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Ben at the Pen: Graduation

Brad Gallaway's picture

Ben! Hard to believe, but it's three long years since the last time we sat down with you and got the scoop on your adventures at DigiPen. Before going further, let me just say that we were really happy to get back in touch with you and bring this piece to its completion. Thanks for taking the time.

No problem, Brad. I'm happy to do it. It's been a while.

Okay, so I know that you have lots to tell us, but before we get into your current situation, let's talk a little bit about your last year at DigiPen. What was it like?

It was much harder than my first year, and the first year wasn't exactly cakewalk. I was coming out of an internship at Nintendo Software Technology in which I got to work on a GameCube title and a Game Boy Advance title, so I wasn't totally prepared to step back into the full-time student role at that point. Working at Nintendo after one year of school was a dream situation for me—I had always wanted to work there, so it was kind of a drag when it ended and I had to return to school.

Ben with his DigiPen roommates Josh Wittner and Steven Brookenthal at the post-graduation reception. Steve graduated in 2004 and is now employed at Pandemic Studios in Los Angeles--developers of Full Spectrum Warrior and Star Wars: Battlefront. Josh graduated in 2005 and is now working at Snowblind Studios in Bothell, Wash--developers of Balder's Gate: Dark Alliance and the upcoming Justice League Heroes.
Ben with his DigiPen roommates Josh Wittner and Steven Brookenthal at the post-graduation reception. Steve graduated in 2004 and is now employed at Pandemic Studios in Los Angeles—developers of Full Spectrum Warrior and Star Wars: Battlefront. Josh graduated in 2005 and is now working at Snowblind Studios in Bothell, Wash—developers of Balder's Gate: Dark Alliance and the upcoming Justice League Heroes.

The second year of the art program was tougher because we were getting into the more technical aspects of 3D Animation, and our 3D instructor covered a lot of material in a short amount of time. He was demanding, which was a good thing, but there was a big discrepancy between what we learned in the first year and what we learned in the second. One semester was spent just learning MAYA, which was difficult for the students who were still coming to grips with 3D Studio Max. And aside from the 3D Animation classes, we still had various projects in our drawing and film classes that took up a lot of our time.

And it wasn't just the course load that made the second year difficult. I had a hard time deciding what aspect of 3D animation I wanted to focus on, and the course load made it difficult to put much energy into getting a job lined up after graduation. I was also getting pretty burnt out by my last semester. At that point I was just doing whatever I could to keep my grades up and finish. Of the nearly 50 students that were in my class at the start of our first semester, about 19 actually graduated at the end of our fourth semester. It was actually a relief to get out of there.

The DigiPen graduating class of 2004, outside the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, Wash. (top), The DigiPen Dragons indoor soccer team during their second season. (bottom)
The DigiPen graduating class of 2004, outside the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, Wash. (top), The DigiPen Dragons indoor soccer team during their second season. (bottom)

Before you actually got into DigiPen, I recall that we had talked about how it was said that DigiPen was a really rough ride with only the most dedicated people finishing. That attrition rate sounds pretty terrible and I remember how much you were working, but now that you're done, was it as hard as you were expecting? Harder?

It was as hard as I expected. I knew it would be a lot of work going in, so I was somewhat prepared for it. The thing that took a while was adjusting to the daily grind at DigiPen. There's almost no "campus life" going on there, aside from a sizable geek culture that featured anime and role-playing game clubs and so on, so it was difficult getting used to being in that kind of atmosphere every day. Plus, you're cooped up in a single building from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., with the only escape being a 7-11 around the corner. That can drive you pretty crazy after a while.

Some of us did things to alleviate the stress. At the start of my second year, I started an indoor soccer team that was sponsored by the school—the DigiPen Dragons. We were the first sports team the school ever had. That became a nice distraction from school, and it was a lot of fun playing with my classmates.

Nice. So now that we've been caught up on the second year of your education, let's jump ahead. After all, you've been done with school for two years… exactly what have you been doing?

