Recent NJIT Graduate Jason Chin
It’s uncommon for someone right out of college, like Jason, to find a good job in the games industry. One must usually have years of experience before getting hired. But Jason, who graduated in the winter of 2007, had the experience, intelligence and contacts to work successfully in the video game industry.
While he was a student at NJIT, Jason took all the classes he could find relating to video games. He took two video-game classes taught by D.J. Kehoe, as well as two game design classes with Coray Seifert, an adjunct professor who is well-established in the games industry. Seifert not only works as a Game Designer for Kaos, but is also the principle coordinator of New Jersey’s International Game Developers Association (IGDA) chapter. Seifert’s connections became the avenue through which Jason entered the games industry.
Seifert wanted the students in his design class to work on actual game projects. So he asked a friend of his, Dylan Tredrea, who runs Creo Ludus Entertainment, if the students could work on games that Creo was building. Tredrea agreed, and NJIT formed a partnership with Creo. Tredrea offered criticism and advice to Seifert’s students and he was especially impressed with Jason’s class project. So much so that he later hired Jason to work as a technical designer at Creo. It was Jason’s first job in the industry and it launched his career.
“To get your first job working for a video game firm,” Jason explains, “there are two things you must have: a portfolio of your work and contacts in the industry. Since NJIT had the foresight to hire Professor Seifert and to partner with Creo Ludus, I came out of NJIT with work experience (the work I did in class for Creo Ludus), and great contacts (Dylan Tredrea and Professor Seifert). That’s how I got my first job in the industry.”
In this interview, Jason talks about his lifelong obsession with video games, his days at NJIT and what it’s like to have a job that is the envy of millions of game-loving college students. He also talks about his father, also an NJIT graduate, who as an IBM engineer worked on the computer chips used in all three next-generation gaming systems: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii.
Were you a game freak when you were a student at NJIT?
Absolutely. Probably to my detriment. Then again, if I didn’t have that passion for games I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t play games. I must have been four or five years old when I started. I think I started out playing on the original Nintendo system, NES. I was hooked on games early on -- literally as long as I remember.
Is working in the video game industry as much fun as it sounds?
The game industry is notorious for having grueling crunch times. That said, when you can come to work wearing shorts and flip flops, your office looks like a permanent LAN party, and you have “Mandatory Fun Days,” you know you’re not working a run-of-the-mill desk job. It’s certainly a job that you can wake up every morning and look forward to.
You majored in computer science. Did that help you make video games?
Of course. If you intend to become a games programmer then a major like computer science is absolutely essential to teach you the fundamentals of programming. Any chance to code something substantial should not be taken lightly. But working on hands-on projects was the most useful thing I did at NJIT, since having experience is so critical to working in the gaming industry.
And it was your Capstone project that gave you real-world experience?
My senior Capstone project was very helpful in that regard. And the chance to work on something real for a company, as opposed to doing smaller classroom assignments, is definitely an opportunity that students should seize. Professor Osama Eljibari, who runs the Capstone projects, is an incredibly devoted and great teacher who truly understands the value of real-world experience that students so desperately need. Back to the main point, though: Computer science is the best major for students who know they want to work one day as programmers for a video game company. It’s not necessarily the right major if you want to work on other more artistic aspects of the game. Students need to know what aspects of gaming they want to work in, and then decide on a major.
You took classes in game development at NJIT. How did those classes help you?
I took a number of classes with D.J. Kehoe, which helped me develop my portfolio. D.J. expected us, by semester’s end, to develop a usable gaming product. That was very helpful. When I was a student, the NJIT game development program was just starting. I’ve heard NJIT has since expanded its Game Programming Concentration, which is part of the Information Technology Program. That will be a big help to students who want to work in the gaming industry. Again, your portfolio and experience is everything. I actually just ran into D.J. this past weekend when I attended the bi-annual Games Expo he runs at NJIT. Good times.
