For almost every person who plays games, there inevitably comes a time when that person will think to themselves, "If I had made this game, it'd be so much better!"
However, very few of us ever take that thought any further. For those that do, actually making those ideas reality poses an intimidating challenge. Of the few schools that offer programs related or tailored to videogames, the most well known is the DigiPen Institute of Technology, located right next door to Nintendo of America in Redmond, Washington.
Over the course of the next two years, GameCritics.com will be following Ben Hopper, a former Critic and current 3D Computer Animation program attendee. This series will focus on Ben and his journey from game player to game creator, and is not authorized by or affiliated with DigiPen in any way. If you'd like more information on DigiPen, you can visit their web site.
First off, Ben, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, I’m 26 and I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. I come from a family of four including my Mom and Dad, and my brother David. I’m a fanatic about soccer and read literature and historical nonfiction when I’m not on the field. I spent the last 12 years in a small town called Henderson, Kentucky where I went to high school and attended community college. After that, I transferred to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where I finished with a bachelors of arts in creative writing. Oh, and I’m a big fan of Italian food.
Enough of that stuff, tell us about your background in videogames.
Well, like many people I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid. After growing a bit taller, I started taking a more active role when I began writing articles about them for my high school newspaper. One of my first pieces was about the level of violence in Mortal Kombat and Nintendo’s censorship of it. I did these types of articles through college, and even did a few for Chi Kong Lui’s "The Art Of Videogames Homepage", the forerunner to GameCritics.com. I got a job at a local newspaper after college, and continued the trend by starting my own game column. It was about this point when Chi asked me to write and edit for GameCritics.com, which got me more involved in video games than ever. I really learned a lot about this process with GameCritics, and going to E3 in 2001 kind of topped it all off.
That sounds more like a lead-in to professional game reviewing than the development process. How did you go from playing games to wanting to create them?
I’ve wanted to create games for as long as I can remember, actually. Playing my Atari 2600 as a kid I would think of ways to make some of those lousy games better. During the NES era, I even drew out my own game design documents for games, although I have no idea where they are now. I once created elements for a theoretical Duck Hunt 2, because I thought the ideas in the original Duck Hunt could have been taken so much further. However, once I got into college and tried to decide what to do with my life, making games always seemed like an impossible fantasy. Essentially, this opportunity to go to DigiPen is like a dream come true for me.
Are there any particular games or companies that influenced you more than others?
Treasure would have to be the developer that has influenced me the most. What I love about their titles is that they’re small, but remain totally action-packed and fun. They also seem to relish avoiding trends, and that’s a good fit with my own game sensibilities and life in general. If I had to pick my favorites, I’d say Gunstar Heroes, Guardian Heroes, Radiant Silvergun and (believe it or not) Bangai-O are four of the best action games ever made. I don’t want to give Treasure all the credit, though. There have been a number of other influences including Thunder Force III and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Konami’s Snatcher is unlike anything else I’ve ever played. But, if I could pick just one game that I wished I could have made, it’s Super Dodge Ball on the NES. That game is just about perfect in my opinion.
It sounds like you’re a big fan of 2D action. Do you plan to revive the art with your own million-seller in mind, or do you have any idea of what you’d like to eventually create?
I would definitely love to start with something 2D, although not for the reasons you’d expect. I actually think there’s a lot to be learned from working inside a reasonably limited environment such as something on the Game Boy Advance. As you may have noticed from my list of influences, I’m also a big fan of quirky action games, so that’s the kind I’d like to try making first. After that, anything’s possible.
Now that we’ve gotten inside your head a little bit, can you tell us how you took those ideas and got started making them a reality? At what point did you decide to take the plunge, abandon what most people would think of as a normal life and reach for the brass ring?
Well, I had been working at the newspaper for some time, and although it was a good job I just knew that it wasn’t where I wanted to stay forever. I had thought about going back to school and getting a Master’s Degree, but I wasn’t sure in what discipline. I also knew that I needed a change of scenery because Kentucky just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. These different elements going on in my life actually combined to make it a fairly emotional time for me, and I felt like I needed to do something and break out of the rut I was in. Since making games had been a dream of mine, I thought this was as good a time as any to see if I could make it happen.
