How I Got My Start in the Game Industry

By Alistair Wallis [06.19.07]

 There's plenty of useful information out there on how to get your start in the games industry -- much of it on this very web site. There's a lot of choices out there though; a lot of possible paths you can take. Internships, placements, modding, schooling, and so on: it's a long list. Add to that the numerous unconventional ways of entering the industry and, well, it can sometimes be a bit confusing about exactly how you should go about it all.

So, sometimes it can be helpful -- or, at the very least, interesting and inspiring -- to hear first hand from industry veterans about their own experiences starting their careers. We spoke to four notable figures from the games industry to get their stories, and found that even if the exact opportunities have changed, a number of things, like the rewards for passion and determination, have not.

Philip Oliver
Philip Oliver is best known as one half of U.K. Spectrum design duo the Oliver Twins. Along with his brother Andrew, the Oliver Twins produced some of the most popular games for the system in the 1980s, and even launched their own franchise, the Dizzy series of platformers. In 1990, they set up their own business, Interactive Studios, more recently known as Blitz Games.

 Philip officially became the company's CEO in 2001, and the company has remained one of the UK's top independent developers, with exceptional sales from last year's Burger King titles, Sneak King, Big Bumpin' and Pocketbike Racer.

The brothers' introduction to computers started in 1980, playing games like Zork and Night Mission on a friend's father's Apple IIe. With Space Invaders appearing in arcades at around the same time, Oliver comments that the 12 year olds were "hooked" on video games. The Olivers' parents bought them a Binatone Pong console for Christmas the next year, but this was soon forgotten shortly after, in 1982, when their older brother bought a recently released Spectrum ZX81 and put it "under the family TV."

It wasn't long before the twins had started learning how to program their own games in the BASIC language, thanks to instructions that came with the computer. "Most were derivatives of Pong," laughs Oliver sheepishly.

Not that it mattered, though. The biggest motivator for programming their own games was simply the fact that "games cost money", and the 14 year old twins were somewhat lacking in that, though Philip does admit that there was a degree of "wanting to show off" involved as well.

Later that year, they upgraded to a Dragon 32 -- a generally unsuccessful home computer that lacked the graphical power to even be able to display lower case letters easily. While the brothers attempted to write games for it, they all turned out "very slow." Fortunately, a further upgrade the next year to a BBC Micro Model B meant that they were not only working with solid hardware, but also that they were able to play a number of inspiring titles like "Snapper, Defender, Missile Command, Scramble, Revs, Repton and, of course, [David Braben's classic space sim] Elite."

The Olivers continued their work with BASIC, pushing each other to try and make better games, often by "not letting each other go to bed."

"I think the fact that we were brothers made a massive difference," Oliver says. "We stuck at it longer, we pushed each other harder and we learned from each other."

The twins believed that by using their own "ideas and perseverance" they could "write great games". Even at that point though - staying up until all hours of the night, working on their own games, which were steadily becoming more and more proficient -- Philip never "projected ahead" for a possible career in the industry. "Industry?" he laughs. "At that point in time nobody really believed there was an industry; just a passing fad for a few nerdy hobbyists. Our view was that if we could get paid to for our hobby then we'd see how long we could avoid getting real -- dull -- jobs."

So, with that goal in mind, the duo started sending copies of their games to local publishers like Europress and QuickSilva, though this was mostly unsuccessful. Their big break actually came when they entered a game making competition held by UK kids program The Saturday Show and won first prize: "a Commodore 64 monitor." More importantly though, they gained a great deal of exposure for their efforts and their game, Strategy, was later picked up by the leading publisher at the time, Acornsoft, and was released as Gambit.

This lead to more work, starting with a regular freelance position producing games for the cover cassette on Model B Computing magazine. Oliver explains that twins got the job as a result of a phone call to someone at the magazine's publisher, Acorn User, who "didn't want to publish" their games, but thought Oliver was "worth talking to."

"He agreed to send us some free games in return for us writing reviews of them which they he subsequently published," he explains. "It seemed a great deal for school kids and lead onto lots of reviews and then [producing] lots of mini-games for Model B Computing."

Still though, neither Philip nor Andrew felt that they "were 'in the industry,'" just that they were doing a few "gigs" for "pitiful" money. "But each game was a little better than the last," Oliver says, "and we slowly learnt the skills required to make good games -- efficiently."

With their reputation beginning to develop, the twins continued to shop their games around, entering into publishing agreements with numerous companies. But it was their signing with fellow British siblings Richard and David Darling, who were in the process of setting up Codemasters, in September of 1985 that really cemented their place in the industry. Their first title for the publisher, Super Robin Hood, hit number one on the Amstrad CPC charts, and netted the duo over £10,000 in royalties. "Up until then," Oliver muses, "we were amateurs just trying to get in. After this we knew we had the skills to create games that would sell and that gave us the confidence to start thinking of game development as a career."

