For those that missed it, Joe recently wrote a blog post for Gamasutra talking about why he decided to go indie and form Roxlou Games. In a section titled “Why I Make Games” Joe talked about growing up as an “odd” kid, and talked about wanting to connect in some way with those that shared that common experience.
The reaction to the post was wonderful, and one result was a slew of emails to Joe and Lee from both aspiring game developers and high-school age kids asking for advice. In honor of Thanksgiving here in the US, over the next few days we’ve decided to post our responses to some of these emails in the hopes that others might find them useful.
Disclaimer: these responses were crafted shortly before the “send” button was punched. They don’t show the careful editing, pruning, and filtering that an article or blog post normally receives, but we felt it better to present them in the raw form they originally went out in.
Email #1: The Straight and Narrow
This email was from a 17 year old game maker that was feeling isolated and frustrated in school. He was already eating, drinking, and breathing game development, but couldn’t see how his studies matched up with where he wanted to go in life. We respect his privacy and won’t publish his original email here, but a short, heartfelt quote probably wouldn’t be indiscreet. He asked us “…what I should do with myself? Why [should I] care about getting a college education instead of taking the minimalist route, and how should I pursue my actual passions?”
This is Joe, and thanks for writing to me. I’m glad the post spoke to you on whatever level that it did, and I’m more than happy to give you what advice I can.
Of course I can’t know your situation completely, and being a kid into games (or other creative stuff) today is probably different than it was when I was your age, but a lot of what you’re saying sounds pretty familiar. Stop me if I’m off-base, but I’ll bet some of the following sounds familiar to you too. Maybe you’re being told that “failing” (getting a 75 on a test, not getting out and going on dates, etc), at any point means you’ll miss entry to the next step in the chain. They say, “you’re not in the gifted and talented program in Kindergarten? Forget getting into advanced math in elementary school, AP math in high school, and any class at all in college. Miss a homework assignment and be prepared to pump gas the rest of your life.” You might also be told that you’re a bright kid, but that you’re failing to live up to your potential, and that your talents mean you have a responsibility to do better. However, your classes don’t seem important to you, don’t seem relevant to what you find interesting, and you feel really strongly that you already know what you want to do with your life. You feel like you’re fighting all the time with people that don’t understand you, seem to be disappointed in you, and can’t give you want you want. And you want things really, really badly.
If any of that is you, it might help to hear about how things went for me. I remember being in a parent teacher conference with my math teacher, my parents hearing about how I was getting a “D” in Trig, and the teacher asking me what I wanted to do with my life. I said, “I want to make games.” He said, “well if you don’t do better here that’s not going to happen.” He was especially frustrated because the reason I’d done so badly in his class was because I’d spent all his periods programming a tank game for my graphing calculator.
There are a lot of people that will tell you that life is a straight line, and that this is what you have to do to walk it, and if you fall off at any time your life is wasted. The people that are telling you this really believe it too, and they’re getting after you so much because they care about you intensely. The thing is, they don’t really “get” you, so they don’t see the real problem: that you don’t see how things in life are connected to what you think is valuable, and you know that the straight line they’re selling you doesn’t make sense. I won’t lie to you, this makes things hard. Before I got married my mom was probably the person who loved me more than anyone else, and in highschool I hated her a lot. I mean, I loved her, but I hated her too. The more she loved me the harder she pushed, the problem is I knew she was pushing in the wrong direction.
Here’s the deal: life isn’t a straight line. If you fail a class it doesn’t mean your future is written in stone now. Are you shy now and having trouble getting out there and meeting people? If so, that’s not a big surprise because you don’t know who you are yet, but it will happen and a person that knows themselves will get over those hurdles easily. And there’s no big hurry. I guess if you don’t get anything else out of this long ass email that’s the one thing I want to say. There isn’t really a race to adulthood. Most people that think it’s a race don’t actually get to the finish line.
Now here’s the flipside: all these people pushing on you aren’t 100% wrong either. It would be convenient if they were, so they could just be the enemy, but they have good stuff. Useful stuff. Stuff that will help you make games, or another kind of art, or anything else really. It’s just they don’t know how to package it. They ram it down your throat, rather than tell how it will get you where you want to go. They also teach a lot of shit. You’ll find that life doesn’t stop being that way. There’s both precious gold and useless shit everywhere. This is going to make things hard on you, because it’s up to you to do the extra work. You have to figure out on your own what relates to you and then devour that stuff.
For me my life really started after high school, when I was basically abandoned as a student and ended up at the city college. For me college was a great experience because it was the first time I set my own schedule, chose what I wanted to study, and started getting to know who I was without everyone breathing down my neck. I continued to make games, wrote short fiction and poetry, got an associate degree in computer science, transferred to the University and got a bachelors in English, and then launched an independent game (before there really was such a thing) and totally failed. I then took everything I’d collected from my unfinished project, turned it into a portfolio, and was hired by the first game company I applied to.
I’ve been a professional game developer for 8 years, and I’ve never really followed the path you’re “supposed to”. I’m also probably considered pretty accomplished as a person, but that doesn’t even matter because I measure myself against my own yardstick for success. And I’ve gotten a lot of what I wanted for myself when I was a kid. But here’s the takeaway: at the moment you’re probably feeling like you just need to get out, and that all this stuff you’re being sold is just getting in your way. But life will always throw stuff in your way. However, this is good news, because it means you don’t have to wait. Hopefully knowing that what they’re telling you about what you “need” is not all true will help free you to figure it out for yourself starting today. Go to class, maybe go to college, whatever. Don’t do the opposite of what you’re told just because, but instead take a good hard look at each subject. Google the shit out of it, and figure out if it applies to you. But most importantly keep “doing”. If you want to make art, just start doing it right now. If you want to make games, just do it.