After coming to this so-called crossroads, I wanted to learn the basics about the school and decide if it really made sense to apply. Not only would I be taking the big jump out west if I got accepted, my family and friends would be several states away. I did some reading at the school website, and then requested their free information packet. Once everything checked out and I learned what I needed to do to apply, it was just a matter of getting everything organized and being brave enough to actually do it.
Since you’re now halfway across the country in a new town, in a new school, chasing a new career- are you nervous?
I’m definitely nervous, but it’s more excitement than anything. I’m eager to dive in and see where this takes me. I also know it’s going to be a lot of work, so it’s hard not to be a little intimidated. At orientation, DigiPen makes a point to scare the hell out of students who think this is going to be an easy ride playing videogames all day. It’s not like that at all. The deadlines and workload here are going to be pretty damn insane from what I can tell. I’m nervous, but I think you have to be or you wouldn’t be normal.
What does your family think about all this? After all, the goals our parents have for us are rarely the same ones we have for ourselves. I also know for a fact that convincing people videogames can be a career might be tough… was it a hard sell?
I’m lucky in this respect because my family has been totally supportive of me from the very beginning. They understand that this is something I’ve always wanted to do, and they’re proud and excited that I’m getting the chance to follow my dream. I can’t say enough about how much I value the love and support from my mom, dad and brother, as well as the rest of my family. Everyone that’s close to my heart is excited for me, and there’s no better feeling in the world than knowing that you’re backed by all the people you love. It’s sad being so far away from them, but oddly enough this whole experience has brought me closer to them then I’ve ever been, in a way.
Besides the considerable changes and risks required to actually try and do this, what was involved in the application process, and was it hard to qualify?
Well, first you have to fill out the application an send it in with a small application fee Along with that, I had to include a personal statement, in which I answered three essay questions that basically outlines why I was applying to the school and what I hoped to gain from the experience.
Besides that, the most important part of applying was sending off my portfolio, a requirement for all 3-D Computer Animation students. Your submissions have to be organized and presented in a specific way, so I spent a lot of time working on it to make sure it was just right. In fact, a co-worker at my old newspaper job, who is an accomplished artist helped scan all my artwork and gave me some great suggestions for content. I felt that having a good portfolio was crucial to getting accepted, that help was a godsend.
However, once you do all that there’s still the four-hour entrance exam, which I was able to take in Kentucky. The test is made up of basic drawing exercises and art concepts, but required a lot of focus and energy to complete in the allotted time. Once that clock started ticking, I couldn’t even stop to breathe until it was over. I damn near collapsed when the adrenaline wore off. Basically, the application process was a challenge but my art skills pulled me through. After all was said and done, it was totally worth it.
Now that you’ve crawled under the barbed wire and made it safely inside the complex, exactly what will you be studying?
Most of two years at DigiPen will focus on art, animation and computer graphics. I’ll be taking two animation classes, one art class and one computer graphics class for my first semester. There’s also an ongoing series of "project" classes that help you compile demo reels and a portfolio for when you start looking for a job. There are also some basic English courses to help you write stories, which is really what good animation is all about. Luckily, I already have a four-year degree in English, so I’m thinking about skipping over those courses if I can, but I’m going to see what they’re like first. If they’re geared more towards writing for games and animation they may be worth taking.
Sounds like you’ll be kept pretty busy. Do you have enough energy for any goals right now besides survival?
My main goal is the same one that all the students share—to go from amateur to professional. I feel that I still haven’t explored my full potential as an artist, and I’m looking forward to re-educating myself at DigiPen and eventually making a living at it. If I can do that, I’ll have accomplished something truly special.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us Ben, and we look forward to following you throughout your journey through DigiPen. We’ll be checking back with you soon, but is there anything else you’d like to say right now?
Yeah, I would. It may sound kind of corny to say it, but I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to follow your dream. I never thought I’d have the chance to become an animator or game designer, but here I am and I can hardly believe it. I just want to emphasize that it’s never too late to do things you’ve always wanted to do, no matter what it may be. I a lot of people out there are probably like I was—always thinking about what they’d like to be doing but never believing it could ever happen. It’s been said a million times, but it’s absolutely true: Nothing is impossible if you work hard enough. Getting accepted at DigiPen was just the beginning for me. The real fun starts next week.
