My first step1 towards the video games industry was to come to Vancouver Film School to study Game Design in 2011, uprooting both my wife and our three beautiful, intelligent housepets to brave the rain, long hours, and Canucks fans on the Skytrain. I graduated in August of 2012, and just shy of two months later was successful in landing my first job in games interning as an Assistant Development Manager at Relic Entertainment.
I was thrilled, of course. By combing through Relic’s back-catalog of Triple-A games you can see that the studio hasn’t just paid lip-service to their mandates of innovation, passion, and pride in their work. Every game they’ve made, from the legendary Homeworld to the highest-rated RTS of all time, Company of Heroes, sought to break new ground. They are innovators and risk-takers in a risk-averse triple-A industry space, and I was proud to be there.
When I started in November of 2012, Relic was under the umbrella of venerable games publisher THQ, and when my internship ended in March, the studio was owned by SEGA. While the story of that transition ultimately started years ago (and is thus beyond the scope of this article), I want to share with you the shorter version of having a front-row seat to the final stages of that often stressful and surprising transition.
But first, how I got there.
Being an elderly 29-year-old, having few art or coding skills, and frankly not being very nice, I knew the figurative Magic: The Gathering deck2wasstacked against me when I reached the VFS Game Design program. To compensate, I worked harder than I’ve ever worked before. I was on campus 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and took every class as seriously as possible. My goal was simply to impress every student, instructor, and mentor that I could.
Landing the Internship
Borne from a tragedy and extreme generosity of spirit, the Brian Wood Memorial Trust was set up in 2010, followed by the Brian Wood Memorial Game Design Internship in 2011. The internship provides an enormous opportunity every four months to a single VFS Game Design graduate—the opportunity to work at Relic Entertainment.
The gatekeepers to the internship are the instructors at VFS, some of whom must have vouched for me, or at least didn’t object strenuously enough against—I was short-listed after applying. A week later I wandered into Yaletown for an awkward but amicable interview with Relic production staff, and a week after that I was hired thanks to my hard work at VFS, the relationships I had there, and more than a small correlation between Relic’s needs and my career goals.
As an Assistant Development Manager I was responsible for broad project management and administrative duties on an unannounced project. I attended and lead Scrum meetings, attempted to identify and address pain points or inefficiencies for my team members, scheduled work, prepared and gave the occasional presentation, encouraged clear communications among our project teams, and generally tried to stay out of the way of the many senior Relicans on the project floor.
I was stoked, prepared to be challenged, to make mistakes, and most of all to absorb knowledge from industry veterans—one of the benefits of my position was regular contact with everyone on the team.
I was far less prepared for the discussions that were broached shortly after I started. THQ was in trouble and was exploring strategies to solve some serious financial problems. It promised to be an interesting internship.
Being so new to the studio, and an impermanent Relican to boot, I was far less invested in the dramatic actions being undertaken by senior THQ staff than my new friends and co-workers were—I decided early on to keep my head down, do the best that I could, and hope for the best for my new studio. I couldn’t help but be worried about morale, but this industry is infamous for instability, and I noticed that most of my former team members had more than a few cancelled projects and extinct studios on their resumes.
Still, the effects of uncertain futures were obvious and deleterious, if not dramatic. There was no slamming of doors or misplaced acrimony, which might have been a testament to the team’s cohesion, but frank lunch-time conversations provided a lot of those vacant, far-off stares people get when they’re searching for the answer to an impossible question. The short version is that we didn’t know if we would have jobs after it was all over.
Whether wholly because of Relic’s uncertainty under THQ, or other factors like lifestyle changes or better fit or family matters, more than a few Relicans left the company throughout my short stay. My team, small as it was, weathered those vacancies worst with the knowledge that they would likely be impossible to fill—it’s hard to hire staff when your organization’s future is uncertain.
Through legalities that I won’t go into, THQ’s assets were set to be bid on shortly after the new year began. Those assets included us. It was both strange and exciting to be visited by several of my favourite game developers during the due-diligence time leading up to that auction.
SEGA’s interest in Relic raised a few eyebrows, first with incredulity, and then (as web research or knowledgeable work neighbors educated us) with thoughtful nods. SEGA’s Total War series, developed by UK-based The Creative Assembly, is one of Relic’s primary competitors in the Real-Time Strategy market, with Blizzard’s Starcraft being the currently uncatchable front-runner. Still, both Relic and The Creative Assembly have done well competing directly in that space, but clearly there were gains to be made, for both, if SEGA was the high bidder.
The more I thought about it, and with the slim but scary potential of Relic being passed up in the bidding process, the more I felt that a SEGA purchase would be the best possible outcome for my new studio.
Of course we now know that SEGA was the successful bidder. One day we were just suddenly SEGA employees, and equal parts cigars, beer, and relief fuelled celebrations that spilled out of the Relic offices to nearby sports bars where yelling “SEGA!” in various approximations of the SEGA scream never got old.
Well, for us.
The next day was bittersweet. Though our futures at SEGA were potentially very bright, some of THQ’s studios didn’t fare so well. Our worst fears, which we had been facing for weeks or months, had become a reality for others.
A few weeks later my internship ended. I won’t speculate (publicly) over my project’s fate—it was a new project and I know SEGA would be taking a long look at it, like any good publisher would. Whether it continues, is changed, or is cancelled, everything I saw in my short term as a SEGA employee tells me that Relic’s future will be extremely positive under that new umbrella. After many sad stories about the Vancouver (and elsewhere) triple-A scene these past two years, I’m pleased to be writing that we can look forward to Relic Entertainment Inc. continuing to release titles for some time yet.
Good luck to my Relic team, to new and future VFS grads who are no doubt looking forward to the next internship, and also (especially) to the Company of Heroes 2 team who are currently in Beta!
3: My Games Journalism instructor would slap me for writing/thinking that.