sickness and barely being able to move, I was free of the medication. It was like going from seeing in black and white to seeing in colour. Anti-depressants make you feel nothing - and now, I realized something.

I was happy. I hadn't felt happy in my entire life - at least, not as I could recall. But now I was.

It was then that I knew it. I had to be a game developer. Come what may, I would make games. I would do something with my life, make up for the years I lost just playing games locked up in my room.

What followed was success after success. Two years in a row in my game development course I was given a "best student" award. At the end of the course I was one of the few students to graduate and show at an expo where we got the chance to show off the work we had done. My humble little video showing the games, programming and art I'd done was nestled in between this amazing traditional comic artist and a programming student that had created a library management software. Much to my shock I walked out of the expo with a "best in show" award. I didn't know what I had done right, but it boosted my confidence to a spectacular degree.

Since I had not finished high school, I was unable to attend University. But now that I had graduated from my technical course, I was able to go to University to study game development at a higher level. In my first year I was invited to the Golden Key Honour Society - an invite-only international organization for high achieving students. In my second year I was informed that I was in the Universities top 3% of students. In my third year, I got an internship with a local business where I was given the opportunity to act as a producer for their team while they made interactive, educational software for kids. It went so well that they hired me.

And then came the big news - I received a scholarship to attend the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco in 2013.

I remember crying when I got the scholarship. But at no point in my mind did I ever ask "what makes me worthy?" I knew why I was being given the award. I had worked hard for it, I volunteered, I helped run a student organization to inform students about where their courses may be lacking if they wanted to become game developers. But even though I knew why I was worthy of it, you never really get used to the fact that you were judged among thousands of people that applied, and were one of twenty-something lucky people to be given such a privilege. It was huge for me.

I flew to San Francisco with friends and attended GDC as a scholar. We toured Double Fine and Three Rings, and I got to ask all of the questions that had been itching  at me. My absolutely fantastic mentor (whom I am now proud to call a very good friend) was Keith Fuller - an experienced Producer that had since gone independent - and I am pretty sure I talked his ear off with questions. He even invited me out to Sushi with some other amazing game developers. But as amazing as that was, it was the walk there that really changed my life.

I do not even recall the specifics of the conversation. I had asked Keith my usual barrage of questions that I'd formulated during the down-time in between the few hours we got to spend together every other day, and we had gotten to talking about how some people were either too afraid to ask questions, or thought they already had the answers they needed and didn't bother speaking. Keith's comment was mundane - something about how it was equally difficult to answer questions as it was to ask - but it stuck with me, and it made me realize. The only thing separating me from my mentor or the people I was going to dinner with was time and experience.

A few weeks later I quit my job back home and extended my stay in the U.S. out to a few months.

It took a bit longer for the epiphany that I really didn't need to be working in a big game studio like Blizzard or Bungie in order to gain the experience and time required to be like Keith, but the epiphany did come and it changed my perspective on my life and what I considered the most important. It didn't matter if I was making a big game - it only mattered as long as I was making games.

I went back to GDC this year, and it was there that I had an idea for the first 'big' game I wanted to make. I invited some talented friends of mine on board and since getting home, my daily routine has involved working on a project that I don't get paid for. I live with my family in order to save money, I do the occasional contract job to earn a living while still allowing my full time 'job' to be on this game that I want to see become a reality. I've sacrificed financial security to pursue my dream, and I am here to tell you that you should do the same.

Not everyone is able to get lean on others for financial support or do work that doesn't absorb their 9 to 5 most of their week, but I don't believe that means you need to give up on your dream. I've been living light - I've sacrificed evenings out with friends to save myself the cost of a meal or transport. But every day that I sit down at my PC and do game dev is a day that I cherish. I cherish my time because I've sacrificed so much of it in past. I cherish my money because every single dollar I save is another dollar that I am not going to need to sacrifice my game-making time to earn.

That's how you make a great game developer. Not because you're the smartest or most creative or most market savvy. The reason you make it as a game developer is because you have the passion for it, the drive to be successful at it, the willingness to give up things and live a little uncomfortably if it means achieving your goals, a respect for yourself and an understanding that you need to get taken care of if you want to finish any game, the tenacity to power through your insecurities or those rough patches we all face, and an ample respect for your time.

But most important to it all, you need to be happy. And that's really the key to being good at just about anything.

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