We’ll be checking back with Ben approximately once a quarter throughout his two years at DigiPen. Look for the next chapter in the ongoing saga soon. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments please post them here, and we may use them for a future segment of Ben at the ‘Pen.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Ben. From the look of things, you've been pretty busy. The last time we spoke with you, you hadn't begun going to DigiPen yet. So, let's start by setting the scene. Where are you living?
I'm living in a three-bedroom apartment in Redmond with two other DigiPen students—Steve Brookenthal and Josh Wittner. Both are first-year students in the computer-programming side of DigiPen. I couldn't have asked for better roommates really, and we're good friends now. Our apartment is about two miles away from DigiPen, so it's working out great. It was somewhat of a challenge finding a place to live in the Seattle area, since DigiPen has no on-campus housing. But they help you find roommates and give you suggestions on living accommodations in the area, so they do what they can. It ended up working out better than I could have imagined.
Can you tell us what the school looks like? Please describe your new environment for us.
The building is fairly nondescript inside and out. It doesn't look like a college at first glance, but I've gotten used to it. The rooms are all named after famous mathematicians and artists. There's a small library that has a lot of programming and 3D animation reference material. Of course, they get all the latest game magazines, and they archive all the old ones. Students can also rent Nintendo 64 and GameCube games from the library. We have two lunchrooms, each with arcade machines lining the walls. Most of the arcade cabinets came from Nintendo—like the Play Choice 10 machines and Donkey Kong Jr.—but we also have Gauntlet Legends and NFL Blitz in there. It's a good thing there aren't any really good arcade games in the school though. If we had Street Fighter II for instance, people wouldn't get any work done.
Okay, now that we've heard the basics, let's get a little deeper. Can you tell us what your thoughts and feelings were once you actually started at this famous school?
After the first couple of weeks, I had a pretty good idea of what life at DigiPen would entail. At orientation, we (the first-year animation students) were told to get ready to work harder than we've ever worked before if we wanted to become professionals in the industry. Then classes started the next week and everyone was thrown to the wolves. Seriously, right from the beginning the workload was heavy.
The animation students take 20 credits hours a semester, which is a heavy course load no matter what college you attend. At DigiPen, the animation students are learning basic drawing theory, 2D animation principles, animation preproduction, creative writing and of course, 3D modeling and animation. That's a lot to digest, especially if it's all new to you. I was an English major and an Art Studio minor at the University of Kentucky before coming to DigiPen, so I felt comfortable in the drawing and writing classes. But 3D animation was completely new to me so it took a long time to warm up to 3D Studio Max, which is the software we use for our 3D projects.
Of course, I have classmates who were the opposite—they had previous experience with 3D modeling and animation, but found it difficult to adjust to other aspects of the program, such as basic drawing and 2D animation. But no matter what your previous experience is, DigiPen gives you plenty to do in all your classes. Overall, I would say DigiPen ended up being pretty much what I expected going in. I knew I it would be a lot of work, and I can honestly say I've never worked so hard in my life. In it's own way though, it's a lot of fun, too. I'm really comfortable there now, which is something I couldn't say at the beginning.
What's your day-to-day routine like? Do you even have time to play games?
In our drawing class alone we are responsible for 50 pages a week in our sketchbook. Just to keep up with my projects, I'm in the school from the time my first class starts, which is usually around 9-10 a.m. until 10 p.m. Monday-Friday. On Saturdays I'm there from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The building is closed on Sundays so that's my only day off. For the first couple months, I tried to keep up with my daily exercise schedule, which included playing soccer Tuesday through Friday, but once November rolled around I had to cut it out if I had any hopes of getting through this semester alive.
Basically, if you want to do well at DigiPen, you need to be at the school whenever its doors are open. And you better be working on projects while you're at school, otherwise you're just wasting your time. That doesn't leave much time to play games, but once in a while we'll take a break from work to play. Just today one guy in my class had a copy of Ikaruga on his Dreamcast, which he has hooked up to his computer monitor. I had to play that game—Treasure's games rock. There are some arcade games in the school lunchrooms, and at the beginning of the semester we were playing LAN deathmatches of the newest Unreal and Wolfenstein games in our computer lab. I only did that a few times though. It's addicting as hell, but there's too much at stake to waste your time at school like that.
