There’s always a slice of young service members who, upon asking them what they’re going to do when they get out of the military, say that they plan on getting into video games, as in, making them. Lightly armed with a vague plan to go to school to study “game design,” they march off in search of that dream job.
Gamers tend to fantasize about what it must be like to work in games, with that fantasy revolving mostly around the idea of actually playing games all day long, and also getting paid for it. As it happens, the reality doesn’t always meet the fantasy, but for those who are committed, someone has to make the games.
Justin Sloan is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who actually saw that dream through to completion. He’s a writer who works for video-game publisher TellTale Games (think Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, MineCraft: Story Mode) and just published a book called “Military Veterans in Creative Careers” that covers how one makes it in the video-game industry. The book includes a series of interviews with military veterans who have made inroads to different entertainment fields, to include gaming. On behalf of Front Towards Gamer, I spoke recently about military service, the transition to working in video games (and being a veteran there), and Operation Supply Drop.
FTG: Congratulations on the book. Tell us a little about it.
I wrote “Military Veterans in Creative Careers” because I wanted to help others — especially veterans — who might be having doubts about following their goals of landing a job in the entertainment industry, whether it be film, television, or video games. I spoke to a bunch of veterans about their experience, and every one of them had an equally unique and inspiring story to share. Through the sharing of their experience and advice, I hope to spread the message that it can be done — you can get a creative job if you take the time to set yourself up for success.
FTG: So what’s your military background? Were you a gamer back then?
I served in the United States Marine Corps from 1999–2004, and worked as a SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) Analyst and a Martial Arts Instructor. It was a challenging but very rewarding experience, which sent me to Okinawa, Japan, for the first year. Essentially, my team pulled long shifts sifting through intelligence intercepts, but we had a lot of downtime. So gaming was huge for us. We used to set up all of our computers and have these massive Warcraft II battles over LAN — it was crazy. But even back then, gaming was a huge part of military life. It was a great way not just to kill time, but to find an escape from some of the drudgery of 16-hour shifts followed by barracks duty and all the other aspects of military life that sometimes give us that need to escape.
FTG: I was in the Army around the same time and I remember the majority of the guys in the barracks played video games, but it was still generally considered a kind of niche thing. Damn, Warcraft II. Good memories.
Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I miss those simple days, and what’s funny is in our memories (mine at least), when remember playing those games they looked amazing — it’s only when you actually go back and play them that you realize how very outdated they are now. Except for Secret of Mana — that game will never lose it.
FTG: So what was the transition out of the USMC like?
Well, I kind of took a traditional just-out-of-the-military route, I studied IR (International Relations) and languages in college (BA and MA). I did pretty well for myself — I was a State Department Critical Language Scholar, and after graduating I was accepted into the Presidential Management Fellows program. The whole time I was thinking, “Things are going well but I don’t feel like I’m being creative and, honestly, I’m not feeling fulfilled.” So I started to explore writing classes and eventually enrolled in an MA in writing program, doing classes on the side while holding onto my regular job (post conflict reconstruction at the time, later to move on to banking regulation with the Federal Reserve). Eventually I got to the point where I just wanted to go for it, to go all in. So I quit my regular job and decided I was going to actually just focus on my passion for creativity.
FTG: So it was just like that?
No, it was definitely a transition. I did a lot to set myself up for success. In addition to my education, I was doing internships with literary magazines and writing on my own, everything from short stories and poems to novels and screenplays. At first I thought I could do both – the full-time job and the writing, but eventually I realized that I couldn’t spend eight hours a day not writing, and so I committed myself to doing it fulltime.
FTG: And now you’re working full time as a writer. That’s awesome. What is it like?
It is a great experience, I mean it. I love what I do. But I have to remind everyone out there that you don’t usually just start where you want to. There is some drudgery involved at the front end. Everyone has to “do their time,” and remember that you are starting over in a new career, so you may have to start at the bottom. A lot of the entry-level jobs are tough and demanding, but as long as you realize that on the front end and do the work — like many professions — you move on to do what you really love.
FTG: Kind of like the military?
Yeah. You’ve got to do the work first before you get to do any of the cool stuff. And don’t get me wrong, it is work. There are long hours, times when you want to pull out your hair (if you have any left after the military), and moments when you don’t understand why decisions are being made. But when you get to do what you love, spending a day writing and sit around with other super creative people debating the physics of a MineCraft world or whatnot, it all pays off. It’s really a great job, and it’s fun.
FTG: What’s it like being a veteran in that world? Does your military experience help or hurt? I can’t imagine there are lots of other veterans around.