Super Robin Hood, a classic.

Looking at how it would be to start their career now, Oliver notes that things would be quite different. "Starting an actual business would be very tough now," he considers. "Getting a job in the industry would be much easier if you have the talent. There's more companies, with lots of vacancies and the skills required are obvious and it's easy to contact them. The internet makes finding the skills required and the companies hiring so easy."

"Trust me," he laughs, "finding the smallest bit of information back in the early eighties was so tough!"

 Dave Perry
Northern Ireland-born developer David Perry gained fame after moving to America in 1991 to head up award-winning projects like Aladdin and Cool Spot for Virgin Games. Following that, he formed his own company, Shiny Entertainment, and produced the multimillion selling title Earthworm Jim.

Perry's success with the company continued, with hits like MDK and 2003's Enter the Matrix. After leaving the company in 2006, he founded and and took up a position at Acclaim, as the director of MMOs 2Moons and DANCE!

Perry's interest in computers could have begun at the age of 13, had he not been turned away from the school computer room and politely asked to "come back in a couple of years". So, instead, it began in 1982, when he was 15. "The computers were all black and white: Acorn Atom, Sinclair ZX80, and ZX81," he explains. "The games the guys were playing were generally character-based. No, I don't mean like a knight or warrior; I mean like the letter ‘A' versus the letter ‘Z.' The games back then were really, really simple. Usually you controlled a blob and try to avoid hitting other blobs. Advanced games tended to be Breakout and things like that."

"Luckily for me," he says, "these people were friendly and actually showed me how program in BASIC, and I was hooked. 10 PRINT "HELLO" 20 GOTO 10: This kind of stuff made it feel really easy to get into."

Perry's own obsession was with Cosmos, a game for the Research Machines 380Z. Using his newfound programming knowledge, Perry began working on converting the game to the Sinclair Spectrum. "It was essentially a space adventure game where you use scanners to find enemies, and then hunt them down. Then when you found them there was a very simple targeting mini-game. My memory is horrible after 20 plus years," he laughs. "I wish I could see this game again."

 Later that year, Perry decided to send his work on Cosmos, and a number of other games, to National ZX Users Club magazine, and was paid £450 for his efforts. It was at this point, he says, that he realized working with games "could actually become a job." After meeting the magazine's publisher, Tim Hartnell, Perry asked if he could contribute a chapter to one of the books that Hartnell was working on at the time -- the appropriately named Tim Hartnell's Giant Book of Spectrum Games. His work ended up being well enough received that he was later asked to write a book of his own, and the 32 page Astounding Arcade Games for Your Spectrum+ & Spectrum went on sale in 1985 for £1.25.

Perry recalls that it was difficult to find games in U.K. stores at that point, a major reason that the book market was so profitable. "The bigger [games] got, the more difficult it was to type them all in correctly," he grins. "When I started, I couldn't even afford a tape recorder. Think about that: I would type in a flight simulator -- many, many hours -- and then play it for a while, not be able to save the data anywhere and have to just reset the computer and start typing something else. I didn't even have a printer, so I would set a typewriter beside my computer and type onto paper everything that was on the screen. Damn, I had patience back then! It wouldn't have made a bit of difference if I didn't get published, if anything it was the challenge that drove me."

"One trick I've learned over the years about games is that the good ones challenge you at the level you want to be challenged at, not by your choice, but by design," he adds. "Learning to program works the same way, you try things as difficult as you can handle, so when it works, there's an incredible sense of accomplishment."

The continuing rise of the book market not only helped Perry get his work out there, but also helped him continue learning about programming. Tools like the Artic Assembly Language compiler began to appear as well, which he notes helped him learn even faster. "To be honest, I'm really jealous of all the information that's out there today, on the Internet for free," he says ruefully. "In those days, I'd have three books total and they would be dog-eared, I'd have read them so many times."

Perry's first foray into developing retail games was when he sent off a BASIC game named DrakMaze to British publisher MikroGen. While the deal fell through, Perry ended up meeting the company's managing director, Mike Meek, at a trade show in London soon after. Meek was looking to put together a development team, and offered Perry a job. "It was a horribly paid job at [the equivalent of] $3,500 a year plus a company car, but it was still very tempting," he says. Though it involved not only leaving his school, but also moving across to England, he decided to take it.

"When I got there, the company car turned out to be a really, really old beaten-up van that had to be shared by the whole team!" he laughs. "But still, my career skyrocketed when I got into a room with people way more talented than myself. My programming was very, well, ‘by-the-book' meaning I didn't know all the tricks used to make real games. Luckily I was handed high-quality source code to start with it was like a bio-tech scientist getting to see what DNA looks like for the first time. It really made me feel like I had just been given the keys to the car, and finally I could get in and drive. I had a lot of catching up to do! I tried to keep my head down so I could absorb as much as possible before they kicked me out the door."

