By Craig Bailey
On February 26, Windham High’s science fiction and fantasy class had the opportunity to listen to and interact with Shawn French of Los Angeles-based Hyperkinetic Studios, on the topic of video game development.
The event was well-attended by approximately 30 students and a few faculty members, many of whom asked thoughtful questions regarding the industry, how one breaks in and what it takes to succeed.
In short, French is an example of someone making a good living, working from home, here in Maine, developing video games. However, French’s story of getting here, isn’t quite as short. As he stated, “I hammered my head against the wall until I broke through.”
As a youngster, French wanted to develop video games. Upon completing school, he moved to California to land a job doing so. On arriving he realized the opportunity wasn’t real, at least for him - at that time. He then moved to Maryland, on the same quest, but simply couldn’t turn things into a full-time position. At this point, he moved back to Maine, blaming his lack of success on “not getting a break.”
Upon further reflection, French recognized the reason for this outcome was the fact that he didn’t have anything tangible (other than desire) to offer those who might otherwise hire him.
French then began working as a writer, for a newspaper which had a ruthless editor. He mentions that he learned more from the experience of getting his work repeatedly “tore up” than anything else. The result: he evolved from a story teller to a writer, which is a core element of video game development.
French reinforced the importance of carrying a notebook to capture ideas, sharing that, “There will be times when you can’t create something of quality from scratch, like when I was required to produce a new story in less than 24 hours.” He stressed that the only way he could provide something he could be proud of was by tapping his notebook for ideas.
While his notebook is paper-based, he leverages technology to its fullest extent. He mentions, “With today’s technology anyone can develop a game on their own. There are no barriers. So many things are possible today that weren’t available 20 years ago when I started.”
In addition, French reiterated the importance of having skills beyond writing, to make you more attractive and valuable to an employer, separating yourself from others. He stated, “I know there are many people who want my job and will take it if I slip for one minute.”
“Spreadsheets are incredibly useful to keep track of storylines and all the related moving parts. And, if you’re seriously interested in game development your spreadsheet skills need to be super sharp.”
When seeking competitive jobs, French suggests that you should not wait for the specific job opening you are looking for. “I saw that Hyperkinetics was looking for a social media resource. I was hired for this position, getting my foot in the door. They liked my work and, over time, I became the lead developer for the game Epic Tavern, available online, in “Early Access” stage.”
To the question: How do you handle disagreements, when members of your team don’t like your ideas? French responded, “If you’re working with competent people, you need to listen. There have been times when I’ve had something I really like, that didn’t resonate with the rest of the team. The choice is either to accept their feedback or make your pitch better, so it works for everyone. Compromise is big. Protecting your vision is one of the biggest traps to avoid.”
The class teacher, Mr. Levine, was asked: What is the most important point you’d like students to take from this talk. His prompt response was, “The importance of hard work which requires much more than being a good gamer. You really need to bring a variety of skills to the table.”
In closing, French reinforced, “The most important thing for a prospective writer / video game developer is to get something out into the world. With today’s technology, you don’t need anyone’s permission. You can build something from start to finish, on your own!”