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Ben at the Pen: Junior

Brad Gallaway's picture

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Ben. The last time we spoke with you, you were only a few months into the first year of your program. At this point you've completed your first year and you're well into summer in the Pacific Northwest. So tell us—how was it?

Man, I can't believe the first year is already over, but it couldn't have gone any better to tell you the truth.

Last semester was complete hell. The workload was crazy, and I didn't think I was going to do as well as I did in the fall semester, but I finished the winter semester with a 3.9 GPA, which put me on the Dean's List. Then I got the summer internship with Nintendo Software Technology (NST), which for me was a major achievement. The NST internship is something everyone in the class shoots for, so getting it was just unbelievable. It was a great way to cap off my first year at DigiPen.

Second-year animation student Drew Shy and Ben.

Congratulations! That's quite an achievement.

Thanks, man! I was really happy. It's also been a good year outside of school as well though. My friends and I got on ESPN2 back in March when the USA soccer team played Venezuela in Seattle; my indoor soccer team won the league championship last month (and I scored two goals in the final game—what what!); and I've seen a bunch of good rock shows in Seattle, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Le Tigre, Interpol, Blur, Sleater-Kinney and The Gossip. It was a lot of work, but I've had a lot of fun, too. Plus, the weather totally rules here. I have no complaints at all, dude.

Now that there's only one year left, have you started thinking in specifics about exactly what you'd like to be doing professionally after graduation, or perhaps for which company?

Yeah, I think about it all the time. I'm pretty much open to anything at this point—so long as I'm doing production art relating to animation or games. Most of the last year of the 3D Animation program at DigiPen is spent getting your portfolio and demo reel together, so I guess I'll have to wait and see where my skills are at the end of it all. I would love to work for an animation studio, but I'm interested in working for game companies as well. It's really hard to say at this point. So long as I stay in the Seattle area I don't care either way!

Second-year programming student Alex Kinlin and Ben kick it at Ben's apartment. (top) Second-year animation student Quinn Smith and Ben in the Euclid computer lab at DigiPen. (bottom)

How applicable is what you're learning to other fields? Let's say that for some reason you decide NOT to go into games. Are the skills taught at DigiPen going to be of any use to you in other lines of work besides game development?

Yeah, totally. The core of what we learn in the animation program at DigiPen is animation—not games. We draw like crazy, and study the principles of animation, film, anatomy and acting. So we're learning to become professional animators and production artists. Where we choose to take it from there is all up to us. It gives you options. You can go into games, film animation, television animation, special effects work—there are many possibilities. I'm interested in film animation, so right now I'm kind of torn between that field and video games. Both are interesting and challenging to me. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

What are your feelings about starting your second year? Excited? Anxious? Any second thoughts?

I don't have any second thoughts, that's for sure, but I am excited and a little bit anxious. This semester I'll be working on a group animation project with two friends of mine, so I'm excited to get going on that. I've already got a script written for that project, and we'd like to start on preproduction before the semester starts. I'm also going to do the artwork for a game some programmer friends of mine are working on, so that should be fun as well. It's a vertically scrolling 2-D space shooter—my favorite kind of game. The trick will be splitting up my time between those two projects. Time management is one of the most important things to learn when you come to DigiPen—no joke. I should have mentioned that before, in fact. The guys that learn how to manage their time and course load are the ones who do well. So anyway, I expect to be pretty busy this fall semester, but that's OK. I didn't come to DigiPen to sit around and do nothing. Being busy—even if it means working insane hours—is a good thing.

Ben in the Euclid computer lab at DigiPen. (top) Second-year animation students (from left to right) Ben Hopper, Sean Horton and Brian Oh practice drawing their feet in Ben's room for an upcoming drawing project. (bottom)

Ok Ben, I know you're a busy guy with lots to do, but before we close out this installment I'd like to open it up to reader questions collected from our messageboards. Mind fielding a few?

From Jason: Ben, what do you DO for Nintendo? I thought Nintendo of America (NOA) did absolutely zero development-related work, keeping that all in their sacrosanct Japanese offices. I always thought NOA was more about marketing, and I'm curious what they need an intern for, particularly one focused on 3D animation.

You're right, Nintendo of America doesn't develop games. I'm interning for Nintendo Software Technology Corporation (NST), which is a second-party developer for Nintendo, and actually shares the same building as DigiPen (students aren't allowed into NST, naturally). NST is the only division of NOA that develops games and is overseen by Nintendo Company Limited (NCL) in Japan. NST management actually reports directly to Shigeru Miyamoto's EAD team. Nintendo Software Technology Corp. is responsible for developing the Game Boy Color versions of Bionic Commando and Crystalis; Ridge Racer 64 and Pokémon Puzzle League for Nintendo 64; and Wave Race: Blue Storm for GameCube.

