Veterans in Creative Careers: Chris Keeling, Army Video Game Maker

Pic1Chris serves as Wargaming’s Director of Product Vision and has worked for Wargaming.Net since 2009 (when the studio was just a small family of around 60 developers!). He has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Videogame Production and Design from National University, and has worked on several military-themed videogames and simulations over the past 17 years, including Panzer Elite, Söldner, America’s Army: Operations, America’s Army: Soldiers, Twilight War, Order of War, World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, and World of Warships, as well as other unannounced titles. He has served as the Program Manager of the Game Design Bachelor of Science program at Full Sail University (where he is still a member of the Program Advisory Board) and is a published author in the game design field.

Chris is also a retired veteran of the US Army and Army Reserve, with a total of 23 years of combined service in combat arms, special operations, and military intelligence, including combat service in Iraq, and is the recipient of numerous foreign and domestic awards and decorations. He is a life member of the Special Forces Association, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Solomon Lodge AF&AM, and is a member of AMVETS as well as a certified NRA firearms instructor.

Find interviews like this one on the Military Veterans in Creative Careers podcast

Justin Sloan: You have a breadth of experience in the game industry, but how did you get there? Please start with what you did in the military, and how you made the transition. Did you always know you wanted to work with games? Where did that first gig originate?

Chris Keeling: I’ve always been a gamer, both tabletop and video games, and designed several tabletop games, but as a hobby and not a career. My first video game gig wasn’t even a transition – I worked as a consultant while I was still on active duty (stationed in San Antonio) in 1998. I frequently posted on weapon and armor forums at that time and saw a post on a tank forum looking for someone to help with a German-made and British-published World War II tank simulation game – which turned out to be Panzer Elite. As these things go, it was a fairly small job, but I really enjoyed it and after that I knew what I wanted to be doing even more than serving in the Army. I transitioned into the USAR in 2000 and got a job in financial software to pay the bills while I worked consulting jobs in the game industry.

JS: And for those of you who have not met you or looked you up on LinkedIn (yet), can you share with us what you are currently working on and what that means?

CS: I am the Director of Product Vision at Wargaming.Net, which means I get to oversee the design and development of second-party games, which means they are made to our requirements by external studios. I even get to lend a hand creating the concepts and design documents for the games being developed there. I also help evaluate third-party games, which are those that come to us as pitches or prototypes from existing studios looking to get published by us. Finally, I occasionally get to help out on first-party games – the ones we make internally – like World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, and World of Warships, as well as other platform versions (like Xbox 360 Edition and Blitz) and more unannounced projects.

JS: Do you have a fun story from your time in the industry that you feel would be appropriate to share? Maybe something that shows how crazy this video game world can be, or rewarding?

CS: Wow, crazy is the word! A couple of years ago, I hired an Executive Producer who had tried (almost successfully!) to hire me the year before. Even crazier, I hired a Course Director at Full Sail University that I used to work for on the now-defunct Twilight War game project. The industry is so small and driven by tight networking and a core of experienced professionals, that it’s hard to break in or move around without some of these kinds of connections.

JS: Taking a look at some of the games you have worked on, it seems obvious that your military experience helped you along the way. Can you elaborate on this? Do you feel you would be in the same spot today if you hadn’t served?

CK: I definitely would not be where I am now! My military experience (and knowledge of military history) landed me my first real industry job. From there on out, I leveraged that as an additional asset for designing and developing other games. It has helped tremendously. And not just in the obvious ways you expect other people to use that experience – like asking questions about guns and tanks and uniforms and what’s-it-really-like-in-combat – but being able to deal with stress, provide leadership (instead of just management), and handle changes in plans and goals without going crazy.

JS: Has the military network helped you in your career path? Do you feel others have looked favorably because of your veteran status, aside from the obvious knowledge related to some of the projects you have been involved with?

CK: I have been able to hire veterans and never with any regrets, and I am sure I have received favor because of my military experience. Knowing that veterans are generally reliable, hard workers, disciplined, and punctual no doubt tends to get veterans a second look in any industry. Because this industry is a strange combination of many violent and often military-themed games being made mainly by people whose only experience of the military is other military games and war movies, when an actual combat veteran gets in the mix, respect is assured.

JS: Are there resources out there for military veterans looking to learn more about game development and how to enter the industry?

CK: None that I know of specifically for veterans. Writing a book like that would be a great idea. You should do it. Now.

JS: Will do! Haha. What about non-veteran specific resources? I see you have contributed to at least one book on game design, can you talk about that and recommend other books or courses?

CK: Sure, I wrote a dozen of the short articles in 100 Principles of Game Design a few years ago. There are a lot of books out there on how to break into the industry or how to learn about specific roles and jobs. www.GameCareerGuide.com is a good place to start looking, and they even offer an annual salary guide (hint: expect to start low). There are lots of schools that offer game programs now, but unfortunately most of them (at least in smaller schools and community colleges) are just dressed-up programming or art programs taught by people who know programming or art, but not the game industry. There are several for-profit schools with programs that focus on game design and development that are much better, but can be expensive. Naturally, my favorite is Full Sail University (www.fullsail.edu), which has online and on-campus programs in game design, mobile games, game programming, and game art, and even offers Master’s degrees.

