Notes on GameDev: Blaine Christine
September 15, 2008
Although we specialize in game art and design, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to talk with Blaine Christine, Producer at BioWare Austin. Sadly we didn't get any good juicy bits about the mysterious unannounced forthcoming MMO (are you thinking what I'm thinking?) but we did get ourselves a case of BioWare job envy. Blaine's is a classic story from QA to Producer.
Hey Blaine! Thanks for your time. Before being a Producer at BioWare Austin, of course you had to work your way there. How did you first get into game industry and how did you build up credentials to be a Producer?
I began my career in the game industry at Activision in April 2000. I moved to LA to attempt a career as an actor and I was looking for a mildly enjoyable temp job that would still allow me to go to auditions, look for an agent, etc. I was always an avid gamer (read – nerd) and as I was thumbing through a copy of Computer Gaming World, I realized that there were a ton of game companies in the Los Angeles area. I put in applications for Quality Assurance at Blizzard and Activision. I never managed to get an interview at Blizzard, but I was brought into Activision QA for an interview within a couple of weeks and was offered a job as a Temp Tester. On my first day, we spent the morning in training (how to identify and write up bugs) and then I was placed on the QA Team for X-Men: Mutant Academy. After a couple of months I was promoted to Lead Tester and was hired on in a permanent position. My first major project as a QA Lead was Lion King for the PlayStation. This project was in QA for over nine months (and only took 3 hours to complete – “playing games for a living” in QA actually is WORK, folks) during which time I got to know the Producer very well. Thanks to this grueling task, I was promoted into the Production department after almost exactly one year at Activision.
As a Production Coordinator, I was essentially an assistant to the Producer I worked for. Over the course of the next two years I worked on a variety of handheld games on Nintendo GameBoy and GameBoy Color. Looking back at this early point in my career, I feel very fortunate that I was able to work on small-scale games. At the time, it seemed like a drag because it was always more fun to work on the “big” titles, but in reality I learned the full Production cycle on a game by repeating it every 6-9 months on small titles and working on more than one game at a time. Unless you are working on cell phone games, it would be hard to have a similar experience entering the industry now since these days even handheld games tend to have teams and budgets as big as PlayStation titles did eight years ago.
The entire time I was cutting my teeth on the handheld titles, we had a little project brewing with Raven in Madison, WI. The Producer and I would fly out every couple of months to check on the progress of X-Men Legends. We would periodically review documentation, receive builds and have meetings where I was privy to the workings of a big project from inception to completion. After two years in Production and an upgrade to Associate Producer, the Producer I was working for was pulled off to work on another game that needed help. Since I had been working with the team at Raven for a couple of years and had several games under my belt, management gave me the opportunity to act as Producer and finish the game on my own. It didn’t hurt that the team at Raven actually liked working with me as well. This was a big break for me. I got to hire my own Production team and represent the game both internally and externally. X-Men Legends came out in Fall 2005 and we were already in pre-Production on X-Men Legends 2 when I left Activision to move somewhere I could afford to buy a house.
What a ride in promotions! What was your journey from Activision to BioWare?
After Activision, I moved to Salt Lake City with a couple of leads on jobs, but no offers. Todd Sheridan of GlyphX games hired me on to head up internal QA on Advent Rising and with the promise of becoming a Producer on whatever they worked on after Advent shipped. This was my first time working on the Development side instead the Publishing side of the industry, so I wasn’t sure how my experience would translate. Fortunately, I found that the skills I acquired at Activision were a huge help and I was able to play a big role in getting Advent Rising finished by stepping into an internal Producer role in the last few months of development. My experience on the Publishing side of things gave me a unique insight into what the publisher (Majesco) needed and I was able to help both parties determine the best way to get the game finished before time and money ran out completely. Unfortunately, there would be no game for GlyphX after Advent Rising so I had to go on the hunt for a new gig.
Luckily, a friend from Activision had moved to Austin, TX to work for Aspyr Media and was able to bring me on as they expanded beyond the Mac gaming market and into North American publishing of games from Jowood (Spellforce 2, Gothic 3) and FunCom (Dreamfall). This proved to be a great move for me all around. I fell in love with Austin, TX and got to travel to Europe several times to visit with developers in Germany and Norway. After a year at Aspyr, I was promoted to Executive Producer and ran the Production department until I left for BioWare. Leaving Aspyr was difficult, but when I saw an ad pop up in Gamasutra for a Producer at the BioWare’s Austin studio, I knew I had to throw my hat in the proverbial ring. As a big fan of RPGs in general and BioWare games in particular, it was an opportunity I simply could not ignore.
Yeah, I hear BioWare is the place for anyone with a passion for RPGs and getting to geek out with co-workers. What do you feel is unique about working at BioWare? In other words, what's the company culture and work environment like and is this a unique experience?
