This month we wanted to showcase another of our amazing instructors on our blog, and our spotlight is on Tommy Mitchell. A Game Development instructor with many years of direct experience in the field, Mitchell’s knowledge of the game industry has become a huge advantage for Coleman University students. Having been a fan of gaming since he was six years old, it is more than safe to say that this subject is a passion for him; one that he shares with our students.
We sat down with Tommy to discuss how he got started in Game Development and what it takes to be successful in the industry.
1. How did you get into Game Design and Development?
Well that’s a bit of a long story. I have played video games since I was 6 years old so I’ve always been pretty active with that. I used to play about 2-3 days per week and it just became an obsession. However traditional art became my forte. When I graduated from high school, I had a partial scholarship to Southern Methodist University in Texas for their art program. As I was going through my courses I was approached by a professor who had recently established a game design program on campus called Guild Hall and she wanted me to join. I went through those courses for two years which put me in the pipeline for a game development degree. So I have a traditional art background, but I went from painting canvases to digital art and sculpting.
2. How did you apply your degree after you graduated?
Once I graduated I was called up to work for a small gaming company in Austin Texas called Midway. During that same time I was hoping to pursue more education in game design, so I applied to schools in San Diego that offered higher degrees. Once I had been accepted, my company offered to hire me back once I had finished my education. So I moved to San Diego in the hopes that I would have a job waiting for me back in Texas once I was done. I attended ITT Tech for their Digital Entertainment and Game Design program. I received my bachelors degree, while also doing freelance work. In 2009 I was lucky enough to get an interview with Sony and I was hired on as a game tester. I did game testing for about a year and a half.
3. Wow. So you lived every teenage gamer’s dream then?
A lot of people think that with game testing you’re just constantly testing games and having fun, but it is serious software testing. You have to look for bugs and issues, marking their coordinates in the game, and making sure that you are sending that information to the developers. Your job is to find as many ways as possible to break the game. After a year of testing I was promoted to being a character artist. The first game that I worked on for character design was God of War 3, just small portions of the background design, which was really fun. Then I was put onto the teams for MLB The Show, and Star Hawk. After a couple more promotions I was given a project management role, around 2011 for a game called PS All Stars. At that same time I started working at Coleman University.
4. So how did you become an instructor at Coleman?
Once I had graduated with my bachelors I was interested in getting my master’s degree, so I came to Coleman to pursue my degree in Information Systems Management. I was going to school and working at the same time. I graduated in July of 2010, and continued working at Sony. After a big project that I was working on was finished, I stopped in to talk to Career Services and catch up with my instructors. I found out that Coleman had started a Game Design (as it was called at the time) program and they were looking for instructors. Career Services took my information and forwarded it to the dean of the program, who called me ten minutes later asking for me to come in and interview. Two weeks later I was a full-time instructor for Coleman.
5. What classes are you teaching now?
I instruct Level Design 1, Intro to Digital Sculpting, the Programming Capstone, and Fundamentals of Game Design. Mainly I teach students the basic structures of game design. It is a very fast and competitive career path to go into, so you need a strong knowledge of every aspect of design.
6. On that note, what are the misconceptions that incoming students have about getting into the Game Development field?
Whenever we have student orientations I am the first person to tell students that if you think that you’ll just walk into a studio and start testing video games, you should throw that idea right out the window. This program is not about that. You are learning a skill set that is very complicated. Even when you’re done with a class meeting, you still have to do more work on your own outside of class. The industry’s first question in an interview will be “what else have you done?” You can create a portfolio that includes your class assignments but companies do not focus on that, they want to see how you applied your skills to an outside project. You need to develop more than programming skills. Game Developers have increased hand-eye coordination, critical thinking, and problem solving skills due to the requirements of this industry. In this industry you will be asked to work long hours and even work overnight to meet deadlines and finish projects, so putting in more hours for professional development will only benefit you. In our program there are really two tracks. The first is more of a programmer role, and the other is the designer role. Each one takes a lot of time to master and you have to do it all of the time, which includes participating in game focused events. Luckily for our students Coleman hosts the Global Game Jam every year, and that has a huge impact. Organizations look for that specifically, as well as your online presence through LinkedIn and Twitch. Networking is a lot more involved in job placement than people realize. Passion is important in this field and students need to have that in order to succeed. I would also recommend that students be prepared to freelance while they are looking for work. Once a project is over you may not have a residual income coming in so be prepared by getting into other projects ahead of time. Be willing to learn as many skill sets as possible. Ask peers who may have a better grasp than you to help you learn more. As long as you communicate the desire to learn, people will be willing to teach you.
