You Have to Start Somewhere: Developer Origin Stories
They have been movers and shakers in the growing videogame industry for more than 10 years. They have worked on some of the most groundbreaking titles, and been at the cutting edge of the industry. But how did they get their start?
In 1980, when I was 12 or so, I begged my dad to buy an Apple II "for the family." After he gave in to my incessant whining, I immediately appropriated the shiny new computer and began trying to make my own game. I had no clue what I was doing. I think I learned enough to get a character walking across the screen.
After graduating college in 1990 I ended up as the financial controller for my uncle's startup medical company. It was a fantastic gig and I learned a lot about venture capital, finance and corporate life in general. Yet in 1993, I suddenly came to the realization that I didn't want to be in medicine or finance as a career. And I ended up starting Insomniac, incorporating in early 1994. Despite having almost zero experience doing anything involving game creation, I figured it would be easy. Heck, I graduated from college, right? I could figure this one out.
Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that I still didn't know what I was doing. Fortunately, in the summer of 1994 I was extremely lucky to run into two brilliant programmers who also happened to be brothers: Alex and Brian Hastings. They came aboard as partners and we never looked back.
Founder/Creative Director, Big Huge Games
I was in graduate school at Berkeley studying philosophy, but I wasn't enjoying the program there and didn't think it was going to work out. I was playing a lot of games at the time (Ultima VI, Populous and Wing Commander spring to mind, as well as Microprose's F-19 Stealth Fighter and M1 Tank Platoon), and I got to thinking that I knew a lot of computer stuff. All my summer jobs were programming graphics for defense contractors. I put together a little demo to show that I could do graphics programming work at the standard of the industry. I sent it as my "electronic resume" to my three top choices, Origin, Microprose and Sierra. Microprose called surprisingly quickly and flew me out a couple weeks later.
Origin had been my first choice because I loved Ultima so much. About one month after I'd started at Microprose, I got a call at home from Richard Garriott offering me a job based on my original resume! It just about killed me to turn him down, but it didn't feel right to leave a job I'd just started. This made a great story with Richard, when many years later I met him as a successful entrepreneur in my own right.
Creative Director, DICE
I had around 10 years of working experience in a wide variety of businesses, but had always been drawing. I had a group of friends in a blues band that constantly pushed me to quit working and "be an artist," but I wanted to work, in the movie or games industry. I applied for jobs all over the world. Meanwhile I kept my job, and was getting more and more miserable since I was close, time after time, but never managed to get a position. Suddenly, one day my best friend called me and asked whether I had seen this ad for a position at a company called Refraction Games, located in the heart of Stockholm. It was a dream come true, and I must say that it was all luck. I still remember that first day walking through the streets of Stockholm on my way to my new job. I can remember the sunshine, the sound of a city waking up and the feeling that this would change my life. And I was right.
President, Valve Software
When I was at Microsoft, I got tired of the bad rap that Windows had among the game community. I was also surprised at how little people inside the company knew about PC gaming. When DOOM came out, it seemed like a great opportunity to show that a cutting-edge PC game could actually run on top of Windows. Michael Abrash had left Microsoft to go to id Software to work on Quake, which helped facilitate the discussion with id. That conversation eventually morphed into "Why don't Gabe and Mike [Harrington] leave Microsoft and start up a games company building on the Quake tech?"
Director of Creative Development, Firaxis Games
Bill Stealey (my partner in Microprose) and I were working at General Instruments together in the early 1980s. He was in sales and I was a programmer. We happened to attend a conference together, and during one of the breaks we were playing a flight sim arcade game. Bill is a former fighter pilot, and was really frustrated because I kept beating him at the game. He asked how I was able to win. I told him I could anticipate what the AI was going to do, and that I thought I could make a better game in a couple of months. He challenged me to do it (which I did), and soon after that we decided to start Microprose. In the early days of the company, I would make the games, put them on floppies, zip them into plastic baggies, and Bill would drive a carload of them up and down the East Coast, stopping at every electronics store to try and sell them. From there we built a pretty good company.
CEO/Creative Director, Gas Powered Games
I had a job bending a plastic sewer pipe. One day I got so frustrated at the foreman, I resigned. I opened up the classifieds, because I knew I didn't have enough education for a "career job," and found the tiniest little ad that said it was looking for someone who knew how to program C and assembly language. I knew assembly language, but had no formal training, and spent most of my time working on a program to edit 3-D wireframe models. When I told the interviewer (who was a recruiter at a company in Vancouver called Corporate Recruiters), she told me that I was exactly the kind of person they were looking for. I can't remember what I had for breakfast, but I remember every detail from that incredible moment in my life. That was 21 years ago.
President, Gearbox Software
I had been fairly prolific in the budding online community -- amateur work that helped me develop a bit of a reputation in those circles. I spent a lot of time on CompuServe and other networks, and I ended up playing a lot of online games with George Broussard and Steven Blackburn. We linked up at the first E3. That night, I went home and rebuilt a virtual replica of the club in the Build engine. I brought it to E3 the next day and loaded it up, and it impressed everyone. A few months later, I let the 3D Realms guys know I was looking to start a career in game-making, and they offered me a job. From a pure dollars point-of-view, it wasn't the best offer I got, but the combination of being able to work with those guys and the possibility of profit sharing that they offered made it a strong match, so I took the leap.
General Manager/CEO, BioWare
General Manager/Vice President, EA
Vice President, Entertainment/Miscellaneous, BioWare
Ray: It's fair to say that we didn't really know much of anything about the business of games (or business, for that matter) when we started BioWare back in 1992-93 (incorporating formally in 1995). Rather, we were and are passionate fans of videogames, so we set out -- rather naively in retrospect -- to make a great games company. We succeeded in this goal entirely thanks to the great people who joined us all those years ago and since. As it turns out, working as medical doctors was probably less work than starting and running BioWare.
We started in Greg's basement, and decided to move to a real office once I (a fairly tall fellow) knocked myself out on the low ceiling one too many times (once is enough when it comes to concussions, I like to say).
Greg: We also did some designing, programming, animating and writing on those early games before 1998. Of course, we weren't nearly as talented as the people we subsequently hired, but back that long ago you could potentially learn an area afresh and produce actual content. An interesting comparison is that the new iPhone and Flash development experiences aren't significantly different than how things were when we started.
President/Creative Director, 2K Boston
I didn't know anybody. I applied for a job from the back of Next Gen magazine. I caught a huge break, plain and simple. It would spit in the eye of the fates to claim anything else. I think they hired me (at Looking Glass) because I had worked as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. This was during the mid-90s when all the FMV games were around. Maybe they figured I knew some people in Hollywood. I didn't.
For more from these developers, read their advice on getting into the game industry in the Crispy blog.