This is for anyone like myself in pursuit of working in the video game development industry. I was tasked in my Business and Professional Communications course to interview someone in my chosen industry for a presentation I will be giving. Having had just recently learned a few weeks ago of Crate Entertainment, a company composed of a handful of talented designers from now defunct Ironlore Entertainment, I had an urge to take a chance and see if I could net an interview with anyone there. With Titan Quest being one of my favorite games ever and Crate’s current work on Grim Dawn, this has been a most fortuitous experience.
I am very grateful that Arthur Bruno, Manager and Lead Designer of Crate Entertainment, took the time out of his busy schedule to respond to my inquiries. Enjoy.
Is a degree necessary or is just ‘going for it’ a viable option anymore in the game industry?
A degree is not absolutely necessary but it is becoming more and more difficult to get into the industry without one. There are a lot more people now competing for spots at game companies and a degree is a potential competitive advantage between two otherwise similar candidates. Some companies even require it. I think the most important aspect of a degree is that it demonstrates a person’s ability to commit to a long-term work goal and follow through with it. It shows that a person was able to juggle a heavy work-load and complete assignments on time to earn a degree. Really, those are the factors I care about. For a designer, the actual area of study is less relevant but I prefer something more traditional and involving writing. I’m not a huge fan of game development courses so far and I’m not sure how many companies take them seriously. Most of the people teaching them have no credentials to be doing so and I think I’d rather employ someone that I know has undergone more rigorous coursework in a traditional discipline like history, English, or a science.
Ultimately though, it comes down to talent. If a person can prove themselves through a great portfolio, mod, game level, or other work, that is the best way to judge a candidate.
What is looked for on a resume and a portfolio?
I can’t tell you how many resumes / cover letters I receive that contain horrible spelling and grammatical errors. This is a highly competitive industry where we’re often working on multi-million dollar projects. The least I’d expect is that someone be able to proof-read a cover letter / resume. We’re all human and sometimes we make typos that a word processor or email spell-check doesn’t catch and that we ourselves have trouble seeing as we proof read. However, some of the submissions I receive are just rife with errors. I will occasionally overlook 1-2 subtle errors if the person otherwise seems like a great candidate but more than that is an instant rejection.
For a portfolio, I just want to see the best / latest work that person has done. Often artists will send in a large portfolio of seemingly everything they ever worked on. This makes it difficult to assess the person’s artistic judgement. You don’t know if it is new and old material or the person is just inconsistent. If they included bad with good, does that mean they think it is all good?
The other thing I’d strongly recommend for artists is that they visit sites like polycount.com and gameartisans.org that game industry artists frequent to get an idea of the level of quality their work will need to meet and to post work and get critical feedback / help in developing their portfolio. Sadly, I receive a lot of portfolios from artists who have graduated from game programs with work that is just woefully inadequate.
Aspiring designers should be working on creating levels / mods with commercial editors like Unreal (many game companies license the Unreal engine). Think about the kind of company you want to work for / game you want to make and go grab an editor from a successful game in that genre and see what you can make.
Foot in the Door
What type of mindset should someone have that wants to get into the game industry?
The most important thing is to look at the quality of work being produced for games. Look what other people inside and outside the industry are doing. You don’t need to be able to design levels or produce art at the level of a veteran developer but it should at least be not too far off. If you don’t make the cut, go put in a more hours refining your skills. I’ve encountered several people who were supposedly desperate to get into the game industry but, ultimately, when told what they needed to do, they didn’t have the initiative or motivation to really put in the time to do it. This is a serious a business and there are a lot of talented people trying to get in. If someone isn’t self-motivated and willing to put in a lot of hard work, they should consider another career.
What needs to be done to get a foot in the door?
Generally a person needs to stand out in some way, although, the way they stand out should be through the quality of their work. I’ve gotten applications from people who have tried stuff like turning their resume into a D&D character sheet. They definitely stood out and we had a good laugh but I can’t say it was in a positive way.
Really, the best thing to do is to have an impressive resume and portfolio. There isn’t much substitute for that. If your work doesn’t cut it, don’t just keep endlessly sending it to different companies hoping someone will have low-enough standards to hire you. Go work on it more!
How did you get the job at Ironlore?
Well, the way I got the job at Iron Lore is directly related to how I got into the industry in the first place, so I’ll start out there. When I was in college, I had never thought about working in the game industry. For all I knew, game’s just magically appeared on store shelves. I never really thought about the fact that companies were busy making them and that there was a career to be had in it.
My introduction into the game industry came as a result of what I thought at the time was countless hours wasted playing Age of Empires. I started playing online competitively and ended up becoming one of the top players. As a result, Ensemble Studios, the game’s maker, asked me to be part of a 10 person “strike-team” of expert players play-testing their next game, Age of Kings. From there I was asked to contribute to the official strategy guide they were planning to release. I got to know some people there and they suggested I apply for a design position. This planted the idea in my head of working in the game industry and lead to my first game job, for which I left college before graduating. I eventually went back to finish my degree and then, the summer after graduation, I found out from a friend at Ensemble that Brian Sullivan was opening a new company and had been asking about me. I got in contact with him and ended up as the first designer hired at Iron Lore.
