Last week, I spoke with Spry Fox CEO David Edery about his twisty, turn-y, 7-year journey to his first job in the games industry. This week, I have the good fortune to chat with David’s colleague and Spry Fox CCO Daniel Cook about his own path into games. I have to say, these guys give fantastic interviews. The advice they give for those hoping to break into the games industry (or take another road less travelled) is pretty terrific. Bonus: behind the cut there is a gif of a goat pooping. – Marie
Howdy, Danc! For those who don’t know you, could you provide a little background?
I’m Daniel Cook. I’m a game designer. I’ve been doing this for 18 or 19 years now. I’ve worked on games like Triple Town and Realm of the Mad God and SteamBirds. I got my start way back in the day on a game called Tyrian with a company called Epic MegaGames (which is no longer mega, apparently). I focus a lot on systems design, efficient design. I run a website called Lost Garden that has all sorts of game design essays. That’s the basics of who I am.
Before you got into the games industry what did you think you were going to do for a living?
I would never actually play because the idea of failing and playing video games was just too much…
Game-like things were more like a hobby of mine than anything else growing up. We had an Amiga computer back in the day. I remember watching my brother play games on it and I would never actually play because the idea of failing and playing video games was just too much for me. But, I liked to watch him play and every once in a while there were boring bits, so he would let me take over. But, what I really, really liked about computers was the paint program, so I ended up doing pixel art. We lived in the middle of the woods in Maine. There wasn’t anyone else around me. There wasn’t a culture of pixel art. It was just like “Oh, I like tiles and I like putting things together. So, let’s go and try to mimic some of these video games that I was seeing.” But this was always just a hobby. I never thought it would turn into anything whatsoever. What I was going to do was go to college, and I was going to get a double degree in Physics and Electrical Engineering. That was my goal. The area of Maine that I came from was relatively poor. The only industry in that area was a paper mill, and pretty much the best that you could do in life was become an engineer of some sort and get a steady income. Other than that the only other option in my head at the time was physical labor, and physical labor I wasn’t so great at.
What happened that changed your direction and got you into the games industry?
So, yeah, I went and started doing my Physics degree. But, I still ended up doing this weird little pixel art thing on the side and I got involved with these strange folks from Europe who were doing this thing called the demoscene which was essentially art projects where you mix code and music and art together to make these mixed-media/multimedia extravaganzas. But, that was just on the side. Just a hobby. I studied math. I dabbled a little bit in some art classes, but that was more for my personal joy. In the summertimes, I would go back home and I would work at the gas station and stock the shelves, pump the gas, clean out the very greasy hot dog machine, that kind of thing. That went on for a couple of years. Then at one point, a friend of mine, Ray Bingham, who was just an internet friend – I barely knew who he was – took my art and sent it to folks at Epic MegaGames and said: “Hey, I heard you were looking for an artist. This guy makes some pixel art. Do you think you could have any use for him?” I was a little irritated when I heard that happened. I was like, “Wait you just took my art and sent it off? That’s not serious. That’s not a real thing. That’s just my own personal hobby.” And, it turns out that they needed an artist. So, I had a choice between cleaning out hotdog machines and doing pixel art for a game for the summertime. The irritating kindness of a friend completely changed my course in life.
I never did get that Electrical Engineering degree.
What do you think your life might have been like had you not taken your path into games? What might you have missed out on? Any regrets?
That’s an interesting one. So, the plan was to, you know, get a steady reliable job. I’ve learned something about myself, and maybe I would have learned this sooner: I’m not necessarily all that great in a steady, reliable position. I sort of have two sides to me. I have the mediocre, conservative rule-follower, and when I do that I’m kind of a… If you were to grade people on a scale from A to F, I would be a C individual. Like, people recognize I’m smart, they recognize I’m capable, but the actual work that I do when I’m following all the rules is not that great. And, I suspect there would have been a bit of a conflict there, now that I’ve gotten to see engineering jobs and see what sort of world they’re in. I don’t know if I would have been a great fit there. So, I can imagine going into that as a bright young 20-year-old and being stifled. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened, but, you know, it is what it is.
If you take someone and they have a curious mind and you put them in a new environment, they’ll grow into something…
What did I miss out on by not doing that? There was probably a very traditional path through academia that I likely would have taken. The path I was on was to get a double bachelors degree and then go on and get a master’s and perhaps a PhD. I don’t have a lot of regrets by skipping that path. The friends that I’ve seen that have gone down that path, they’ve learned a lot, but it hasn’t necessarily been the broad life-experience-slash liberal-arts-experience of lots of strange, different disciplines mixing together that I’ve had in my life. For example, at one point, I ended up getting an MBA because I was curious about business. And, now I’ve got this mix of art and this physics background and also a business background that all sort of combine together in a very wonderful perspective on the world. So, I’m happy with my current perspective. But, you know, it’s hard to say. If you take someone and they have a curious mind and you put them in a new environment, they’ll grow into something, if they have the options. So, maybe that would have been another totally interesting life. Maybe it’s more about being an interesting person, rather than the context you’re put within.
What advice can you give to anyone considering a career in games, or considering some other “road less traveled by?”
So, games are an absolutely bizarre multidisciplinary activity. One thing I’ve noticed having done this for so long is there’s been a shift in the culture of game developers coming into the industry. A lot of good developers coming into the industry, they imagine that it is this vast institution with a huge history and lots of specialization and everyone is basically little, tiny, specialized ants who are in this hive of activity. And, if you don’t do your specialized role excellently, you’ll be cast aside and another worker ant will come in and take your position. Since I got to see [the games industry] from a little earlier stage, I noticed that the people who actually tend to succeed are not those worker ants. They tend to be people who can wear many hats and who are constantly, constantly looking for unique and interesting opportunities.
Games are changing so quickly, so incredibly quickly. The indie movement did not exist 10 years ago. It just wasn’t around. It was a dark ages when consoles ruled and you needed to “break in” to the industry. Now, anyone can make a game and release it to her friends, or on Steam, or elsewhere for really low cost. The skills necessary to make a Gone Home are completely different from the skills necessary to make a Doom back in the day.
This is not a comfort food. This should not be a comfort career. This is not the safe place you go. This is an adventure.
But, I think the mindset is perhaps somewhat similar. You need people who can wear multiple hats, can see the big picture, can understand both art, and business, and code, and design, and infrastructure, and all these factors that come together to make a game; and then sort of assemble them all into this coherent thing that fits the culture of the moment, and the audience of the moment, and the ideas of the moment. That’s really kind of what you’re looking for. Those are the people who are going to be able to navigate this crazy world and find the new gems, and find the new moments, the new opportunities. I think any career in games is a road less traveled. There are no standard paths and if you seek to turn this art form into a standard path, you’re both doing yourself a disservice and you’re doing games a disservice. This is not a comfort food. This should not be a comfort career. This is not the safe place you go. This is an adventure. This is an adventure where you need all the tools you can possibly gather and all your wits. And then, maybe you have a chance at changing the world.
Daniel Cook is Chief Creative Officer of Spry Fox, whose original roguelike puzzle game, Road Not Taken, will be available for PS4, PS Vita, PCs and Macs (via Steam) this summer. Follow Daniel on his blog at http://www.lostgarden.com/ or on Twitter @danctheduck.