DigiPen graduate Elliot Davis has an interesting metaphor to describe the path he's taken in life. As a game developer working and living in Japan, Davis says he’s like a salmon that has journeyed back from the ocean to the place it was born.
“I grew up playing the original Nintendo, and most of the games that I played were made in Japan,” Davis says. “So to be able to be a part of the game industry that specifically created the games that had a large influence on me, and made me want to create games, is very rewarding.”
Specifically, Davis works at video game studio tri-Ace — developers of the Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, and other series of role-playing games — as part of its research and development team. Davis programs the graphics engine that powers and enables the studio’s stellar-looking titles.
But Davis's great opportunity didn’t fall out of the sky, nor did it happen overnight. In fact, his first foray into game development turned out to be a crash course in the harsh realities of the game industry. After graduating from DigiPen’s Bachelor of Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation program in 2005, Davis quickly landed a job at California-based studio Concrete Games. Unfortunately, that studio’s project was cancelled before it was even announced, and THQ, Concrete Games' parent company, made the decision to disband the company shortly after.
Davis was disheartened. “Everybody in the studio had invested multiple years with their time, energy, passion,” he says. “So it’s natural to be disappointed when your hard work doesn’t see the light of day.”
Davis fared somewhat better at his next job. He joined another subsidiary of THQ, Incinerator Studios, and worked as a programmer on two projects, a SpongeBob SquarePants game and Cars: Race-O-Rama. By the time the latter game was released, however, Incinerator had parted ways with THQ. As a cost-cutting measure, the studio laid off almost the entire Race-O-Rama development team.
This time, Davis had a plan. While working at Incinerator, Davis had finished approximately four college semester’s worth of Japanese language classes. He also had taken a three-week trip to Japan, all with the intention of eventually pursuing employment at a Japanese studio. After wrapping up his most recent project and receiving a severance package from Incinerator, Davis decided to make the move. He arrived in Japan, rather auspiciously, on New Year’s Eve 2009.
Although his initial goal was to enroll at a language school and become fluent in Japanese, Davis started sending out his resume and cover letters in Japanese to companies that didn’t require fluency. After only three months of study, he landed a job at tri-Ace in Tokyo.
“I really tried to use Japanese as much as possible with my coworkers, and people saw that I was making a legitimate effort and were very warm and welcoming because of that,” Davis says. “I also started a board game club at my company that meets once a month, and so that’s a great opportunity for people from different teams to socialize.”
Although he isn’t working directly on game projects, something he thought he wanted to do upon graduating from DigiPen, Davis says his perspective has changed for the better. By improving the core technology behind the games themselves, the game teams are able to make a better quality product within their allotted budgets and production schedules.
“The work I was doing at tri-Ace originally, part of that was focused on making the tools easier to use for the artists and to improve their efficiency,” Davis says. “And I’ve seen an impact with that.”
Outside of work, Davis rehearses and performs with the Tokyo International Players, an all-volunteer English-language theater troupe. A resident of the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo, a cultural and tourism hotbed, Davis also enjoys what he describes as the many “extremes” of Japan, such as the creative and diverse fashion sense his neighbors display. And, of course, Davis says he still enjoys playing video games, including those by tri-Ace.
As someone who attributes his creative impulses to the likes of Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy, working in the Japanese game industry is not only a chance to return to his roots; it’s an opportunity to inspire others.
“It’s a fulfillment of a lifelong dream of mine,” Davis says. “I’m returning to my source.”
Arisa Scott took an unusual path from academia to industry after she graduated from DigiPen's Bachelor of Fine Arts program in 2011. While many of her colleagues were seeking work as modelers and animators for video game companies, she was interning as a Producer at an e-commerce start-up. But that job was only the latest stop on a path that she began two years earlier.
"The fall of my junior year I was the art director on a game team, so I was managing a group of artists," Scott says. "And I realized that I had a natural inclination to want to deal with organizational things." Instead of polishing character models in 3ds Max, Scott found herself poring over spreadsheets in Excel and acting as the liason between the team's programmers and her artists. It wasn't long before her planning and organizational skills became indispensable to the group. "It was funny seeing this surprise and enjoyment that artists got out of me organizing things," Scott says. "They were like, 'That's magical!'"
