Q&A with High Voltage Software

High Voltage SoftwareWhat a way to start the semester! We were able to get a hold of employees at High Voltage Software to answer questions about the video game industry, and how to prepare for it. The responses are broken down by the role of the person answering the questions: Producer, Programmer, Artist, and HR. A big thank you goes out to everyone at High Voltage who participated!
What do you know now that you wish you knew 5 years ago?
This is a tough question to answer! Part of life is not knowing what the day, week, month, or year will bring.  I was in QA five years ago so I guess I wish I knew what to do to move out of the department sooner than I did.  But often I’ve found that it’s up to timing and a lot of luck; you have to throw yourself at the mercy of fate.  You can push and push and push and never get anywhere, but if you sometimes just flow and adapt with the world around you, you may find yourself exactly where you need to be.  That may seem wishy-washy and overly philosophical, but in my experience it’s often true.

Which skills are most important to acquire in order to break into the game industry?
The most important skill for any person looking for a job in the industry is a professional attitude, critical thinking skills, great communication, drive, and a passion for games and the game industry.  Also, being a fresh face in the industry, sometimes being humble is an important skill.  I’ve interviewed many recent ‘Game Development’ graduates and since they have a ‘gaming’ degree they act and talk as though they know everything there is to know about working in the industry.  Well they are wrong.  Don’t fool yourself and just be down to earth and truthful when going in for that interview.  You may not think there is truth to this, but a nice, neat, and thought out resume will work wonders for you. Don’t sell yourself short but don’t just write fluff either, because I guarantee you will be asked about what’s on your resume and it will not help you if you cannot back it up.

More specifically, if you want to work in the main three areas here is a quick rundown of good skills to have:

Design – Cohesive and succinct writing is key; you want someone to be able to read a functional specification doc and instantly know how to implement it. You don’t want to waste a programmer’s time trying to guess what you intended.  Also, knowledge of how to work in a game engine editor is extremely important. Go out and learn as much as you can about how to handle various game editor software (UDK, CryENGINE, etc).  Even though most studios use their own tools, it’ll still give you a one-up knowing your way around a publicly available game editor.

Art – Talent is a skill that cannot really be acquired but is of utmost importance to be an artist in the game industry. You can be a master at a 3D modeling program but without any talent or artistry you will ultimately be passed on.  But aside from that, Photoshop and 3D modeling software knowledge is important.  Another skill is taking criticism–good, bad, or otherwise–and learning from it. Finally, don’t get stuck in your ways and learn to master different art styles.  Often you’ll have to mimic what someone else has drawn and bring that in to the 3D realm while maintaining the original look of the concept.

Programming – Deep understanding of game code and languages is extremely important.  It is also important to know your way around a Development Environment program such as Microsoft Visual Studios.  I would also say immerse yourself outside of school in all that is game programming.  Join online communities; get a game on a mobile platform such as Android or iOS or even a Microsoft Xbox Indie title. Study open source games or example game code that companies sometimes release (Doom 3 etc).  It is often old but looking at what has been done in the past will help you see the thought process behind it and allow you to practice understanding and reading over other people’s code. Lastly, be prepared because when you go in for an interview you will be asked programming questions and asked to solve code problems.  Occasionally recent grads are not ready for this at all.

What is your favorite part of your job?
I get asked this question a lot! In general, it’s great to be a part of creating something that thousands and potentially millions of people will get to see and play. The amount of collaboration involved can be somewhat staggering at times. Something I especially love is going to the various trade shows (especially E3) and interacting with fans and other people in the industry, and it doesn’t hurt that I get to see the latest and greatest stuff! I’ve been face to face with some great industry people like Miyamoto, Kojima, Notch, or the Angry Video Game Nerd along with having the privilege of showing off our games at both the Nintendo and Sega booths at E3. And there’s also crazy stuff like participating in a 24hr live internet video stream during the Conduit 2 launch that I’ll never forget. If you would have told 13yr old me playing Chrono Trigger that in 15+ years I’d be doing what I do now, I’d go nuts.

What is your least favorite part of your job?
My least favorite part, and I’m sure most developers would say this, is ‘crunch mode’. It’s an uncommon, but necessary part of the job. Whether it’s working countless hours during the week or even staying overnight; it’s all part of creating a game when release dates are looming. It’s during these times that you just have to power through, but there is always a light at the end of the tunnel! It’s extremely satisfying and rewarding once the game is finally on store shelves. And it’s the parts I described in the previous answer that make it all worthwhile in the end.