Working at BioWare is definitely unlike working any place I’ve been before. Within a week of starting at the Austin studio, I felt like I had joined an all star team. It’s like the Olympic basketball team – everyone has years of experience and has worked on amazing games – we can all be stars in a smaller venue, but when you bring everyone together for one game, the energy is incredible. There are definitely days that I feel like a small fish in the big pond, but it’s amazing to be in meetings with so many industry veterans. Our Creative Director, James Ohlen, has been with BioWare for over 11 years and was the Design Lead on Baldur’s Gate, so every meeting is like a mini-tutorial on how to do great game design. Every day I learn more about the industry from my peers, which is fantastic. I’m also learning the MMO space, which is not an area I was exposed to prior to BioWare.
Beyond our game and studio, Ray and Greg (the founders of BioWare) make a huge effort to make us feel like part of the larger BioWare organization. They regularly attend meetings in Austin and still preside over new employee orientation meetings in person. The culture is very much driven towards quality, creativity, and humility. BioWare has a very high regard for the fans that they’ve cultivated over many years, so there is a strong expectation that every game must hit the same level of quality as its predecessors to honor the people that buy our games and ultimately make us successful.
No doubt, I've seen the excitement from the community at the online forums, although that dates back to the work from BioWare Edmonton. Since you're at the Austin studio, do you have much communication with the Edmonton studio? Is the Edmonton studio thought of as the mother branch?
Yes, there is regular communication with the Edmonton studio and even sharing of resources when and where appropriate. BioWare Edmonton is where it all started years ago with Shattered Steel and Baldur’s Gate, so yes, they are the “mother ship”. When I visit the Edmonton office, it feels like walking the halls of a world class Hollywood studio with awards lining the hallways from many years of *great* games. There are only a handful of developers who can claim the same level of consistent quality, so I am truly honored to be part of the BioWare family and hope to live up to the same standards. The other amazing thing about being in Edmonton is the number of employees that have been there for many years and many great games. To me, it speaks volumes about how well BioWare treats its employees and gives me great confidence that we will continue to make games that excite and inspire gamers everywhere.
For sure! BioWare also seems to be a very family-friendly company. Even if someone can't make the move out to Austin or Edmonton, what do you feel it takes to become a Producer in game industry in general?
The number one skill for Production is communication. This is why many Producers start out in Quality Assurance. As a Tester, your job is to find bugs (easy part) and convey them in a meaningful fashion to the folks on the team who can fix them (hard part). If you have the ability to communicate well in writing and verbally, you have a strong foundation for a successful role in Production. Beyond that, Producers are facilitators, so you have to be able to take a task and see it through to completion – even if it is a task you have never been involved with before. Most Production involves some mediation skill as well – being able to understand two different viewpoints and then taking action to find a good resolution between the parties with differing opinions.
The Producer role is a very interesting job. It is defined differently by every company I’ve worked for (at least the specifics of the job) and it is a career that doesn’t necessarily have clear entry path. My educational background is Acting – specifically, a Master’s degree. Does this apply to Production? Absolutely! As a Producer, I am often called upon to present status, information, or the game itself to Executives, the Press, or the Public. Does this mean that an Acting degree is necessary to be a Producer? Absolutely not! I know Producers with a huge variety of backgrounds including Film, Art, Business, Marine Biology, Armed Forces, and Law to name a few (I think the ones with the Law background just figured out they were bored and wanted to come play with the cool kids). As Producer, you really need to be a jack-of-all trades – I know a little bit about a lot of things, but not a lot about anything. Well, except games.
Speaking of which, what challenges have you faced so far at BioWare as a Producer?
The biggest challenge is just learning that even in an environment of industry veterans and extremely talented co-workers, I can bring something to the table. My experience at Activision was a great foundation to build on, but ultimately developers in the game business respond to other gamers. The fact that I have been playing games since I first got a Commodore 64 in 1984 lends as much credence to my opinion as my eight years in the games industry. I guess this is an add-on to the question above. It is certainly possible to be a Producer in the games industry and not be a huge gamer, but I think to survive someplace like BioWare would be next to impossible. The culture here is very accepting of input from every member of the team, but that is predicated on the belief that team members actually play games. Perhaps a good analogy to the “never trust a skinny chef” would be “don’t trust a tan game Producer” because they’ve been outside too much to be a true gamer…
Heh heh heh, nice. On the upside, what are your triumphs?
The biggest challenge leads to the biggest triumph in my case. After exactly one year at BioWare I feel like I truly do add value to the team. I’ve come to a company with a huge legacy of quality and humility and have earned the respect of those that I work with (I hope – check back two weeks after this posts and I’ll let you know how many e-mails I get that tell me otherwise). My goal is to work hard to uphold the promise of BioWare to the legions of fans they’ve garnered over the years.