When you were a student, NJIT hired Coray Seifert, an adjunct professor who works in the games industry. Can you tell us how he helped you?
If NJIT had not had hired Professor Seifert, I probably wouldn’t be working in the games industry today. Professor Seifert became NJIT’s conduit to the games industry. As a game designer at Kaos and principle coordinator of the New Jersey chapter of the IGDA, he was in a unique position to put his students in contact with people from all over the games industry, both to benefit from their experience and for networking purposes. In his class, he gave all the students a chance to build a part of a Creo Ludus project called The Forgotten War. He partnered with Dylan Tredrea, the head of Creo Ludus.
And that lead to a full-time job?
I guess the fact that I'm talking to you right now shows it worked out pretty well, hahaha. I got the highest grade in that class and my work was selected to go into the final release for The Forgotten War. As such, I was invited to join Creo Ludus to aid in completing the project. Coray and Dylan then brought in actors to do voices for the game and hired people to compose an original music score. Our work was later featured on Gamasutra.com and GameCareerGuide.com.
Through them I was able to enhance my portfolio and get some great work experience. I designed the premier level of the game and also did all the programming work to give the title its feature set, including the voice work, all the in-game events and setting up the level’s opening movie. To succeed in this business, you must have a portfolio and contacts. Interning at Creo Ludus gave me both.
What did you like best about working as a technical designer at Creo Ludus?
My favorite part of the job is being the one who everyone relies on to unite the technical capabilities of a game with its design elements. I was not just a programmer: I dabbled in 2D art, 3D modeling, design, and various other aspects of game development. I was the conduit between the designers and the programmers. You can imagine a programmer trying to explain the technical details of various tools to an artist who may have difficulty reading his e-mail. They are opposites, but they must work together. I helped them work together since, to an extent, I understand both their jobs. I can do a bit of programming and I can do a bit of the more artistic end of things.
So how’d you eventually get a full-time paying job?
The gaming industry in Manhattan is small and close knit. Almost all the game companies, about 15-30 of them, are clustered between 23 rd and 28th streets in Manhattan. All the companies talk to each other, they are friendly and they all go out drinking together, so who you know is incredibly important. Dylan Tredrea dropped my name at Powerhead Games, a company that makes hand-held games for Nintendo. Powerhead hired me to work as a Quality Assurance tester. As a QA tester, I tested the games and found and verified software bugs. Then I’d work with the programmers and discuss with them what caused the bugs.
You recently started a new job working for Kaos, the biggest video game company in Manhattan. What will you do there?
I’m starting out as quality assurance tester, while hopefully training to become a programmer there.
What’s your long-term career goal?
I’d like to work my way up to being a games programmer. In the end I’d like to be a programmer who can work on games that I’d enjoy playing myself. Many people in the games industry don’t have the luxury of building games that appeal to them. I’ve been very fortunate to have gotten a job at Kaos, which makes games that I’m quite interested in.
Sounds like video game companies give their employees a lot of freedom and autonomy. Is that true? Is the office atmosphere casual?
You can show up for work wearing practically anything you want depending on the company. It’s certainly not uncommon to see people proudly displaying all manner of dyed hair, tattoos, piercings, etc. that would normally get you in trouble at your typical office job. The office at Powerhead Games was one big open room with desks and computers. And Kaos looks like akin to an NJIT dorm sometimes. There’s a long hallway with doors opening up to rooms filled with bunches of guys at their computers surrounded by posters, various toys, TVs, and video game systems. Both companies sport beer fridges.
What hours do you work?
Most employees at Powerhead came in at noon -- if that tells you anything. Powerhead has what are called core hours, from 12 noon to 5 p.m. You must be in the office during those hours. But other than that, you can work when you want.
Could you talk about your background? What do your parents do for a living and what do they make of your career? Did they ever play a video game?
