Ted Price founded Insomniac Games in 1994 as an independent developer. Now based in Burbank, California, the studio has grown to become one of the most most highly-regarded in the industry. It has created a steady stream of hits, ranging from its first title, Disruptor, to the Spyro the Dragon games, to the enormously popular Ratchet & Clank series. The company is also considered one of the best small businesses to work at in America, noted for its relaxed environment, flexible hours, yoga, Fragfest Fridays, movie nights, and indoor 7/11. Price is also the Chairman of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, and has been very active in the industryâ€™s efforts to combat anti-videogame legislation.
What did your mother want you to do as a career? Surely, it couldn’t have been to make professional video games!?
That’s a good question. I don’t know what my mom wanted me to do. Both of my parents were very careful not to push me in any particular direction. They’ve always been big believers in their kids’ independence and supported my siblings and me in all of our crazy ventures. Plus when I was growing up, games were a fringe industry and few talked about videogame development providing viable careers. Of course, that’s all changed and I’m sure my mom is somewhat relieved that I’m in a growing industry and not one that’s in decline.â€¨
What would you say to my mother, to get her off my back and let me make professional video games as a career?
With all of the positive press that this industry has gotten over the past 10 years (well it’s certainly been positive in terms of financial growth,) I’d be surprised if parents are discouraging entry into games. In fact, a lot of parents in their 30’s and 40’s are gamers! But if your mom insists that gaming is one step above joining the circus, I guess that’s a problem, especially if she’s paying your rent.â€¨â€¨What can you do? Well you have an entire internet at your disposal to construct a positive case for the industry. First there’s the oft-cited statistic that we’re bigger than movies. Everyone watches movies, right? And while we aren’t showing up in Us magazine or making highly publicized speeches about Darfur, our industry is collectively making more money than the movie studios. At least that’s what’s supposed to be happening. But for most parents, money talks. And its presence creates legitimacy.â€¨To further prove that our industry means serious business, bring up the publishers. The biggies compete well (for the most part) with the blue chip stocks that symbolize “legitimate” industry for our parents. For example, as I write this EA is trading at $53 – a hell of a lot higher than GM, Ford, General Electric, and many, many others. OK, so the other publishers aren’t doing quite as well but they’re holding their own.â€¨â€¨And then you can explain that this is a growth industry versus, say, mainstream entertainment. We’ve enjoyed steady growth for a long time and as games continue to explode across the globe things aren’t cooling off yet. Most important for you and your parents, growth means opportunity at all levels.â€¨â€¨Finally, you can talk about some of the jobs the industry supports. We have some of the best and brightest programmers, designers, animators, artists, IT personnel, HR folks, sound engineers, marketers and managers in the world. Why? Because making games is a very, very complex endeavor and to succeed you’ve got to have smart, creative, forward-thinking people – people willing to take risks, people who are never satisfied with the status quo. In other words, our industry is full of incredible mentors. And there are few places, in my opinion at least, that offer such great training in how to work with a team.â€¨â€¨If all else fails, move out of the house and find a job as a tester. A job that will cover your rent, ramen and deodorant. Then in 10 years when you’re an industry superstar, buy your parents a new house just to show them, in a nice way, that you were right.
Tell us about your start in the industry. What was your life like when you were younger and hungrier?
It’s been over 13 years for me. I started when I was 25 and now I’m 38. It went by in a flash.â€¨â€¨I wouldn’t say that I’m any less hungry for success now than I was back then. But after 13 plus years of making mistakes and having a few wins I feel more confident in the decisions I make. And I see the same confidence in all of the managers and leaders at Insomniac.â€¨â€¨As a company and as individuals, having been through so many high-stress production cycles we all deal with the inevitable crises far better than we used to. This means that the atmosphere at Insomniac is much calmer than it used to be. And every year our end-of-project crunches get easier.â€¨â€¨I think many of us, me included, have also realized how important balance is. When we were younger, we worked absolutely insane hours and had very little life outside of work. But now many of us have families, fulfilling hobbies and yes, a social life outside of the business. While we still work very hard, I think we all have come to the realization that work can be far more enjoyable when you also have other things going on in your life.
