Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

One shot: Drew Clowery interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 6, 2010

Current lead game designer for Flying Lab Software, Drew Clowery talks about his professional background in the gaming industry, his current hobbies and favorite pastimes, including sleeping on couches, and what advice he has for those hoping to get into the video game industry.

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If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind discussing your background in the game industry?

Sure, I got started in the computer game industry in December of 2001 when I was hired as a Customer Service Representative at Mythic Entertainment for the MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot. At the time I was just looking for a full time job, and as an avid MMO player, the thought of turning one of my hobbies into full time employment sounded great, but not nearly as good as the regular paycheck and medical benefits that came with it (Mythic treated their Customer Service people very well at the time, I don’t know if this is still the case).

In the year I worked at Mythic I learned a lot, but I think the most valuable lesson I learned was that the guys who made this game were nothing special. I mean they were smart, talented people, but they weren’t magic. I was a smart, talented guy, I could do what they did. I also learned that I needed to know a whole lot more about the technical side of software development, and so in January of 2003, I left to go back to school.

I spent about a year in community college before heading off to Full Sail in Orlando Florida. Full Sail is a private, for profit college, accredited as a technical school. There are people who have really strong feelings about whether or not for profit colleges are valid institutions of learning, and whether or not Full Sail in particular is a good school. You could write a book on the topic, or at least a long blog post, but I’ll tell you my take away: I learned a ton at Full Sail, because I applied myself and worked hard. It was the right school for me, for where I was in my life, but I wouldn’t recommend it to kids coming right out of high school.

After Full Sail I moved home and slept on my parents couch for 8 months before I landed a job at Flying Lab Software. Once here I spent almost two years as a Game Systems Designer on Pirates of the Burning Sea, before moving on to be Lead Designer of Upper Deck U.

How did you get on with Flying Lab Software?

It was fall of 2006, I was living in Virginia, sleeping on my parents couch, and unemployed. I’d been looking for a job for 8 months without success, and I’d come to the conclusion that no one was going to hire me from across the country for an entry level job. I’d spoken to a hiring rep for Blizzard at GDC and he’d strongly implied that if I lived in L.A. I’d have an interview for a Game Master job at Blizzard immediately. They needed experienced GMs badly, and I had experience as a GM.

I’d made the decision to move out to L.A. and start looking for a job, hopefully something in Game Design, but with a willingness to fall back to being a Game Master if it got me into the industry. I had called a buddy from college who lived in L.A. and he agreed to let me stay on his couch for a couple of weeks. I cashed in the last of my savings, said my goodbyes and started packing.

The week I was supposed to leave I saw a job posting on the Flying Lab website for an entry level Game Designer come open. I decided there and then that I was going to make a detour on my way to L.A. I put together a cover letter and resume and sent it in. I told them I was leaving for Seattle tomorrow, and asked them to please interview me when I got there. When I told my World of Warcraft guild about the change in plans a couple of my guildmates, who I had never met in real life, piped up and insisted I stay with them when I got to Seattle. The next morning I left for Seattle.

I stopped to visit family in Chicago over the weekend, then continued on to Seattle the next week. In Wyoming I got an e-mail from Flying Lab with a written design test, I spent an extra day at the motel there to write the test, proof read it, and send it back. I arrived in Seattle that Friday night, spent the weekend with my guildmates (I would end up sleeping on their couch for three weeks before I found my own place, talk about kind hearted people). Monday I got an e-mail scheduling an interview for Tuesday afternoon, I interviewed Tuesday, and got an offer letter Wednesday night. I started the following Monday.

What has been your involvement with Pirates of the Burning Sea?

I was a Game Systems Designer on Pirates of the Burning Sea for about 2 years. Shortly after I was brought on board I was given the Avatar Combat system. When I was given the Avatar Combat system I was still extremely junior, far too junior in fact. What I couldn’t see at the time was that the system was not, despite what I was being told, fully implemented. Further, the design I had taken over was not a complete system, but rather a system that was built as a living argument for features that had already been cut. Obviously this put me in a pretty tough situation.

When I stepped in to Avatar Combat I was told “the system’s done, you just need to make the skills,” which aside from being factually untrue is like saying “we’re done with WoW’s combat system, you just need to make all the spells, combat abilities, and talents. You have a month.” I death marched from December 2006 through March of 2007 trying to get the Avatar Combat system into something resembling a working order. Unfortunately I ran into the problem that what we really needed to do was finish implementing the system. I attempted to do this through clever use of data driven scripts, but the results were not good.