The following semester, Scott stepped in as art director on another game team, this team for a group of Master of Science in Computer Science students. "I recruited five artists for them and set up a kind of art asset pipeline for them and did some concept work too," Scott says. By the end of her junior year, she had worked on two game teams while completing a full course load. But more importantly, she had a new goal: she wanted to be a producer.
"It was sort of a new thought for me," Scott says. "At DigiPen I had only ever seen producers who were RTIS students. So I asked [Game instructor] Rachel Rutherford, 'Can an artist be a producer?'" In Scott's case, the answer was an emphatic "yes."
During her senior year, Scott did everything she could to build her production experience. "I worked on two different game teams, and I was managing about 10 artists at a time and consulting for a bunch of other teams," she says. "Working mostly with artists and working with devs and 3D pipelines ... it was way too much fun not to keep doing that."
By the time she finished her senior year, she was creating art assets just to fill in the gaps - most of her time was spent focusing on the other artists, their tools, and how they worked with the rest of the team. "Transitioning from just doing the art to doing the production was freeing, and it felt like these were the things that I'm actually legitimately passionate about," she says.
When it came time to start applying for jobs, Scott already had a solid portfolio and a clear idea of what she wanted. "When I was looking around for jobs, there were a lot of Associate Producer jobs that were very much like 'be someone's assistant,'" she says. Then, through a colleague at her internship, she found out about an opening at Bellevue-based Expedia as a Program Manager. "It was much more 'take ownership of this and run with this program.'" It was a perfect fit. "I started working for Expedia at the end of October ," Scott says, "and I love it."
The way Scott describe what she does today doesn't sound all that different from the work she did for her DigiPen game teams. "It's problem solving," she says. "A lot of it is people problem solving, and some of it is technology problem solving. It's not games, but it's untangling different communication issues and making sure different teams know about each other's issues - it's all kind of the same."
It's not exactly what she expected to be doing with her degree, but she couldn't be happier. "Coming into DigiPen, I knew I wanted to work on games, and I wanted to do art," Scott says. "And my sophomore year I was thinking about cinematics, actually, because I really liked the film classes and I really liked modeling. But I haven't been doing that stuff so much lately." Instead, she's doing what she does best: working with people and technology to solve problems.
For many DigiPen students, getting a job at a game company is the ultimate goal of their education. After four years of hard work and too many sleepless nights to count, students who find employment in the game industry can look forward to being part of a creative team whose projects may one day be enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of players. But Will Perone, a 2004 graduate of the RTIS program, realized early on in his career that it wasn't enough to work at game companies: He wanted to start them.
From an early age, Perone knew that he wanted to work in the game industry. "I started programming games way back in 1992 when I was 11," he says. "I was playing Atari and NES games, and I was like 'I want to make these!' But everybody thought I was crazy, like 'There's no career in that. I don't know anybody that makes games! Just some crazy Japanese people somewhere.'"
Thankfully, Perone persisted. "I just kept doing it," he says. "In '95 I taught myself C. Then in '97 I taught myself assembly. And in '99 I went off to college."
Perone began his studies at what he calls "your standard university – I was just like 'I'll get a CS degree!' because I didn't think the a place like DigiPen existed." Then, midway through his freshman year, he heard about DigiPen through a forum post. "I checked it out, and I was like, 'Oh my God, this is exactly what I want to do. What am I doing wasting my time at this other college?' So I applied to DigiPen and got in."
The difference was night and day. "I thought college was difficult when I went to it," Perone says, "but then I went to DigiPen and it was like, 'Wow, college is actually trivial.'" But along with the increase in difficulty, Perone discovered new opportunities for growth. "It was just way, way, way more difficult than going to normal college, but you get so much more out of it if you actually apply yourself, and I really thrived in that kind of challenging environment."
While Perone had plenty of experience with game development, there was one technique that continued to elude him: "I could never wrap my mind around how to make a 3D game," he says. "I made plenty of 2D side-scrollers, top-down RPGs, space shooters - all kinds of different games - but I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to do the math for a 3D game." Not surprisingly, he found his coursework in 3D graphics the most valuable during his time at DigiPen. "Coming out of the RTIS program and understanding the whole background and actually being able to do it put me way ahead of all of my colleagues starting out from scratch."
