Student Stories 2: David Finol (Story of My Life)

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David Finol was part of the second cohort of students to graduate Game Lab. We asked him to tell his story.

We first met David Finol at the first Global Game Jam we hosted at HOFT Institute offices in January 2018. He had graduated from UT-Austin’s world-class computer science department in 2014 and had worked as an information technology app programmer for several years in Houston before coming back to Austin to work at another IT job.

It took a while before we learned all of David’s story, but it was clear from the start that he wanted something more than what he already had.

David was older, and more mature than a lot of would-be students we talk to, and he already had a career he wasn’t eager to give up. It took David a lot of careful consideration before he felt ready to take on another load of coursework. After deciding to begin, one of our partner studios offered him work, which you’ll read referred to as an “externship,” but he decided he had enough workload to keep himself balanced.

In the end, after graduating, he decided to keep his “day job” while he continued a separate pursuit, a card-style video game framework that he’d begun in class, and could continue working on in his spare time. It’s what a lot of experienced, talented creative and technical people who are fascinated by games as a craft, are doing. Game dev is hard, as you’ll read David say. It’s an important lesson to learn, but you can learn a lot about yourself in the process of doing the hard things.

Our success goes with people like David. What follows are David’s words.

John Henderson, program coordinator
Game Design & Development Lab, HOFT Institute, May 2019

David Finol, Game Lab Cohort #2 Graduate

My dream job as a kid was to be a game developer. With that as the goal, I set myself down the path that I thought would lead me there: I took CS classes all four years in high school, working on game projects in my free time. I enrolled and graduated from UT Austin with a CS degree, and I completed the UT Game and Mobile Media Applications (GAMMA) program while I was there. And so, after all my focus on reaching my goal of being a Game Developer, my first real job was as a Supply Chain IT Developer at HP.

And that’s the story of my life: I thought I would be a game developer, but instead I’m just another programmer at a giant company. Well, that’s actually a somewhat misleading description of my life so far, but I choose to start this blog post with that story because I think it’s the best way for me to provide context for my thoughts about the HOFT Institute Game Design and Development Lab.

You may have noticed that I didn’t actually mention HOFT as one of the steps in my pursuit of being a game developer. So, what? Did I then decide to take night-classes at HOFT, after which I was finally able to realize my dream of being a game developer? Kind of, but phrasing it like that is also misleading. The truth, as is so often the case, is a bit more nuanced.

For one, it is true that I am just another programmer at a giant company. I am currently employed as a Software Engineer at the Home Depot, where I work on the back end for their B2B website. That job description certainly doesn’t match what I would consider to be a game developer, so how can I say that it is also true that HOFT helped me realize my dream? It’s a matter of perspective, and if there’s one thing that I can say I got from my time at HOFT, it’s perspective.

In order to explain what I mean, let me first provide some additional context as to why I decided to enroll at HOFT (AKA, let me continue telling you my life story). Literally 3 days after finishing my last class at UT Austin, I started my full-time employment at HP in Houston. At the time, I had been working with a friend for over a year on a mobile game. The full details of the development process for that game is a story for another time, but suffice it to say that I had burned myself out on it.

As much as I enjoy making games (and in case it wasn’t clear: I do enjoy making games), game dev is hard.

As much as I enjoy making games (and in case it wasn’t clear: I do enjoy making games), game dev is hard. I had actually originally wanted to start this blog post with just that statement: “Game dev is hard”. The nature of how/why game dev is so difficult - and the results of that difficulty - tie into my point about perspective, but I’ll get to that in a bit. For now, all I will say is that completing the vision we had for that game proved to be too difficult for me, and I needed to take a break.

Coincidentally, I had accepted the offer from HP because I had interned with them before (the details of which are also a story for another time), and I knew that I also enjoyed working there. Also, it paid well. At the time, I thought I would accept the offer for the short-term, save up some money, and I would eventually get back into game dev.

It was just so much easier to coast with the comfy IT job that I had. Why should I try so much harder to try to get back into game dev, when it would just pay less? This may sound like the epitome of first-world problems, but the fact that things were too easy was itself a problem. I started to get depressed as I realized that I wasn’t growing at HP anymore, and worse, I didn’t see how I could.

Fast-forward a few years. The distance between Austin and Houston (small as it is) unfortunately let me fall out of contact with the friend with whom I had been developing the mobile game. Years had passed, and I hadn’t worked on any game project since then. It was just so much easier to coast with the comfy IT job that I had. Why should I try so much harder to try to get back into game dev, when it would just pay less?

This may sound like the epitome of first-world problems, but the fact that things were too easy was itself a problem. I started to get depressed as I realized that I wasn’t growing at HP anymore, and worse, I didn’t see how I could. As my depression hit its low point, I quit my job as I re-evaluated what I wanted from life. Of course, my mind turned back to game dev.

One day, I woke up with an idea. OK, I don’t really remember how the idea got into my head (it probably didn’t involve me waking up with some divine revelation), but I did become possessed by the notion that I needed to get back into game dev and that I needed to do it by first releasing a product on my own. I needed to "get my name in the credits". Yes, that is a reference to HOFT, but no, I'm still not there yet. Anyways, I started devoting myself to the idea: Play any card game, anywhere, without needing the physical cards.

