A Self Taught Developer Success Story and Kickstarter with Ben Seto- Episode 47
No school, no problem! Ben Seto takes us through his unique experiences as a self taught artist in the game industry and how he achieved so much success. We then go over finding time to pursue your passions outside of work and running a Kickstarter campaign!
My Big Break
Ben Seto had a very unusual start in the game industry. He truly started from the bottom working as QA ( quality assurance) before landing his big break job at EA on the MySims brand. Breaking through the QA wall use to be a ‘foot in the door’ but not so much anymore in recent years. Most QA departments are in separate buildings and rarely interact with the development team except for some instances. Therefore, for a QA hire, like Ben, to be called randomly one day by a recruiter whom he met three years ago to come interview for a industry job is as close to lightning in a bottle as can be. However, saying that Ben was just really lucky wouldn’t exactly be accurate either.
Ben’s advice to people currently trying to make the transition from QA to the Dev team is that “'you just gotta find a way out” but “you gotta be persistent about it to get out of QA.” Something that Ben knows very well since it took him four years at Sega working as QA to finally have an opportunity at EA as a character concept artist. However, he never waited for opportunities but it was he that looked for opportunities.
A open drawing meetup hosted at EA one day was all it took for Ben to make a strong impression on the recruiting team there. It was his work and his natural curiosity that eventually led to a phone call three years later by that same recruiter to come work at EA. “'I thought [the job] was going to be a month” but even so “ I left a stable job with benefits for a chance to get my foot in the door.” The job at EA which was originally contract work for two to three months stretched out to almost 2 years instead. Ben took a real chance that eventually paid off and jump started his career in game development.
“You gotta watch Grandma's boy” Ben laughs when asked about what QA life was like. “We are like a ragtag type of people that don't have social skills.” However, “ [QA are the] hardest working people. So you should listen them when they find something wrong with the game.” Working in QA at any company is a tough job, and requires a lot of dedication and long hours for any given project. Unfortunately, Ben recounts how working in that department can make them feel like a “second rate citizen sometimes. When there are parties [the employers says] ‘I guess we can take you guys.” This attitude towards QA is quite common, which makes it more and more difficult for people working in QA to cross the bridge to game development.
Ben always stayed within his lane and “would never show my sketches” to the development team. However, when EA “open an art club that is open to anyone” Ben took advantage and went to “go meet some people.”
“Jet Set Radio opened my mind to all the style and influences that I always call back to when I feel 'umm what should I draw tonight?’ It’s like Neo from the Matrix when he calls for all his weapons.”
Ben finds inspiration from many different artists mostly from the comic book world. As a kid he would flip through Kevin Easton and Peter Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. He grew up mesmerized with Todd Mcfarlane, Erik Larson, and Jim Lee. But perhaps the least surprising would be the influence of Miyazaki into Ben’s own personal work.
Jet Set Radio is a action game developed by Smilebit and published by Sega for the Dreamcast in 2000. The player controls one of a gang of youths who skate the streets of a fictionalized Tokyo on inline skates, spraying graffiti and evading the authorities. “Jet Set Radio opened my mind to all the style and influences that I always call back to when I feel 'umm what should I draw tonight?’ It’s like Neo from the Matrix when he calls for all his weapons.”
When asked what was Ben’s biggest accomplishments since becoming a professional artist Ben quickly answers “I guess...staying employed.” A simple and direct reminder to all of the professional developers working in the industry that take things for granted. In an industry, where artists are continuously looking ahead for the next carrot, we often lose sight of how great it is to have a basic standard of living.
Furthermore, staying employed has helped Ben explore other ways to grow and utilize his skills without taking any major risks. For example, his colleague and mentor pushed him to enter a Yaegar contest for the new Pacific Rim movie. The contest really challenged his digital painting skills since it was a new medium he was still experimenting with. He saw this more of an opportunity to have fun but as a added bonus, actually won the competition placing first place!