On the weekends we sometimes get together to play games. I introduced my classmates to Super Dodge Ball on the NES, and they all hate the game now because I win all the time. My roommates won't even play it with me. A couple of times we had six-player Bomberman going on my Saturn. That was fun. I really don't play games all that much though. I did manage to pick up a Game Boy Advance at the Nintendo Store—which was probably a mistake. For a while I was playing either Tetris, Galaga, Gradius Galaxies, Advance Wars or Super Dodge Ball Advance every night before going to bed, but I've been so busy lately that I haven't touched my GBA in weeks. I like to unwind at home by playing my guitar or, strangely enough, watching World Cup games I recorded from this past summer.
Out of curiosity, what's the ratio of male to female students, and what are your classmates like in general?
There are a total of 14 females currently enrolled at DigiPen, six or seven in my animation class. The age range is all over the place. It's too bad that the school is so male-dominated, but personally I'm grateful for the female classmates that I do have as they add a nice dynamic to our group. It wouldn't be the same without them that's for sure. There aren't any girls in the second-year animation group, and I think it would really suck being in a class solely composed of guys. DigiPen is definitely not the place to meet women though. That might be a good thing because I'm so busy during the semester that I can't imagine getting too involved in a relationship. Also, since there's no time to work during the semester, I'm on a tight budget, which doesn't help when it comes to dating.
It still sucks there aren't more girls at DigiPen though, and I'm sure the girls there now would tell you the same thing. Then again, maybe they like the male-female ratio. You'll have to find one and ask her yourself. I get along with pretty much everybody though. You spend so much time together that you get to know each other fairly quickly. We're a small group compared to the programming department, so it's a pretty close-knit community, and my classmates are a lot of fun. I'm speaking for the first-year animation class only, but I'm sure the second-year animation guys would back me up on this.
To close out the interview, I'd like to know if spending time at DigiPen has in any way changed your original plans, goals or ideas?
I guess they've changed a little. Right now at I'm a point where I'm not sure if I want to get into the video game industry or if I want to pursue a career in animation if and when I graduate in a year and a half. There are things I like about both fields, but my thoughts are that there's a wider audience to reach with feature film or television animation. Don't get me wrong, the audience for games is enormous, but I feel that it's limited to a particular demographic. With animation, you can reach people young and old, male and female, all over the world. Not so much with video games, although you can probably earn a higher salary in the game industry.
Apart from that though, I also think there's more potential to tell a moving story with animation, whereas games are more about playing than telling a story. I like to write, so I'm always going to lean toward the storytelling side of things. Also, I've been a little turned off lately with the trend in video games moving toward such extreme and irresponsible violence. I mean, a game like Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City is just ridiculous in my opinion. I don't have fun playing games in which all intelligence is thrown out the window in favor of gratuitous blood and gore. I realize a lot of people want that, and I guess there's a time and place for it, but hiring a whore, banging her in your car, and then beating her to death with a stick is a little much. Maybe it's good that we have the freedom to play games like that, but I really don't want to have a hand in making such games. Of course, I take the moral high ground now and if I get an offer to go work for Rockstar when I graduate I'll probably take it without thinking twice (if the money's good).
The game industry is huge and growing bigger every day, and games are becoming so sophisticated so fast that so these points I'm trying to make might very well be invalid. I guess we'll see what happens. We haven't done any work with games so far. Animation students don't get the chance to work on games until their second year. Perhaps my attitude will change once I get an opportunity to do some game-related work. Right now though, I just want to focus on getting my drawing and animation skills up to a professional level by the time I graduate from DigiPen. That needs to be my goal for the near future. If I can do that, my career will take care of itself.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Ben. The last time we spoke with you, you were only a few months into the first year of your program. At this point you've completed your first year and you're well into summer in the Pacific Northwest. So tell us—how was it?
Man, I can't believe the first year is already over, but it couldn't have gone any better to tell you the truth.
Last semester was complete hell. The workload was crazy, and I didn't think I was going to do as well as I did in the fall semester, but I finished the winter semester with a 3.9 GPA, which put me on the Dean's List. Then I got the summer internship with Nintendo Software Technology (NST), which for me was a major achievement. The NST internship is something everyone in the class shoots for, so getting it was just unbelievable. It was a great way to cap off my first year at DigiPen.
Congratulations! That's quite an achievement.
