Monthly profile : Jessi Thind, Graduate from the Design and Animation for Videogames program

10 August 2012

Interview with Jessi Thind, Graduate from the Design and Animation for Videogames Program, Winter 2007 and Senior Game Designer at Eidos Montreal.

1. What made you want to become a game designer?
I’ve had a deep passion for games ever since I can remember. From playing pong with my grandfather to playing chess with my dad, I’ve always been amazed by rule sets and the endless possibilities within any given rule set. But nothing really made me want to be a game designer. I just made games. It’s what I did to have fun. As a kid I made them as much as I played them, making new games out of old, or providing all the storytelling and contextual set-ups for the make-believe games we played around the yard. I think the first tangible game I ever created was inspired by James Cameron’s Aliens. I was about ten-years-old and I didn’t even know who Cameron was. But I was inspired by his movie, and I made a game using the Dungeons and Dragons RPG system. I drew all the characters and gadgets, made cards and wrote scenarios. Then I pitched my game to my friends, and we played my unauthorized interpretation of Aliens for a few days. It’s actually really funny to me that the first major franchise game I ever designed and wrote for was Avatar. I guess life has a funny way of foreshadowing.

2. Was the journey tough?
It was tough, and it remains tough. Game design is hard work. I especially had a hard time getting a job because I didn’t have a triple A game under my belt. I had several online flash games and athletic games I had created for a Tae Kwon Do gym I had trained at while I was writing for an expat magazine in Seoul, Korea. I left Montreal when I was 21 to live in Seoul, and while I was there I created several games to help Tae Kwon Do athletes practice basic moves that are otherwise boring to practice. So even though I had these unusual games under my belt, I didn’t have a triple A, which is what a lot of publishers and developers look for. So I took a job as tester at EA and kept on trying for a design position. I tried and tried without success. Eventually a manager at EA told me that they often hired graduates from NAD and that students from NAD had some of the best reputations in the industry. Only problem with NAD was at that time tuition was something like twenty thousand dollars and they only took a dozen or so students per year. As I was contemplating whether I should apply, my father died in a car accident in Beaumont, Texas just a few days after my birthday. Needless to say that was a tough time in my life–the worst–but it was also a reminder of how scarce and precious our time is. I instinctively had the sense that if I was going to go for it, it was now or never. So I applied to NAD, and, within weeks, got a response. Try again next year. The rejection really threw me off. I couldn’t even get into NAD so how did I expect to design for a major publisher. I remember waiting at the bus station downtown to take an express bus to the airport. I was heading out to Chile to surf, backpack and see some friends for the New Year. I don’t know exactly what came over me, but as I was waiting for the bus I thought about NAD, thought about my application and knew that NAD was not too far from the bus station; suddenly, I realized I had about twenty or so minutes to change someone’s mind, cause, in my head, life was too short to take ‘no’ for an answer. Especially when that ‘no’ interferes with your life plan. I remember walking into NAD and sitting down with Alexandre Renaud and politely asking him for the reasons why I was not accepted. He didn’t really have the answers for me, but he must have sensed my determination because he very quickly gathered the teachers who had rejected my application to explain. They told me I had a lot of experience writing for magazines and film, designing 2D games, but very little in 3D and that they didn’t think I’d be able to keep up with the animation and modeling classes. I made my case, swore to them that I was responsible for catching up and keeping up, and I assured them that I would be responsible for my own success or failure. I thanked them for hearing me out, rushed back to the station, and just made my bus. Just after the New Year, while I was in Santiago, Alexandre sent me an email saying NAD had opened a spot for me and that I was accepted and that there would be no refunds if I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the students. Long story short, I not only kept up, I aced my classes. I won the game design award, which helped me land a game designer position at Ubisoft, and now I teach at the NAD.

3. What has been your most memorable experience so far?
Working on Splinter Cell Conviction. One of the best and most inspiring teams I’ve ever written and designed for. I actually can’t wait to see what they come up with on the next Splinter Cell installment. I do have reservations about losing Ironside’s voice for Sam, as most fans of the Splinter Cell franchise do, but I’ve had the privilege of working with Maxime Beland, Patrick Redding, and Alexandre Parizeau, and I’m not at all worried. Not in the least. Splinter Cell is in good hands. You can be sure of that.

4. Any advice for young aspiring game designers?
Don’t wait for permission. It’s something I usually tell my students at the end of the semester. I tell them to blink their eyes, and, when they do, I say: “You’re twenty”. I ask them to blink their eyes again and I say: “You’re forty” Again, and: “You’re sixty.” Time passes that fast, and time, not money is your most sacred resource. So seize the moment, open your own doors, and don’t wait for permission. There is no one in this world who can stop you from becoming who you want to be. No one. No one but you. You want to be a writer. Write a book. You want to be a game designer. Design a game. Don’t wait for permission. You have every tool at your disposal and nothing is out of reach. Especially today with dozens of free engines at a click of a mouse. Didn’t get a job, okay, fine. That’s just life testing you and giving you an opportunity to find another way. Maybe that’s life giving you an opportunity to gather up some friends and design your own game. There is no way you can lose. It’s just not possible. Even if you create something and it’s full of mistakes, nothing is lost. You’ll learn from those mistakes. Guaranteed. And your next game will be all the better for it. Commit to the journey, not the end. This way mistakes won’t frustrate you, they’ll inform and educate you, and they’ll bring you one step closer to where you want to be. So don’t wait for permission, commit to the journey, and make that game you’ve been thinking about ever since you started school. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.