Inside Job: Interview: Zeitgeist Games Founder & Full Sail Real World Education Course Director Dustin Clingman

For this first follow-up on the student series, I caught up with Dustin Clingman, cofounder of Zeitgeist Games and Course Director of the game development program at Full Sail Real World Education in central Florida.

Full Sail, like DigiPen in Redmond, Washington, is interesting in that it is not affiliated with a major university. Instead it’s a technical institute devoted very precisely to the instruction of modern media arts. Full Sail and DigiPen represent a kind of yin and yang in approach, with Full Sail having an earlier grounding in film and animation – the arts – and DigiPen being deeply established in computer science and simulation. And they both meet in the middle with game development, which requires both artistic inspiration and technical knowhow in equal measure. DigiPen and Full Sail, combined with the powerhouse Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon , provide anchor points in the U.S. as three organizations taking three different approaches and producing top-notch entrants not just into the lower ranks of the games industry, but into the independent games community as well.

These three centers consistently produce well regarded graduates and some of the most interesting projects entered into the IGF every year. This indicates that their programs are not just emphasizing technical abilities – as many of the new satellite “game design” and development degrees do – nor are they focusing foremost on game analysis as some of the higher-level academic game study programs are. But somehow they are creating an environment that fosters game innovation. And it is my experience that Full Sail graduates come out of school ready to work their butts off, so they are of particular interest to Inside Job.

With all that in mind, I caught Dustin during this mad pre-GDC week to talk about Full Sail’s approach and his perspective as that rare creature balancing the dual disciplines of instruction and professional production.

Inside Job: How did you get into the game industry?
Dustin Clingman: I began working on games back in seventh grade when a very cool teacher named Dale Gore allowed my geeky buddies and I to come into the computer lab to play and code out games on the Apple IIe. I got my first real start in games when a garage team called A.B.T.S. Intelligence Group needed some help with developing some audio for their game Evil Core: The Fallen Cities. I had taken a break from programming to work in production and was able to contribute to the game. It was published in 1998. That was my first big break.

IJ: Did you have any memorable mentors during your first year or couple of years in the business?
DC: Yes, definitely. My mentor is an old traditional gamer named Will Nesbitt. Will was a constant supporter and gave me a lot of encouragement to try new ideas. I’ve been lucky to have a number of very good and very close friends to keep me moving in the right direction.

IJ: What challenges have you faced being involved in game development away from the “major hubs” in California?
DC: The biggest challenge is really with senior talent. It’s hard to attract them away from the west coast. We’re near to Austin, so sometimes we can find good folks there (it’s actually rarer than it sounds) to help us along, and we’ve always got a bevy of students here in town. The real challenge for us is with the geographic spread between pockets of game development. In Austin you can walk down the street to the next studio; in central Florida, it’s at least a 30-minute drive. I think that there’s also some lost cachet that we might have if we were in Seattle or San Fran. I’ve thought about packing it up and moving the studio, but we just love this 70-degree winter weather too much.

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IJ: Winter in Florida is certainly looking nice from upstate New York this month. How was Zeitgeist Games born?
DC: One day, Dave Arneson (co-creator of D&D) and I were playing in a session of D&D. I asked Dave why Blackmoor wasn’t a videogame. He said he didn’t know and that it would be a good idea. Before I know it, we’re in business and publishing tabletop RPG rules of the d20 system in an effort to build up an IP for later electronic development. We’ve slowed down substantially on the paper gaming, but we still love it. As our reputation grew, we began to be approached by interesting groups and companies. Before you know it, we were working on national properties while at the same time developing internal technology that would serve us well once we began console development. We started in 2002 and we’re still going strong.

IJ: Can you talk about what you guys are working on for the Wii? What’s in the future for you and ZG?
DC: I can tell you that we’re working on titles for the recently announced WiiWare platform. These are original titles that we hope to see in the channel by year’s end. As for future efforts, we’re going to continue to focus on Wii, XBLA and PC downloadable casual games.

IJ: What made you want to teach game development?
DC: I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career. I wanted to help others miss out on at least a few of them to their benefit. That’s the core reason I teach. It’s a lot of fun and it keeps you enthused for your art. Every day I get to work with people for whom game development is a big, shiny present on Christmas Day. There’s no substitute for being around that boundless energy. It makes me a better and happier developer.

IJ: How did you get involved with Full Sail?
DC: One of my college buddies, Shawn Kendall, told me of a position that was opening up. I interviewed for the job and thought that I had a good shot of getting in. When they didn’t call me back for six weeks, I was sure it wasn’t going to happen … but then I got the offer and started working at Full Sail in January of 1999. Random sidebar factoid: I became a vegetarian on January 1, 1999.

IJ: What do you think of game development education as a whole? It can be rather controversial.
DC: Yes, that’s definitely the case. The only validation that you can have as an institution that’s teaching game development … is the games that your students are producing. I see a lot of great games coming from Full Sail, DigiPen and a select few other schools focused on game development. I tell my students that, in the end, it doesn’t matter where (or if) you went to school. The only thing that people are going to care about is what talent or ability you can bring to bear on a game project today. Some of the biggest names in our business never went to or finished college.

