Student Stories: Jonathan Friesen (The Single Player Version)

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On January 21, 2018, Jonathan Friesen attended his first class at the Game Design & Development Lab at HOFT Institute.

And he’s on track to be its first graduate.

See, Jonathan wasn’t just our first student. When he started he was the only Game Lab student. When I made the pitch to the EGaDS student club for game development at UT-Austin, where he was about to graduate in December 2017, I described a program where students could work together on projects and learn as a team.

When it came time to start the program, though, Jonathan was the only one to enroll. So, instead of working with a team of students the whole time, he got a largely one-on-one experience with our programming instructor, Sarah Abraham, who had also authored the Game Lab curriculum.

There were many reasons why we went ahead with the program when we did. For one, Jonathan was a remarkably excellent candidate. He’d graduated as an electrical engineer, but had realized along the way that he wasn’t as interested in doing the work for a living as he thought he would be -- but too late to change his major and avoid having to take a lot more classes. He wanted to be a game programmer, but he’d realized too late that it could be a career, or that anyone could show him the way.

And he did get a lot done.

He did get ActionSequencer, a user-interface for defining NPC behavior within a game-defined space, ready for sale on the Unity Asset Store. He did make another module, ComboSystem, which is also for sale, this time on the Unreal Marketplace.

He did take on contract work with Art+Craft Entertainment, a local game studio, working 9 hours a week on stuff I can’t disclose, getting paid as an “extern” in addition to his full-time job at a local photonics lab. (He did study as an electrical engineer, remember. He got that job two months after he graduated UT-Austin.)

When our conversation ended with Jonathan a few weeks ago, I don’t remember saying that he would be the one to write the blog himself. Other than a few formatting changes and one fixed misspelling, the following is what he wrote. I think it best to let him speak for himself. We owe Jonathan a lot, for being there when we needed him.

Acknowledgements to “Professor” Sarah Abraham, design instructor chip Sbrogna, art instructor Mayet Andreassen and HOFT Institute COO Amrin Malik, and program coordinator John Henderson.

John Henderson
Program Coordinator, HOFT Game Design & Development Lab


 

Jonathan Friesen – Background and Q&A

Hello!

The goal of this blog is to present a view into my thought process about taking the Game Design Lab at HOFT, starting with how I initially thought about becoming a game programmer, though the application process, and ending with some Q&A about the course now that I’ve nearly completed it. For any potential applicants out there, I hope simply to offer a differing perspective that may help you in making a more informed decision.  

College

It was a pretty direct path that led me video game programming, all things considered, but it took me a long time to convince myself that making games was a real career path.

Like many, I’d played games throughout my life, but when it came to game developers I thought “that’s not a serious job, it’s not important that people make video games”. When I chose a field to study in college, I wanted to do some kind of engineering, something where I could be ‘serious’ but also creative. I ended up in electrical engineering after a year undeclared, but only then did I really begin thinking critically about what I wanted to be 10 years down the line. I ended up not enjoying circuit theory or electrical component design, and found myself drawn towards the computing courses. I learned that I liked to code, especially when I worked on projects that I found interesting. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it’s what led me to start thinking about what career I could focus on where I would enjoy coding the most. I ended up taking courses from many areas of the programming spectrum and got acquainted with the basics of software design. In one of these classes, I had to make a game. It was really just a fun side project that served to prove you learned something in the course, but it was one of my favorite projects I’d worked on. I used this project, and all the other projects that I’d done through college, to find out what I liked working on. Video game programming became pretty apparent, but I still discounted it as “unimportant”.  I took some time to consider it and made a bargain: if I could make some sort of video game using a real game engine and feel good about it, then I’d continue down that path. So, in my free time for the next few months I created my first game using Unreal Engine, and I really enjoyed it. Next semester I joined a video game club at school, the Electronic Video Game Developer’s Society (EGaDS), where I learned to use Unity and went to my first game jam.

After that jam, I thought about what was important for me, what is that I wanted for myself? I started to rethink what a serious job was. I can’t pinpoint any one thing that swayed my opinion, but I realized I had a poor understanding of what kind of jobs are important (surprise) and was able to rethink a lot of that in my last year. What I really wanted was to work and enjoy what I was doing. I left feeling that the game industry would be a field where I could utilize the coding I enjoyed in a way that felt personally fulfilling.

Pre-HOFT Game Design & Development Lab

Unfortunately, the time for being a job-having adult was approaching fast. While I had a software design background, I didn’t have much outside a couple hobbyist-grade video games to show for wanting to be a game programmer. Towards the end of my last semester I was making some headway into software engineering opportunities, but pretty much no progress in the game industry. The engineering world was fairly straight-forward and I felt like I knew what to expect, with the game industry things felt tight-knit and knowing people in the community seemed much more important. Around this time John Henderson came to an EGaDS meeting to give a presentation about a new vocational training program for getting into the video game industry. It would be 8 months, after hours, working with 3 professors and 20 or so students. It sounded interesting so I went ahead and applied. I spent a good while on putting together my best work, including some of the games I’d worked on. I was accepted sometime around December, but that was when I really started to think it through. I wasn’t sure this was something I really needed. One of the key features of the program was to have your work appear in a real game by a real game studio, which is what I think had pushed me to apply in the first place.