It’s pretty tough (almost damn impossible) to get hired without industry experience on a resume. Should I lie? It’s the standard Catch-22, need a job to get experience, need experience to get a job.
Imagine you are me, caught in the 22 — what the heck would you do?
I hope this is an obvious answer – lying on a resume is nuts. What happens if you lie, you get a job and your employer finds out you aren’t who you say you are? Do you think you’ll be entrusted with the choice projects? You’ll be lucky to retain your job. Besides, most employers check your references – and unless you’ve convinced all of your references to lie for you, you’ll be found out. More likely though is that potential employers will check references you DIDN’T supply. This is a fairly tight-knit industry where contacts are maintained. And if your interviewer has been in business for a while, he or she should be able to pick up the phone and find someone you SHOULD have worked with based on your resume.â€¨But just as important, if you don’t have the experience, why lie about it? You’re just creating false expectations for your employer – expectations that you probably won’t be able to fulfill anyway.
People that never went to college in the video games business swear blind that colleges aren’t needed to get a job. Are they for real? Should I burn my books now?
I think it depends on the person and the employer. As someone who looks at a lot of resumes, I consider it a real plus when someone has attended a reputable college and graduated with good grades. The subjects taken don’t matter that much to me. What matters is that the person is a finisher – a crucial quality in our deadline-driven world. Plus it shows that education is important to the potential employee. I think in our industry, self-education is one of the keys to getting ahead. Things change so quickly that those who are interested in learning new techniques, new tools, etc. are often the most successful.â€¨â€¨Finally, college is generally a very social experience. You learn to co-exist with many other personality types, often in stressful situations. That’s a perfect preparation for games where being comfortable among all types really helps.â€¨â€¨That said, going to college isn’t necessary to get a job in our industry, but I think it helps a lot. â€¨
What’s cool about the development side though is that there was, is and should always be plenty of opportunity for those willing to take risks.
How did you get your big break? did you claw your way out of the testers’ pit? Did you sleep your way to the top? Did you sleep at all?
I was very lucky in that I entered the industry as it was making the transition from cartridge-based systems to CD-ROM based systems. Startups were everywhere and publishers were willing to take chances on people with no experience. And when I started Insomniac I had zero games experience. I had a very basic design for a game, some ability in 3D art, money I had saved from a previous job and very little to lose. Soon after I went into business I met Alex and Brian Hastings – two extremely talented programmers who joined Insomniac as partners and together we broke into the console industry. Through good fortune, hard work and meeting the right people at the right time, we made it through the first few years and released a game in 1996 (Disruptor for the PlayStation). From there things kept getting better, but they rarely got easier since we pushed ourselves harder which each game.â€¨
Tell us about the first time you felt star-struck when meeting a leading game developer (and no, we won’t tell Mr. Miyamoto your real name). Do you even realize that some people will get butterflies in their stomach when first meeting you?
Having grown up on Miyamoto games I have to say that it was pretty cool meeting him for the first time. I ran into him backstage at one of the AIAS award ceremonies and I was very unprepared. I meant to say “Miyamoto-san, I have the greatest respect for you. Your influence has been strong throughout all of our games and I’m indebted to you for what I and others at Insomniac have learned from your masterpieces.” Unfortunately what came out was more like. “Uh, dude your games rule. I’ve, like, played every single one. I can’t tell you how sweet it is meet you.”â€¨â€¨I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of Insomniac fans and it’s still a little embarrassing when they single me out. I mean, I like it – I definitely have an ego. But we embrace collaboration very thoroughly at Insomniac and none of our games can be attributed to a single person or even a small group of people. I feel a little weird because fans attribute far more to me than they should and I worry that teammates will get pissed off because of it. Yet like it or not (and hey, it is kind of cool to be recognized) every company and every game needs a “face” and one of my jobs is to represent the team. So I do. â€¨â€¨What IS extremely cool for all of us at Insomniac is that our brand is recognized so widely. A lot of gamers may not know me or the other leaders at Insomniac but they DO know our games and that they’re “Insomniac” games. They’ve come to expect certain qualities in every game we release. That’s very gratifying. At the same time with every subsequent game we work even harder to ensure we don’t let the fans down.
