Friday, March 11, 2005

Commencement address at Collins College

Tempe, Arizona

Collins College is a small-but-growing school in Tempe, Arizona that concetrates on animation and other new media education. They have just created a game design program, and invited me to be the commencement speaker at their spring graduation ceremony. This is the text of my address:
Thank you, and good evening. Before I go any farther, I'd like to express my thanks to the faculty, staff, and administration of Collins College for inviting me tonight. It's an honor, and a pleasure, to be able to celebrate your achievements with you this evening.

Because I have written a book about getting a job in the video game industry, I was asked to begin with a few tips on jobhunting tonight from my own experience. So this talk is going to be a bit prosaic at the beginning, but I'll try to make it more interesting later on.

As your instructors have doubtless told you, in the creative digital industries, your portfolio is even more important than your resume as an expression of who you are and what you can do.

Let me tell you something about the way hiring managers think. Nobody does hiring for fun. They see hiring as a tiresome chore that takes time away from what they're really supposed to be doing. Often they're under pressure to replace someone who has left recently, or to staff up a project that's supposed to be starting soon. So while they want to make the right choice, it's not always a pleasant process for them. It should be your goal to make yourself stand out as a potential employee, but perhaps even more importantly, you want to make this an easy decision for them.

Always put your best material first in your portfolio. Speaking as a former hiring manager, I can tell you that you have about 30 seconds to get my attention from the moment I start up your demo reel or CD. If you can keep my attention for 30 seconds, you have it for another two minutes. If you've still got it at the end of that time, then you've have it for another five. After that, you've definitely got an interview, but even if you're Rembrandt, I can't afford to spend any more time on you. There's no point in dumping hundreds of megabytes on someone. Keep it short, keep it punchy, and make sure the best is first.

My next point is that diversity is more important than depth. Things change fast in the commercial world and I might suddenly have to shift you to a project with a completely different aesthetic style. So a person who can show me a range of talents has an advantage over one who concentrates on a single style. Be sure I see your whole range in that first 30 seconds.

Finally, make your demo self-running. Do not require your viewer to install any software, or I guarantee you, you've lost two-thirds of them before they see the first image.

There's an old adage that it's not what you know, it's who you know. I used to think this was really cynical, and it meant that the old-boy network would always prevail, and that unless you knew the secret handshake, you didn't have a chance no matter how much talent you have. Later I realized that it means something different. First, there is no old-boy network in the creative digital industries. We need the best no matter where they come from. We can't afford to hire somebody on the
basis of what fraternity they were in.

What it really means is that professional contacts are the linchpin of
your career. Get to know people in the industry. We're much more approachable than you might think. If you like somebody's work, send them some E-mail and say so. We all love praise. Be courteous but not obsequious, respectful but not flattering. At conferences and group gatherings, don't hesitate to go up and introduce yourself. Busy professionals may not have a lot of time for you, but they're unlikely to be directly rude, so go for it.

Join whatever professional society is appropriate for your discipline and then go to the meetings and mingle! It's much easier than it sounds. In my case, it's the International Game Developers' Association, and it has local chapters all over the world.

Above all, persevere. Finding a job is a job, so get out there and hustle. You don't get to roll the dice in this world, but you actually get to do something better -- you can load them in your favor before the throw. You've already done one great thing by getting a degree from Collins College. The more you search for opportunities, the more opportunities you will find.

One last piece of advice about jobhunting. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Confidence is a sign of maturity. Arrogance is a sign of immaturity. Always be sure you're on the right side of that line.

I now want to talk for a bit about how I first got interested in this business.

If you go to Berkeley, California, and you take the road up Strawberry Canyon behind the university, it winds up and up, past the botanic gardens, until eventually you'll come to the top, and a magnificent view of the whole Bay Area. And there you'll find an ugly, grey, concrete building. This is a museum called the Lawrence Hall of Science, and it's the place where I played my first computer game.

I first went there in 1970, when I was ten years old. Now you have to remember that the microprocessor had not been invented at that time, so there were no video games, only computer games played on a mainframe computer.

There was a sign at the desk that said, "Computer games, two dollars an hour." Now two dollars was two whole weeks' allowance for me at the time, but I was excited by the idea and decided to give it a try. So I went down into the basement, and there in a bare, windowless concrete room with Formica tiling on the floor and fluorescent lighting overhead, I sat down at a teletype machine and played my first computer game.

I don't imagine many of you have seen a Teletype, but it was an old printing terminal that printed out upper-case letters on continuous, yellow roll paper -- like an electric typewriter. It printed very slowly, with a clattering sound, and it smelled of machine oil and ozone. And I sat down at this thing and began to type.

Half an hour later, I had landed on the moon. And I had designed a dragster and raced it. And I had commanded the starship Enterprise. I was Captain Kirk, sitting in his chair, and Mr. Spock was giving me information, and Scotty was saying "She canna take much more, Captain!"
and I was fighting the Klingons with phasers and photon torpedoes.
Sitting there in my bare windowless room with the concrete walls and the fluorescent lighting, I was on the bridge of the Enterprise, even though I was only reading about it in upper-case letters printed on yellow roll paper. I was Captain Kirk.

What I'm trying to say is not to forget the power of your viewer's imagination.

We have so much capacity for creating wonderful images these days that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the object is not merely to create an image, but an impact.

It was the power of imagination that got me excited about computer games. I didn't need fancy graphics to feel as if I were sitting in Captain Kirk's chair on the bridge of the Enterprise.

And even a photograph, concrete and definitive as it is, still invokes the power of imagination, because it begs the question, "What's outside the frame?"

So I urge you, as you go forth from here in your career to create your works, to remember that you're not only making a thing, you're interacting with a person.

You have the power to take people away to wonderful places and there let them do amazing things. Use your power wisely. Use it well.

Congratulations, and thank you.