What surprised you most when you started working in the video game industry?
How fickle some fans and some game journalists can be. I grew up a gamer, but in a time when the internet wasn’t around. Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I can really appreciate the hard work, passion, and dedication that goes in to every single game that is made. Internet buzz is one thing, but it’s really up to the general public to decide whether a game is good or not. It’s extremely difficult to predict what the next big thing is. Who knew Minecraft would be the hit it is or even the Call of Duty franchise exploding like it has? Current gamers likes and dislikes seem to often change in the blink of an eye. But after all is said and done, having a career in videogames and at High Voltage Software has been the most fulfilling time in my life and I feel extremely lucky to be a part of the industry.

Do game companies tend to prefer people with specialized degrees (like from Full Sail, etc.) or more traditional 4-year university degrees?
That’s a good question. In my opinion (and experience!) it doesn’t matter. I got a B.S. degree in Computer Science at Illinois State University – luckily got a job at High Voltage and went from being a QA tester to now Producer. I felt that if my aspirations to work in the game industry fell through I’d have a ‘traditional’ 4-year degree to back me up. Ultimately, though, I think what matters is that you have the passion and skills to do the job. I come across a lot of candidates who have ‘game development’ degrees but lack the proper skills or even knowledge to work in the industry.

Don’t just be satisfied with a degree and think it’s your Golden Ticket to working in the game industry. If you want to be a designer, go out and dedicate yourself to learning how to properly work in game engines such as Unreal. The fact of the matter is that as an entry level designer your work load will be mainly implementation and very little ‘story’ writing or pure game designing that you learned in school. If you want to be an artist, devote all your time to studying your craft, learning all the latest techniques, and push for critiques from professors, other students, or online communities. If you want to be a game programmer, get an indie game out on the Xbox 360 or iPhone. There is always the catch-22 when looking for that 1st job where places ‘require’ experience, and obviously something someone new to the industry sorely lacks. Experience is always preferred, but if you have something to show, whether it’s a kickass piece of art or a fun little game, it proves that although you don’t have working experience, you do have the determination to prove yourself.

Where is the best place to find job listings for game development?
Off the top of my head, Gamasutra.com and Creativeheads.net are good, as well as company websites. Developer and publisher sites are very good at keeping their postings up to date. Just scour the internet and you’ll find jobs. Trust me when I tell you it’ll take up most of your time, there isn’t a be-all-end-all site for game job postings.

What are the various roles that exist at your company?
You can break it down to basically:

Each of those disciplines can be broken down even further, such as UI Programmers, Visual Effects Artists, Lead Designers, Art Director, etc. We have other roles such as QA tester, IT, Accounting, and Human Resources, as well.

If you couldn’t work on video games, what would you do with your skill set?
Probably work on military or government projects that rely on software engineering (Flight simulations, Drone systems, Law enforcement – From a tech and software engineering standpoint, etc.).

Were video games your first choice as a profession?
Yes, they were my first choice. I was always passionate about video games growing up, and I could find no other career that was as exciting to me.

Could you briefly describe your academic and career path?
I went to a traditional college for software engineering, but disliked the pacing. So I went to FullSail in Orlando to pursue a more directed approach to our industry. Right out of college I began working for Electronic Arts, and then moved to my current position at High Voltage Software.

What entry level positions are there that a liberal arts graduate might consider?
For artists with a digital art media/animation degree, entry level candidates can apply for an entry level artist position which includes simple tasks. At HVS, our art positions are specialized, which means an environment modeler will be modeling environments or objects, a character modeler will be modeling characters, an animator will be animating, a UI artist will be creating UI, and so on. Some companies offer great internship programs that can be taken while at school.

What is a typical day at work for you?
I am an Art lead so my typical day consists of reading and answering emails. Meeting with my art team several times a day, and discussing direction and approvals with my Art Director. I then get to do some modeling / texturing depending on the project I am working on. Usually wrapping up the day with a final meeting review of everyone’s art tasks for the day.

Are there any conferences you would suggest attending, or professional groups to join?
GDC is a convention I would recommend attending if possible. It’ a good way for entry level candidates to meet and speak with representatives from different companies, and there’s a Career Pavilion section which is specifically dedicated to job hunters. Different passes will allow access to different things, such as classes and seminars or the main show floor. Students can volunteer for a free/discounted pass. Check out the website for more information.
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