Jake Kessler will soon complete his graduate studies at Full Sail University and enter the world of professional video game production. I think that’s pretty cool. Jake also happens to be my cousin. I’m Dan Copulsky, and Jake answered my questions by email in June 2010.
You’re currently finishing up a Master of Science in Game Design. What coursework does that entail, and what will having that degree mean you know?
The program is called Game Design, but it’s really more game production. My classmates and I are being trained as producers—which is sort of industry slang of middle managers. We know the ins and outs of the development process, we know how to motivate people, we know how to organize tasks and manage the asset pipeline, but we don’t typically do any coding or create any art. Any code or art background we might have is now an ancillary skill; it’s not core to what we do. The design part does come in a little bit—we are expected to be designers as well as producers—but the largest part of our training here is in production.
The GDMS program here at Full Sail University is a 12-month program, which is a pretty radical schedule. Each of my classes has been ten eight-hour sessions, and every four weeks I’m finishing one class and starting another. As for the coursework itself, that varies somewhat from class to class. One month in my Project Management Principles class, the seven of us who were students that month had to collaborate on all the assignments, taking turns being in charge of the team. Together we created a 300+ page Project Management Plan for a hypothetical game project, complete with budget estimates, policies and procedures, milestone scheduling, risk management, and a dozen other things. We did all the pieces one at a time, and then when it was done we had to take that 300 page conglomeration of everyone’s work and make it fit together as though one person wrote it. That was four weeks. That fast pace is demanding—there’s a joke about Full Sail students only sleeping on the weekends—but it’s forced me to become a better student. When all of your work for a semester is due in under four weeks, you don’t have time to procrastinate. You get a lot of those bad habits blasted out of you.
So the first seven months go like that. Then the last five months of the program are Final Project, where we masters students are put in charge of a team of ten or so undergraduate students who are being trained as Game Developers (programmers) or Game Artists. As a team, we have five months to basically go from concept to a finished game, pretty much on our own. At the same time as all of this, each of us masters students are also writing a thesis—a 30-page academic research paper on a subject of our choosing. So we have to balance our time between managing the team and making sure all our research and writing and editing gets done. It’s hard sometimes, having to multitask like that, when you really want to be focusing on one thing more than the other.
I know you’ve loved playing and creating games for years. How did your interest in games develop and become something you wanted to pursue as a career?
When I was in high school, the coolest game I’d ever played was StarCraft by Blizzard Entertainment. It was a pretty neat RTS (real-time strategy game) with a cool story and these great little scripted conversations between the characters. But the best thing about it was that it came packaged with Blizzard’s proprietary level editor at no extra charge. So as soon as I bought the game I had access to most of the tools that were used to make the game. I could jump right in and make scripted levels every bit as in-depth and polished as the ones in the game itself. Then Blizzard released WarCraft III, which was StarCraft in 3D with exponentially more features, and once again they included a World Editor. The ability to make levels that matched the complexity of Blizzard’s games was put directly into my hands.
So making maps for these games became a sort of hobby for me throughout high school and undergrad. I was studying Writing at Florida State, and in between assignments and going out and doing college-y things with my friends, I was making all kinds of levels and maps and campaigns. Some of them were more RPG-esque, where you had a hero character you would level up by fighting monsters and learning spells, and others were things like tower defense or more traditional RTS maps. The great thing about these editors is they didn’t require you to know code or being able to create your own 3D models—all of that was done for you—so you were able to go straight from concept into really rapid prototyping. It let me focus a lot on the design aspects of making a game rather than get bogged down with technical constraints.
But it was only ever a hobby. Around the end of undergrad, though, I was at a crossroads. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the next 30-40 years of my life. I had studied Writing but come out with the surprising realization that I didn’t love it as much as I thought. I was looking in a few other directions—law, teaching, I was even a Campus Ministry coordinator for a year—but I knew if I could find something I loved I’d be so much happier. My best friend has a diagram tacked up on his kitchen wall, and it’s got three circles labeled “Things I Love Doing,” “Things I Am Good At,” and “Things People Will Pay Me to Do.” The overlap between all three is supposed to be what will make you happiest for your career. One day I just woke up and realized, that’s games for me.