Perone's first job after graduating was at San Francisco-based Glu Mobile, where he quickly made a name for himself as a highly capable software engineer. "I came into Glu Mobile in '05, and I pitched to them the idea of making a 3D cell phone game," he says. "We had gotten the IP for Deerhunter, and I was able to not only propose and design out this 3D game where you walk through the world and hunt deer, but actually make it, on a cell phone, in 2005."
A couple years later, Perone left Glu to join his first start-up, a 3D social network/geo-location service called Loopt. "I was one of their first employees," Perone says, "so since I was one of their first employees, I wrote a lot of the code for their service." But while he wasn't creating the technology behind Loopt, Perone was learning everything he could about how to form a company. And in 2008, he got to put that knowledge into practice by starting his first company, an online gaming portal called Andrograde.
Since then, Perone has helped start a number of Silicon Valley-based gaming companies, including RubyCoins (acquired by PayPal), Funzio (acquired by Gree), and KIXEYE. And as the list of companies he's founded has grown, so has Perone himself. "Originally, I became an entrepreneur because I just didn't want to work for somebody else," he says. "I just wanted to make a game that I could call my own and not have to report to anybody. But over time you come to realize that there's a lot of other factors about being an entrepreneur that are really appealing. It's exciting being able to have an open-ended career where you choose it for yourself rather than have a certain set path. When you're an entrepreneur, everything is open to you."
Perone is quick to emphasize that the path he's taken is not for everyone. "If you are really motivated, really dedicated and passionate about something, and also willing to work your ass off and get very stressed out and not sleep, at the potential gain of becoming rich and famous, then starting a company is for you," he says. "But if you want more stability in your life - if you want to grow and be successful over time, then working at a company is the way to go."
And for future DigiPen graduates who decide to go the "employee" route, Perone has one last piece of advice: relax. Believe it or not, he says, "working at a job was way easier than going to DigiPen!"
If you had asked Scott Clary in 2007 if his five-year plan involved shipping off to distant island nations to pursue a career in game development, he probably would have looked at you like you were crazy. A graduate of DigiPen's Associate of Applied Arts in 3D Computer Animation degree that year, Clary was eager to break into the game industry, but he imagined that meant joining up with one of Seattle's homegrown studios. He was right - for a couple years, anyway.
Clary's first job after graduating was as a 3D modeler at Sony Online Entertainment's Seattle office. The developer discovered him at DigiPen's Career Day while they were scouting for artists with rigging experience. "If I didn't get that job at Sony - if the art director wasn't walking around our Career Fair that day - I may never have gotten noticed," Clary says.
He started out with simpler tasks like character skin weighting before he discovered his true calling: building tools to help other artists manage their workflow.
"I was talking with one of the technical artists at SOE," Clary says, "and I was telling him how I was always better at rigging, and he asked me 'Have you ever thought about coding or scripting?' I said I had, but I don't know where to start. And later that day, he sent me an email saying 'I need somebody to write this script for me.' It was something that I now know he could have written in two seconds, but he ended up taking the whole day showing me how to do it."
Over the course of Clary's two years at SOE, he gradually transitioned into more of a technical role within his team. "I kept writing more tools, and then people started coming to me with requests, so I kind of worked myself in that direction - writing tools, speeding up my pipelines and helping out other people's, and then I ended up becoming a go-to guy for general Maya problems. That's how I became a tech artist."
As his project at SOE wound down, Clary began looking for another full-time position as a technical artist. A friend alerted him to an opening at CCP, an Icelandic studio with offices in Atlanta. "I applied, and then the art manager for all of CCP's studios contacted me and said 'We're interested, but the position available is in Reykjavik, Iceland, not Atlanta.' I thought 'How many opportunities am I going to get to go to another country?' So I took the job."
Clary joined the team of developers working on EVE Online, an online multiplayer spacefaring game. "We were working on the expansion to add characters to EVE," he says. "I was a tech artist on the character team. And it was great, because my job wasn't 'skinner,' my job was to write tools. I was working under some brilliant guys."
Clary says his proudest achievement at CCP was shipping a new, fully-3D version of EVE Online's character creation system. "We completely redid the character creator,” he says. “You can't play an MMO that has better looking characters with as much customization options that are as intuitive to use. It's really cool. And I'm pretty happy I got to be a part of it."