“I didn't take advantage of the internet Fame and was more part of the audience’ Ben remembers humbly. He reminds us how important to have backups of your work because his original submission was “'stored on the work computer and someone broke into the office and stole all the computers.”
Education and art school
“My friends and I tried to apply but couldn't afford it” is Ben’s story that is shared by many hopeful art students. Art education is ranked among one of the most expensive programs and is one of the least lucrative financially as a professional career. Ben not being able to financially support himself to go to Art school are one of the many bullets he dodged throughout his career. Even with a scholarship it didn’t matter because “[the school] raised their prices” after he received his scholarship.
Life After EA
After EA, Ben took an opportunity to work at Perfect World to ship a facebook game that he describes as a “first product for the US to market” that failed to find an audience Nonetheless, that led to an opportunity to work at Storm 8 and Ben has been there ever since (over 5 years).
“Photoshop is a new type of pencil.”
Ben continues his education inside and outside the classroom learning practical techniques at work where “my schooling comes [primarily] from my work.” He shares how “I didn't know Photoshop” and was something he learned on the job. His first paintings in photoshop “was so lame I drew everything on one layer” and “when I was coloring in I had to be careful not to color onto my line work.” His mind was blown when he learned he could paint on separate layers. Overall, Ben has never been afraid of picking up a new medium to express his art and see “photoshop is a new type of pencil.”
Outside of work, Ben would attend community college art classes but felt that art classes there are “pretty much daycare for elderly folks.” He would often walk into the classroom with the instructors chatting to students about their grandchildren and what they did on the weekends.
Now that Ben is situated at Storm 8, a mobile game company, he appreciates how “work hours are very lenient and can leave whenever as long as the work is done.” But warns younger developers that there “might be a rude awakening” when they move on and realize life elsewhere isn’t as good. A reminder, that pushes Ben to “keep on developing my skill set” and not be tempted to go home after work to just”'netflix and chill.” This is a struggle that most professional developers go through, to work after work. We asked Ben what he does to help stay motivated and he replies “'what keeps me going is feeling like I’m not doing anything with my life,” and to “never know when my cards are going to get pulled.” Keeping that mindset and to prepare for what’s next is Ben’s mantra to keep on creating in his free time. Brandon adds that establishing a habit to keep up that momentum after work is essential. It’s like conditioning until a developer is “stuck in a cycle” which helps protect against industry layoffs or any surprises that would occur in a developer’s career.
Jane Asagi and the Skull Bunnies is a personal comic project that Ben works on “whenever I can after work”’ since his QA days. After five years, of dedicating his free time, it is ready to be revealed to the world and gauge interest. His project offers a water color style and a way for Ben “to get back to my roots”and paint traditionally.
The design of the Skull Bunnies started as a toy design “that eventually evolved into something i cared about deeply.” To him, the bunnies “don't have to be emo all the time, [but] don’t have to be serious [either]...Even though they’re skulls, they have so much fun, they don’t care about anything.”
Ben feels deeply connected to his personal project but cautiously stays skeptical about the project being funded. He sees it as a way where “it got me to be more productive in promoting myself” and meeting people he wouldn’t have met. This is the key component that will lead Ben to eventual success. Most professionals who goes all in for a personal project aren’t doing themselves any favor and would set themselves up for a major disappointment or even worse, stop them in their tracks. By thinking in terms of building blocks, Ben already in his mind, achieved success by completing a personal project. So Kickstarter getting funded would only serve as a added bonus and not as a dictator on whether he is successful or not. A lesson we should all pick up from Ben.
The process of “learning how to mix colors again and I would take what i did the night before and recreate it digitally” was something Ben thoroughly enjoyed when completing his comic project. “Whatever i learnt to do I try to apply it to the next thing I do.” He reiterates to artists out there that “the more you try even if it doesn’t show up in your work, it builds up your character. It makes you a stronger person.”
During the time when he is frustrated Ben would “step away. Put the brushes away and take a walk.” Walking usually helped Ben relax the body and mind. Some of his favorite memories would be walking through Safeway and “look at the packages and figure how the store lays out its produce.”
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