Perry's work turned out well though, with his first game for the company -- a conversion of Pyjamarama for the Amstrad CPC -- receiving glowing reviews, including a 10 out of 10 from one magazine. "I can't tell you how addictive that is," he grins. "Oh, and they let me stay!"

Though Perry's relationship with MikroGen ended after a year or two, he continued to work successfully in London with companies like Elite Systems and Probe Software. "It was fantastic," he enthuses. "Being in London I got to meet the press, attend all the shows, work on my English accent and go and meet Sir Clive Sinclair himself. For me that was like meeting Muhammad Ali. All the action was in England and I even got to meet my idols, people like Peter Molyneux and David Braben."

At the end of the decade, Perry found himself in an enviable position: "I was single, I owned a house, and I was very comfortable," he says. This was soon interrupted, though, when he was offered a job with Virgin Games in the U.S. "The offer I got was, ‘Come to America, we will cover all your costs, get you an apartment, a car and pay you royalties.' I went to my old boss and said, ‘Will you pay me royalties?' He said, ‘Hell no', so the decision was made."

"Things just tended to unfold," he muses. "I generally knew what interested me and what didn't. So when I was asked to stay somewhere I didn't want to be, I would have no issue with leaving. That stopped me getting stuck in a wash-rinse-repeat cycle. As you move around, you learn a lot from different companies and how they work. I'm not suggesting people quit their jobs, but if you are stuck in a rut and you have an offer from somewhere else -- especially in another country -- and if you are young and single, then what the heck? Never think of this as a job: it's a career. Make every decision based on your career. That's what has worked for me."

"Does everything always go to plan? Almost never, but that shouldn't make you throw the towel in," he adds. "I have a rule that you can make as many mistakes as you like, as long as you learn from them and do your best to never repeat them."

His first title produced in America was Global Gladiators, a Genesis title based on McDonald's characters that ended up winning numerous Game of the Year awards and was quickly followed up by the 7-Up license Cool Spot. "Once I was in America, I was in full stride; I was programming and actually owned my own game engine," he explains. "That was a pretty potent combo. It's funny but back then it was like I owned the Unreal Engine! I could make any game really fast and it rapidly produced Aladdin, Cool Spot, Global Gladiators and Earthworm Jim. So I had struck gold by building a technology base I knew inside out. I also had a support programmer called Andy Astor, and he made tools that sped up the entire pipeline. That combo made this a really fun and dynamic time."

A cosmic quest.

Perry notes that, as far as he knows, he is still "the only programmer from Northern Ireland, or all of Ireland for that matter" to have produced number one games. "I don't think for a second if I'd just stayed there and just kept reading my three books that I could have pulled that off," he says. "Interestingly the colleges there are now teaching how to develop games -- I've even gone over to help out last November -- so I'm starting to think that 20 plus years later there is actually the avenue now to really start a major video game career there. I met some great students who pitched me some really cool ideas."

These days, he believes, the industry makes it "much easier" for new entrants to find work. "There's a bazillion jobs out there," he grins. "Yes, many require experience, but talent is more valuable than experience, so it's actually more a creative challenge to find a way to demonstrate your talent to the right guy."

Derek Proud
Australian Derek Proud is a more recent entrant to the industry. After working with Electronic Arts in Europe on titles like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Proud has gone on to work as executive producer for both titles in THQ's successful Destroy All Humans! series.

Proud's interest in games developed back in the early ‘80s, when his family bought an Atari 2600 -- complete with "those awful controllers," which Proud announces ripped his "hands to shreds". His next few gaming experiences were much kinder on his limbs, though; he comments on a love of "epic games" for PC and Apple II like Tiapan and late 80's Dungeons & Dragons title Pool of Radiance. "After the hand shredding incident with the Atari, the consoles did not make another appearance in our household until the 16 bit days of the Mega Drive," he says, "but even then I was still a PC centric gamer."

In the early 1990s, Proud managed to get a job with Sega of Australia working on the company's hotline through a friend. The job was far from straightforward, though Proud notes it was definitely not restricted to one field. "We were dabbling in all sorts of activities," he explains, "from customer service, to expanding the fan base, to burning ROMs for testing and writing walkthroughs, and dealing with magazines and the press. It was a great time, but there was not a lot of structure. It really helped me form a good set of skills for working in the industry, and being very adaptable for the changing environment."

This time you get to be the alien.