Fast-forward a few more months, and I feel re-invigorated with a sense of purpose, working on my Card Game Simulator (CGS) idea. A problem, though: I started to run out of money in my savings. I needed to start generating an income, but I wasn’t yet done with CGS. As a software developer on LinkedIn, I receive regular offers from recruiters looking to hire me. Typically, I respond with a “Thanks for reaching out, but I’m not interested at this time”. I still didn’t feel like I was ready to dive into a job at a game company, so I started actually replying to these recruiters, and that’s how I ended up at my current job.

Of course, I didn’t want to fall into the same spiral of complacency into depression as I had at HP, so that’s where HOFT finally comes in. While I was working my day job at the Home Depot, I would also spend nights and weekends working on CGS and on attending game developer networking events in Austin. I knew that if I wanted to get into the games industry, I needed to start making those connections. I first heard of HOFT when John mentioned it at one of the Video Game Makers Unite meetups that he hosts at Capital Factory every month. HOFT seemed like a good place to further make my way into the games industry, so I decided to apply after talking to him at the Global Game Jam that was held at the HOFT campus.

As it happens, I already knew one of the professors. Professor Sarah Abraham had been one of my TAs at UT, and after talking with her, I felt that I had a very good understanding of what the class would entail. For the most part, the program exactly matched all my expectations. The biggest surprise was how small the class was: There were a total of 4 students at the start of Cohort 2.

We started with some general classes about game development that served as a review for me of what I had learned at UT. I enjoyed the next few months after that where we made the FloodFlow game. Then we reached the most critical aspect and the reason I had decided to take the courses to begin with: the externship. This was it: my opportunity for a first real experience in the games industry. I was able to get an externship through my connection with HOFT, and I left that externship after only a week of doing it. And I think I got lucky that it only lasted a week.

Earlier in this blog post, I mentioned that my biggest take-away from HOFT was perspective - specifically perspective about difficulty. From my time at HP, I learned that I can’t let myself become complacent and accept the easy path. Here are some things that I learned at HOFT: 1) How to develop games in the Unreal game engine 2) That I much prefer developing in Unity over Unreal 3) That while it’s important to seek out challenges, it’s also important to understand the motivation for those challenges.

So what happened that caused me to leave my much-anticipated externship after just one week? A simplistic examination might say that I had taken on too much work between a full-time job, a part-time externship, and still working on the Card Game Simulator app when I could make time. But if you replace the part-time externship with part-time classes at HOFT, you would be describing the months leading up to that externship, and considering that I graduated from HOFT, I think that I was able to handle that just fine. Maybe the workload at the externship was just a lot more difficult than at HOFT? Those involved in setting up the externship had discussed the expectations, and we had aimed for a workload similar to that at HOFT. The workload did end up being more difficult, but I think focusing on that difficulty would be missing the point.

At the end of my first week of externship, I met with my sponsors to discuss the deliverables for that week. I gave them a demo on what I had completed for them. They agreed that the results were acceptable, but they were worried that I would burn myself out if I kept working the way I had that week. They asked me if I wanted to continue with the externship. I said no.

I think back to my last year of college, when I had dedicated myself for over a year to a game that was never completed. I knew that burning out on a project was a very real concern, and I saw that I was indeed on that path again.

I think back to my last year of college, when I had dedicated myself for over a year to a game that was never completed. I knew that burning out on a project was a very real concern, and I saw that I was indeed on that path again. I’m grateful that my externship sponsors gave me an out when they did, for I fear may have retreaded the path to complacency and depression had I actually been allowed to burn myself out again.

It was time to do some more soul-searching. I can say with confidence that I need the type of fulfillment that game development can provide, but I can also say with confidence that I can burn out on game development such that the thought of doing it again is daunting. Sometimes, game dev is re-energizing, and other times, it is draining. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to continue with game dev for it’s re-energizing aspect, but I also need to ensure it doesn’t become draining. My solution is simple: I only work on game projects that I find engaging.

I like my day job as a Software Engineer, and for so many reasons (pay grade and job security are prime among them), it makes so much more sense to keep that as my day job. I’m not giving up on my dream of being a game developer, though.

John asked me to write some thoughts about HOFT, but this blog post is really about my relationship with game development. HOFT is designed to set up students with the skills and credentials/connections to work in the games industry, and I think it succeeds at that goal. For me, it also taught me that I don’t necessarily want to work in the games industry. See, here’s the thing: as much as I enjoy making games (I think that by now it should be clear that I do), my true love is programming. I like my day job as a Software Engineer, and for so many reasons (pay grade and job security are prime among them), it makes so much more sense to keep that as my day job.

I’m not giving up on my dream of being a game developer, though. I left the externship that HOFT helped me get, but they still needed some commercial experience to count towards Phase II of their program. I pitched them on Card Game Simulator. I was already working on it with the intention of a commercial release, so why couldn’t I count that towards the requirement?

Happily, they agreed, and I double-downed on working on CGS. I’ve since graduated from HOFT, but I’m still working on CGS even now. In fact, I will readily admit that part of the reason I’m writing this blog post is with the goal of advertising my work on CGS, available at a BETA level of quality (a reminder that I’m a sole indie dev working on this on my spare time) at the Card Game Simulator website - https://www.cardgamesimulator.com/

I’m happy to do some self-promoting, especially since it helps reinforce the central message I’m trying to convey, but I feel like it would be in bad taste to end with advertisement. Instead, let me end on a note of a gratitude. I want to say thank you to everyone at HOFT. I appreciate what you’ve taught me about game dev, but I’m truly grateful for what you’ve taught me about myself.