Without using terms like “indentured servant” or “voluntary servitude,” please describe your ideal protÃ©gÃ©.
Someone I can trust 100%. Someone who isn’t a “yes” man. Someone who gets along with everyone in the company. Someone who is decisive. Someone who takes calculated risks. Someone who follows through on what he or she promises. But more importantly, someone who can take over and allow me to enjoy a stress-free vacation now and then.
Let’s say I was interviewing with you tomorrow. Short of showing up drunk and naked, what could I say or do to completely ruin my shot? And what could I do to totally win your heart?
Drunk would be bad. Just as bad is knowing nothing about Insomniac or the games we make. Worse is lying about anything. Badmouthing other companies or projects doesn’t help (though objective criticism to explain a point is fine). Dissing Insomniac or our games isn’t so hot (it’s happened before during an interview). Interrupting, answering your cell phone, appearing disinterested or just being rude means that you’ll probably lose out to someone else who’s competing for the position.â€¨â€¨On the positive side, demonstrating that you’re interviewing because you’re into our games and/or our philosophy is great. I’m always impressed when people know as much about our company as most Insomniacs. To me it means that they’re looking for more than a job, they’re looking for place to settle down for the long haul. Being open about one’s shortcomings as well as one’s strengths is something else I find refreshing. No one is perfect and to have the self-confidence to admit one isn’t capable of everything demonstrates the kind of maturity strong teams need. Finally, demonstrating a positive attitude in general is key for me. If someone can walk into Insomniac with positive energy that isn’t forced, it goes a long way toward reassuring me and other team members that they’ll help, not hurt the team.
Let’s look several years into the future for a moment. Should I even bother learning today’s skills? Surely they’ll have completely changed by the time I get out of college? What kinds of jobs are absolutely ‘rock-solid’, and will undoubtedly still be around 5-10 years from now? And what new jobs do you think might exist that nobody has quite pinned down just yet?
Today’s skills aren’t really that different from skills that were needed 10 years ago. Take art and animation – most companies have been using Maya and/or Max and Photoshop for many years. And that probably won’t change for a long, long time. And artistically, this industry tends to take an “additive” approach. By this I mean that we rarely drop techniques, we just add to them. For example, we’re still building relatively low-density polygonal models yet now we’re creating normal maps for them to make them LOOK high poly. So had you learned low-poly modeling 10 years ago, it would still be applicable today.â€¨â€¨Programming, design, sound engineering – all of the fundamental principles behind these professions haven’t changed much. Though the task and challenges associated with each have gotten more complex. Anyway, the point is that I think today’s skills will be very applicable in two, five or even 10 years.â€¨Yet with each new wave of consoles or graphics cards, positions morph. As an industry we’re definitely getting more specialized since everything about games is so much more complex than it was a decade ago. It’s much harder to be effective as a generalist. That said, there’s nothing wrong with KNOWING how everything is done, it’s just less likely that you’ll be successful trying to be an expert in a lot of different areas – something that was possible 10 years ago.â€¨â€¨Personally I think there will always be a big demand for designers, programmers, artists, animators, sound engineers and producers/project managers. I don’t think any of those professions will go away. And furthermore, there is and will be demand for more specialized positions within those areas – dialogue writers, video artists/editors, cinematic directors, mocap specialists, online lobby programmers, online community managers. I could go on.â€¨â€¨The area in which I think we’ll see the most growth and change is online. Not only are more and more games going online in terms of features, more and more games will be digitally distributed. This requires new support structures and will give rise to new positions.â€¨
How much stock do you put in the emerging game design programs at universities? Does it matter more to you that an interviewee knows the history of and theory behind The Third-Person Action MMO/Puzzle Platformer Hybrid, or is all about the demo he/she shows up with?