IJ: How do you balance teaching and running Zeitgeist? What advantages do the two roles provide each other?
DC: This is actually really tough from time to time. I’m blessed to have an amazing team at Zeitgeist that could probably keep the company running if I was to kick the bucket. They’re very capable and I can rely on them when things get tight. Basically, I have a full time commitment to Full Sail and then whatever other time remains I place into Zeitgeist or one of my other new efforts. I knew … when I started teaching that I wasn’t done making games. Teaching is an opportunity for me to bring the experience I have in the studio today in a way that’s incredibly relevant and refreshing. I’m fortunate that Full Sail has always been supportive of these external efforts as a way to keep me honest and pushing forward with my lessons.

IJ: What do you hear from graduates that have completed the Full Sail program?
DC: When the students are done, they feel ready, but also anxious about things. The real world is coming and they’ve got to fly from the nest. I try to keep in touch with them to see where they’ve landed and it’s always nice to hear what they’ve been up to.

IJ: Full Sail is regarded as one of the most rigorous producers of strong young developers currently in the field. What are you guys doing right that differentiates you from many of the other programs?
DC: Thank you kindly for the compliment. What are we doing differently? I’d have to say that we are incredibly agile in responding to – and even anticipating – changes in the industry. We have a fantastic advisory board who keeps us moving in a positive direction, and we’re always looking to improve our process. One thing that also makes us different is the focused time that we demand of our students. Some might criticize the “8-hour lecture/lab” combination, but it gives us time to really focus and drill down on points that would be made in the course of a week at a traditional school. We spend a lot more time with our students than traditional academia, and that makes a huge difference. We also put the students on a cadence that rivals the work they will do in the industry. I tell my students all the time that they need to be able to jump off the graduation stage into a job and be a productive and contributing member of the team within a week’s time. There is absolutely no way you can fake that, and people who have hired our grads can see it. One of the interesting things that happens is that one grad will get hired and then the company comes back two weeks later and wants three to five more. Midway hired 12 at one time last year!

IJ: Are you involved in the application process for the program at all?
DC: The instructors are often asked for input on some of these areas. We’re all on the same page with a … vision of what we want to prepare our students to be capable of when they leave. That permeates every facet of our degree programs and gives people a fair idea of what we’re going to expect from them during their time at Full Sail.

IJ: What is the main advice you give to students completing your program?
DC: My best advice is for them to drop the pretense about working for id or Blizzard right out of the gate and to get a legitimate job where they can earn credits. Once they’ve put a game or two on the shelves, they can then start cherry-picking those fun opportunities. My students have always been fairly levelheaded, and I’m always getting emails about where they’ve gone and the successes they’ve had. For a teacher, there’s no greater reward than to know that you contributed in a small way to someone’s success.

IJ: Your “Wheel of Misfortune” is quite famous in game education. What are your favorite misfortunes, and what’s been one particularly entertaining result of a misfortune on a development team?
DC: The Wheel of Misfortune was something I had in the plans for a while, but wasn’t able to bring it to bear until our Bachelor’s program began. The idea is that the Wheel is a “chaos enabler” targeted at representing the chaos that I’ve experience on every project in my career. Ironically, there are actually some fortunes on the wheel which represent lucky breaks that some projects get along the line. As for favorites, my all-time favorite misfortune would have to be the proverbial “Team Swap.” It’s a pretty sick trick to play on a team. Just as they’ve managed to get something going, you take two people from different teams and they swap jobs for the milestone. It definitely breaks the cadence of development to all of a sudden have a “new hire.” My favorite “fortune” on the wheel is “Jack Thompson sues you for the content of your game, gain $25K in new investment capital.” The wheel makes for some interesting stories and I hope that it gives people a chance to build character.

IJ: “Team swap” is definitely the one I seem to hear bemoaned the most, but I do think the Wheel does provide them with a lot of stories. What do you tell your students about working rights and production methods in the games industry? Is it just a fact of life that they’re going to have to deal with, or are they given any education on mitigating it?
DC: This is an interesting and important part of my classes at Full Sail. My perspective is that there are two important elements of this discussion. There’s the game industry that we’d like to exist and then there is the industry we’ve got. We want the students to recognize that production methodologies need to evolve in the same way that our storytelling and gameplay methodologies do. The art of game development thankfully isn’t static, and so our perspectives on the way we build games must grow and be as creative as our games. With this in mind, we try to approach the problem of production with an eye on the future but two feet in the present. My idea is to prepare them to build games the way that it should be done while recognizing that we’ve got to ship these products within the time constraints that we’re given. I try to express that game development will never be a normal nine-to-five job, but that we shouldn’t have to sacrifice who we are as individuals and the lives we lead in order to have a creative career. I hope that helps them on their career path.

IJ: It’s a very enlightened approach and heartening to hear. On a silly closing note, I have to ask: What’s your secret for getting so many LinkedIn connections?
DC: I’m a perpetual networker. Whenever I meet someone, I always go back and put their information into my contact database. When LinkedIn showed up, it radically simplified my process by keeping people automatically updated. I’m also a member of some cool groups on that site, so it introduces me to a number of new folks. By no means do I have the most. I’m sure that Gordon Walton has won LinkedIn the same way he won Orkut some years ago.

Thanks, Dustin, for carving out a chunk of time in this particularly crazy season to shed some light on the development of the Full Sail program, and how developers who teach – a slow-growing but increasingly common element in game education programs – balance life, work and instruction.

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