Was this your first job in the industry?
Iron Lore wasn’t my first job as indicated above but I was still pretty junior when I started on there and I had no experience working on ARPGs.
What was the atmosphere working with large development team?
For the first few years at Iron Lore we were a very small team struggling to get a publishing deal. Eventually, after landing a deal, the company grew to 35ish people, which I wouldn’t really say is that large. It was generally a fun environment but the work was intense.
How did Crate come to be with the employees that it has?
After Iron Lore closed, there were a number of us that wanted to find a way to continue working together. I’d had aspirations to eventually try opening a company but I hadn’t expected to be doing it so soon. Sometimes though, you just have to go for it when the right opportunity arises and there we were, a bunch of experienced developers all out of work at the same time. Unfortunately, not many people were in a financial position to go for very long without an income. So, I started out by calling around trying to see what sort of opportunities were out there for us. I was able to find contracting work with another local studio that had more projects underway than they could effectively manage and were looking for some art and design leadership on one of them. We were only able to bring over a small number of people, so other’s were forced to take jobs elsewhere. Eventually the contracting work dried up as the economic crisis of 2008 / 2009 hit. The guy’s I started out with eventually couldn’t continue without income and had to seek jobs for themselves. It was a tough time and I almost gave up on Crate. For a while it was just me pursuing funding for smaller projects that would allow us to get the team back together. With the economic conditions being what they were, no one wanted to take that kind of investment risk in a small startup like Crate. As I was on the verge of giving up and looking for a job myself, I made one final effort to ponder my options and think about what else I could do. About the same time, the owners of Iron Lore had just about given up trying to sell the Titan Quest engine and they’d found their way into new jobs. So, I approached them and was able to work out a deal to acquire the engine. With the Iron Lore engine and tool set, we’d be able to start building a game immediately without any outside funding. First only a couple of the Iron Lore guys were working with me to get the project up and running. Eventually, as we gained momentum, more people became interested. Only a couple people have been able to devote themselves to it full-time but others work nights and weekends. The further we’ve progressed, the more I think people have bought into the idea that we can really finish this game and the more help we’ve gotten. I’m fairly confident now that we will finish Grim Dawn, the challenge is just trying to get it finished in a reasonable amount of time. Once Grim Dawn releases, we will be faced with a new, and perhaps equally great challenge of taking the company to the next step.
How does the work atmosphere differ when compared to working in a larger group?
In some ways it is more fun as you’re all doing a more diverse range of work and you have more agility to change things or move in a new direction. With larger teams, there is a lot more planning involved and everyone tends to become more compartmentalized into their respective areas of work.
Is a smaller group easier to work in even though everyone has more tasks?
I think to some extent it depends on the individual personalities involved. The people you work with, you work with closely and if you have personality conflicts, there is no way to put distance between you. Fortunately, we’re a group of friends that generally enjoy working together and have experience doing so. We all kind of know what to expect from one another and are able to speak openly to one another about concerns or things we don’t like without bruising egos and such. On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure and we have a lot less flexibility to move work around or apply more man-power to a task that suddenly becomes a priority. With everyone up to their eyeballs in development work, it also can be difficult to take a time-out for effective planning and organization.
What is a day like at Crate?
Wake up in the morning, work until dinner, take an hour or two break, then go back and work until I fall asleep. The guy’s who work part-time usually go home from working a full-day at other companies, eat dinner, get online around 9pm and work until 2-3am. It is pretty brutal right now but this is what is required to get a company off the ground. A lot of hard work and a little luck. I’m not sure that we’ve been too lucky yet but hopefully this hard work will pay off and we’ll get some kind of a break in our fortunes.
What do you recommend doing to remain focused on a single project when there can be so many great ideas being formulated that can pull you in other directions?
Well, different companies that I’ve worked with often have wildly differing philosophies on game development. I personally tend to believe you need a vision-holder leading a project. A person or a very small group of 2-3 people who can ultimately decide what fits and what doesn’t. Typically this the job of a lead designer and it can be very difficult when you have various people pulling you in different directions. Often people have great ideas that just don’t fit the current project, are out of the realm of possibility due to their scope, or aren’t inline with what you’re target audience would want. I think it is important to established early on what kind of game are you making, who your target audience is and what the scope of the project is based on your available resources. You’re going to have to make difficult exclusions or cuts at some point and people just have to accept that is the reality of things. Someone with experience and good judgement needs to control what is getting added into a project.
