Ever wondered how to get a job in the video game industry? Want to know how others cracked it? David Whiddon talks to us about how he managed to go from high-school to working on some of the biggest games within the industry today. This is David’s journey with advice on how any aspiring creative, or bedroom developer can get their foot on the first rung of the ladder.
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Do you have any questions for David? Let me know in the comments (on the blog, via facebook or YouTube) and we’ll pick the best ones for a follow up video. Note, any questions that would violate his contract will be omitted – he likes his job!
David and I met a long time ago, and we have worked on a few small projects together, such as Fracture by Hitfilm, which went on to premiere on the Playstation Home network, more details about that project can be found here.
Don’t want to watch the full video, no problem! The conversation has been transcribed below.
How it all began
RGB: Hi David, thanks for coming along.
D.W: Happy to be here.
RGB: Let’s start with you telling us a little bit about yourself, where you work and what kind of work you deal with on a day-to-day basis?
D.W: Sure. I’m from Australia but I’m currently over in Montreal and working for Ubisoft. The game I’m working on right now is actually Far Cry 5, which I’m super-excited about as we’ve only just been able to announce it just before E3, so super exciting people get to see it.
Day-to-day job is a level artist. Basically I’m a 3D artist and I build the world, I place objects, I design place holders and I work directly with the level designers to help create the vision they have – so the gameplay is fun, but also so it actually looks good, for when you play the game.
RGB: We met on the 3D-Palace forums back in 2005. Tell us how you got involved with that and was 3D something you always wanted to pursue?
D.W: As a kid I wanted to be a pilot and then about a month before I was about to finish high school, some guys called me into the computer room when I had a free period. They showed me a program called Bryce 5, which is a 3D program. It was pretty terrible, but, within a minute, you could create an island and have snow on top and have the sun coming up over the water – so to me at the time that was amazing. I can’t remember how I found 3D-Palace. It must have been through 3DBuzz because at the time they were the only sites that had full video tutorials.
RGB: I remember from that it wasn’t too far along that you then started working with Team Bondi on L.A Noire?
D.W: That actually came about… I went and studied for one-year, but turned out based on the training I got from Cris I actually knew more than the teachers, so that wasn’t a good use of my time.
After that I met a guy whilst working on an indie game that never ended up getting seen. One of the guys I met on that project took me under his wing and started teaching me the finer points of being a 3D artist.
I then made a demo reel – put a DVD together printed it out, made it look super fancy because I figured if my work wasn’t good enough. Thought they’d be impressed by the packaging (laughs).
I then sent it to every company in Australia that made games, from mobile games – to big triple-A games, because there were a few that were doing them. I only got a call back from one of them and that was Team Bondi to work on L.A Noire.
RGB: What a call to get though.
D.W: Oh, it was unreal.
RGB: Were you aware who they were and what they were working on?
D.W: Absolutely, yeah. I’d seen a mood piece they’d released, something that wasn’t used in the final game. I saw that and I was super excited to be working on that game. Hell – I was just excited to be working in the games industry.
RGB: This was back in Australia wasn’t it?
D.W: That’s right. Back in Sydney.
RGB: So what skills did you learn on L.A Noire and do you still use any of those skills today?
D.W: I learnt tons. There’s only so much you can learn when you’re on your own teaching yourself, or at an institution. But when you’re at work and you’re needing to do stuff, you learn so much really quickly.
One of the things I did learn was scripting – some MEL (Maya Embedded Language) script, which allowed me to make some tools to help speed up the production. That, I really enjoyed, that technical side. I got a lot better at texturing and my modelling improved as well; just understanding more about 3D – not just from being able to move polygons around but understanding what you’re creating in terms of setups. The stories of different setups that was one of the big things I learnt.
RGB: How long were you at Team Bondi?
D.W: Just under five years. The last few months were post LA Noire, when we started working on a new project, but the vast majority of that time was actually LA Noire.
A Far Cry from home
RGB: So, how did you transition from Australia to Montreal, because shortly after that you found yourself at Ubisoft?
D.W: The lead artist I worked with on LA Noire got offered a job with Ubisoft here in Montreal. We decided on a new company after Team Bondi and were working on a new game. Anyway, he contacted me and basically said, would you like a job here in Montreal with Ubisoft, and of course I said yes. This was a guy I literally followed half way around the world to work with. So he put my name forward and HR contacted me from Ubisoft. Next thing I knew I was flying to French Canada.
RGB: Something like this is hugely life changing. How did you go about living accommodation?
D.W: The good thing is Ubisoft gave me a hotel for a month as part of the transfer deal, so I had a month to find a place. They also had a deal with a company who’s a relocation expert, so they give you somebody to drive you around for the first few days, help you find a place, help you take care of all your paper work, healthcare and all that fun stuff.
A month is a pretty reasonable time to find your feet in new country even if you struggle with the language.
RGB: What would you say is your most proudest project you’ve worked on to date?
D.W: It’s tough because I’m super proud to have worked on all of them, all the projects. LA Noire is probably the special one because it’s the first.
