How I Got Into the Game Industry

Not long ago, I was a starry-eyed kid who wanted to make video games for a living. I grew up with Mario and had every Nintendo home console from the Super NES forward. I was even one of those entrepreneurial types who made fan sites. It started simply with AOL’s free web space and then grew slowly to other free web space sites until finally a domain of its own. That site was known as The N Chamber–guess what the N stood for–and at one point Google had listed us first for the search phrase: “Nintendo dolphin.” Those were certainly good times but unfortunately our web presence was connected with eFront and their scandal brought everything to a fiery collapse.At this point I was maybe 14 or 15 years old developing websites and offering my “opinion” on the industry news and with game reviews. To think that anyone seriously listened to what I had to say is laughable to me today. But, I was a fan and I loved the industry–if nothing else, I learned a lot about web development and the game industry. After the eFront meltdown, I was still active in the game fan site arena and worked on a few more websites before I finally called it quits. I tried to resurrect The N Chamber on numerous occasions but, it was not the same for a variety reasons including Google no longer listing us in a favorable search position and realizing it was futile trying to compete with the likes of IGN or Gamespot–blogs were not a big thing yet. Nonetheless, I worked on multi-platform gaming websites–GamerPlay/WiredPlay–and although they didn’t get very far, I learned a lot of PHP and MySQL programming as I was bent on creating my own content management system.I was probably 16 or 17 in the end days of my fansite years. I had still not actually made a real game yet. I tried learning C++ on my own but, that never got too far. In my last two years of high school, we had majors. I had picked the Computer Science major and it was there that I really learned how to code. I took C++ and Java as well as Web Design–which was cake for me–and a computer architecture class–didn’t care for that class and still don’t. Luckily, my programming classes were not super strict so we got to create games for our projects. Programming anything else would have just been ridiculously boring. My first “games” were generally crappy ASCII graphics experiences but, I had a blast. We made a really dumbed down ASCII “Final Fantasy” like RPG that had one level in my first semester. In the second semester, we did some card games but, the project I was most proud of was an ASCII version of Defender. It only had one level as well but I managed to figure out how to have the game scroll so enemies would come towards you while you moved your plane. We figured out how to use color and sound. It was the biggest game I had ever made at the time–and I thoroughly loved it.Come senior year of high school and senioritis was totally setting in. No one wanted to do any real work. Outside of my programming classes, I just got my B’s and was plenty happy with it. But, in my Java class, it was more game making. We did some crappy projects that was supposed to teach us what we needed to know for the Advanced Placement exam but for the final projects, we could do whatever we wanted. I made a version of Missile Command in my first semester. With Java, we could more easily use windows, draw shapes, and import images so this was the first game I had made that wasn’t in ASCII. If I were to look at my code for that game today, I’d probably cringe in pain but, I loved it then. Each game that I did pushed the bar a little higher so for the final project of my last semester, I attempted to recreate Super Mario Bros. it was the best looking game that I had ever made because I basically took the graphics off the Internet. The performance was not so hot but I still loved doing it. Mario moved, jumped, stomped and all that and the enemies moved and the screen scrolled but, it was all imperfect–I did the best I could.Upon graduating high school, I received the gold medal in Computer Science for the class of ’04. I wasn’t the best programmer–I might have been the best Computer Science student grades-wise. It was probably a mixture of the image that I had created of myself and the grades. It was all about marketing which, ironically, is the major I settled on in college. The first college that I chose to attend was the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Arizona. They had a game design program and was probably one of the best schools for that at the time. There are all kinds of schools that have game design programs today. I took some game related courses and because it was a multimedia major, I also took classes in Photoshop and Illustrator as well as XHTML.Being the go-getter that I am, before I started my college career I got an internship over the summer with a game company in New York–my home. I tried contacting every game company in the city that I could find and only one ever got back to me–Black Hammer Game. All I did while I was there was test a game: Supremacy: Four Paths to Power. It was a turn-based strategy game and I am not a big fan of those types of games. I didn’t really learn too much and there were other issues going on with the game but, I did meet Nikita Mikros–who happens to be my boss today. So the summer ended, I got something nice to write on my resume and off to college I went.Everything was new and nice in Arizona. It was a different environment than NYC and it was college. I did pretty damn well in my first semester maintaining a near 4.0 GPA but, I did not end up staying and finishing my degree in game design. I transferred back to New York where I went to school for business. Pretty crazy choice considering how much I loved games, right? Perhaps. I really didn’t think that I needed a game specific degree to make games and considering what I am doing today, maybe I was right.The day I got back to New York, I was scheduled to appear in a meeting at a company that my friend worked for–they needed a programmer and apparently I could program. This was a company that did web-based programming work so that was what I did. Luckily I had the knowledge from all the days I spent working on those websites. I worked there for a little over two years and it was, if nothing else, good experience and I improved my programming. I wasn’t making games–though I tried to lobby for it–but, programming is programming. I still followed the news in the game industry and once or twice attempted to work on gaming websites again but, they fell pretty flat.I left my job doing web-based work a little towards the middle of 2007 and started at a game company–Tiny Mantis Entertainment, founded by Nikita Mikros of Black Hammer Game. I had kept in some contact with Nik Mikros and did a small project for him but, that was about it. It was pretty coincidental that he needed a programmer and I was sick of my old job. So there it was, I was in the game industry. This isn’t Electronic Arts and I’m not working on Halo but, I still love doing it a lot more than “web applications”. In the year that I’ve been working at Tiny Mantis, I’ve done quite a few different projects–some of which aren’t really games and some that will never see the light of day. I did the programming for Lil’ Bush: Iraq Hero for Comedy Central, a Poker game for the France-based Boonty, and a sequel to an Ed, Edd, N’ Eddy game for Cartoon Network. You might see some ad banners from Hyundai programmed by yours truly at some point in the near future as well.Sometimes, I can’t believe that I am doing what I am doing. Some kids wish to be an astronaut or something and then maybe they’ll get there. I feel generally blessed that I’m able to get paid to do what I really want to do–make games. I can’t say I want to be programming forever but I love the industry. I was interviewed by a high school student aspiring to get into games not too long ago. It reminded me of my own unmapped road and I was glad to be able to offer some insight. I don’t know everything and I’m still “new” to the industry but, I hope I was able to offer him something. I didn’t get to tell him my entire story as I have here and that is probably why I wrote this. This is my experience of how I got here. There are probably better ways to break into the industry and every year new people are working at EA, Activision, Midway, Nintendo, Microsoft, etc. I can only offer my story in hopes that other starry-eyed kids dreaming of working in the game industry can take away something from my experience.