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How to succeed in the games industry: A life in the day of Christine Phelan

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“Sorry if I drop a few f-bombs”, says Christine Phelan in an unmistakable West Coast drawl. It’s not the introduction you would expect from a presentation by one of the lead animators of Valve, one of the largest and most respected private video game developers of recent years. But, then again, it is a demonstration of the free-wheeling nature and adventurous mindset that has spawned some of the most influential and successful first-person shooters, including the internet phenomenon Counter-Strike, the genre-defining Half-Life and its sequel Half-Life 2 as well as the mind-bending twister that is Portal. Phelan is currently working on the much anticipated RTS Dota 2.

Christine Phelan is here in the Great Hall of Bradford University to talk about her experience in the industry to a room of fans, academics and students eager to learn the tricks of the trade.

Christine Phelan, Character Animator at Valve

Christine Phelan, Character Animator at Valve

From her origins in the Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia (chosen, she says, due to their liberal admissions policy and her lack of a portfolio), Christine learned to develop her computer animation skills as well as the basics of getting a foothold in the business.

Reminding her audience of the importance of networking (cannily assisted via a PowerPoint projection of the words ‘DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE’) and internships (Christine took a placement at Nickelodeon in her final year), she stresses that though universities can teach you a lot, it requires a lot more to be able to succeed: knowing how to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions with your work cannot be taught and, at the end of the day, “no one is going to get you a job but you”.

Christine’s intuition took her west to San Francisco where, after a stint of staying on a friend’s sofa while she brushed up her show-reel, she got a job at Lucas Arts working as an animator on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (or TFU as she refers to it, in what I can only hope is a reference to the robot Private Iron’s motto from the TV show Spaced).

There she learned the harsher realities of the industry: of working under a top-down hierarchy, of having to re-learn everything she thought she’d already learned at university, and of working 80-90 hour weeks. It was her first real experience developing games, and it was lucrative enough to net her a job for Tim Schafer’s (The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts) company Double Fine and the opportunity to work on their latest release Brütal Legend.

It was a new experience for her, one that involved much more creative freedom, but one that almost ruined the company. An indie company with an ambitious project, Double Fine faced difficulties in finding a publisher willing to take on the game: when it finally found release, poor sales axed the potential for a possible sequel as well as the company’s plans for the future.

It was in the aftermath of this that Christine got her first role as lead animator. In the wake of an intense brainstorming session known as Amnesia Fortnight, Christine was put in charge of Iron Brigade, a downloadable RTS which, through a deal with Xbox Live along with other titles like Costume Quest and Stacking, helped save the company.

From there she landed a job at Valve, where the strict rules of Lucas Arts and the relaxed atmosphere of Double Fine merge into a comfortable whole: creativity is encouraged and ideas are developed organically through a process of collaboration and mutual respect.

Reaching the end of her presentation, Christine Phelan breathes a sigh of relief for not swearing (except for a solitary expletive when her microphone fell off her jacket) and offers some final words of consideration: “working in games is hard…but it’s also really fun.”

The full presentation is now on our YouTube channel… and here it is.

Written by Chris Shackleton

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