Game Industry Perspectives: Jeff Buchanan
In this series, Seth Gerson speaks with industry insiders to get their views on the past, present and future of the world of games. A long-time insider himself, Seth’s experience, knowledge and access to thought leaders provides us with this unique looking glass into all aspects of the games industry.
Jeffery Buchanan is an industry veteran with 18 years of development and production experience. He is a founding partner of Double Tap Entertainment Group, creative director for Arktos Entertainment Group, and senior designer for Online Warmongers LLC. Jeff is currently a member of the Industry Advisory Board to the University of Southern California’s School of Information Technology. Jeff has had a hand in many game projects over the years including such titles as the Virtua Fighter games and Shenmue for Sega, the Frogger franchise for Konami, and helped to launch production for the League of Legends with Riot games. Currently Jeff is supporting War Inc. Battlezone, a free to play shooter downloadable from Steam or from thewarinc.com.
Whether you are a veteran or looking for your first job, this interview provides a unique perspective of the games industry.
Q: What kind of game did you do at Online Warmongers?
Jeff Buchanan: Online Warmongers is a free to play first and third person shooter / combat game that includes a high graphic quality much like Call of Duty and Battlefield. The team recently completed the full release of the game and our players are really having a great time with it. The really cool thing about this game is while it’s got all the bells and whistles that most of these games have, you have a really customizable character in the game. You can set everything from the facial features to the body types of uniforms to gear on the body, and helmets or covers for the head. There are a huge number of combat weapons and now each weapon can be customized and upgraded with special features to make the gun unique and powerful. Also for the characters, there are 4 class structures that include assault, recon, engineer and medic. Each one will allow for players to specialize into specific sets of abilities that will aid their style of game play and their actions on the battlefield. So it’s a really cool game in the sense that for the first time, you’ve got a game where the character in the game is so customizable, we’ve got skills, boosts, abilities and all these things that make the players character so unique. So you can set your character up to be the fast running gunner, or if you want to be the sniper, or the super sneaky guy that lets you reach out and touch someone from far away, then you can do that too. But in ways that are not possible in the other games. Other games give you a very set base of variables, okay, you can choose this weapon, you can choose this guy, and there you are. We give you a large number of adjustable factors, allowing you to modify what your character is. And you know with the micro transaction background, you can sit there and play the game and earn the money that you need, fully in the game,so that you can get what you want to use. You can also say, I like this game, and I’m having fun with it, so I’m just going to buy in it to get further ahead and get to where I want to be, fully involved and everything open to me. The choice is up to the player and there are benefits to both ways.
Q: Is there anything else you’ve been working on?
Jeff Buchanan: I’ve had a friend of mine that I worked with in the game industry for a long time, and he said hey let’s write scripts for Hollywood. And like every other silly fool in this town, we’ve decided let’s write a story and somebody’s going to want to make a movie out of it. Yeah, we got a couple of complete scripts done and we put them into a few hands but when we hit the money level, we got the kind of feedback like “This isn’t in the public space, and yeah you guys have worked on some big names for Pixar, Disney, Universal and so on, but you are kind of unknown individuals, and your product is not out in the public space so they passed on us. After this we decided well, so they are so worried about us being unknown, we are going to convert these things over into books, so now Double Tap Entertainment Group has now become a small book publisher as well. We’ve had other people coming to us, and saying oh can you publish our art book, can you publish our love story, can you publish our action adventure story and now we’ve started doing this on the side, as a really interesting venture. It is funny that we started off down on one track and ended up on another one and we are having fun with the process, and we are looking forward to doing more in the future.
Q: What are three pieces of advice you would give someone getting into the business?
Jeff Buchanan: You can’t come in with a great idea for a game, tell somebody and expect that they are just going to let you make it. It just doesn’t happen that way. If you are going to be a programmer, you need to have strong math skills, you need to understand some of the basics of programming, you need to know a bit about the languages and you should come in prepared to fit in at the ground level. Same thing when you are an artist, you should know the tools, you should have some creativity and you should have some solid fundamentals for perspective. You need to be able to contribute the moment you get in there and start working on things. For designers, you should have a wide background of knowledge and be helpful when you come in. And that doesn’t just go for games, it goes for film, it goes for history, it goes for all kinds of different subjects. Designers need to have a broad background, and not just playing games that are computer games, but playing board games, card games and all kinds of games. Nowadays, they want you to make spreadsheets, figure out how we ramp this game up, where we monetize this thing and how we pull players into quick short factors that make them decide to spend some money. So all the information is out there and easy to access nowadays using the internet. All you have to do is spend some time, research, dig it up and get to know it beforehand. Coming in really knowledgeable, motivated to work, and with your own, integrity as part of a team; those three things will really make you successful when you launch your career.
