Game Lab Interview

Over at HOFT Institute in Austin, Texas, a new program where you could very well get a game development job in 8 months has spawned. I’ve decided to interview one of the masterminds behind this idea for further investigation.

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Chase: What is the Game Lab’s primary purpose?

John Henderson: The Game Design & Development Lab is a job accelerator for those who have relevant skills in programming, design and/or art for video game development, but have yet to land their first job, which is always the hardest to get. We’re never going to run out of people who are fascinated by games and want to work as professional game developers, but for various reasons, they have trouble navigating their way to the start of a career.

Chase: Where is Game Lab being held at & when?

John Henderson: Lab courses are offered at the HOFT Institute offices at 2400 Pearl Street in Austin, Texas, a short walk west from the main campus of the University of Texas at Austin. It’s an 8-month evening program offered twice a week to start, then three times a week for the sake of those with obligations during the daytime.

Chase: What motivated you into starting this program?

John Henderson: HOFT Institute has been operating since the early 1980s, and was once known as House of Tutors (“HOFT” is essentially “H of T”). It’s a family-run private school that’s mostly catered to those going to university in Austin but need tutoring services, or speak English as a second language.

The Game Lab represents the first step for HOFT to offer vocational courses in addition to the avocational courses it’s been known for most of its life. I’ve personally been involved since October 2017, but it had been in the works for several months before I got involved.

Chase: You are promising a game development career in 8 months?! How do you aim to pull this all off?

John Henderson: Applicants need to bring their knowledge with them. For those who don’t know, Austin is very much a college town — besides UT-Austin, we have Austin Community College, St. Edward’s University, Huston-Tillotson University, and Concordia University, as well as several private schools including Art Institutes of Austin, Gemini School of Visual Arts, and many quality schools for younger students that include game development among their coursework.

Also, Austin has a history of video game development stretching back to the 1980s. For most of that time, the local industry has not had much incentive to make themselves generally known — but these days, game development represents $1 billion a year in direct investment to the city of Austin alone, and somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 professional developers live and work in the greater Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area.

The word is out, and Austin’s been on the map. What happens often is that people will come to Austin to seek their fortunes, either because they know others are already here making games and perceive the community around them, or because they just like what the city represents.

While there are many places to pursue education that could be applied to video game development, often taught by professionals with real experience, there’s still a gap between the completion of most of those programs and the first job that many graduates can’t manage to get. There’s no consensus about how much training anyone in particular needs, but most will tell you, rightly so, that any skills you have need to be demonstrated in the form of finished work.

In other words, you have to make a game, before anyone will hire you to work on a game.

But, you might say in reply, there are already so many people making games! Four-fifths of all the games on Steam were released in just the past year! Mobile platforms are jam packed with student projects and the products of creative but not especially enterprising people! How can anyone compete?

And then the second answer might come: You have to be known, and make the right connections. You have to be known, before anyone with the means to create a job for you, will trust you with the tasks in that job. Most employers are good at attracting talented people, but have limited means to bring in anyone with limited experience, much less mentor them effectively.

Game development is an industry that eats its young. If you follow the IGDA’s membership surveys, the average time anyone spends as a video game developer is about 5 years. So, even when studios close or cut back staff, and the market is suddenly flooded with experienced developers looking for new work, there still needs to be the means to fill the occasional opening with someone that hardly anyone knows.

There are other scenarios we’ve thought of. There might be someone who managed to get an entry-level job at a game company but doesn’t want to do that job forever and might have trouble moving upward or laterally. There might be high school graduates with exceptional, demonstrable skills who want a shorter path to a job, or more likely, a college undergraduate who wants an alternative to a masters-level degree program.

We think we can help provide those alternatives, and bridge that gap. That’s what we’re trying to do. No big catch, except we can’t take someone from “nothing” to “something” in terms of their development knowledge. Game Lab students need to bring something, and then we can work with them.

The program was developed by Sarah Abraham, PhD., who is also the programming instructor. She’s also an adjunct professor at UT-Austin in the computer science department. It’s also been approved by the Texas Workforce Commission and ACCET (accet.org), the national accreditation agency that approves all of HOFT’s programs.

Chase: Have you thought of reaching out to game jams and other gaming conventions aside from SXSW Gaming Expo?

John Henderson: Thought about it, did it, doing it. We had a Game Lab booth at Game On!, the mini-showcase organized by the Austin Chronicle at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

I took part in the “Choose Wisely: Entry Paths for Working in the Game Industry” panel at PAX South. (https://www.twitch.tv/videos/218220598) We also were the site host for the Global Game Jam back in January, and managed to pull off the largest in Texas, with 121 jammers and 17 finished projects.

We also had a Portfolio Posse a few months back and are having another one on March 31 (https://portfolio-posse-march-2018.eventbrite.com) — where those looking for work can bring their portfolios and/or resumes, and have 15-minute, one-on-one review sessions. You can read about them here in my Google+ blog. (https://plus.google.com/u/2/collection/kCstUE)

That said, we’re still not where we want to be in terms of notoriety. It’s good to be noticed.

Chase: Will Game Lab have online courses in the future, or will all take place at the specific destination?

John Henderson: Right now we’re committed to our format, which includes in-person instruction. There are lots of places to learn how to make video games, including independent study. Many roads lead to Austin already.

Chase: What do you hope to achieve by the end of your next bootcamp?

John Henderson: The cohort we started in January has only one student. By August, I want him to leave the program with at least one job offer, even if it’s for a short-term contract. The success of the program as vocational education will depend on our ability to produce graduates that can be hired. Right now, we have everything to prove, but we’re up to the challenge.

 

Thanks so much to John Henderson for taking time out of his day to do this interview! Go check out https://www.gamedevelopmentlab.com/ for all the information you possibly need on this promising program! Till next time!

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