When formulating a game idea, do you and your team flesh out every single aspect from mechanics to needed assets or do you create just a rough generalization and let everyone kind of hit the ground running to let the project evolve?
I usually tend toward the latter, although this is a style that larger companies would probably be uncomfortable with and you need to change your style somewhat depending on the scope and nature of the project. I think whether you can be successful doing operating in looser manner is largely dependent upon the personalities involved and team-size. There is at least a minimal level of planning involved in any project and, as a designer, you need to have a good enough understanding of where you’re going and what will be required. It is also essential that you be able to plan out enough work to keep everyone on your team constantly productive and aware of what is coming down the road. People get frustrated when they don’t know what to expect or when they get shifted around too much from one task to another. People get especially upset when they invest time working on something that ends up being throw-away work. Sometimes you need to change course, it can be unavoidable but more often it can be avoided with a little planning.
What skills are most important to have as an employee and as a manager in this industry?
I would say the most important thing is the ability to take criticism well without getting defensive, even invite it, and examine yourself to determine how you can improve. Ultimately, success is all about pushing yourself to improve and improvement can only happen if you’re open and honest with yourself about your weaknesses. Also, you need to be able to learn from other people and seek out their advice. Nothing is worse than working with someone who is insecure and defensive. People who act like that often doom themselves to mediocrity or failure as they can prevent themselves from undergoing the growth that is necessary for them to become successful. Just be enthusiastic, eager to listen to advice (even if you think you already know it), and ask your colleagues to critique your work and offer suggestions for improvement. A great attitude goes a long, long way. Even if you fail at something, people will be a lot more willing to overlook it if you are honest about it and maintain a good attitude. Bad attitude, know-it-all mentality, apathy, pride, and stubbornness are the traits most directly to cause your failure.
The other one is just lack of innate talent. Many positions in game development require certain innate qualities for an individual to really excel at them. Some people will only rise so high. Innate talent isn’t really something you can change though, so I suggest people focus on what they can and attitude is the best place to start. You can have all the talent in the world but never reach your potential if you have a crappy attitude. I’ve seen far more people fail because they just get in their own way than I’ve seen people not have the skills to cut it.
Since game development can be a high stress field, how do you and the employees deal with conflicts that can arise between everyone?
Hmm, just talking it out is the best solution in most cases. Sometimes people tend to voice their grievances to a third party, like a manager, instead of to one another and this can result in the negative feelings just deepening. I think getting out of the office and talking over lunch or a beer is the best way to resolve personal issues. A lot of times two people will end up with this pent up frustration toward one another that is just over some stupid work issue and stop really seeing one another as people. Often the tension isn’t really personal, it is just the result of a conflict over work. Getting outside the office and having a real conversation can help two people reconnect and realize that they’re both human, they don’t really dislike one another, and the problems between them are just work matters that can be more easily sorted out if they just have a little more empathy for one another.
Sometimes though, people really just cannot work together and one of them needs to go. Sometimes managers are reluctant to let people go because they feel it could damage morale but often keeping a disgruntled person around is much more damaging in the long run. I think most of us want to work in happy little studios where everyone gets along and has a great time making great games. However, it doesn’t always pan out that way and when there are problems in the company, they need to be proactively dealt with before they fester, destroy morale, and cripple efficiency. This is especially true in a small studio where people need to work closely and, to be competitive, must operate more efficiently than larger companies.
Any suggestions for finding balance between work, video games and life?
Is that possible? The game industry is highly competitive, requires passion, and a huge time commitment. You have to make time for certain things in life, like relationships with family and friends. However, I think you also need to have an understanding family, especially your spouse. There are some things you have to make time for in your life outside of work in order to maintain healthy relationships. Usually the time you can devote to gaming is what suffers between the requirements of work and family. However, as a game designer you do need to spend some time playing games. Basically, I think the solution is to not sleep. At least, that is the only one I’ve found. People who expect to work a 40 hour week shouldn’t even bother applying to a small company. I think it takes a certain kind of person to do game development.
If you happen to think of anything you feel would be important for me to know that I didn’t present a question for, I would [enjoy] reading it.
I think you covered a lot with your questions and I don’t really have much else to say. The one thing I’d add, is that real game development is absolutely, in no way, even remotely similar to the way it is portrayed on in movies, TV, and those foolish commercials put out by certain schools offering game programs that I am sure are worthless. The vast majority of a developer’s time is spent in programs like MS Word, Excel, 3d Studio Max, Visual Studio, and databases. Not sitting on a couch playing games.
I really hope this interview has helped you like it has me. Whether it answers questions you have had, given you a clearer goal, pushed you to strive further in anything or even helped you realize this isn’t a job you truly want, whatever your future holds, good luck.
I would like to give a huge thank you to Arthur for allowing me to post this on my blog. Crate Entertainment has proven to be a very proactive company when it comes to interaction and communication with their fans and I wish them all the best of luck on Grim Dawn and beyond.