“Every step in the game development process, every aspect of gameplay, has to go through the mill of public opinion. And it’s really exciting to watch our students successfully navigate the paradigm shift from what they like to what other players like…and celebrate the process.”
Matthew Jenkins is the head of SchoolCreative’s video game department. He received his Masters of Digital Media from The Centre for Digital Media in 2009 and has worked as a member of the Electronic Arts’ production team, taught at Art Institute of Vancouver, and is founder of the MWJ Technology Group.
Let’s start with the most important question: What games are you playing right now?
At the moment, Blizzard’s Overwatch. Truly a piece of transmedia genius and they’ve already got 54 million players. Interestingly, they were kicked out of Russia because one of the characters in the online comic is gay, so it’s been banned there. Which is a shame because Russia was number two in the world after South Korea in this year’s first ever Overwatch World Cup. Another game that I’m really drawn to right now and am following closely is Bethesda’s Fallout 4.
You’re playing Fallout 4 on PS4?
No, I’m pretty much an exclusively PC guy right now thanks largely to Steam, the most phenomenal delivery platform ever. You can mod, access online communities, it’s totally revolutionized the industry. The other area of focus for me right now is indie games, ones made by one to three people. For example, Stardew Valley, a farming simulator in 8-bit graphics that won a bunch of awards and made more money than Call of Duty in 2016. It was developed by one guy, Eric Barone, who worked ten hours a day, every day, for four years. I understand he made $24 million last year. I love high graphic, AAA-title games that I can immerse myself in for hundreds of hours; but the whole indie revolution, where the means of production and the means of distribution have become free or close to it, has empowered an entire generation of kids to make really good, really interesting games. It’s a very cool time.
What goes into developing a game? Where do you begin?
To start with, nobody knows what fun is until they have it. Which means that when you come up with a game idea you think is good, you’ve got to test it. Throw it in front of a bunch of people and find out: are they having fun or aren’t they? If they’re not, you make adjustments then test it again. It’s a grassroots, quantitative approach, a constant gathering of data to make your game better and better. There’s no genius designer anymore, no one sitting in a box for a year and suddenly – poof – Athena pops into their head fully-formed. It’s a much more incremental, cyclical, step-by-step process where we put something in front of people, get feedback, make course corrections, and repeat. This means that failure is both inevitable and critical to succeeding. True success starts from the lean-and-agile startup mentality, which is “fail early and often”. And get comfortable with failure. Make it your friend, expect it, embrace it. That’s essential in the video game industry because it’s not only a technical process, it’s also a creative one. And those two things bounce off of each other much more than they integrate, until they finally fuse into an alloy that is both technically strong and creatively unique, while of course also being a ton of fun to play.
What’s the best way to get started – as an indie developer or working for a big company?
If you’re planning to go indie right out of the gate, that’s a rather audacious goal. I hear this question often, should I go indie or work for a big company in the beginning? I absolutely understand where they’re coming from, but it’s really the wrong question. I could direct you to a video game company down the street that’s been indie for 25 years, privately owned by four guys, and pumping out solid titles since it started. They’re a company and they’re indie. You see, people tend to equate “indie” with “doing it on your own”, but that’s not necessarily the case. When starting out, you should aim for the greatest likelihood of success, seek out a place where you can learn the most and grow the most. Which most likely means working for a company, whether it’s indie or one of the big dogs.
Is that because “going it alone” will make it harder for an aspiring developer to get noticed?
No, mainly because there’s just still so much to learn. It’s a classic case of “you don’t know what you don’t know”. You can have the greatest concept in the world, but you still need to learn how to finalize a game, how to get a game out the door. What I notice about people who want to do it on their own is that they get to the idea phase, maybe even the prototype phase, and then rarely go any further. That’s usually because they don’t know how to tune their game for a specific market audience. And there’s no one who can teach you better how to monetize a product than someone who’s done it before. Then there’s the whole dynamic of effectively communicating in a business environment. Solo developers are usually building games for themselves and haven’t yet learned how to speak to someone who isn’t them. And as mentioned, there’s the brutal reality of what it takes just to finish a game and all the sacrifices required to get it to market. If you plan on making money and being successful, you have to be willing to give up half of your brilliant ideas, watch your “babies” die, and be okay with that. You have to routinely expose yourself to criticism, grow a thick a skin, learn to ask the right questions. There’s just no way around it. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to spend a year or two with people who have already done it.
So what’s the right approach to getting in with a game company?
Just to get in the door, you’ve got to show them you have the chops. And the best way to do that is to pick your favourite engine and build something you can show, some tangible demonstration of your talent and passion, a demo reel or portfolio piece. You have to be able to show them something you’ve made. Whether it’s a Broken RPG Maker game, or Unreal or Havok, or just software that you downloaded for free, and you make a decent clone, if you can show that to an employer and say this is why I made this decision, then you’re at the top of the list. That’s the entire focus of the game department at SchoolCreative, positioning our students for success as soon as they graduate.
What’s the best way to spend those crucial first two years?
Quality assurance. Find your nearest location to do play testing and get started. Almost every executive producer I’ve ever met started in QA. Which means testing the same five minutes of game play every day for eight hours, trying to find every usability bug you can. You log the bugs and that eventually makes its way to the game team. Then the producers look at it and prioritizes the fixes, and it goes on from there. It’s gruelling work but it teaches you game design like nothing else. You become analytical at a very deep level of the minutiae of game play.
How does SchoolCreative’s training in game design and programming help launch students into the workforce?
While anyone can walk off the street and become a QA person, what we do at SchoolCreative is provide students with what they’d normally learn in their first year or two of QA with a company, while preparing them to start as entry level designers and producers. The core of all of our teaching is quality assurance. Like I said before, you don’t know if it’s fun until ten strangers or a hundred strangers tell you it is. Every step, every aspect of gameplay, has to go through the mill of public opinion. And while they master design and programming skills and develop their own original IPs, it’s really exciting to watch our students successfully navigate the paradigm shift from what they like to what other players like and celebrate the process. Testing with strangers repeatedly and getting positive feedback, they’re over the moon because they realize they’re getting closer and closer to the fun.
If you could summarize the top skills needed to be successful, what would they be?
To survive and succeed in this industry, once you’re in the door, you need to exhibit at least two out of three qualities: be great at what you do, be fun to work with, deliver work on time. Ideally you’re all three, but if you can nail at least two of those, the industry can work with you according to your strengths. They’ll forgive or work with your weaknesses so long as you’re willing to improve or at least delegate to team members who are strong in those areas.
How can new designers and programmers navigate the inevitable emotional ups and downs inherent in the game development process?
What allows you to take immense amounts of criticism is having a vision. That’s what allows you to stay calm and say to someone giving feedback, I’m listening to you because I need data. Then listen to fifteen other people and collect their data, and finally see how many people said the same thing, look for patterns, and if required, adjust my vision. If you’re just trying to validate your own vision without making any changes, you’re in trouble. So our aim is to instil confidence and courage in our students to be passionate about their vision as they collect data that will give their vision what it needs to become successful. I tell them, you are designers, you have good ideas, and those ideas will keep coming if keep learning and growing. If you accept that you are a creative person and that you have a definite role to play, I believe no amount of criticism can take you down. On the contrary, you learn to transform all of that criticism into added value. Once you start doing that, the future begins to open up and becomes yours to own.