What does an admissions department seem to be looking for when picking students for a program like yours? Do other students in the program have backgrounds similar to your own?
Full Sail takes people from all over, with varying backgrounds. Mine’s in Writing, my partner Dave’s is in Literature. There are people in my program who came from Math, Business, Art, Music, Film… and there are even guys who went through one of Full Sail’s programs for undergrad, either Game Dev or Game Art. Some people came here straight out of undergrad while some people worked for a while first. We have kids too young to drink coming in, and we also have 30-somethings with spouses and kids. It’s pretty varied in terms of that kind of thing. What’s more important is what sort of skills you bring to the table, and for skills you don’t have, what are you willing and able to learn. You need to be good with people, communicating with them and mediating conflict. You need to be driven to get everything done. You need to be able to multitask. You need to be able to string words together on paper without sounding like a moron. More than anything, though, you need to be able to say “I don’t know this, please teach me.” Nothing is more fatal to this kind of career than the attitude that you already know everything.
As a final project, you and another producer are leading a team of seven programmers and five artists to produce a 3D real-time artillery game, called Cast Away. What’s the process of putting that together like?
On day 1 of Final Project you come in and the EPs (External Producers, Full Sail professors) divide up the studio (everybody starting Final Project that month) into teams. You find out who your team is, who your partner is if you have one, and you start getting to know them. You get to work right away, because after the first week you have Pitches, which is where you actually give a presentation pitching two ideas to the EPs for games you want to make. They’ll pick one of them to greenlight, and that’s what you’re making for the next five months. Before production can actually start, though, there’s about a month and a half of documentation that needs to get done. (This is where having taken that Project Management Principles class comes in handy.) There’s a team Charter that spells out policies and procedures, like what hours each day the team is going to meet, what days are going to be off for weekends, and what the protocol is for dealing with human resource problems. There’s a Design Document, which spells out all the features that are going to go into the game and what priority each one is. Then there are Technical and Art Design Documents, which take the base Design Doc and extrapolate it to spell out what’s demanded of programmers and artists respectively. All of that needs to be finished before you can start actually making the game.
So right away, your five months for production is really more like three, three and a half. Once all the documentation’s done, the first milestone is called Proof of Concept (POC). That’s the most basic working build of the game that a person can sit down and play for five minutes: it’s typically got nothing but placeholder art assets, no music, very few gameplay features, just the bare bones mechanics of the game. For us that was moving and shooting. After POC, we have a new milestone due pretty much every two weeks: Feature Frag 1 and 2 are turned in by the end of the third month of the project, and then a week later is Alpha. By Alpha, all of the game’s core gameplay features and the majority of the art assets are supposed to be in, along with the bulk of the sound assets. (Since there isn’t anybody on the project team trained in sound design, Full Sail has a sound guy who’s supposed to create all the sound assets for the games—we tell him what we need, we show him the tech is ready to support it, and he gives it to us as soon as it’s done. I guess you could say sound is the one part of the game that’s outsourced.) After Alpha, we get another three weeks before we deliver Beta, which is supposed to be the vast majority of the finished game. There’s another three weeks after Beta to tighten things up, fix bugs, playtest, balance the game, that kind of thing, but by Beta the game should be functionally complete or pretty close. If there are any sounds or art assets still not finalized by Beta, there better be a good reason.
The final version of the game (Gold) is turned in three weeks after Beta, and all the teams give a big Final Presentation in Full Sail’s auditorium. This is the part my team is building towards now. Presentations are a big deal, and they’re always open to friends and family. It’s basically us showing off the game, going through what we did and demonstrating ten minutes or so of gameplay on the big screens. After Final Presentation, the only thing left is a week of Archiving: gathering up all the documentation, updating it to accurately describe the finished game, and binding it together for both us and Full Sail to keep a permanent record.
When you’re managing people who have art or coding skills you don’t have yourself, how do you know what’s reasonable to expect from them and how much time they should have to complete things?