OK, tl;dr I know. One last thing though: I don’t know you, but I’m pretty sure your parents are a drag. I’m also positive they love you to distraction. That might not really help to know right now (probably wouldn’t have helped me), but they’re people and they’re kind of fucking up with you now, but they’re doing their best. It’ll be important later. You’ll have a totally different relationship with them later in life. It gets better and all that.
End of the big ol’ preachy email. Feel free to ask me really specific questions about game development too and I won’t talk your ear off. If it’s in a field I don’t know about I can point you at an industry contact that does.
Stick with it. Life is weird, but totally worth it.
And Lee responded:
First off, thanks for taking interest enough to write us an email, it means a great deal and it certainly helps to understand that we are on the right track and reminds me why I am doing this in the first place, for people like you. Like Joe, I don’t want to presume anything about your situation, but I can relay to you my experiences and hopefully you can glean some bits of knowledge from them.
I do what I love. If I am doing something that I don’t love, it is a temporary thing to get me closer to that which I do love. I am currently still waiting tables. I find it difficult to walk through the restaurant door but I know its temporary and that I am working on stuff I love when I get home that will eventually become full time and will take care of my living expenses.
I once talked at length with one of my favorite artists, Mark Brooks an artist with Marvel, at the SDCC in 2004. He waited tables at Red Lobster for years before getting his first job in comics. He would fill a sketchbook a month. He loves to draw. What do you love? Do you love drawing enough to fill a sketchbook a month? A degree in art will certainly help you with filling a sketchbook a month but even then they wont force you. A little known secret about art is that you get better at it the more you do it. I hear many people say ‘wow you sure are lucky you have the talent to draw’ or you have an ‘eye’ or a ‘nack’ for that. Well, why do popular girls have such great handwriting? It’s because they are constantly writing their name on their binders over and over again with the quarterback’s last name. Repetition and a critical eye will make you a better artist. Do you need to go to college for this? It’s hard to say. There are many successful people out there that did not pay for their training. However, if you have the means to attend college I can say for me it was a good and formative experience for many other reasons than just the degree. I do know, that with or without a degree, if you want to make it as an artist, it can take 3 and even upwards of 9 or more years to get noticed and get work. It is a very lonely and introspective time. You will be good enough for your friends and family but not good enough for employers. Persistence, willpower, and love for what you do will get you through this. When you come out the other side it is most certainly worth it.
I went to a 4 year university on and off for 10 years. I didn’t have the confidence to tell my parents that art is what I love and it is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I started in engineering college. I was pretty miserable I had a few life changing events and gained the confidence to tell my parents that if they wanted to see me finish college I would be doing it my way. I changed majors and graduated 5 semesters later. College is very expensive and in no way a guarantee that I can get work, even today, whether it had been engineering or my current art diploma. We live in tough economic times where diplomas don’t guarantee job security and yet a college degree will guarantee debt that will need to be paid off.
Hopefully I don’t sound too gloomy about college. I did have fun, and you do live in an exciting new world compared to when I went through college. Steam allows artists to make in-game assets, like hats, that they can sell for a profit. You don’t need to get hired by Valve, or have a degree or a even a resume to get paid for making stuff for their games. Don’t know how to make a hat? There are tons of free software options out there and free youtube tutorials that can help you to make it better. I took a few 3D classes in college and found that the tutorials available online were much more robust and informative than my teacher could ever hope to be. My parents insisted that I attend an accredited 4 year university but looking back on it a place like the Guild Hall in Dallas or even self teaching from home may have been a better investment for my goals.
Failure is your friend. Fail early. Fail often. Put a hat on the steam network that everyone hates. Find out why they hate it. Find out how to make it again and get less people to hate it. Be open and honest like your email to us. Put yourself out there. Draw something. Post something. I have had a deviantart account for years now http://hmhmah.deviantart.com even though my stuff has not always been that presentable. My webcomic http://www.hmhmah.com that has been online for only about 3 years is drastically different today than when I first started it. I have since pulled it down, but I had another website before HMHMAH that went no where and failed www.snowbs.com. Don’t wait for a degree or a class, just start making it today. Deviant art might not have the directed or constructive critiques you need to get better so try a forum. http://conceptart.org/forums/forum.php was a good one, although I haven’t used it in awhile as was cgsociety and few others. Google ‘art critique forum’ and just start drawing and posting stuff.
Wanna do concept or digital painting? Watch these, subscribe to their authors and watch their other videos.
Finished watching those already? Exhausted all the available youtube tutorials? I used these guys for awhile. It helped when I need a specific step by step help on a few projects.
Go to the library or coffee shop at a book store and copy anatomy. Copy comic books. Draw people at the park.
I have had a booth at the Austin Comic Con three years in a row now. No one invited me. I didn’t ask if I could go. My degree didn’t set it up for me. I just paid for a booth and went. I failed forward. It’s liberating. The big boys like Marvel have just been failing longer than you or me, hell, they still have failures from time to time. Make them and learn from them.
I am aware that this may have resulted in more questions than answers so feel free to shoot me a line, hope it helps.
I also might post a different version of this somewhere sometime later to help other people out if this ends up being any help.
Thanks again to everyone that wrote to us. We haven’t managed to reply personally to all of them, but we have read and appreciated them all. More “advice” responses to follow tomorrow.