Dave’s Freedom 50… A look back

As I wrap up the last day of my career, I wanted to take a look back at how I got here. What were the chain of events that led up to me walking away from a great job at VFS, and taking an early retirement.

In the Beginning

It all started back in the 70’s when Vancouver had a booming arcade business, every area of town had a local arcade full of standup game systems and pinball machines. Lectrafun by Lougheed Mall, Lesters and Pie in the Sky off Kingsway were some of our favourites. Raiding my mom’s closet for quarters in pockets, and running to the arcades whenever my allowance showed up, was a weekly ritual.

The games back then were much different than today’s AAA titles, games like Donkey Kong, Centipede and Stargate were some of my favourites. Game Design back then was all about how do we get another quarter from this guy, my design was all about how do I make these quarters last as long as I can. When a new game came in, I spent 50 cents, but if I didn’t do well, it was back to my favourites. Often times leaving 5 or 6 credits on the Black Knight pinball machine cause I had to get home.

Things made a drastic change during the Christmas of 1982 when I woke up to a Commodore Vic-20 under the tree. Prior to that my only exposure to computers was the one Apple II that was setup in a closet at our school, and there was always a huge line to use it. I didn’t have the patience to wait, I would go to the arcade instead.

The Commodore Vic-20 was a pretty basic computer, it had 5 Kb of Ram, which I expanded to 8 Kb with the plugin Super Expander. Saving and loading was done through a Cassette recorder, no-one that has used that technology complains about save or load times today.

 

I would run home from school to play games, the difference was there were only a few plugin cartridges, but most of the games were initially typed in by hand from magazines using ‘Basic” as a programming language, and then saved to a cassette tape. After a while I started playing around with programming and writing some of my own games. Dracula’s castle, The Dark Dungeon, and probably the worst version of Pitfall you could imagine… but I learned.

Throughout my teen years, work had always been a necessity, if I wanted to go to the arcades, buy a new record (yes, a record), buy gas for my car, or party with friends, I had to have my own money. So I did an amazing assortment of jobs to sustain my “hobbies”. From Gardening, to Insulation installer, to dishwasher, to pizza hawker while dressed like the cookie monster, to the highlight of my career… the Easter Bunny at Westwood Mall.

After my waiter job at a formal medieval themed restaurant (Castle Corkscrew) came to an end because it closed down, I started a new job search. Lougheed Mall had just done a major expansion, so with resumes in hand I headed into the mall on Grand Opening day. The Westminster Stereo Shop, The Rikki’s fashion store, I was willing to take anything. But, as fate would have it, an old friend from Elementary school had just opened an expansion of his calculator kiosk.


Setting a Path

The store was called Compucentre, it was opening day and it was busy. I walked in and said hi to Richard, told him I was looking for a job, and I had some Computer experience. He told me to put my coat in the back, and I started working 2 minutes later.

Compucentre was a truly unique store and an incredibly valuable learning experience for me. They carried the widest variety of computers at that time; Apple, Commodore, Atari, IBM, and clones. They also carried the Intellivision and Colecovision game systems along with a wide assortment of calculators.

I quickly became an expert in how to operate all of the computer systems, all the key software that people would need to use, like Microsoft Works, Deluxe Paint and Lotus 1-2-3. Most importantly I was in retail at a time where so many new types of games were coming out. Every week a big box or two would arrive loaded with replacement electronics and games, loads of games.

In the back room of the store we had a “Shrink-Wrap” machine, that meant that I could open up every single new game that came in, try the game, and rewrap to sell like it’s new. In 1985 the vast library of games I played included all of the PC, Apple, Atari and Commodore games, and it exploded with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Over the following years we added the Sega Master system, the Sega Genesis, and the Neo Geo to complete my game playing addiction.

As my hobbies and expenses grew, more games, more music, more cars, I added another Milestone to the mix… my wife. In 1987 I married my best friend, and it was the best decision of my life, but we had a little problem. We liked to spend the money, going to shows, going out, buying stuff. Day to day expenses caught up to us, and we were paying credit cards with other credit cards.

An old family friend had a chat with us and gave me some advice I have never forgotten, “always pay yourself, before you pay the bills and spend your money”. Take a percentage of your paycheck and put it in the bank, then plan what you need to pay, and are allowed to spend. Take care of your self first. This changed everything, and started us on a plan to succeed.