Q: Whether I am a programmer, a designer, an artist, what are the skills I need to work on, to make myself successful on that team?
Jeff Buchanan: Despite whichever field that you are working in, in order to be successful on a team, you have to have a mentality of being able to get in there and be an active part of what’s going on. Not just “oh, look at me, I have a great idea!” and everybody should now follow you. Not only do you need to come in with ideas, but you need to listen to what other ideas your team has. You should proactively help people brainstorm and you support the people around you. Overall, the first thing you should think about is being a team player. Games don’t get done by one rock star, it gets done by a multitude of team players working on it, and taking it from conception to a release product.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received in the business?
Jeff Buchanan: I guess the best piece of advice I have ever received in business was just be true to yourself. That doesn’t mean to be singlemindly doing your own thing, but it also means to take the qualities and the things you know you can bring to the table and bring them. Don’t just leave your unique skills back in the corner, but bring your art to the front, and let people know the things that you can do.
Q: What do you think Wall Street just doesn’t understand about the industry?
Jeff Buchanan: You know, the funny thing is, Wall Street has slowly been coming around to having a better understanding of the industry. Wall Street has been,” oh let’s throw big money and get big money out “ I think little by little they realize, just like film development, that you have to have the right mix of talent, the right mix of IP/creativity, and you have to have a good business plan for getting this stuff out there in front of the players interested in putting their money down and purchasing the thing. I think the industry is maturing more and more where Wall Street can figure out how it works and benchmark good solid practices. Wall Street kind of understands that game creation and game development is a creative thing and not just stick the peg into the hole and there it is.
Q: What is your favorite Blog to read?
Jeff Buchanan: Gee, I read so many. I even get mixed up on some days where I get my information from because I go through it and start scrolling and reading. But the truth of the matter is that there are so many independent Blogs out there nowadays and it’s really fun to read just some of the experiences that people are having with games and their feedback from friends. I have got some 2,000 people attached to me on Facebook, some of them are people I have obviously known for years, and some of them are people I have just met on Facebook because they are gamers. And one of my favorite things to do is go on there and just see what people are saying about games.
Q: So many people tell me they get everything from Twitter. Do you use twitter and who would you recommend following? Where do you get your news?
Jeff Buchanan: Twitter is a tweak factor that throws ideas in front of you all the time, but they are not meat and potato ideas, meaning that they don’t have all the solid information in there. For me, I like to take a news story and explore it. And if I have interest in it, I like to see where the different perspectives are on it and from different cultures. If you are going to be following people on Twitter, follow the things you are interested in and follow the things you like. More importantly, follow people that give you a very unique perspective, even if the perspective is not your own, even if it’s not even the angle you think; just so you have a different way of looking at the same subject.
Q: Would you hold office hours, like a college professor, if people have questions for you?
Jeff Buchanan: Most definitely. Strangely enough I just got asked to be on the Board of Advisors for USC. So I’ve been going over there for a couple of years, just helping with classes, and giving them information. But yeah, I would be more than happy to help them.
Q: Is there any other advice you could give to people looking for new jobs in your industry?
Jeff Buchanan: First off, don’t ever give up! I’ve been through tough times myself. I have heard stories from other people that have said, oh I really wanted to do something, but it just didn’t seem to happen for me and I kept having doors slammed onto my face. But if you’re really serious about it, then learn everything you can about the industry. Learn everything you can about the field you are interested in, and do whatever you can. Go to the IGDA meetings, go to GDC where you can get up and meet people. Walk up, be polite, shake hands, and let people know who you are, and ask for their business cards. Get to know people and start building that whole tree of people that you’ve met. You never know when one day that one person you met may be the person that puts you in your next job.
Q: Networking is so important, and it’s something that I hear over and over again in these interviews. So, pretend for a second that I just got out of school and I’m dying to get into this industry. Give me one tip on how I should start networking?
Jeff Buchanan: When you find an IGDA meeting going on somewhere, just go in there, look around, when somebody makes eye contact with you, smile at them, walk up to them, say what your name is and ask them who they are. If they say they work at someplace, say oh great, I’m really interested about your place, can you tell me something about it. It’s as simple as that; it’s all about being approachable, just being open to people and not being scared. If a person is going to be rude and not talk to you, turn around and walk away; they are buttheads and not your problem. So don’t let that intimidate you or let that scare you away. At the same time, don’t be a stalker, bugging them and trying to cut into their conversations. Just politely wait your turn, wait for an opportunity and if someone looks at you, stick your hand out and introduce yourself.
Seth: That’s great advice. Thank you very much Jeff, we really appreciate your time.