"So... how did you decide you wanted to get into the game industry?"
More than once have I faced this question. I usually smile and say or type something like: "Oh, it's only natural. I've always liked games. I grew up playing games, attempted to design several board games, and even got a group of high school friends at lunch to play a game so broken that everybody died within a few turns." These are all true, except for the "only natural" part. I had spent several long years attempting to be "practical", suppressing my fantasy of becoming a manga artist of sorts each time it dared to bubble up. The decision to give game industry a try happened in one single moment, of which I remember clearly. It's the moment I consider life-changing, on a fundamental level.
It was in early 2007. I was months from graduating into the real world and ending my internship at Fossil HQ as a graphic designer. I was getting really bored of lining up texts and color-correcting watch bands as usual, but tried to push the thought out of my head.
The graphic design internship did not start out bad at all. In fact, having spent my first couple of years in U.S. as a retail clerk, Fossil was my first taste of an all-American middle-class job. I realized this distinctly on my first day to work, as I enjoyed non-acidic-tasting coffee and marveled at their clean bathrooms and cushy toilet paper. This was a more dignified life, absent of annoyed and annoying customers and pushy bosses who aren't required to show respect to their workers. The internship itself really wasn't bad. The only thing is, I could no longer pretend my effort of cultivating a passion for graphic design was working.
I remember telling this to a new professor, a professional graphic designer from Dallas, at the start of my final semester. My classmates sat there shocked, staring at me with a mixture of compassion and something akin to fear. The professor, caught completely off-guard, looked at me as kindly as he could. He pointed to the illustration I showed him, commented that he thought my drawing skills wasn't as far along as my graphic design skills, and bid me to give graphic design another chance. I nodded with tears in my eyes, but ended up walking out of the DSVC (an esteemed local design student show) a couple of months later due to feeling extremely out of place. I painfully realized I was never going to fit in with the graphic design industry, no matter how hard I tried to make fun of bad typefaces I saw.
I still tried to work very hard at my internship, simply because I did not want to fail people who trusted me with tasks. That day in early 2007 was a slow day, though. Having run out of other tasks for me, the designer I worked under asked me if I'd like to design a mascot for the employee benefit letter - something classy but fun, doubtlessly a diversion from the corporate nature of the document.
"Sure!" I answered cheerfully, and began doodling on paper. Soon, I began to realize that for the first time in a long while, I was having a lot of fun at work.
Motivated by a new burst of energy and emboldened by the relaxed deadline, I decided to "do it right" and make use of Fossil's nice reference library. I picked out a few books on old school commercial illustrations, and then my eyes caught the spine of a book. It was called something generic like "Art for Video Games".
I reached for the book, hoping it would be something like my WoW artbook, filled with great illustrations and sketches. Instead, it was more like a cheap overview of games produced since graphic got past 8-bit. There were, to my dismay, a lot of text and a couple of cheesy screenshots per page. I kind of laughed to myself, flipped another couple of pages, and there it was - my favorite game from high school, Starcraft by Blizzard Entertainment. I had not played the game for several years, ever since I moved to the U.S.
A pang of nostalgia seized me at first. Then a string of thoughts entered my head suddenly as I stared at the Blizzard logo: "There are people who work there. These people get to do fun character designs every day. I am currently on the same continent, in the same country as this company."
I laughed at myself because I didn't know the first thing about the game industry. Furthermore, my art skills, consisting of crappy manga and terrible noob digital fan arts, were definitely not nearly good enough to make me employable. Lastly, the company was still half a continent away on the west coast, which might as well had been on an alien planet to someone who rarely even left Texas. Almost jokingly, I thought to myself: "maybe some years down the road, I'll be thinking of this moment as a turning point in my life."
Fortunately, I only took that as a half-joke instead of a complete one. After going home, I began looking into schools that might help me figure out how to get into the game industry, and reached out to the sole game artist I ran into in real life. I decided to open up to my father, with whom I had a complicated relationship, about not liking my major. To my great surprise, he offered to pitch in for my graduate school to help me switch paths.
A popular theme in Chinese online fantasy novels is being able to relive one's life from an earlier point while retaining their knowledge and wisdom gained in the prior life. I truthfully would never choose to redo my life, because I think a large part of my current happiness is brought by fear of uncertain future and blind courage. I would never risk screwing up that moment in Fossil's reference library, in early 2007.