Man, I wish there had been universities offering game-related courses when I was in school. Very few of the courses I took during college had any relevance at all to what I’m doing right now. If there HAD been game theory or design courses when I was in school, I think Iâ€™d be better equipped to do what I do today. I’m actually very jealous of all of the undergrads who are taking these courses.â€¨â€¨As far as hiring designers goes, the number one thing we look for is real world experience. But that’s often hard to come by, especially for junior designers (and we often hire junior designers). So if you’ve attended a game-focused school or taken on a game-related major, it can actually can make a difference. For example, on Resistance: Fall of Man, we hired a guy who turned out to be a superb designer. He had zero experience in the industry but had attended a school offering game design courses. Interestingly this was his second career – he had been a corporate lawyer and left it all behind to start over in games. And it didn’t hurt that he is very smart, very creative and very personable. But he came in with a solid understanding of game theory and I think that allowed him to get a running start.â€¨â€¨When it comes to other positions – artists and animators for example – yes, a solid reel or a demo is extremely important. But schools with a focus on games can help students create reels that may be more of what game companies are looking for. Furthermore, even though every company creates assets differently, having a basic understanding of the technical limitations associated with games can shorten the ramp-up time for new artists.â€¨
OK, just imagine three companies make me an offer (a guy has gotta dream!). They’re all kinda low-end jobs, and I need to move 3,000 miles to take any of them. How do I pick the right team? What would you look for?
I would first look for past success. If a company or a team has a track record of releasing great games (critically acclaimed and financially successful), it probably means that they’re doing something right. Plus success often means stability, which is extremely important if you’re moving 3,000 miles. You don’t want to leave your family and friends just to be out of work in a few months when the company craters.â€¨â€¨Something else to evaluate is the “feel” you get when you visit the company during interviews. Do people seem happy? Is there positive energy? Are people excited about the projects they’re working on? Sometimes if the answer is “no”, you may be misreading the company or the people. But generally, I think first impressions are pretty accurate and that you should listen to your gut.â€¨â€¨Finally, there is usually plenty of other information available on the web to help you make a more well-informed choice. If the company is public you can check out their financial history and company structure. This may help you figure out if the company is heading up or down. And even if a company isn’t public you can usually learn about their general philosophies, management team and accolades they’ve won by perusing their websites and reading online articles.
Finally, there are a TON of game development colleges around the world now. Imagine you had to start again, and have all the choices I have — how would you pick? And how would you convince your mother to get out her check book?
Great question. I suppose I’d look at several things:â€¨
- Curriculum. Do the courses seem relevant to what’s going on in games today? And are they focusing on today’s games or games from five years ago? Are the courses offered specific to what you want to do in the industry?
- Faculty. Has the majority of the faculty created games before? Have they created games that you enjoy playing? Are guest lecturers from the industry invited frequently?
- Opportunities for experimentation. Do you get to participate in a lot of hands-on projects? In other words, can you try your hand at making games as a part of your classes?
- Equipment. How up-to-date is the equipment? Will you be working with the latest graphics cards or console dev stations? How about the latest software?
- Placement services. How successful is the college in placing its graduates at top companies? Does the college work with top companies to set up summer internships? Have many of its graduates gone on to major success in the industry?
- Interviews with alumni. Do you have the opportunity to talk with graduates about their experiences and what they got out of their education?
And convincing mom and dad to free up the checkbook? Perhaps promise them that you’ll pay them back when you score that dream job? I guess it really depends on your parents. Personally, I’d suggest doing everything you could to show your passion for games and convince them that unlike most college undergrads, you’ll be focusing on a specific career. The fact that you know what you want to do with your life puts you WAY ahead of most college attendees. And the fact that you have a chance to attend a college that specializes in your chosen profession could give you an even bigger head start over most of your peers.