Thanks, man! I was really happy. It's also been a good year outside of school as well though. My friends and I got on ESPN2 back in March when the USA soccer team played Venezuela in Seattle; my indoor soccer team won the league championship last month (and I scored two goals in the final game—what what!); and I've seen a bunch of good rock shows in Seattle, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Le Tigre, Interpol, Blur, Sleater-Kinney and The Gossip. It was a lot of work, but I've had a lot of fun, too. Plus, the weather totally rules here. I have no complaints at all, dude.
Now that there's only one year left, have you started thinking in specifics about exactly what you'd like to be doing professionally after graduation, or perhaps for which company?
Yeah, I think about it all the time. I'm pretty much open to anything at this point—so long as I'm doing production art relating to animation or games. Most of the last year of the 3D Animation program at DigiPen is spent getting your portfolio and demo reel together, so I guess I'll have to wait and see where my skills are at the end of it all. I would love to work for an animation studio, but I'm interested in working for game companies as well. It's really hard to say at this point. So long as I stay in the Seattle area I don't care either way!
How applicable is what you're learning to other fields? Let's say that for some reason you decide NOT to go into games. Are the skills taught at DigiPen going to be of any use to you in other lines of work besides game development?
Yeah, totally. The core of what we learn in the animation program at DigiPen is animation—not games. We draw like crazy, and study the principles of animation, film, anatomy and acting. So we're learning to become professional animators and production artists. Where we choose to take it from there is all up to us. It gives you options. You can go into games, film animation, television animation, special effects work—there are many possibilities. I'm interested in film animation, so right now I'm kind of torn between that field and video games. Both are interesting and challenging to me. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
What are your feelings about starting your second year? Excited? Anxious? Any second thoughts?
I don't have any second thoughts, that's for sure, but I am excited and a little bit anxious. This semester I'll be working on a group animation project with two friends of mine, so I'm excited to get going on that. I've already got a script written for that project, and we'd like to start on preproduction before the semester starts. I'm also going to do the artwork for a game some programmer friends of mine are working on, so that should be fun as well. It's a vertically scrolling 2-D space shooter—my favorite kind of game. The trick will be splitting up my time between those two projects. Time management is one of the most important things to learn when you come to DigiPen—no joke. I should have mentioned that before, in fact. The guys that learn how to manage their time and course load are the ones who do well. So anyway, I expect to be pretty busy this fall semester, but that's OK. I didn't come to DigiPen to sit around and do nothing. Being busy—even if it means working insane hours—is a good thing.
Ok Ben, I know you're a busy guy with lots to do, but before we close out this installment I'd like to open it up to reader questions collected from our messageboards. Mind fielding a few?
From Jason: Ben, what do you DO for Nintendo? I thought Nintendo of America (NOA) did absolutely zero development-related work, keeping that all in their sacrosanct Japanese offices. I always thought NOA was more about marketing, and I'm curious what they need an intern for, particularly one focused on 3D animation.
You're right, Nintendo of America doesn't develop games. I'm interning for Nintendo Software Technology Corporation (NST), which is a second-party developer for Nintendo, and actually shares the same building as DigiPen (students aren't allowed into NST, naturally). NST is the only division of NOA that develops games and is overseen by Nintendo Company Limited (NCL) in Japan. NST management actually reports directly to Shigeru Miyamoto's EAD team. Nintendo Software Technology Corp. is responsible for developing the Game Boy Color versions of Bionic Commando and Crystalis; Ridge Racer 64 and Pokémon Puzzle League for Nintendo 64; and Wave Race: Blue Storm for GameCube.
Anyway, as for me, I'm helping the art team on the GameCube sequel to 1080 Snowboarding called 1080 Avalanche. Being an intern, I do a lot of the work no one else really wants to do, but that's fine with me. Most of my work involves refining the environments and courses, but I also got to model, texture and animate a low-poly background character for the game, so that was a pretty big deal for me. It's great experience, and I really like the people I work with.
When I'm not working on 1080, I help with level design for an upcoming Game Boy Advance title called Mario And Donkey Kong, which is pretty fun to do.
From SuperDuperMario: Have any of the higher-ups in Nintendo visited the school?
Yeah, they have. I know for a fact that Mr. Miyamoto has been there (he even signed the table in the conference room at DigiPen), as well as the former and current presidents of NCL. DigiPen maintains a pretty close relationship with Nintendo, so it's only natural that Nintendo takes an active interest in what's going on at the school. Most of those high-profile visits happen when the students aren't around, so I've never seen any of them in person. Employees from game developers and animation studios in the area and all over the country have come to speak to the students from time to time though, which is nice.