JS: You obtained your MFA in Video Game Production and Design. What do you feel you took away from that program, and how has it helped you in the industry? Would you point aspiring game writers, designers, and producers down a similar path as the one you took?

CK: I thought it was a great program, but National University no longer offers it. I was the only person in my class with industry experience, and I took the class as much to validate my experience as to learn more about the industry and the design and production process. I did learn quite a bit about the production process, and after having taught game design at the Bachelor’s degree level for a few years, I would definitely recommend a program like that to those very dedicated to getting into this industry. However, I have to caveat that with the fact that there are a thousand applicants for each entry-level game job willing to work 120 hours a week at minimum wage and sleep under their desks to work on games. You have to stand out from that crowd, and an appropriate degree (and being a veteran along with having any other valuable skills) is a great way to do that. Still, you should have a fallback – for a programmer that might mean coding banking applications, for an artist that might mean advertising art, and for a designer that might mean interface or UX work.

JS: As far as the day-to-day, what can you tell us about working on game development? If we were to focus on the writing/design side of it, what is a day in life like? How does that differ from the other roles you have played in the game world?

CK: Insanity, chaos, bedlam… but all fun and rewarding. I spend a lot of time communicating and managing, putting out fires and dealing with strategy planning and informational meetings like any other manager. But the best times are when I get to create new pitches or GDDs, play the latest build of a new project I am overseeing, or meet with other gamers (or even industry professionals) to talk about games. This is very different from being a consultant, or writing dialogue and story, or designing game features. This is very satisfying when everything goes right, but also onerous when things go awry.

JS: I have found it an interesting transition to go from the military and government to the video game industry. Was this a similar shock for you? Do you have any thoughts on how one should approach the job with this higher degree of instability?

CK: Transitioning to any civilian job from the military is a shock. Civilians seem disorganized, lazy, wasteful, overpaid, and dressed funny, and they stress out over the tiniest things. But once you get back to the “real world” (them, not us!), you can sense the advantages you have over them in organization, discipline, work ethic, and so forth. At least, until you realize you become one. That’s why I am glad I transitioned into the Army Reserve instead of just getting out – it reminded me of why I chose to serve in the first place, and kept me on my “combat toes” (although the USAR is probably closer in organizational ability to the civilian world than to the active Army, but that’s a different conversation entirely!). One of the things the Army did help prepare me for in this industry is constant travel, dealing with members of other cultures, and being prepared to move to a new place every few years. Yes, this industry is that unstable. Love it or leave it!

JS: Let’s say a veteran wants to jump into the game world but has been too busy to be up to date on the games. What games would you recommend they play as their fun homework?

CK: Holy cow! Don’t even try – pick one game and play it for the inevitable interview question of “What have you been playing lately?” and be able to point out what makes the game fun, how it monetizes, analyze the core gameplay loop, etc. You’re better off spending that time reading game reviews, checking market results by platform, going over studio websites, and reading books on the industry topics you’re interested in (and make sure your MS Office skills are expert level!). And if you’re not really a gamer, just go somewhere else, please – the industry isn’t worth the frustration if you’re not into it.

JS: If you were to have new veterans join you in your current job or take jobs that you have had in the past, would you have specific advice for them? Would it differ for a non-veteran?

CK: I have given a lot of this kind of advice in the past to friends’ kids and college students and gamers with a lot of passion but little understanding of what actually goes into making a game. It goes something like this:

  1. Nobody cares about your silly game idea, nor are they going to steal it. They are too busy pushing their own dreams to steal yours, so just get used to that up front.
  2. Networking is more important than having a lot of experience, and having experience and a related education are more important than being a passionate gamer. Also, people will also only network with you once you’re experienced anyway. There are many Catch-22’s in this industry, but this is the biggest – you can’t get in until you are in, so leveraging veteran friends who are already in is a great start.
  3. Have a variety of useful skills – like any other business, the game industry is driven by software, mostly PowerPoint, Word, and Excel. Be proficient, type quickly, speak clearly, write using actual grammar (not “texting” or “1337 5p34k”), and show leadership and project management skills.
  4. Have a portfolio – cute cards and a mostly blank or irrelevant resume won’t get you very far. Build a website using one of the many existing tools, and host examples of your work. If they can’t see it, it didn’t happen.
  5. Be self-motivated. When you’re not working, networking, or building your website, read books and articles, build game levels using free engines, contribute to mods, write design documents, and immerse yourself in the industry. Get involved in the IGDA and local game jams. The more you can show you have done on your own, the harder they know you will work for them.

JS: Thank you again for the wonderful advice, Chris. Before we sign off, do you have one last piece of advice you would like to share with military veterans aspiring to work in the video game industry?

CK: If you’re going to leverage your military experience, bring it like you mean it. Find a studio that does military games, find a veteran as a point of contact there, and show them how your military experience relates directly to their bottom line for improving the authenticity of their games. But that experience alone is no guarantor of success – make it part of an approach that includes an understanding of the industry, the position, the market, the platform, and the games that studio makes. And when you get in there, find all of the other vets in the studio and start a Nerf war against all of the civilians. That’s what makes this industry the best place to work!

 

 

These interviews will appear in an upcoming book on military members and veterans in the world of entertainment. As you wait, please read my book Creative Writing Career, on Amazon.

To follow Justin Sloan: http://eepurl.com/bbpNjv

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