Third Grade Gold, The Secret
The author’s intent with this comic is something like this:
Gabe: Will You Promise!!! Will You Tell
Tycho: Tell what
Gabe: Here take this wax
Gabe: Do not tell my parents
Tycho: Oh!! It is a pig.
For obvious reasons, we found the idea of a secret pig wondrous. Steve Bowler is wondrous, too, in his own way - he’s currently working on Stranglehold, what I’m prepared to call one of this E3’s three best games. Plus, he had an amazingly circuitous route to entry into the games industry - something I thought might be a comfort to you, if that is your chosen destination. Without further ado.
Steve Bowler, Midway
While Jerry’s taking some time off, presumably drinking heavily, he asked me if I’d write about one of a few topics while he was out for the front page here. Topics ranged from thoughts about unionizing in video games to the use of growth hormones in free range cattle, but I figured I’d bore you all for a bit about how I got into the games industry.
I sat in on a panel on the subject of "Breaking In" back at PAX 2004, and I think a lot of folks got some good info out of the panel. A lot of people think all you need is a degree and a portfolio to land a position in this industry, but I’ve come to find it can take a good deal more than that. Talent, obviously, is necessary, but I think the old adage of “who you know” is even more important.
I guess it’s easy to assume that what with all of the colleges out there offering video-game themed degrees, one could think that I went to school for animation. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Well, okay, it could be farther from the truth. I could have gone to school as a PoliSci major or maybe Business (shudder). What I majored in was Illustration, that fine lost art of drawing sandwiches in newspaper print ads and cover pages for Time Magazine editorial pieces. To be fair, that’s the degree I graduated with. I started as a VisComm (VisCommie as the fine artists liked to put it, or Visual Communications major). At first it was a lot of fun; designing compositions using nothing but type, fonts, letters, positive and negative shapes. Very font nerdy and theoretical stuff. But then as I progressed through the major, I landed a professor who didn’t really like me, nor me him. I thought I was being innovative, and I guess I just wasn’t cutting it. Eventually I would get drunk to do my homework, because I just couldn’t bring myself to do the work sober (it became soul-sucking), and wound up getting better grades because of it. No, I’m not kidding. I quickly changed majors the following semester to painting, lest I continue on the career path of drunk-assed magazine layout artist.
That lasted all of a semester.
Four months later and way too many lindseed oil high migraines I changed my major to Illustration because I wanted to be a comic book artist (seriously, stop laughing) and there was this comic book artist teaching Illustration at Northern Illinois University, by the name of Mark Nelson (who later went on to work at RavenSoft up in Wisconsin). I did fairly well in the major and eventually graduated (5 year program) with this degree where I was supposed to draw shit for a living, right around the time when everyone wanted it done on computers.
I managed to graduate with what pretty much equated to a degree in the Sanskrit of the art world. I wasted a year trying to find some kind of work that would allow me to use my color theory/Photoshop skills/artistic talent, and eventually wound up at Startoons. Literally a “ma and pa” animation shop, Startoons would wind up with 3 Emmys for their work on Tiny Toons and Animaniacs before they eventually closed their doors. I was only tangentially involved with one of those.
Startoons was really my first “big break,” and it was an important one, because it taught me the value of maintaining contacts. While it was noteworthy that I was finally doing real work that was somewhat related to my major (hey, I was doing art, I didn’t really care what kind it was), I realized that I needed to tenaciously cling to the people there who were willing to help me. And it worked. My gig at Startoons was of the freelance and therefore temporary variety, but I kept in contact with someone who wound up at another fledgling children’s CD Rom company, and she had me come in and interview there. I met more great people at this place called Terraglyph, but eventually they too closed up shop.
This began the most horrible 4 year span in my career, where I went from one job to another, the studios only staying solvent for 6 months to a year at a time. 3 or 4 CD Rom and animation studios later, I somehow wound up back at Startoons again, but the only reason I was getting work at all was because of who I knew. It was all about maintaining contacts. When one shop closed up, you called your buds and asked if they’d found work, or they would call you and let you know they needed help at the new place they were at.
Unfortunately for me, I had missed out on the “heyday” of Startoons. I had worked freelance on the very last Animaniacs episode they had (which landed them their last Emmie), and when I signed on we began working on Hysteria. Which was not quite as hysterical as the name implied. After that we did a bunch of direct-to-video children’s Christian videos; a classic “pay the rent” kind of gig. But worst of all was “The Crippled Lamb.” This was easily, without question the most horrible project I’ve ever had to work on, and I’ve had to animate a medieval Rapunzel Barbie. It was easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to animate, both creatively and professionally. I don’t know if any of you reading this are animators, but this Lamb? HAD THREE LEGS. Have you ever tried to animate an animal walking on only three legs? For an entire half hour cartoon? Look, all I’m saying is if it’s down to you starving or having to animate a three legged hobbling dog, lamb, cat, or whatever, you might want to get a smaller belt.
Fortunately for my sanity, when that dried up, Startoons had some money in the bank, so I (with the help of some friends who worked with me) was able to make this intro for a show called M7 that I dreamed up that we pitched around. It’s something that I still cherish making, and wish I had stuck around long enough to finish the second show I had come up with.
Right when my “sinking ship” radar started going off about Startoons, an opportunity came up at Midway Games. By no small coincidence (remember that part where I mentioned the contacts a few paras above?), a friend of mine who had also worked at Startoons awhile back called me up a few times and kept asking me to come interview for a position doing this crazy new fangled thing called Motion Capture.
I actually wanted to make sure that it was the right thing for me, so I came in on a weekend and my buddy showed me the ropes. All jokes aside about EA Spouse, think about that for a second. I came into work at a job I wasn’t getting paid for on a weekend. I needed to make sure I understood it before I interviewed for the position, and after a few hours of watching him work with it, I felt that I could confidently do the job. The rest, as the lame saying goes, is history. I’ve been at Midway for five and a half years now, and have gotten my hands on six games.
I can’t stress enough that I would not have had this “inside” look at the job position without maintaining the contacts I made throughout my varied career. I know what you’re saying right now: “Sure, easy for you, but how do I make contacts straight out of college?”
It’s easy. Email them. Read up on your favorite companies, and find out who works for them. Go to career days that the companies sponsor and try and get some face time with the employees. When you send out your portfolios for reviews or job applications, always follow up. ALWAYS. Send out an email thanking the interviewer for their time. You can try calling, but please, for the love of all that is holy, do not be clingy. Believe it or not, the most professional interviewer is the one who comes off as confident and non-desperate. It seems self-evident, but you’d be surprised by the number of people who blow it by hanging on too long.
In the end, be yourself, smile, and let your personality shine. You’ll have a rolodex full of contacts before you even know it.