Before this project, I wouldn’t have known how to answer that. Now of course I’ve had some experience working with these guys, so I have a frame of reference. In the early days, though, there was always an extent to which I just had to trust people when they told me what was reasonable. Then I watched them and saw what they did. There are always other resources we can turn to for help, like our EPs or other professors, or even other team members—pull them aside and go, is this a reasonable estimate for this task? What I’ve found, on my team at least, is that there isn’t a lot of reason for people to mislead you on something like that. At the end of the day, everybody’s here because they want to be here, they want to make this game, they’re at least as passionate about it as you are. They aren’t going to undershoot their estimates because they won’t be able to finish on time, and they aren’t going to pad their estimates either because that means less ends up going into the game in the end. It’s very rare that someone will be way off in what they tell us, and if that happens the rest of the team usually speaks up and goes, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense.”
At the same time, though, managing students is a delicate operation sometimes. We’re nominally in charge, but it’s very much on us to get them to do what we want. We aren’t holding these guys’ paychecks, and they aren’t getting health insurance for being part of the project—all we have to motivate them with is the fact that we’re all here, we all paid a lot of money to come here, and we all want to make a game, so let’s get it done. It’s a lot of hours and a lot of work all around, but you can’t just bark orders and expect people to get to work. You have to get them on board with what you want to do. You have to get them to love it. If you can do that, it solves a lot of these issues for you—people will do their absolute best for the game, because they’re with you that that’s what’s important.
What does your career outlook look like to you?
What I’ve been led to understand is that a lot of the industry is structured similarly to Final Project. You have leads or producers leading teams of artists and/or developers, they report to higher producers, sometimes up and up and up. Design is a little different, because some kinds of studios need full-time designers and some don’t. Companies that make games like MMOs (massively multiplayer online games), or smaller episodic games where a new episode is coming out a couple of times a year, they need people full-time to write and design regular content additions. A lot of other kinds of studios, though, they only need designers around during the early part of the development cycle, where the game is being drawn up on paper. So they’re more likely to hire designers (especially junior designers) as consultants for six or eight months at a time, and then maybe give them a permanent position later if the designer has proven himself/herself, and if the studio has a need. That’s one reason I’m really glad I’ve come through this program at Full Sail, because design is something I might have been able to do decently at before, but now I have this other marketable skill: I’m a producer. That should help me find what I want, which is a more permanent position.
As for prospects, I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve just started putting together applications to send out to places, and until this game project is finally finished I really just have a resume and cover letter—my actual application is pretty toothless without the actual game demo to go with it. I’ll send out a bigger wave of applications in August when the game is finished, and then we’ll see if anything comes of it right away. I’ve always had a lot of confidence in my speaking skills, and I know I’d be a great designer-producer, so I kind of feel like if I can get in a room with these guys for an interview I can sell myself. I just need to get in that room.
Given the right situation to work on whatever you wanted, what sort of games would you be most interested in creating?
Games for me are about two things: They’re stories, and they’re entertainment experiences. In that way they’re a lot like movies. The kind of games I want to make have definite narratives, whether that’s more of a drama or high fantasy or science fiction story, or something lighter with less depth. Playing games like Mass Effect (from BioWare) is a lot like watching a feature film of a TV drama, and writing for a game like that would make me really happy because I’d get to really flex those creative muscles. But the most important thing is for games to be fun. People have to want to play them, they have to enjoy playing them, and they have to get sucked in or “immersed” to the point where they want to come back and keep playing. I would love to work on a game like World of WarCraft, which has this huge depth and rich narrative to it, with new chapters and areas being added all the time, and where there’s always something else fun for the player to do—he/she is never finished.
A part of me also wants to keep working on things that can be modded or edited or expanded by the player, where they’re given that framework to work in—the way I was able to work within the framework of StarCraft and WarCraft III. I think that dynamic, where the player jumps into the role of the designer and gets to just mess around and create things, is a lot of fun—I’d like to make that available to new people the way it was made available to me.