The Long Road to BioWare: A Designer’s Origin Story, p1

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Part 1 of 4, by David Feltham

I’d love to tell you that I worked hard on learning Unreal, made lots of maps, created a ton of Neverwinter Nights maps and modded the hell out of some engine. I’d love to tell you that it was this that helped me get a job in the industry and that if you keep it up you too will join us in the fray. But this isn’t the case. In fact, my ass in this seat at BioWare, working on Mass Effect 2, the sequel to the number one game of all time on the Xbox 360, is due to equal parts Luck, Networking and Determination.

What I do now as a Sr. Designer is a lot different to what I did 12 years ago. After 3 1/2 years fast-tracking a degree in English Literature followed by a diploma in Computer Graphics, I started my career in broadcast design.

This is where the Luck comes in.

I had grabbed Toronto’s Gold Book and highlighted all the post-production studios (1997 was pretty weak for web-access). After a week of searching and highlighting, I called each of my choices in advance, got the receptionists name and inquired about dropping off my 3D Studio Max demo reel (which I had, in those days, painstakingly put together on Beta Max in a post-production house). I spent a week walking to all of those places and one of them was Big Studios. The owner happened to be there while I was chatting up the receptionist and she took a look at my demo reel while I was there. She enjoyed the dolphin getting ripped apart by a propeller so much that she offered me a job on the spot (and by on the spot, I mean she hinted at it, talked with her financier and called me the next day). It was pure luck that I happened to be at the studio on a slow day when the boss was in, during a time of year when they were doing a crazy hiring spree. It was lucky that she had a sense of humour with regards to porpoise-julienne. I spent a year there doing crazy hours working with one of the most talented people I know in that business (did I mention she has 3 Emmys?) modeling, compositing and animating in just about every piece of software on the market at the time. It was a good experience and I learned a lot in that year.

This is where Networking helped.

But after a year I had burnt myself out: the turnaround for the American networks was usually 24 hours and I couldn’t keep up with the genius of the boss. I had networked with a lot of people and I decided that I would take a chance on my own doing freelance and independent work. I bought a domain name, set up a home office and started calling those network-contacts. I started doing a lot of small jobs, a lot of them that paid next to nothing, or nothing at all, while I marketed myself: a feat that was more difficult in the day without an established and well-connected internet populated with social-network sites like we have now. The amount of work I was putting in and how little income it provided me wasn’t balancing out and I needed a bigger job to land or I’d have to consider working at a company again. After how burnt out I was at the last place, the idea wasn’t appealing.

This is where Luck panned out again.

Someone I had met in college, Jen Julien, got a job offer while in school at Headline Sports (Canadians would now know it as The Score now) and they were looking for a contractor to help them establish their new look. After one interview and some discussions on what the new look could be (and no doubt due to my price, which would be substantially cheaper than going to a larger house), I landed the job and worked with them for several months on the new look. I received several accolades including a feature article in Applied Arts magazine, and this lead to some freelance jobs around Toronto that I wouldn’t have gotten without Headline Sports.

I ended up running my own shop for 2 years. But after an awful job that didn’t even pay in the end and when my best friend said to me that ‘He didn’t know how I could look for work every minute of every day” I realized that I just couldn’t do this forever. And to be honest, 3 years of logo assemblies can get a bit mind-numbing. Around that time, Baldur’s Gate kind of changed everything for me. I’ve been a gamer since Adventure on the Compaq and computer games were a part of my life. But here was a game that that proved that games were more than the arcadey twitch-click experience of JumpMan and Duke Nukem. Here was a company making the games I wanted to play; games that would change the face of how games were done. I wanted to be a part of that.

Dave Feltham, who hails from Toronto, is a Senior Designer on Mass Effect 2. He doesn’t like to think about the number of days multiplied by the 9 years he has in the game industry, nevermind the 3 before that in the TV industry. He has done broadcast design work for many major TV networks and has released games for the launch of every new-generation console since Microsoft’s Xbox. He giddily walked through BioWare’s doors 2 years ago and still can’t believe he works here. He likes coffee. A lot. He’s drinking one right now.