I've been working at a company called Handheld Games for the past two years. We're an independent developer in Lynnwood that works on a variety of portable platforms—mostly titles for kids. When I first started we were very small—about 15 people—and were doing mostly mobile phone games and TV Games products. We've since about tripled in size and are now developing for the Nintendo DS. We're still heavy into TV Games development and have some other projects going on, but Buena Vista Games has been giving us a lot of work for the Game Boy Advance and DS, which is cool.

Select sprites of main character from Ratchet & Clank: Going Mobile wireless title (Sony Pictures). (top), Character art of Ratchet (bottom)
Sprites of main characters from wireless titles: Ratchet & Clank: Going Mobile (Sony Pictures) (top) and Ratchet and Clank (bottom)

My official title at Handheld is "animator," but I do a variety of things—mostly character-related work. My current project—a DS game based on Disney's "That's So Raven" TV show—is wrapping up. I did all of the character animation and most of the character modeling/design on that. Before that I was lead animator on a GBA game based on Disney's Phil Of The Future TV show. That game should be shipping soon. Before that I was lead artist on two mobile phone games—Spider-Man 2: The Hero Returns and Ratchet & Clank: Going Mobile—both for Sony Pictures. I'm actually kind of proud of those two games because I was responsible for most of the art and animation in those games, and plus they're straight-forward action platformers with old-school graphics and gameplay—the kinds of games I like to play. Too bad my phone sucks and can't play them. My next project looks to be another DS title, which is cool because it allows me to keep doing 3D stuff.

Wait wait wait… so, let me get this straight. You got hired right out of school and started making games? Basically what you're saying is that you set your goal, went to school, and within the span of two years you achieved a dream that people all across the country dream every day. That's pretty incredible.

Well, I guess that's how it went, although not exactly. I graduated in May of 2004 and didn't start working until that July, so there was a short period there in which I was job searching and wasn't having much luck. The two years at DigiPen had used up almost all my money, so it was pretty distressing. I was even applying for non-gaming jobs out of desperation just so I could have a paycheck. The ideal situation would have been to have something lined up before I graduated, but it doesn't always work out that way. I had to keep telling myself to be patient and something would come along, and it did.

So how exactly did you get this position? Was it as simple as seeing an ad in the paper, or did you know someone who knew someone? What was the interview like?

DigiPen had their first Career Day during my last semester, in which developers came to the school to recruit members of the

Dead or Alive 4 (top), Perfect Dark Zero (bottom)
Sprites of main characters from Phil of the Future, a Game Boy Advance title (Buena Vista Games) (top), and Spider-Man 2: The Hero Returns wireless title (Sony Pictures) (bottom)
senior class. Most of the developers were from the Seattle area, but some, like Neversoft, came from California to check out the work of the graduating class.

Anyway, Handheld Games was at the event. They had checked out my work there and took a copy of my portfolio and demo reel. Several months later I got a call from a programmer classmate who was already working there, telling me that they wanted to have me come in for an interview. They were interested in me because I had a lot of 2D animation on my demo reel, which suited them at the time since they were doing a lot of mobile phone games. At that point, I was out of school for over two months and was desperate for work, so even though the pay wasn't what I was hoping for, I took the job.

So yeah, it's been OK. It's not exactly what I thought I'd be doing when I was at DigiPen, but that's how it goes. On one hand it was good to start at a small place where I could work in a lead role early on and kind of find what my strengths are. That said, after being here for a couple years and getting some experience, I think it might soon be time to look for something that will offer a bit more of a challenge and really force me to grow as an artist. Plus, the potential to make more money is out there, and that's hard to pass up, too.

Ben takes a break from work to admire a soccer shoe.
Ben takes a break from work to admire a soccer shoe.

I don't mean to pry, but I'm sure the question on a lot of readers' minds (as well as my own) is about the compensation. The entertainment industry is notorious for being well-paid, and I'm wondering if you find that to be true. Granted, I'm sure that the average Hollywood producer rakes in a lot more than someone doing technical production work, but you've got to be pretty comfortable. What's the earning situation like, and what kind of opportunities would you look for if you were going to put yourself out in the market? (And how's it going with your school loans by the way?)