I grew up in Yorktown Heights, New York, and went to Yorktown High School. I’ve lived in that town my entire life. My mother was born here in the U.S., while my father was born in China. I'm the second generation in my family to go to college, since both my parents went. My father actually graduated from NJIT in 1974 with a degree in electrical engineering. My mother is an accountant for Warren Pharmaceuticals, and my father is an electrical engineer at IBM. One interesting note: my father was part of the team that built the computer chips in all three next-generation gaming systems (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Nintendo Wii). Both my parents have been very supportive of my choice to go into the gaming industry. They've always given me the freedom to pursue whatever I choose and they’ve done everything in their power to aid me in achieving my goals. My father doesn't really play games at all. My mother, on the other hand, is pretty damn good at Tetris and Doctor Mario.
What advice do you have for high school and college students who would like to work in the field?
For any aspiring game developer, here’s a word of advice: You should be spending as much, if not more time, making games as you do playing games. Start working on stuff now. Work on games with your friends. Just jump in and figure out what you like and don't like about gaming. Building games on your own is the key. Building your own game will, one, show you your level of expertise and two, give you experience.
Any potential employer will want to see what you can do. Start building a passion game, a game you and your friends would want to play. You’ll be infinitely more motivated if you work on something you like. In the real world, you don’t pick the game you work on 99% of the time -- the company decides. So while you have a chance, work on something that you’d really like. You should start building a part of a game that is doable, a small project that will not take you a year to finish and burn you out on your first go around. Ease yourself into bigger projects. Nobody builds World of Warcraft as their first game.
Sounds like one needs to have great capacities for patience and perseverance to do succeed working in the video-game industry?
Yes: If you can’t find the motivation and determination to start your own project, and see it through to completion, chances are you aren’t yet ready for the games industry -- especially if you intend to work for a AAA game studio. Some students can barely stay focused on a game for a few weeks, or in some cases, only a few days. That’s not good. In the industry, if you work on big games, you can be working on it for four years or more. So having the determination, commitment, and passion to see a game project through to the end is essential. That said, I don’t want to scare everyone away. Working in the gaming industry is a wonderful way to make a living and the future is really exciting; the games industry is growing by leaps and bounds.
Do you have any practical suggestions, such as who students who are serious about working in your field can contact about internships?
Feel free to shoot an email to Creo Ludus' career page, Dylan is always looking for passionate developers of all experience levels. You’ll get experience which helps a ton because this industry is so portfolio driven. You’ll also get some bullet points that you can put on your resume (I worked on this game, I did this and that). And if you work for Creo Ludus, you’ll be privy to the vast social network that Dylan Tredrea and Coray Seifert have. It’s well worth the effort, and I highly recommend that students who are serious about gaming and have the patience and dedication and passion for it contact Dylan.
So many young people want to get into the game industry. They play a lot of video games but they don’t realized how much hard work it is to make a game. And until they start working on a game, they won’t understand the work involved. That said; I could have accomplished much more while I was student if I had spent less time playing games and more time making them. I had enough of a foundation, as a computer science major, to start making games while I was a student. But, I guess I had to live and learn, right?
What’s a good major for students who want to work in the game industry?
As I mentioned before, it all depends on what you want to work on. If you want to program games, you should major in computer science. But if you want to be a designer or an artist, pick a major that allows you to learn those aspects of gaming. When I entered college, I told people I wanted to work on video games and that I liked computers, so they advised me to major in computer science. But students should know that much of the computer science curriculum is not geared specifically to making video games. Many people get into computer science without really knowing what it is and get discouraged. During my freshman year, my group of friends had around 15 computer science majors; only three or so of us graduated as computer science majors.
What about gaming classes at NJIT. Do you recommend them?
Major aside, I would recommend taking as many game-development courses as possible with a variety of professors. The classes force you to build various aspects of games and at the end you could come out with a nice portfolio piece. That’s essential. Your professors might also work in the games industry and be the contact you need to get started. That’s how I got my start in the games industry, and I’m extremely grateful to NJIT for giving me that opportunity.
(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)