I would continue to focus primarily on the Avatar Combat system until after Pirates shipped, when I briefly worked on the Skirmish system (writing the first draft of the spec), before moving on to the Upper Deck project. I worked on a lot of other, smaller projects on Pirates, but my time was dominated by Avatar Combat. The system was wholly ripped out and replaced less than a year after launch (something that should have been done long before launch).

Would you be able to talk a little bit about the game you are currently working on for Flying Lab?

I can’t talk about the game I’m currently working on, but I can talk about the game I was recently working, Upper Deck U. Upper Deck U is a casual kids MMO, targeted at 8 to 12 year old boys. It was conceived primarily as a marketing device for the sports trading cards of the Upper Deck company. A complete post mortem on the Upper Deck project is a task for another space (and something I hope to make the subject of a conference talk) but the short version is: the project did not have enough grounding in reality and we suffered severe communications issues with our client.

How would you say this game differs from other MMOs targeting younger players like Free Realms?

Well size and scope to begin with. Free Realms is a huge triple A title, Upper Deck U was a small casual ad game. Polish for another, Free Realms is a highly polished game, Upper Deck U, not so much. But the one place where we win, hands down, is this: no client download. There are certain magical phrases that will allow you to get the attention of MMO executives, and these phrases change over time. Right now, one of those phrases is “no client download.” Upper Deck U was a game with no client download, and that’s pretty huge.

Would you mind taking a minute and talking a little bit about your own gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Sure, I’m a giant gaming nerd. I learned to read in order to play D&D. I had some older friends (they were in 3rd grade, quite the old men to a six year old), who promised they would let me play with them if I could read the rulebook by myself. I went straight from “see spot run” to red box D&D, with a whole lot of bothering my mother about what words meant in between. I played Chess, Shogun, Axis and Allies, Risk, and Strat-o-matic Baseball with my father and god father.

When I was a teenager I practically lived in a Games Workshop store, until Magic: the Gathering came out, when I moved to practically living in the card shop. At that store I learned Settlers of Catan, Nuclear War, Twilight Imperium, Titan, and about a dozen others I only half remember. Plus every weekend we played some role playing game or another, Rifts when we were younger, then Vampire and the rest of the World of Darkness when we were angst ridden teens.

On the electronic side I got a Nintendo when I was 8, but I was never a super heavy console player. My sister and I used to drive each other nuts playing Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo, and my buddies and I would often play console games waiting for the weekly RPG to start, or after it had wrapped up, but outside of that, I was mostly a PC gamer. On the PC my games of choice were always strategy: Civilization II, Alpha Centauri, Master of Magic.

Not long after Everquest came out I had a friend who got me hooked and ever since I’ve been an MMO addict. I’ve played Everquest, Everquest II, Dark Age of Camelot, and World of Warcraft extensively, but I’ve dabbled in City of Heroes, Horizons, Warhammer, Vanguard, and probably a half dozen other freebies I can’t recall off the top of my head.

Assuming you’re still a gaming enthusiast, what are you playing these days?

Work has been really busy the last couple of months, so my play time has been limited, so these days my game time is restricted to my bi-weekly pen and paper group (currently playing Shadowrun 4th edition), my weekly poker night, and a little bit of Magic the Gathering: online here and there. I’ve really found I enjoy Magic: Online quite a bit, especially the draft formats. They take out the “buy your way to victory” aspect of magic I’ve always disliked, and I have a lot of fun playing them.

I’ve gotten pretty serious out playing poker, my weekly game isn’t exactly nosebleed stakes, but it’s not nickel and dime either. The guys there are all very serious about their poker, and it’s a very competitive environment. We play every week, and one to two weekends a month, so that’s a pretty serious game outlet for me. I also occasionally do a trip out to a casino or a Magic tournament with some of those guys (the crossover, both in players and skill set, between Magic and Poker is astounding).

I also play an occasional bout of Counter Strike or Team Fortress 2 if I feel like a little ultra violence, and I fire up a round of Civilization IV about once a quarter. I’ve honestly been missing MMO gaming recently, but I just haven’t had the time to spend on one. I’ve been thinking about trying out WoW’s new group matchmaking system, but I haven’t taken the plunge.