As a veteran, you’re definitely in the minority. And I’m not really writing for any military-based games, so it’s not like I’m a veteran or the “military” guy on a shooter or anything like that, so my military experience is not super relevant in that regard. But general military experience definitely sets you apart in terms of work ethic. This can be in terms of real simple stuff like checking your email, keeping a neat workspace, and sticking to a schedule — things that veterans are generally good at. Everyone is coming to this career from a different starting place, and many of the other folks in the industry may not have the basic work ethic that you have after the military. Some of your coworkers may be right out of college and never worked in a lot of different environments. I’ve found that my military experience can be adapted pretty much to anything I do, but especially social interaction, taking the initiative, and being my own regulator. I’m just more used having a mission that needs to be accomplished and knowing what needs to be done to make it happen.
FTG: That’s interesting. When I was out of the military, I always felt like no matter what situation I was in, I was “the military guy.” Is there that vibe working in games?
Not really. We all just do our jobs. I know some people feel embarrassed about having been in the military, or just want to shed that identity, but I’ve actually found that it is preferable to really hold onto it — especially for networking. I’ve found that my military experience is something that resonates more the older and experienced coworkers and superiors. They appreciate the dedication and organization. Now that you mention it, it is strange that even now — 11 years after getting out — people will still say, “You were in the Marines, weren’t you?” and I’m like, “How did you know?” There’s just something that gets embedded in you that gives the tell. I don’t know what it is.
FTG: Switching gears a bit, I’d like to talk about narrative-based games. I’ve always been an RPG [Role-Playing Game] fan, and I loved Mass Effect. Right now I’m obsessed with Life Is Strange and I’m going to jump into Game of Thrones next. What’s with the explosion of narrative-based games right now?
I think gamers are craving story. Many of them don’t want to sit around trying to figure out what to do, they want to be engaged with captivating characters in emotionally and physically challenging situations. They want to escape into these worlds we’ve created for them, and — much like when reading a novel or watching a movie — not be reminded that this is fake. The more a game tells a story and pulls in its player, the more real it feels and the more they are going to tell their friends (and I don’t mean the game has to have a lot of dialogue and whatnot — visuals and game dynamics can certainly be used to craft a well-designed, narrative-based game).
As for our style of games, we saw a big explosion with the success of The Walking Dead, where they were focused on trying to make a great game. It took off, and now the industry is seeing how much people want this stuff. People realized that you can make a game and really tell a good story and give the player some agency and let him or her make the decisions and make it emotional. And you can do it in an episodic format, piecing it out over time.
FTG: I never saw myself playing episodic games; I felt like I would somehow be getting less out of it, but now I’m hooked.
Well, a lot of this is bringing back adult gamers who kind of stopped playing games for a while. I know I stopped, mostly because of work and school and I just didn’t have the time to sink 60+ hours into a game and then BAM a new game comes out. I was busy writing and trying to make sure I could take home a paycheck. But now you can have a great experience and play a game for a few hours once a month or so until the next episode comes out. It’s not a huge investment of your time — about the same as seeing a movie here and there. (But in these stories, you get to own the moments).
FTG: Exactly! And these games are kind of grown up too, in the way the stories are being told and the themes.
Yeah, the genre is growing with us. I recently read an article about how Telltale puts you in the spotlight; you are the one making these moral choices. It’s not just about having fun and racing to collect all the gold coins you can or whatever; it’s about making strong choices and feeling the repercussions. That, in a way, is grown up, even if it’s done in a childish way.
FTG: What’s your connection to Operation Supply Drop?
When I was writing the book, I spoke with quite a few gamers and was eventually connected to Glenn Banton, who in turn connected me with other veterans and gamers. I really love the mission of OSD [Operation Supply Drop] and certainly wish they existed back when I was in the Corps! They are showing our troops that we care, and allowing for those precious moments of escape we discussed above. It is a great cause that everyone out there should support — one way to do so is to donate directly to them, and another is to buy my book in the month of August. Since I love the organization, I’m donating 100% of royalties from my book for the month of August directly to OSD.
FTG: Okay, so besides reading the book, do you have any other advice for veterans looking to make the jump to a creative career?
I’d highly recommend they spend some time doing some snooping on LinkedIn. Go and look at the people doing the jobs that you think you want, and then read the profile job descriptions. You might find that the job doesn’t really seem that interesting. While you’re there, you can get a feel for what kinds of skills and background you’ll need to develop to get those jobs. With that information, you can do some good backwards planning to get the job you actually want, whether that means schooling, going out there and shooting a film, taking on internships, or whatever else you can do to set yourself apart. But most of all, leverage your networks, including the amazing people out there in these creative (or non-creative, if that’s your thing) jobs. Find a mentor, or a series of mentors, and learn everything you can so that when opportunity knocks, you are ready.