Unfortunately, while EVE players embraced the new character creator, other changes to the game were less popular. Eventually, in late 2011, the company decided to cut their losses by reverting to an earlier version of EVE – and cutting 20 percent of its workforce. Clary’s team was among those on the chopping block.
That left him at a crossroads: would he head back home to Seattle, or head off to new shores? "My thought when I got laid off was 'if I can find a job somewhere else in the world, I'll probably take it,' because I don't have anything tying my down,” he says. He began applying for jobs all over Europe: in Sweden, Amsterdam, the U.K., and Germany. This time, however, the job found him.
"Not long after I got laid off, one of my friends who left CCP a year ago to start his own company,” Clary says. “He told me that they had found funding and decided to open a studio in Malta." And fortunately for Clary, the studio, named TRC Family Entertainment, was in need of a Lead Technical Artist. Clary jumped at the opportunity and moved to Malta in February of 2012 to begin working at the studio.
For Clary, it was a no-brainer. “I knew that if I come back home to the States, I'd probably never leave again,” Clary says. “I’m sure I’ll eventually end going back up back in Seattle because it's like home to me … but I felt like I could keep adventuring for a little bit longer."
RTIS graduates Tejeev Kohli, Brett English, Pongthep “Bank” Charnchaichujit, and Ted Rivera had a "wish list" for their time at DigiPen: "Make a sweet game, win at IGF, and get hired by Valve," in English's words. For most student developers, accomplishing one of those items would be a tremendous achievement – but these DigiPen all-stars managed to hit all three.
It all started at DigiPen's annual Career Day, where students present their projects to visiting game developers. The team already had their "sweet game," a 3D platformer called Tag: The Power of Paint in which players travel through an urban landscape by "tagging" surfaces with magical paint, and they were demoing it to recruiters. That's where they ran into Robin Walk from Bellevue-based Valve Software. "He played the whole game, and while he played it he kept asking us questions about our process and how we worked on the game," Kohli says. "It was essentially an interview with us, but a very informal one."
A month later, the team flew down to San Francisco for the Independent Games Festival, where they checked the second item off their list: Tag won the honor of Best Game in the festival's Student Showcase. "That's when the Valve guys got back to us and said, 'Hey, do you guys want to work at Valve?'" Kohli says. They didn't need to be asked twice.
The team's first project at Valve was an unusual one. "It was just the four of us in our own office, and we were told, 'Make Tag in the Source Engine,'" says Kohli. (The Source Engine is Valve's proprietary game development framework.) "So we essentially re-wrote all the stuff from Tag – the painting and the paint gun – and made a few levels so that people in the company could try it and then assess what to do with the technology."
Around the same time they finished their tech demo, the "paint guys," as they came to be known within the company, found a new opportunity: playtesting Portal 2, the sequel to Valve's 2007 blockbuster that was itself based on the work of a DigiPen game team. "At that point, which was maybe two months into our jobs, we were deciding what to do with the paint technology," Kohli says. "We had a bunch of options, and one of them was 'let's incorporate this into Portal.'"
The transition wasn't completely smooth. "It took a little while for us to convince the Portal team that it was worth experimenting with," says Rivera. And even after they found allies willing to take up their cause, they discovered certain elements of Tag simply didn't translate into their new setting. "The feedback we got was that adding a second gun to Portal would complicate things a bit too much," Kohli says. Likewise, Tag's "stick paint," which allowed players to walk on walls and ceilings, was deemed too disorienting for the game's already complex puzzles.
But it wasn't long before the entire Portal 2 team was coming up with their own ideas for how to incorporate the Tag team's paint technology into their game. "That's when it really cemented itself as a core part of Portal 2," Kohli says.
At that point, Kohli, English, Charnchaichujit, and Rivera were assigned to separate teams within the greater Portal 2 group. Charnchaichujit jumped into the main programming team towork on the game's core features. English helped write code for a redesigned camera that was more intuitive for players. And all four of the "paint guys" helped design new and unique obstacles for players to overcome.
They couldn't be happier with how things turned out. "The first few months there, we were very much on our own, and that was scary," says Kohli. "We took it as a 'sink or swim' situation – being thrown into the deep end." But by trusting in their abilities and working as a team, they didn't just finish their checklist - they helped create one of the best games of 2011.