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Employment Adventures

Or One Way To Become A Game Designer

Sunday night.  The phone rings.  It’s my boss John.  “Brad, do you want the good news or the bad news?” 

Freeze frame.  Okay, so to explain what’s going on here, I had been pacing back and forth since Saturday.  A phone call from John means one of several things.  Either my game project’s cancelled, or I am laid off, or the whole company’s shut down.  It’s nervous time.

Rewind to Wednesday night.  My wife Kate and I are at dinner, when she asks how work is going.  Work, I say, had been better.  Our game project had been searching for direction for some time.  While some people were outwardly gung-ho to race towards the finish line, a lot of faces told the story that we were going nowhere fast. Sometimes games just don’t gel and plugs get pulled.

I casually say, “I think they’re going to cancel our project.”

I’ve been here before, the calm before the storm.  A project or a studio about to take a turn for the worse, I can almost taste it.  It’s not any one thing you can put your finger on.  It’s something you have to experience a few times to get a sense of.  In my almost decade of doing art for money, I have experienced this sensation many times, and have been blessed enough to come out on the other side, but it’s not always apparent what will happen.  Like I say, I’ve been here before.

For example, in my last few months of college, I got a contract gig in Houston for a web development company.  The only web experience I had was maintaining my own site, but they saw fit to hire me full time after I graduated as their multimedia specialist.  For the first job of my career, I had a crash course in how my boss’s over-expectations clashed with my own inexperience.  Working for a living was not easy.  Not to mention, the owners of the company had a huge fight and I was caught in the middle of something I had not been prepared for.  I even dragged one of my best friends in the mess with me. Luckily, she got out when the getting was good.  Office Drama 101?  I missed out on that class.  Two days before the bottom completely fell out, I got a call from a fellow named Van.  He had seen my website and wanted to interview me.  I blew him off because I wanted my current job to work out.  It didn’t.

So I am now jobless in a city I’d never been to, and a week later, Van calls me again.  Decent timing, that.  He was head of a PC game company, and he wanted to know again if I was interested in a job.  I thought, “Games?”   I had never considered doing games before full time, but sure, I’ll swing by for an interview.  To this day, I have no idea how he found me.

Thus started my gaming career and it’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since.  That interview put me in as lead artist at Digital Tome.  For three years I worked my heart out on several games for them, and at the end, we get the news that they have to close their doors.  Bad timing!  I had just met a swell gal named Katie, and was hoping to actually have a job when I asked her out on a date.  Oh well, that really didn’t matter to her evidently.

Anyway, After Digital Tome, I found a true brickburner of a contract gig, right there in Houston.  While I was lounging around my apartment burning down my stockpile of non-perishables and water and the occasional cracker while looking for full time work, I get a call out of the blue from a fellow who was interested in my services.  “Hi, my name’s Glenn. Your resume came across my desk and I wanted to interview you for a graphic artist position.”  Oh, he has a desk, and at least an assistant?  That seems promising… it’s not gaming, but it’ll do for now.  I get my interview face on and head out.

Turns out, this guy had an interactive multimedia CD authoring and marketing company in New York and after some unexplained event fired everyone in his entire staff and flash relocated to North Houston.  Glenn hired me on as his ONLY EMPLOYEE to replace all those people, and we set to work making website/cd/marketing packages for various get rich quick schemes and multi-level marketing outfits.  Oh, did I mention he worked out of his house?  Or that he did not have a desk, or an assistant?  And that all his equipment was in storage? And it was completely disassembled with no manuals and parts missing?  Yeah.  I suppose Glenn never hired anyone else because anytime he needed someone to do his websites, photography, logos, interactive UI, video and audio editing, radio commercial writing, network and email support, hardware support and to keep track of his keys and schedule and take calls at all hours of the night, well, I suppose I fit the bill. 

So, after one particularly grueling weekend that Glenn did not allow me to leave work for sixteen hours straight to finish a project, said project being full of things I had never done before, learning on the fly while Glenn kept threatening to “hire somebody else to do the job,” my freshly minted girlfriend Kate took me aside and told me that if we were going to be together, I could not work like that. It wasn’t healthy for me or our relationship, and she was tired of not spending time with me.  Wow, she actually wanted to see me once in a while. During that last nonstop work-a-thon, I got a call from the owner of Timegate Studios.

Now Timegate was at the time the only other game in town, so to speak.  I thought that if I wanted any semblance of a normal workload and schedule, I should probably see what they had to offer.  Plus it put me back into the game industry, which was a plus.  However, they only wanted to pay me a fraction of what I was used to making both at Digital Tome and for Glenn.  The stability and benefits weighed in and I took the job.  

Six months later, Kate and I got married, and I had settled back into game development.  After three years of clawing my way up the financial ladder at Timegate to a salary *almost* equivalent to what I made right out of college, the bad news came.  Timegate was out of money, closing its doors, and we were mostly all laid off. I had survived three rounds of layoffs there, but no amount of talent will keep a job that doesn’t exist anymore.  While it was nice that the head of the company helped us all fill out the unemployment info on the last day, it was kind of rough to say goodbye to good friends. 

The day they laid us all off, Hurricane Rita started making headlines.  I was sitting at home Wednesday three days after the layoff, in my unemployed splendor watching the weatherman predict the eye of the storm running right over our house.  I called Kate to tell her to come home and scoop up the cats and we were heading for higher ground before the roads got too clogged.  As she’s driving home, I start gathering up what we’re going to take with us, and I am wondering if we should evacuate to Dallas, where my family lives, or Austin, where Kate’s family lives.

My email pops up just before I unplug my computer with a message from Midway Studios Austin.  “Hi, we’ve seen your website and wonder if you’d like to come in for an interview.”