Well, it all depends on where you work and what your job title is. I don't think it's a given that just because you've got a job in the game industry that you're automatically making a comfortable living. Some companies pay better than others. Others have various perks and benefits to make up for paying more average salaries. The position makes a difference, too. Programmers and engineers can command higher starting salaries than artists and designers. But experienced artists don't too bad, either—depending on where you work.

I started at my company at the ground level, which meant I wasn't making very much money, but now I'm earning a respectable salary. It's still below the average of what other artists with similar experience are earning, but it's not that bad. Obviously companies like Bungie and Valve can afford to compensate their people very well—they've developed major hit titles. Handheld Games isn't in the same league with those developers, but not many developers are.

With the cost of living in Seattle being high and my student loans from DigiPen, it's tough to be satisfied earning a below-industry-average salary. I have to pay around $500 a month in student loans. But there are other guys I went to school with whose student loan situations are much worse than mine, so I really can't complain.

So it sounds like you're hanging in there, at least financially. What about spiritually? Are there any downsides to what you do? I'm sure that a lot of people think that it's pretty amazing to work on games, but as someone who's actually doing it? What's your perspective now as compared to what it was before?

The major downside for me was when I realized how little creative freedom a developer actually has when making a title for a publisher. In my experience, the publisher has total control as to what the final product is. It even goes so far that decisions are routinely made by people on the publishing side—who really have no business making creative decisions—that make the game less fun. In my opinion, the game industry has been hijacked by big

Character art of Ratchet and Clank
Character art of Ratchet and Clank
corporate interests, and with the exception of a select few, most developers are at the mercy of the big-name publishers, who again, are allowed total creative control not because they're more creative and talented people, but because they have all the money.

Now having said that, I was able to get away with creating new, original characters in the two mobile phones game I worked on. In both the Spider-Man and Rachet & Clank titles, I came up with original enemy character designs and animations that made it into the final products—totally free of any interference from the publisher. However, the more money a publisher invests in a title, the more they're going to stick their noses in it. So sometimes it's more fun to work on a small title.

So now that you're a lot further along in your game-creating career, have you given any thought to coming up with your own intellectual property? In past interviews, you expressed a strong desire to work in 2D. With the experience under your belt that you have now, has that changed at all?

You know, I really enjoy playing 2D games. It's what I grew up playing, and my favorite games still are from that era. I've had the chance to do a lot of 2D sprite animation, and it was fun. I was glad for the chance to do a GBA game, but for now I think I'd like to focus on the 3D stuff, simply because it's necessary if I want to continue working in the industry. As the technology moves forward, the demands on the artists increase, and it's not getting any easier. Fortunately for me, good animation is good animation, whether you're animating a cube or a high-poly human character. But I still I have more to learn in the 3D realm, so I'd like to do as much as I can in that area to make myself a better artist and animator.

Obviously I would love the chance to work on an original title. So many games nowadays are based on licensed properties, which I find really boring. The ideas I have now I file away for use at a later time, when hopefully I'll have the experience behind me that will allow me to chance to put them into an actual project.

Old-school gaming will probably never go away though, and some current trends point to it being a significant part of the future of gaming. It'd be cool to be involved with that at some point.

Handheld Games employees often play soccer during lunch hour. Here, Ben scores a goal.
Handheld Games employees often play soccer during lunch hour. Here, Ben scores a goal.

Since we're on the topic of playing, I remember you saying that you didn't really have a lot of time to play games in the past. Has that changed? What are your current gaming habits like?

I still don't play games that much, and the ones I do play won't get you very excited. If there's any downtime at work, sometimes I'll play a GBA or DS game. Since we do all portable stuff at Handheld, I like to see what other portable developers are doing. I enjoyed Meteos on the DS, and I really like the work Treasure has been doing on the GBA. It's the perfect platform for their games. Astro Boy: Omega Factor and Gunstar Super Heroes were both excellent, and Advance Guardian Heroes wasn't bad, either. Also, Million's Double Dragon Advance was fantastic! I play that game quite a bit.