Do you still find video games as enjoyable as you used to now that you've seen 'behind the curtain?' (i.e.- knowing what goes into making a game?)
I still think video games are fun, but I don't play them nearly as much as I used to. I don't play single-player games very much. I don't know - the thought of playing games by myself just doesn't appeal to me anymore. But I still like to get together with friends from time to time to play. Some guys will tell you that once you start making games you don't really have the time or the energy to play them anymore, but others who work in the industry or go to school at DigiPen still maintain their hardcore gaming habits somehow. I'm not one of those guys though (see next question).
How has DigiPen enrollment changed your gaming habits? Are you still playing regularly?
No, I don't play regularly, but I wasn't playing games regularly once I quit writing for GameCritics. My interests began to change slightly following my stint at GameCritics, and I began spending my free time doing other things. However, I do have to admit I've been playing games even less since coming to DigiPen, but then again, all my habits have changed as a result of DigiPen. If you're serious about DigiPen, it will have an effect on your lifestyle. Being in school all day and night, you have to adjust your routine to maintain some semblance of a life. I like to spend my free time now listening to music, playing soccer, hanging out with friends and going to rock shows in Seattle. It's tough for me to find time for games now, but I still like to get together to play games with friends—that's when I think games are the most fun. For instance, there are game rooms at both DigiPen and at Nintendo, so once in a while I'll take a break with my classmates or coworkers and play some games. When I have friends come over to my place, we like to play Chu Chu Rocket!, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Saturn Bomberman, Street Fighter II, Pokémon Puzzle League and Super Dodge Ball. We mainly stick to more old-school games. The newer games just aren't as fun.
From Fader: For me personally, college was little more than a HUGE excuse to play video games to my hearts content. I wonder how it's affecting you?
This is a good question. I think it all depends on how you like to spend your free time and what kind of student you are. I think you can get away with playing games at DigiPen if you do it during whatever free time you have. Like I stated earlier, I prefer to spend my free time doing other things, but I know guys who like to unwind after a long day at school by playing games, and that's totally fine.
However, I think what you're talking about is a totally different matter. At a typical college, I can see how you can get away with playing games all the time and still get by in class. DigiPen is not my first college experience. I graduated from Henderson Community College and the University of Kentucky before coming to DigiPen, and I was pretty heavy into gaming while attending those schools so I know where you're coming from. At a "normal" college, how much you work depends on what degree you're pursuing and the kind of student you are. DigiPen is definitely not like most colleges. The school exists to prepare you for a job in a particular industry. The workload is heavy, and students are expected to keep up. Those who don't work won't get the jobs—it's as simple as that. At DigiPen, school must be the top priority if you hope to do well. However, DigiPen is like any other school in that you get out of it what you put into it. Sure, you can come to DigiPen and play games, but do you think you're going to get a job when you graduate, if you graduate? I doubt it. Plus, what's the point in coming to a school like DigiPen if you're just going to do nothing but play games? Personally, I see it as a waste of time and money. I'm only here for two years, and my first year is already over. They'll be plenty of time for playing games later. I want a job when I graduate, so I need to make the most of my time here.
From Blackbelt Jones: Ben, in the last installment of Ben at the Pen, you basically talked about how you spend every available second working on your stuff. I was just wondering how the heck you make money for food, clothes, or anything. How could you possibly have a job when you're at that school from sunup to sundown?
Yeah, this is definitely a big concern for a lot of prospective (and current) students. Most of the students at DigiPen don't work while they're in school. A typical semester at DigiPen involves taking 20 credit hours a week, which is a heavy course load no matter what school you're enrolled in. So it's pretty difficult to hold down a part-time job and still go to school full-time at DigiPen and expect to do well. You have to expect that going in and prepare for it accordingly. I pay for my tuition and living expenses with student loans—currently it's the best way for the average student to do it. If you're not taking summer classes, working over the summer break is a good way to save some money. Of course, if your parents are willing to cover all that for you then it's a totally different situation. But getting financial aid to attend DigiPen is getting easier now that it's a federally accredited school, so I think it'll be less of a problem for future students. The financial side of things should definitely be a concern for anyone thinking of going to DigiPen though.
Thanks much for your time Ben, and we'll check back with you in a few months!
No problem, dude!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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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