The Hand of Fate… again

Four years in the retail scene was definitely wearing on me, working Christmas Eve handing Nintendo’s over the counter one after another, then coming back on Boxing Day to deal with returns and sell all the games and accessories that people didn’t get for Christmas.

Having played every game in the store, I became known as an expert on games by the local Game Development Company known as Distinctive Software or DSI. The team members would come into the store, and I could tell them; this game is great, this game sucks, didn’t like this one but it has a really cool interface, you should see what mechanics they are doing in this game.

It was one of those days after the Christmas rush when Don Mattrick, who was the founder of Distinctive Software, came into the store. After pointing out some of the new games that had arrived, he let me know that they were looking for QA (Quality Assurance) people (aka Game Testers). If I knew anyone that might be interested, I should let him know… unfortunately, my boss was standing right beside me.

As soon as Don left, I told my boss that I had to go to the bathroom, and chased Don down in the mall. I told him that very clearly that job was my job, and I would like to apply. A week later and I was interviewing at DSI, and a week after that, I was scheduled for my first day on the job.

On February 5th in 1990, I arrived at the Burnaby office of Distinctive Software ready to begin my new career as a Game Tester, Employee #65 of one of the two Game Developers that were in Canada at that time. I was shown around, introduced to a wide variety of amazingly skilled programmers, artists, audio guys and managers. All ready to dive in and start testing games, I was shown to a desk, and given a Macintosh SE computer. Then I was given my first task… “What do you think a Lone Ranger game would be?”

Wait, that’s not testing. I had to make it all up, I had to go to the library (The Internet hadn’t been invented yet), I had to go to Blockbuster (Netflix hadn’t been invented yet), and I went to the Comic store. I read the books, the comics, and watched the movies and TV shows.

Over the first few weeks of my job I started writing what I thought was a design document, I talked to my co-workers asking what they wanted in a document, and I submitted what I believed to be the “Lone Ranger Design” for a potential project with Konami. Apparently they liked what I did, because I never did one day of testing. I was now part of a 4 person design team that included Don Mattrick, Stan Chow, Tarrnie Williams Jr, and Me.

Over the next 2 years, I was a Game Designer for projects such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mission: Impossible, Top Gun and Champions Forever Boxing. Often working on multiple games at a time, we were building games, pitching to companies to get new contracts and coming up with ideas for potential new Intellectual Properties.

It was a dream job, working with Matt Groening, Muhammad Ali, Gary Gygax (look them up), and even working on a game called Bill Elliott Nascar racing for Electronic Arts. Turns out that they really liked what we did, because at the end of 1991, Electronic Arts bought Distinctive Software, and we became Electronic Arts Canada.


The Dream Game

When I found out we had been purchased by EA, I had a one track mind… Hockey was another passion of mine, and there was a game on the Sega Genesis that I loved, NHL (no number, just NHL Hockey). I had aching thumbs constantly during that time period from playing that game. So I decided to write the Producer of the game, Richard Hilleman, at our new head office and tell him all the things they should do to make the game better.

Surprisingly he got back to me very quickly and told me I should be the designer on the new PC version of the game ‘NHL Hockey’. We had been bought by EA, and now I was the lead designer on the NHL game? Does life get any better than this? Over the following years I worked on the NHL series, the NBA Live series, and the smash hit Skitchin’, but I always gravitated back to NHL where my passion was.

 

Game Development during the 90’s was fun, but it was not easy, 80-100 hour work weeks were not uncommon. Friends stopped asking if you wanted to do things because you were always working, and summers were lost because you were working on the projects that had to be finished by September. Two things would happen during that time that ultimately would change my life forever.

After 7 years working at EA (including the DSI time) you were granted a 7 week sabbatical. Basically I could take a 7 week vacation to get away from work and do whatever I wanted, as long as it was during a non-peak time, let’s say January-February. Where can you go in January-February that wouldn’t suck? We decided Australia would be a very interesting place to explore, and boy oh boy were we right. As soon as we returned, I realized that I had the Travel Bug, and made the decision that given how my work schedule is, every year we have to travel to somewhere new… Travel was now a priority in my life, even more so… new experiences.

The other major event that occurred in my life ties back to that lesson of “pay yourself first”, I saw a commercial on TV for Freedom 55, and decided then and there… I can do that. In fact I decided then and there, that I have an even better plan… Freedom 50!