7. What are your opinions on the rise in online celebrity gamers, or the professional gamers that compete in world competitions?
Well, social media and online exposure is actually a huge boost to developers looking to get hired by a company. These feeds and uploads are being watched 24/7 by companies looking for new hires. If a studio likes a candidate they will be brought in for testing or interviews. Having a vlog or Twitch channel is a big help for getting yourself noticed. I had two students who were invited to work with famous game vloggers and were flown to a vlogging convention in San Francisco because of their popularity online.
8. Considering your passion for art and your background in it, what are some of the recent games that have come out that you feel are visually/artistically incredible in their style?
I’m going to be a little biased with my answer. I would have to say two of the games that I actually worked on within the last five years. I was an Associate Producer for The Last of Us and I really loved the artwork that was developed for that. Even though I was brought in around the third phase, it was my first big title as Associate Producer and I was freaked out because I was working on that and teaching at the same time! My second choice didn’t do so well commercially, but I really liked Order 1886. I consider that one to be a steampunk version of Van Helsing. You were acting as a werewolf hunter and it was almost like its own cinematic movie. I helped design some of the Demon Dogs that were within the game. The other game that I can think of is Unfinished Swan, you are playing as a little boy who falls into an open world through a book which is all white. As you work your way through the game, colors and structures start to appear and you create your world that way. The first color that is initiated is black so you can create figures and outlines then add color as you go. We tell students when they are applying to a company and want to showcase their best work with a demo, that if you can turn down the volume and run through it and still understand the story no matter where you are, then you have done a great job. I look for that specifically when I am hiring for studios.
9. Can you tell me the most important traits that you look for in a potential Game Development student?
Definitely, I look for a student who is passionate for Game Development and who is an open book. They don’t come into the classroom thinking that they have everything handled, that they only have to learn to do a couple of things. You have to be very motivated and hungry to achieve your goals because this field is very competitive. You have to realize that you and 20-30,000 other people are applying for the same jobs at any given time. Challenge yourself every day to get better; you can’t stay in the same place. You have to reinvent yourself, and the best thing about being in the game industry is that it is not hard to find something new to learn every day. There is no ceiling on what you are capable of in a work position, because the technology in this field is constantly changing so you have to change with it. Confidence is also really important, being able to look someone in the eye and provide straightforward answers will help you stand out from the crowd in an interview and in class.
10. Last question: tell me about your favorite project that a student or group has produced at Coleman?
It was a capstone group in 2014. It was a very unique group with plenty of colorful personalities that also had a lot of motivation and passion for what they ultimately wanted to do. They created an amazing 2D game, with almost every aspect being hand drawn and conceptualized by this group. The project lead was a really shy and laid back student so I purposefully put him in a leadership position. Within hours of their first meeting they came together and completed their concept. This group came in every day that they could and worked on this project, which was incredible. Once they had a finished product, they published it online and received a lot of praise for their work from other developers and programmers. I use this group as an example to motivate students, because it is this type of project that they should be striving for. The capstone is a great way for students to really figure out what it is that they want to do.
If you love gaming and creative art, think about joining our Game Development program! Tommy is just one of the amazing instructors that we have in the program and there are opportunities here for you to grow and establish an exciting career. Call Coleman today at (858) 499-0202 for more information and to schedule a tour!