The writer and creative director behind action RPG Bastion on how he came to work in the games industry and his advice to other aspiring games developers.
Published 13 March 2012
What first inspired you to get into your craft?
I've wanted to create original game worlds since I was a little kid. It was the games themselves that inspired me, particularly when I played the now-classic computer role-playing game, Ultima IV back in the late '80s when I was eight years old. The world of that game was stunning and imaginative; I'd never seen anything like it. I had no idea what it took to make a game like that but I wanted to find out.
How did you first break into the industry?
I started writing about games in my last year of high school. I started contributing to a fanzine, where I could publish reviews and other articles. This, along with some photocopied business cards, gave me enough ‘press credentials’ at the time to attend events like E3, which was in its first year. Through this experience I got work at some smaller publications, which eventually led me to an internship at GameSpot. GameSpot became one of the biggest online gaming sites and I worked there for more than ten years. I loved working in the press... though I never lost sight of my interest in making games. So, when one of my former colleagues mentioned a possible job opportunity as a producer on the Command & Conquer franchise at Electronic Arts, I decided to try out for it. Command & Conquer was one of my favourite series of strategy games so the promise of being a part of it was very exciting. I ended up working at EA for about three years. It was there where I met the two designers I'm working with now at Supergiant Games.
Which professional figure in your field do you find the most inspiring?
One of my favourite things about working in the game industry is that it's full of people who inspire me. When I was a kid I was most inspired by Richard Garriott, the creator of the Ultima series. He created this stunning, alternate-reality fantasy world and was well ahead of his time in knowing that games could be more than just frivolous entertainment. He always knew they had the potential to leave lasting, positive experiences. For a number of years, Garriott's studio Origin Systems produced a number of truly incredible games.
If you hadn’t managed to break into your field, what was your plan B?
For better or worse, much of my life has revolved around games and I never had much of a plan B. In many ways, writing about games was my plan B since I tried to teach myself programming but it didn't go so well. Writing came much more naturally to me. I spent a lot of time writing and studied English literature in college. If nothing ever happened for me in game development or game writing, I would have tried writing about other things to make a living. But since I probably wouldn't have succeeded in that regard either, maybe I would have ended up in the military or something like that...? While in college I was already writing about games professionally but I thought maybe I should pursue teaching or even a military career. It was one of those what-to-do-with-my-life phases, but it didn't last long. For the most part, I feel very fortunate to have always known what I wanted to do.
Which game do you wish you could have worked on?
My favourite games would have probably been pretty unpleasant to work on overall. They're the games where a lot of blood, sweat, and tears must have gone into the production. Even so, I have an appetite for that type of punishment, because I think the best things result from a lot of hard work. If I had to pick just one I wish I could have contributed to, it would have to be BioShock, the atmospheric shooter from Irrational Games. I was still a member of the gaming press when I first saw that game at E3 2006, but it set something off in my brain that made me think: Now is the time to get into game development, and if you don't do it now, you may never get a chance. BioShock sounds like it was a very intense project for the team but the end result is just stunning, and a modern classic. It's a big inspiration when it comes to world-building, story and creating a strong sense of player agency in games.
What single piece of advice would you give to a young person trying to break into your discipline and get noticed? How do you stand out from the crowd?
The following is a common piece of advice and difficult to take to heart, but it goes like this: Do not wait for permission to do the work you want to do. Especially when it comes to game development. It's never been easier for people to start learning a given discipline on their own time, using a variety of free resources. It's still time-consuming and difficult, but there are countless cases proving it can be done. As for standing out from the crowd, it either will or will not happen naturally as a by-product of just doing the work, and trying to get better and better.
Were there any people who supported/mentored/championed you in the early stages of your career? How important are these kinds of relationships?
When I got my internship at GameSpot, an editor there named Ron Dulin imparted to me the values that were essential to my career from that point forward. He is the closest I've had to a mentor, and better still, he became a close friend. I've had no real mentors in game development but that hasn't stopped me from absorbing as much information from my peers and other industry professionals as possible. There are many game designers whose words and work have been very inspiring to me, just from playing their games, listening to their lectures or watching their interviews. The game industry is a pretty small community and I think it's very important for anyone in it to try and have a support network of those whose opinions they trust, both when it comes to game development or life in general.
How do you think the games industry will change in the next few years?
I think the games industry, both in the UK and elsewhere, will continue to fracture into smaller teams that can make more specific kinds of experiences. Smaller digital games will continue breaking new ground in the years to come. Games continue to reach broader and broader audiences, but not in the way everyone expected a few years ago – it's not the big AAA games that are broadening the market, it's the thousands of smaller ones out there. It remains very difficult to be a successful game developer, but in many ways it's never been easier to create a game and release it to a willing audience.