Good timing… Austin it is!

Fourteen hours later in a normally two hour trip, we get to Austin.  The next day, I have an interview that lasts six hours at Midway.  Even in my frazzled evacuee state, I do reasonably well.  Turns out, one of my good friends who had gone to Midway Chicago had sent in my stuff for me, and they had forwarded it to the Austin studio without me knowing.  It wasn’t until the last conversation of that six hour interview that I even knew what position they were hiring me for.

My time at Midway had been the best work experience in my career.  These guys were true professionals, took care of everything, made me feel right at home, sent me to Chicago to the home office, San Jose for GDC, Seattle for a summit, I had rolled into the big time as far as game development went.  I was on a multimillion dollar project and working my way up.  I got to work on Blacksite Area 51, and the unannounced other four year project, I learned a lot and made great friends and contacts.

I don’t want to say a thing bad about Midway, I loved working there.  It was the best company, the best team, the best project I had ever worked on. It’s just that the monumental talent we had brought to bear on this project couldn’t save our game, and people started to realize it, but we never stopped working as hard as we could.  While I was trying my hardest to polish the UI and get the FX and vehicles and weapons for the next product review, I got a call from a fellow at id Software in Dallas.

A friend of mine from Timegate years ago that wound up at id had asked if I wanted to come up there and work, and at the time, Midway was rocking along ok, I didn’t see the need to jump ship.  A few weeks later, they wanted to call me for a phone interview, and I thought, “What could it hurt?”

Halfway through the call, they say they’re going to fly me up to Dallas to interview, and I think, well, ok, we’ll do that. But later they call back and they have to postpone.  This is fine, because I do have a lot of work to do and I hated taking a day off short notice when my team needed me.  So, in between the phone call, and the postponed on site interview at id, things at Midway start to erode.  I had seen the writing on the wall a few weeks prior, but it was really clear that something was impending.

That brings us back to Wednesday night at dinner with Kate.  “I think they’re going to cancel our project.”

The next morning, Thursday, I actually hear rumors to the fact through the wonderful high-speed grapevines that intertwine throughout our little industry.  Way better than carrier pigeon.  I lean over to my closest companions at work and mention they should get whatever ducks or other waterfowl they use to classify their daily duties squarely in a row, ‘cause something’s going down on Monday.

Friday, I get up, get ready, get my stuff together and head to the airport.  Oh, did I mention that’s the day id software had rescheduled me to fly up to Dallas for an interview?  Great timing!  After the interview, the driver takes me back and I fly back to Austin, Kate picks me up and we drive down to San Antonio.  While I am spanning three cities in one day, everyone at Midway is getting frantic as to what’s going to happen Monday.  While there’s no official word, we all kind of know what’s going on in one form or another.  Saturday after we get home, the phone starts ringing and the text messages and rumors start flying.  Turns out, by Saturday night, the general consensus is that if you get a call from your boss, he’ll tell you to stay home Monday.  Not only is the project cancelled, but anyone showing up Monday for work will be let go.

I had just had a great interview at id, and I would love to get laid off to get the severance package and smoothly transition northward.  However, I hear nothing from id, and I get a bit nervous.  I also don’t hear anything from work, so it looks like I will be laid off.  The things that go through your mind in a time like this tend to build on top of themselves into a gestalt of anxiety.

Sunday morning, still no word from id or Midway, the rumor mill is at its height, and now I hear that the building is locked, no one has access.  I hear of some of my friends getting calls to stay home, they’re safe.  I have made up my mind that if I am called, or not, I’ll make it through.

Sunday night.  The phone rings.  It’s my boss John. “Brad, do you want the good news or the bad news?” 

“Give me the bad news, John” 

Project is cancelled; they’re laying off eighty plus people.  The good news is they want to keep me, John tells me to just come in on Wednesday and we’ll talk.

Monday, I hang out at home till id contacts me and asks if they can bring Kate and me in. They want to meet the wife, and show her around the office.  That’s a good sign.  Wednesday I show up at work.  And I have to keep my mouth shut about what’s going on.  However, somewhere leaks are sprung, and people are starting to ask questions.  I am starting to have to fend off questions about me leaving Midway.

We drive up there Friday and visit again, I get my offer letter and my fate is sealed for sure.  I’ll be working at id by the first of October.

Remember the high speed grapevine?  Somehow, my studio director got wind of my plans to go to id before I was ready to let anyone know.  She was cool about it, just wanted to know so she could make plans.  She said I could come back any time, which is nice.   I went ahead and let everyone know so I could help finish as much work as I could before I left.

So now we’re laying plans for the move to Dallas, I am sitting in the middle of my week off before starting at id, and looking back at all the twists and turns I have been through in my career.  Sometimes, it’s tough to know what’s going to happen. I’m here to tell you working in the game industry isn’t always fun and games, but it’s always interesting.  I suppose it’s like the movie industry, swinging from project to project, company to company, but I never thought it would be.  Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but it has been up and down.  I just hope this gig lasts more than three years!


By Bradley W. Lewis

Bradley W. Lewis is a rancher turned digital artist who's been fighting robots and pirates for their gold since 1976. While he now works neck deep in the next-gen videogame development industry, he still remembers how to drive a bulldozer- a fact his coworkers find slightly unsettling. In his copious amounts of spare time, he constructs Nixie tube clocks, guitar amps, tops, and assorted other things in his garage.

Brad lives with his lovely wife Katie, their two cats, Gucci and Bumble, and a growing army of robots. He hopes to one day return one day to his family ranch near Eustace, Tx, which has been in his family since the mid-1840s.