NJIT Alum Alwin Ventura Helped Create Draw Something, the Smartphone App That Swept the Nation

One of Alwin Ventura's efforts on Draw Something, the game he helped to create.

A game changed the life of Alwin Ventura.

Alwin helped to create Draw Something, the smartphone app that allows players to illustrate words and phrases for other players to guess. Soon after it was launched the game exploded in popularity, with 20 million downloads. 

Alwin worked as a Quality Assurance (QA) analyst for OMGPOP, the start-up company that developed the game. And just seven weeks after Draw Something’s launch, OMGPOP was bought by Zynga, the world’s largest social game developer, for a reported $180 million.

Alwin was thrilled.

After the buyout he was promoted to Associate Producer. He now works with The OMGPOP/Zynga team on franchising Draw Something, which includes developing a television game show for CBS based on the app. 

Millions of young people yearn to work in the video game industry. Like sports or music or acting, gaming is an extremely competitive field to break into. But Alwin did it – thanks to NJIT.  He graduated from NJIT in 2006 with an Information Technology degree. While a student he took all of the gaming classes in the Game Programming Concentration. That’s where he learned what he needed to know to get a foot in the door of the gaming industry. 

“I graduated six years ago but already have my dream job,” says Alwin, who lives in South Plainfield, N.J. “And if not for the gaming development classes I took at NJIT, I would not be working in the industry.”

His first job in the industry was working for Microsoft-Massive, where he tested and placed ads in video games. After that, he worked as Quality Assurance (QA) tester for Skyzone Entertainment, a company that makes games for cell phones. He left Skyzone to work at Barnes & Noble, where he tested apps for the Nook. Later, he heard about a job opening at OMGPOP.  He applied and was hired in February of 2011. A year later Zynga bought OMGPOP and Alwin achieved his dream job.  

In this interview, Alwin talks about what it’s like to have a great job at a leading gaming company at such a young age.


How did you get your first job in the gaming industry --working for Microsoft-Massive -- and what was that job like?

I felt I got the job by luck.  I sent my resume to a recruiter who said she had the perfect job for me. I got the job and she was right. I learned a lot of QA testing skills, but my main job was to test ads to see if they worked and to place the ads in video games.

Gaming companies would send us a new build of a new game to see if our ads would work within that game. The best part of that job was getting new games on my desk before they came out, such as Transformers: the Movie, the video game based on the film (my first big project). I worked on that. I would find scenes and places in the games where the ads would work best.

And how did you get your next job at Skyzone?

I had a contract to work at Microsoft for only one year and, after a few months of unemployment, I got lucky again. Another recruiter said she had a perfect job for me at Skyzone. I applied and got a job there as a QA tester. After a few months I was promoted to Associate Producer.

You said you owe a great deal to adjunct professor DJ Kehoe, who taught many of the classes in the Game Development Program when you were a student.   

If not for all the classes I took mostly with DJ, I would not be working in this industry. He taught me what I needed to know and convinced me that “programming isn’t that bad” (When I was a student I was intimidated by programming but he helped me through). His gaming classes (and Nick Smolney’s classes, also) taught me what goes into making a game, especially the hard work (and the crazy fun) you go through during the development process. The “Game Design Jams” that both professors held were memorable because we students would create games off the top of our heads…and that was always a good hour or two gone!  In DJ’s classes, I learned the various aspects of gaming such as 3D modeling, Game Design, Design Architecture and Level Design.

Can you explain why you came to NJIT?

I chose NJIT with hopes that it had a program that would teach me about the gaming Industry. Information Systems was then the closest thing they had then to gaming, so I majored in IS.  Fast forward to my second year at NJIT when I realized that “just programming” was not the path I wanted.  Then I heard that the Information Technology (IT) Department was developing a Game Development Program and I immediately jumped on it.  I switched my major to IT with a concentration in multimedia, so I could take all the gaming classes.  It set me back a year of credits but it was well worth it, considering how much I learned.