It was so big at the time, it was the biggest game ever made in Australia, I think it still is? We set a record. It was the fastest selling original IP in the UK. Prior to that, the record was held by The Getaway – which was made by my boss from Team Bondi.
RGB: Do you have any advice for people who might be thinking about breaking into the industry?
D.W: It’s a lot of hard work. The best skill, if you’re wanting to work on any kind of skill – isn’t being able to texture well, to model well – it’s to be a fast learner. It’s a super important skill that most people overlook, if you’re going to be shown new processes, new tools, new techniques and you want to take those and run with them as quickly as possible.
RGB: Do hobbies and skills have a creative impact on your work. We talked in the past how Eagle Flight might have been influenced by your time with drone racing?
D.W: The big thing about having any kind of hobby outside of work is it allows you to disconnect from your work, so you’re not completely consumed with it, so you can go to work each day fresh.
So my hobbies are that I fly remote control aeroplanes and drones and I also design them as well. I do find my day-to-day work helps me design them as I can do the modelling, the 3D. I use regular 3D programs to do these things.
Does it help me with work? A little bit, but more so to do with the interest in aviation. If we had an aeroplane in a game, I’m able to point out and say “That propeller has gone the wrong way”. Other than that, not too much.
Back to the future
RGB: If you could go back and talk to your younger self, what advice would you have?
D.W: I was really lucky. Everything started off pretty slowly for me, then it just kind of snowballed. I wouldn’t have any terribly exciting advice – just tell myself to stick with it – when it’s really tough and you’re working those long hours that it’s worth it.
We worked many many long hours on LA Noire that’s been well documented and I’d say just hang in there. There is better out there but if you’re in a hellish situation at your work, however hard you might think it is – enjoy where you are. I say that because I came out of LA Noire battle hardened.
When I was working on Assassin’s Creed and we got to the crunch time at the end, one of the guys on the team was panicking how much work it was going to be, how many bugs would come in and I was as calm as you get. I was like “this isn’t hard, we’re going home at a reasonable time. This isn’t crunch, this is great – it’s easy”.
So if you are going through a hard time kind of appreciate it while you’re doing it because you are learning how to handle yourself.
That’s really important working in the industry because if you’re the person that starts panicking on crunch time you aren’t the person they want on the team.
RGB: So do your team have set milestones and targets to ensure there’s no rush at the end to fix bugs?
D.W: In a perfect world there would never be any crunches, no overtime and all that, but unfortunately that’s not the real world scenario. With schedules they’ll do their best to plan, but late in a project things will always change – change a feature and a level will have to change, something of that sort. It’s always the case you’re needing to polish stuff at the end. It’s always a rush at the end because there’s always bugs that get into a game.
Doesn’t matter what game it is, doesn’t matter how long the production is there’s always tiny little bugs, things like floating rocks – things that most people will never see, but they’re there and you’ll have a list at the end and some you’ll have to waiver.
During Far Cry Primal I worked a bunch of extra hours just to clean up all those little bugs that I knew no one would probably see – but I did it for my own desire. There are times when you do have to work extra time because you’re running behind schedule, or you’re waiting on someone to finish something and they’re running behind – that knocks on to you and then they’re waiting for you to finish – that’s the reality of all game dev.
RGB: For people who want to get into the industry, what would you say is the first step?
D.W: I’d say try to specialise. Many people, I tried to learn everything. I tried to do particles, texturing, all kinds of rendering, everything. Work out what you’re really interested in and focus on that. If you enjoy doing vehicles, awesome – just make vehicles – make cars – make spaceships – make motorbikes. If you like characters, go nuts, design characters. If you like environments, which is what I do, then make cool environments with a fun little story in them, but try to specialise because if you try to do environments – try to do characters – try to do vehicles, you try to do a bit of everything you’ll find your overall quality of work will suffer and also it’ll be harder to get hired generally, especially in the bigger companies because they’ll be looking for someone who’s a bit more specialised.
Look, whatever you’re creating, create. From the outside if you’re trying to create art and it’s for a dinky iPhone game or an indie game, just creating is going to help you, the process, you’re going to learn and speed up. Especially when you’re new getting faster will really help you. So any errors you encounter you can fix it quickly. It’s just a matter of doing it, doesn’t matter what platform it’s for – although that comes back to my last point of trying to specialise, if you are interested in mobile games, awesome, make mobile game art and those little mobile apps you can make games for, do it. That’ll help you then when you have a portfolio piece to show a mobile game dev studio. You could even pull out your phone and show them you made a full game.
RGB: If you could sum up your whole experience in the industry so far in one word, what would it be?
The great thing is there’s so many amazing games being made these days by so many amazing studios, just look at E3 or the big events, and they’re all made by people like you and me. It’s just average people who love games, who love creating, who love what they do, so bring your passion along and your hard work and you’re going to do well.
RGB: Thanks for your time Dave, much appreciated.
David Whiddon interview by Ash RGB_RetroBlog
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