At home, my Super NES, Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation are the consoles I play the most, but I really don't play games much at home. I still don't own a PlayStation 2, or any of the other consoles that came out after the Sega Dreamcast. There are a lot of titles that I would like to own for those consoles, however, if I ever find the time and money to get back into it. I really liked Shadow of the Colossus for PlayStation 2, and I'd like to spend some time with God of War. For the GameCube, Ikaruga is an amazing game, and all the games developed by Nintendo for that console were great. Of course, 1080 Avalanche is a personal favorite, since I had the good fortune to work a little bit on that title.

This may sound like a silly question, but in light of everything you've learned over the last few years and especially in relation to where you are now, do you think that your decision to come to Seattle and study at DigiPen was worthwhile? Any regrets?

Yeah, it was definitely worthwhile. I have no doubts about that. If it wasn't for DigiPen, I would have never met my fiancé, Amanda (we met at a Seattle bar during a birthday outing for one of my classmates). Also, I love living in Seattle. It's such a beautiful city, and there's so much to do. It took almost no time at all for me to adapt to life here. My brother moved out here shortly after I did, so it's nice to have him so close. Most of my family and close friends live on the other side of the Mississippi, which kind of sucks.

Ben and Amanda at Shilshole Beach in Seattle, August 2005.
Ben and Amanda at Shilshole Beach in Seattle, August 2005.

I don't regret anything. Things happen for a reason, so if it turns out I'm in a place in life or work that I'm not particularly happy with, I like to think that I can do something about it rather than spend time wondering if I made a mistake to put me there. Work will always be work for me. I mean, I'm thankful that I can make a living doing what I'm doing, but I'm not one of those people whose passion is their work. I take my work seriously, and I want to be the best character artist and animator that I can be, but I cherish my time outside of work. When I'm old, I want to able to look back on my life and think about all the places I've gone and people I've met, not so much all the time I've spent in front of a computer monitor.

Looking back on how things happened—the whole thing has been a big learning experience. From being a student at DigiPen, to interning at Nintendo for a summer, to graduating and looking for a job, to watching where all my classmates ended up, to meeting my fiancé Amanda—the last four years have been quite an education in life and work.

Do you remember the very first time I came to Seattle to stay with you for a few days and check the place out before moving here? I never would have

Benjamin Hopper realizes a dream and now works in the videogames industry.
Benjamin Hopper realizes a dream and now works in the videogames industry.
dreamed then that I'd be working right across the street from where you were living. That little coffee stand you took me to that first day I was here—Terra Verde—that was the first mocha I ever had in Seattle. I work right next door to that place now and get coffee there all the time. Really strange.

Yeah, I do remember that. Life is full of interesting little coincidences, and I have to say that I'm surprised that you ended up settling down in my old stomping grounds. However, even though I wouldn't have expected that, I don't think it's a surprise that you've been successful in achieving your dream and getting to where you are today. Now that we're at the end of this series, I have to say that it's been quite an experience to be able to look back and see how things have progressed and changed for you.

Thank you, Ben, for sharing your experiences and giving us a small peek into your journey from small-town Kentucky to becoming a games industry professional on the West Coast. We wish you continued success professionally and personally, and if you ever get the urge, we'd be glad to have you write an article for us from time to time.

Thanks, Brad, for making me the subject of this series. It's been fun doing this. Hopefully, there'll be more to come.

And just for the record, my journey started in Buffalo, NY, then to small-town Kentucky before coming out west. No disrespect to Kentucky—it's a fine state—but I'm still a Buffalonian at heart.

As far as writing another article for GameCritics, I've been thinking a "Great Games" piece on Mr. Do! is long overdue. What do you think?

You read my mind, Ben… you read my mind.

…And with that, we bring Ben at the 'Pen to a close. It didn't quite happen as expected and took a lot longer to finish than anyone could have guessed, but the ending is indeed a happy one. If you've enjoyed this series and want to read more, Ben has agreed to answer questions sent in by readers of the site. Send your questions to brad@gamecritics.com, and if there's enough response, we'll run a follow-up feature.

(Hopefully, it won't take another three years.)

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