We put a plan in place; maximize our RRSP donations, do bulk payments on the mortgage, save money, pay off credit cards every month so we aren’t paying interest. Extra hours meant extra money… we were going to make that money work for us.

For the longest time I was the only employee at EA that had “Game Designer” on his business card. Over a span of 15 years I worked my way up the corporate ladder…  from Game Designer to Associate Producer, from Associate Producer to Producer, from Producer to Senior Producer. What I learned about my role as my team sizes grew from half a dozen to over 100 people, was that Game Development was a process… plan, build, assess, re-plan, build, re-assess, lather, rinse, repeat. The games kept getting better, and the games kept getting bigger as technology advanced.

What I also learned was that as you move up the ladder, the politics become a bigger part of the process. Senior Executives make decisions that in the big picture are good for the company and the product line as a whole, but individuals and teams can be affected by that. After 15 years of Crunch times and building stress, I learned that Everything Changes, and you need to be flexible.


Everything Changes

After NHL 2005 was finished that change happened, I found myself looking for the next thing, this was not the plan I had in place, this is not how I envisioned things going, it was soul-crushing. But, once again Fate intervened. As a producer on NHL I had hired Matt Toner to do some script work for player commentary during the game. He heard I was looking for something new, and connected me with Marty Hasselbach.

Marty explained that the Vancouver Film School was looking to expand their New Media program into 2 areas, Digital Design and Game Design. They needed someone that understood what Game Design was, and that could oversee, Develop and run this new program. It was a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 gig, and it fit perfectly into my last 20 years’ experience in retail and game development. They were very eager to have me join their team.

I started with GD01, the very first 1 year Game Design class in December of 2004. I spent a week making some key hires, evaluating the content for the coming terms, and then took a 3 week vacation to Belize, because, as I stated before, travel is important to me. According to the owner James Griffin, “Dave has the best vacation to work ratio of any employee at the school”. Who ever thought that my travel bug would be considered a good thing?

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, I had worked with teams, I had mentored designers, but was all the Project Management training and development experience  going to prepare me for standing in front of a class of 20 very eager (and a couple not so eager) students, that want to know everything about becoming a game designer? Turns out from the first class with them, they were fascinated by what I did, and how I could help them in their future careers. I will always look fondly back on every one of my graduating students and what they have achieved, but GD01 was the class that not only went on to do amazing things, but gave me the confidence and passion to keep doing this education thing.

Over the course of 10 years I leaned heavily on colleagues and connections, finding teachers from the games industry, to ensure that our students were learning from the truly best. Being out from behind the EA wall meant I was in contact with developers from all over the globe, and people were always willing to share their input and ideas to improve the program. In their minds I was working with the next generation of Game Designers, we better make them as good as they can be.

Every term we made adjustments that improved the student experience, and the results showed… our students were being hired at the biggest of studios, and they were coming back as experienced veterans and looking for the next group of Game Designers. The demand for both designers and coders was so high that we launched a Programming for Games, Web & Mobile program, and we are already seeing great success from those graduates.


Freedom 50

Last year I turned 49, and it reminded me of that plan I started so long ago, my Freedom 50 plan. Could I actually do it, had my wife and I made the right choices along the way? I had to take a long hard look at the prospect of walking away from a great job at a great company working with so many great people.

The reality sets in as I look around, there is so many places in the world to see, so many things I wish I had the time to do, and sadly I have seen so many people wait too long. They finally get to the point where they have the time and money to go do the things they want to do, but they don’t or they aren’t able to do those things because of their health, or it’s just taken away from them before they have a chance.

I am incredibly proud of what I have accomplished in my time at VFS, proud of how the program has evolved and flourished, but mostly proud for what my students have gone on to do. So many great games that I play and love were created in part because of my alumni, so many of my alumni are enjoying amazing careers and coming back to share that with my current students.

I certainly couldn’t have done this without the assistance of so many people, too many to list; my bosses, my colleagues, my staff, my advisors, my clients, my students, my family, and most importantly my wife Norine, who was always by my side and supported my decisions. Certainly this is one of the biggest decisions in my life, and although it is surreal and scary, it is also incredibly exciting, and I look forward to the adventures and travels ahead.

On August 12th, 2015 I turned 50, on August 21st, 2015 I began my Freedom 50 journey, wish me luck. The games may not be 25 cents anymore, but now I will have the time to start playing them again.