Would you say working on games has in some ways lessoned your enthusiasm for playing video games?

Well, I wouldn’t say that working on games has, but sitting in front of a computer 40+ hours a week I frequently have the experience of looking for hobbies that allow me to not be in front of a computer. It’s definitely driven me to spend more time on pen and paper, board, and miniature games. It’s not that I never want to play video games, but my tolerance for sitting in front of a computer is definitely lower when I’m working 40 hours a week. It goes down significantly if I’m working more than 40 hours a week.

I will say, when I worked in customer service and spent all day in game in Dark Age of Camelot, it was very hard to play Dark Age for fun. It very much felt like being at work whenever I was logged in.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable experience from your game design days?

When I interviewed at Flying Lab they had me interview with several different members of the team, which is fairly typical of most company’s interview process. During one of the early interviews I had mentioned that I was a big fan of the pen and paper RPG Unknown Armies, which had been co-authored by John Tynes, who was the Producer at Flying Lab. So later on John is one of the people interviewing me, we’re introduced, I tell him I’m a big fan of his work, he’s very gracious, we sit down and start the interview.

Throughout the whole interview he blinks one eye at a time, in sequence. Blink right eye, blink left eye. In one smooth motion. Unknown Armies, if you don’t know, is a game of high weirdness, so through the whole interview I’m trying to figure out if he’s fucking with me, if there’s something wrong with his eye, or if this is just how he blinks. I just go through the whole interview acting like it’s not there, but I spend the next day until I get the job freaking out in my head about what the hell that was about.

A year and a half later, John is leaving the company for greener pastures, and I finally ask him what was up: bad contacts. I spent a year and a half wondering about contacts.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the field?

When it comes to entry level hires there are four things that employers look for, in this order: Skills, Availability, Passion, and Fit. You have to have the skills to do the job For Programmers this is the number one requirement, and the toughest one to crack. Availability means that no one is flying you across the country to interview for an entry level position. If the economy does a sudden about face (unlikely), and you’re a programmer from a well known school this *might* happen, otherwise you have to be local, or close enough to drive to the interview. It also means you have to be ready to work on the day the job starts, not graduating in 6 months. Passion means you’re going to work too many hours for not enough pay. The game industry is an exploitative employer, and they know the only way that works is if people are taking jobs not for a paycheck but because they love what they do. This is the hardest thing for designers to demonstrate, and the biggest stumbling block I find in designer resumes. Finally Fit is just a matter of how well your personality fits with the team. It’s a matter of being not a douche bag. If you need specific advice on this, it’s beyond the scope of my reply.

If you’re going into the game industry you need to understand that you are not going to get rich. People in the game industry universally make less money than their equivalent counterparts in other industries. If you’re serious about working in the game industry start by getting a strong technical background. If you want to be a designer, learn how to program. You don’t need to be a great programmer to be a designer, but you need to know how a programmer thinks, and what software can and can’t do. You need to be able to read someone else’s code, and talk to a programmer in his language. If you want to be an artist don’t just learn how to use your tools, learn how to support your tools. The artists who can use Maya are valuable. The artists who can build Maya scripts are invaluable. If you want to be a programmer, you need to be a great one. Game programming is one of the most challenging programming disciplines, so you better be on top of your game.

Next, start making games. With the advent of flash, it’s really easy to make games on your own, but the quality of those games may not be great. If you don’t want to take on a project yourself join a mod team. Mod teams are a great way to get some experience while working as part of a bigger team. Alternately you can make a level for an existing game (Neverwinter nights was the classic candidate, but I’m guessing Dragon Age is about to supplant that), or a simple UI mod for your favorite MMO. The important thing here is get out and do something game related that your future employer can download, install, and play.

Drew Clowery

Finally start applying to jobs that are local to you. If you’re outside of one of the few major industry hubs (Montreal, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles/San Diego), you may have to face moving in order to apply for jobs. Keep trying. I applied to something like 50 jobs before I got one, and that was before the economy went to hell. That’s not unusual. This is about the worst possible time to be looking for a job in the game design industry. People with years of experience are out of work and have been for some time. Until the economy recovers, something I’m extremely pessimistic about, it’s going to be hard to find a job anywhere, let alone the game industry.

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