When you first worked on Draw Something did you suspect it would take off?

I had a good feeling about it, but didn’t realize how big it would become.  When all my friends started playing it, I knew it was getting big because they don’t play games.  Draw Something became the number one game in various parts of the world and we never imagined it would be that popular.  It’s funny but the game got a big boost after Pauly D, from the show Jersey Shore, sent out tweets telling his fans to play Draw Something, after which the game got a million plus downloads.

How long was Draw Something on the market before Zynga bought OMGPOP? And did you benefit professionally from the buyout?

It was out for about a month when we – the 50 plus employees at OMGPOP -- were bought out. Professionally, I benefited because I was promoted from QA analyst to associate producer.  It’s great working for Zynga because it’s a big corporation that makes major games such as FarmVille, Mafia Wars and Words with Friends.

How did you first get seriously into video games?

As a kid I was engrossed in games due to the fact that my siblings had a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and then a Sega Genesis gaming console. They were also avid PC gamers. I knew deep down I wanted to be involved in making them. I subscribed to magazines and got my hands on the latest and greatest games whenever I could. I didn’t just play games; I felt like I was studying them.

What does a Quality Assurance (QA) Analyst do?

As a Quality Assurance Analyst, I’d like to think I’m last line of defense before the product ships to the consumers. My team and I make sure that the game is close to error free as possible and that the game is the best it can be, with each new feature added. Our goal is to make the game as enjoyable to us as it is to our fans of the game and loyal OMGPOPers.

You‘re part of a team that works on Draw Something. How does the team operate?

Draw Something started out with a team of about 10 people and then, because of its growing popularity, we had everyone in the company working on it. We operate like a family away from our real families here, but when work needs to get done we work our asses off to ensure that our product is the best it can be -- amazing, and awesome.

Are you now working on franchising Draw Something?

I can’t say much but be on the lookout for Draw Something the TV game show on CBS, among other things. 

What’s it like in your office?

The OMGPOP / Zynga East office, on Broadway in lower Manhattan, is an amazing place to work. We’ve got an entertainment room with all the latest tech. It has electric and acoustic guitars, a snack rack and a drink fridge, big open spaces for lounging and conference rooms named after characters from the show “The Wire.”

You said you would love to help NJIT students learn more about gaming. Why is that?

Seeing as how I’ve gained five years of experience in the game industry and am now working under Zynga/OMGPOP, I think that I can share my experience of how to break into the industry.  I think I can help the students with the most gaming potential and steer them in the right direction. I had a great teacher when I took my concentration in Multimedia and the courses I took helped me to see what career paths I could follow in the video-game industry.

What’s your advice to students who want to work in the gaming industry?

My advice to students would be to always be persistent and adaptable. Getting a job after college is hard enough but getting a job in the gaming industry (or the entertainment industry) is especially difficult.  A lot of people want to work in games. It’s a fun industry to work in but it requires dedication, hard work and some sleepless nights. This job is definitely not a 9 to 5. It’s more like a, “This is it, get it done. Oh, and by the way the deadline is tomorrow” type of job. But in my opinion, it’s one of the most satisfying and rewarding jobs. You will grind your teeth trying to get here. You will be rejected and there will always be someone more talented than you trying to get the position you want. But keep learning, keep up with ever-growing technology and keep reaching for that dream position of yours.

Didn’t you read a line in a magazine that inspired you to work as a gamer?

Some years ago I read a line in Electronic Gaming Monthly that I’ve never forgotten:

        “To work in the games industry, you have to be half rocket scientist, half rock star.

What I took that line to mean was that in making games you must work with both sides of your brain: the logical side and the creative side.   

And now that Draw Something is such a smash hit your parents understand and appreciate what you do, right?

My parents didn’t really understand what I did at work until they saw people in public playing Draw Something. Then they’d call me up and say, “Alwin, we saw people playing your game.” They were suddenly proud of me and that makes me feel really good.

By Robert Florida