The public relations work associated with the position suited Proud well - he was studying marketing at a vocational TAFE institute at the same time. After the hotline manager moved on, Proud took over his position, which allowed him "a little more exposure to the workings of the company and the industry as a whole". This was followed soon after by a move in to marketing in an official capacity. He puts this quick rise down to the relative youth of the Australian industry at the time, noting that "the conventional rules did not really apply, and as long as you showed enthusiasm and talent in an area you could claim it".

After working in marketing for a number of years, Proud received his first game credit on Shane Warne Cricket '99, known in other parts of the world as Brian Lara Cricket '99, which he comments gave him his "first insight into working in development".

"I was hooked," he grins.

Like Perry, Proud's work has seen him move overseas a number of times in order to capitalize on opportunities -- like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets -- though he adds that he still considers Australia his home, and continues to return after each project. "For me, the greatest thing is seeing someone play a game I worked on," he muses. "Even seeing someone buying it is a great feeling. It's worth all the late nights, frustration, arguments and hair loss. I try to think of that end consumer whenever I'm working on a game to remind me why I'm doing it."

While he notes that methods of getting into the industry are a lot different, he believes that "enthusiasm and passion for games" still count for a lot. "With the industry so large now," he says, "you also need to play to your strengths. The industry needs people in art, programming, promotion, music, marketing, team management, design, testing, business development, and many other areas. Not necessarily are all these areas considered ‘game development' but they all play important parts in bringing a game to market."

"I think it's more difficult," Proud continues, "but there are also more opportunities. Find what you are good at, and then hone your skills in that area, and get out there and be enthused about what you do."

 Greg LoPiccolo
As vice president of product development with Harmonix Music Systems, Greg LoPiccolo has played an instrumental part in the success of PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 hit series Guitar Hero -- no pun intended. The first instalment in the franchise launched in 2005, and followed releases from the company like rhythm games Frequency and Amplitude, and 2004's EyeToy title AntiGrav.

LoPiccolo's interest in games didn't start until the relatively late age of 32 -- for the most part, he was more focused on his career in Boston rock band Tribe. It wasn't until 1993 that he was exposed to the industry by a friend who worked as a programmer for LookingGlass Studios, which had just released Ultima Underworld II. The company was about to start work on System Shock, and LoPiccolo was asked to contribute to the game as a composer. "So I got a contract job writing the System Shock score," he explains, "which expanded into doing all the sound effects and speech recording. That was the beginning of my involvement in the games industry. I didn't really play much before that; I got involved in games by working on them."

The first person shooter was released in 1994; an event shortly followed by the dissolution of Tribe. "My band was together for about nine years," he explains, "and we had some good success: we made a couple albums for Slash/Warner Brothers, and we got to tour a fair bit. But after that amount of time, I didn't have any illusions about our prospects for stardom; not many bands break through to fame and profitability. I was sad to leave it behind, because it was a lot of fun. But bands have their own life cycle, and our band had run its course."

 LoPiccolo decided to approach LookingGlass about a full time position as composer and sound designer, and was offered one immediately. "It was pretty simple," he laughs. "The day after my band broke up in 1994, I walked into [company co-founder] Ned Lerner's office at LookingGlass and said, ‘You need a full-time music and audio developer. Why don't you hire me?' He responded, ‘You can start tomorrow'. And that was that."

LoPiccolo describes the move into game development as a move into relative stability, noting that "show up at the same place every day, and have health insurance and the other perks of a steady job" was something of a relief after years in the music industry - though he adds that he did, and still does, miss playing live. Nonetheless, the new career path offered a number of interesting and exciting opportunities, especially with the industry focus beginning to shift quite seriously to CD-ROM development. LoPiccolo comments that there was a "powerful sense" that the company was "creating game experiences that were new and revolutionary", and the ability to work with speech, multi-channel effects was a big part of that. "Since we were figuring out how to do many things for the first time, we had a lot of freedom to approach problems however we chose," he says.

As the company grew, LoPiccolo was able to step into roles of growing responsibility, and soon found himself working in the role of project leader on the company's 1998 title Thief when the previous person to hold that position, Dan Schmidt, left to found a new company: Harmonix. LoPiccolo notes that he "pretty much learned on the job" in his new position, though he adds that it was also the first time that he really felt he had really found his feet in the industry.

Guitar Hero

"I think that working on Thief made the difference for me," he comments. "It was a very long, difficult, and perilous development process, and when we actually shipped a good game at the end of it, I felt like I knew something about game development."

As for whether it's easier to find work in the industry these days, LoPiccolo is not entirely convinced. "I don't know," he muses. "There are certainly a lot more jobs in the game industry now. I think that anyone who is talented and determined has a good shot at finding a role to play. The fact that you can hone your skills making mods and whatnot is a big boost for anyone with enough motivation to get involved in the community and build something."

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