I felt that having some kind of real-world experience would go a long way in not getting instantly rejected from jobs. I initially had reservations that the program was overselling itself, but after talking with John, Amrin, and the professors, I felt confident that they truly wanted to provide a worthwhile experience.

Like most things, it came down to assessing whether the money spent would be worth the cost. For something like an education there’s no guarantee you’re going to get the experience you’re paying for – you have to do the work. After going through 4.5 years of college, I felt like I knew how to get the most out of a course. The fact that professor Abraham was a UT professor also gave me confidence that I could get the skills I was paying for. My final two reasons I felt safe taking the class were:

1. I could withdraw with prorated tuition if I didn’t like the class and
2. I was in the final rounds for a full-time software engineering job that I would work during the day.

Without these, I probably would not have taken the course. The financial burden from college was pretty fresh and money was a big determining factor for me. Having these safeguards made me confident in signing on for the course.

All right: mind was made up, I had the assurance that I needed and eagerness to jump into the gaming industry. Then when I finally came to the HOFT offices to sign up, one week before classes were about to begin, I was told that I’d been the only applicant they accepted. I was shocked to say the least. I went home without signing, it just didn’t seem right. What does that say about the class that they could only get one student? I thought it over and I didn’t really have a problem with having one-on-one lectures with the professors, but it bothered me that there was so little interest in the class. I spoke at length with professor Abraham about what the class would be like and how curriculum might change. I was surprised they still wanted to begin a course like this, but they were really eager to get started. After hashing some things out and speaking with friends for suggestions, I resolved myself again to take the course. I felt like I took a gamble, but I still felt safe taking it and I believed in professor Abraham (and Chip and Mayet as well!) to do a good job. In the end, I’m glad I took the course, but I don’t feel like I can give an accurate depiction of what it’s like for future students, since I essentially took a single player version of the course.

Current Day + Q&A

And that’s the short-form of my time preceding the course. I’ve done quite a lot during my time in the course, and I’ve certainly enjoyed it. I ended up getting the software engineering job and felt more secure about the course once I started. The first few months were all about learning how to design and develop video games.

I learned how to pitch a game, how to prototype, how to manage video game projects, and how to gather user feedback, just to name a few things.

The next few months I spent working on a couple plugins for the Unity asset store and the Unreal marketplace. These helped me gain experience in those engines that I could show to others. The last few months, and the phase in which this is currently being written, is an externship at a game studio. Right now, I’m doing contract work for ArtCraft Entertainment on their upcoming MMO game, Crowfall. I actually really enjoyed working with them and I’ve gotten to see a lot of the inner workings of the game studio in their day-to-day schedule.

I don’t want to go through each little detail of the past 7 months, but here are a few Q&As I’ve gotten about the course:

What have you accomplished during Game Lab?

The two biggest tangible items I’ve worked on during the game lab are: An Unreal Engine plugin and the externship at ArtCraft. The plugin is the ComboSystem plugin that’s on the Unreal Marketplace and was originally going to be for professor Abraham’s game. It spent a long time in development since it involved plumbing through Unreal Engine source code, but I became more familiar with the engine in the process. Posting it online and responding to user feedback has also been a new experience for me that I probably wouldn’t have pushed myself to do otherwise. At ArtCraft I can’t go over any details, but they were able to find a small feature that was separated out from the rest of the code that I could work on from home. I was able to contribute to their game and get a look at what a codebase for a large game looks like. Most of the accomplishments outside that are the knowledge that the professors have instilled upon me.

What do you think about the instructors, and how have they helped you personally?

I mainly took classes with professor Abraham since I was focused on programming. I think she helped me understand how a video game gets made and what considerations go into that process. From pitching a game and understanding the market, to project management and responding to user feedback. She also helped me a lot while I was wading through Unreal source code and trying to get a custom editor working in Unity. Chip and Mayet have also given me great feedback when I present the projects I’d been working on. It gave me a sense of what designers and artists are looking for in programming tools. For example, when presenting a preliminary version of what eventually turned into my Unreal plugin, Chip said he’d want to touch as little code as possible. In my next iteration, I moved as much control as I could to Blueprint and an Editor GUI, and the only code you had to add was one data structure. Considerations like these don’t typically cross my mind while programming, but I’ve become more mindful of it since.

What do you know about game development as a craft that you didn't know before?

Well, pretty much anything that wasn’t programming, although even then I still learned a lot about Unity and Unreal. I learned about the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework for analyzing games. I learned how to write a game design doc and plan a development schedule. I learned about game studio culture and how to network with people in the industry. All these different things about video game design, production, and community were new to me, but now I feel I have a solid understanding of them.

What have you learned about yourself, and how you work at your best?

I think it’s hard for me to answer this question because of the different things I’ve been doing concurrently with this course. I’ve been learning a lot in general just from having my first programming job, but for this blog I’ve been separating that out from what I’ve been learning in the course. I’ve learned that I need to have a set goal, or I’ll just keep working through the night on a thousand useless features. I’ve also learned that sleep is important, more so than in college since you can’t exactly skip your 9 am job like your 9 am class. Something that made it easier for me to relate to lecture was doing research online on game development or trying some things out in engine that we talked about in class. Something I’d learned about myself a long time ago is that I remember things much better when I’ve written it down, so I always take plenty of notes. I thinking finding that thing that helps you study is important for any course.

That’s been a very long description of my thoughts on (and leading up to) my time in the Game Design Lab at HOFT. Thanks for sticking through!