Louis Castle, VP Electronic Arts (Los Angeles)

January 22, 2009 — Leave a comment

Louis Castle is one of my most respected friends in the video game industry. He’s always kept a pretty low profile but he’s very well known to professional developers. He was one of the founders of Westwood Studios, a development company that made the first Command & Conquer game. I was running Shiny at the time and it literally brought our office to a standstill, and remains one of my favorite games of all time. I actually wrote a letter to Westwood to congratulate them, but Louis went on to more and more exciting projects. These days he’s flying around in private jets (he even owns his own private jet company) and recently released Boom Blox after working with Steven Spielberg on it. It’s hard to find a more experienced, and successful developer in the world. One thing I notice about him is he’s always straddling the line (very well) between being a senior executive at Electronic Arts, but also extremely involved in development, so it’s tough to pin him with a job title. Let’s just put it this way, if your career ended out anything like Lou’s, you’ve made it in the video game business!
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What did your mother want you to do as a career? Surely, it couldn’t have been to make professional video games!?

My Mom always supported me in no matter what career choice I had for that week. The final non-starter career was Architecture which I actually stuck with throughout high school and only changed my mind as I graduated. It was Architecture that led me to video games since it inspired me to learn about how computers would be used as graphics tools.

What would you say to my mother, to get her off my back and let me make professional video games as a career?

The Interactive Entertainment industry continues to grow, even in tough economic times such as these. Maybe the best argument is that every parent I have ever talked to believes it is great to have a career that pays well and allows you to do what you love to do. If you love games, why not be part of the industry that makes them?

Tell us about your start in the industry. What was your life like when you were younger and hungrier?

I was, and pretty much continue to be, very passionate about making games. When starting in the business there was just so much to learn and that drove me to keep pushing and obsess about everything to do with making games. Here we are 26 years later and there is even more to learn. That’s what is so addictive about this industry, it keeps you challenged. I don’t think I’ve changed all that much. I still work way too hard but the rewards of doing what you love are the best rewards.

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?

Don’t lie! Nothing is worse than reading a resume with game credits where you know the person did not work on the title. I have even had people list games I made on their credits. I’m not that great on names but I pretty much remember people I spent years working with on a project. The best way to get experience is to be humble, enter at lower entry jobs or even job unrelated to your field to get a foot in the door. If I have one piece of advice, try to work on a project or with a company you respect as a gamer. You may not be able to get a job at a huge company right away but if you work on one good game you can break in just about anywhere.

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?

That’s not my opinion or experience. People with University degrees have the extreme upper hand when it comes to job offers. Get the education and get a broad education. You never know when you might find that being a programmer was more your thing than being an artist unless your exposed to both.

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 didn’t sleep at all! There we no local companies that would hire a young guy going to University so me and my friend Brett Sperry decided to create a company of 2 and make it a place we would want to go to work every day. We grew very slowly, attracting friends like us that did not have the classic industry backgrounds. That’s how Westwood was born.

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?

I guess it would have to be the first time I met Dan Berry who made M.U.L.E. and Cytron Masters. He was a super star in his day and it was great to meet someone who created the games I spent so many hours playing. I don’t remember butterflies but I do remember being uncharacteristically tongue tied. I’m a pretty easy going guy so I hope people are not nervous after the first few minutes of meeting me. I guess it must be true but I just don’t think about it.

Without using terms like “indentured servant” or “voluntary servitude,” please describe your ideal protégé.

Eager to work together on learning new things and passionate about what they believe in.

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?

Focusing on how you can tell others to make “your” game and / or pushing for how soon you can make “real money” are both ways to make me skeptical that you would have what it takes. Talking with passion about working with other people to make great products and being honest an humble about what you need as compensation to make sure you can focus 100% on your work are ways to win my heart.

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?

There is no time lost in learning current skills and techniques. I’m shocked on a regular basis by the frequency old problems and solutions come back in this business. The best “certain” skills are communication skills. Writing, drawing, diagramming, speaking and any other skills that help you communicate your ideas and win people over are never out of style.

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?

I love the fact that Universities are taking Interactive Entertainment seriously and offering programs around making games. Having a sense of the history of games is also very valuable. Just knowing how other products solved tough problems is a huge asset for any team.

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?

Ask questions in your interview process to see which company has the people you think you would get along with the best. Well oiled teams that work well together produce amazing products and even the best skilled individuals can fail if the team does not get along. I suggest going for the happiness route since success, wealth and fame often follows.

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?

I honestly believe in a well rounded University education. Picking the best school is a personal choice. I strongly recommend you visit the campuses, talk to Alums and try to find the place that will fit with your personality and focus. Vocational schools are great at teaching skills but I think Universities are better at helping students find their calling.

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