Anyway, as for me, I'm helping the art team on the GameCube sequel to 1080 Snowboarding called 1080 Avalanche. Being an intern, I do a lot of the work no one else really wants to do, but that's fine with me. Most of my work involves refining the environments and courses, but I also got to model, texture and animate a low-poly background character for the game, so that was a pretty big deal for me. It's great experience, and I really like the people I work with.

Second-year animation student Brian Oh studies in anguish for an upcoming anatomy quiz (at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle no less!).

When I'm not working on 1080, I help with level design for an upcoming Game Boy Advance title called Mario And Donkey Kong, which is pretty fun to do.

Ben and his second-year programming student roommates Josh Wittner (left) and Steven Brookenthal (right) at Seahawks Stadium in Seattle following the USA V. Venezuela game in March.

From SuperDuperMario: Have any of the higher-ups in Nintendo visited the school?

Yeah, they have. I know for a fact that Mr. Miyamoto has been there (he even signed the table in the conference room at DigiPen), as well as the former and current presidents of NCL. DigiPen maintains a pretty close relationship with Nintendo, so it's only natural that Nintendo takes an active interest in what's going on at the school. Most of those high-profile visits happen when the students aren't around, so I've never seen any of them in person. Employees from game developers and animation studios in the area and all over the country have come to speak to the students from time to time though, which is nice.

Scene from a gathering of DigiPen students last semester. (top) From left to right: animation students Nate Weikert, Sean Horton, Ben Hopper, Ilya Nazarov, Eric Brown, Steven Philpot, and Jay Doherty. At bottom is a programming student named Jake. (bottom)

Do you still find video games as enjoyable as you used to now that you've seen 'behind the curtain?' (i.e.- knowing what goes into making a game?)

I still think video games are fun, but I don't play them nearly as much as I used to. I don't play single-player games very much. I don't know - the thought of playing games by myself just doesn't appeal to me anymore. But I still like to get together with friends from time to time to play. Some guys will tell you that once you start making games you don't really have the time or the energy to play them anymore, but others who work in the industry or go to school at DigiPen still maintain their hardcore gaming habits somehow. I'm not one of those guys though (see next question).

How has DigiPen enrollment changed your gaming habits? Are you still playing regularly?

No, I don't play regularly, but I wasn't playing games regularly once I quit writing for GameCritics. My interests began to change slightly following my stint at GameCritics, and I began spending my free time doing other things. However, I do have to admit I've been playing games even less since coming to DigiPen, but then again, all my habits have changed as a result of DigiPen. If you're serious about DigiPen, it will have an effect on your lifestyle. Being in school all day and night, you have to adjust your routine to maintain some semblance of a life. I like to spend my free time now listening to music, playing soccer, hanging out with friends and going to rock shows in Seattle. It's tough for me to find time for games now, but I still like to get together to play games with friends—that's when I think games are the most fun. For instance, there are game rooms at both DigiPen and at Nintendo, so once in a while I'll take a break with my classmates or coworkers and play some games. When I have friends come over to my place, we like to play Chu Chu Rocket!, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Saturn Bomberman, Street Fighter II, Pokémon Puzzle League and Super Dodge Ball. We mainly stick to more old-school games. The newer games just aren't as fun.

Second-year animation students Drew Shy, Sean Horton and Avery Willmann study for an upcoming anatomy quiz in the Euclid computer lab. (top), Second-year animation student Eric Blondin working in the Euclid computer lab. (middle), Second-year animation student Jay Doherty does some research during animation class. (bottom)

From Fader: For me personally, college was little more than a HUGE excuse to play video games to my hearts content. I wonder how it's affecting you?

This is a good question. I think it all depends on how you like to spend your free time and what kind of student you are. I think you can get away with playing games at DigiPen if you do it during whatever free time you have. Like I stated earlier, I prefer to spend my free time doing other things, but I know guys who like to unwind after a long day at school by playing games, and that's totally fine.

However, I think what you're talking about is a totally different matter. At a typical college, I can see how you can get away with playing games all the time and still get by in class. DigiPen is not my first college experience. I graduated from Henderson Community College and the University of Kentucky before coming to DigiPen, and I was pretty heavy into gaming while attending those schools so I know where you're coming from. At a "normal" college, how much you work depends on what degree you're pursuing and the kind of student you are. DigiPen is definitely not like most colleges. The school exists to prepare you for a job in a particular industry. The workload is heavy, and students are expected to keep up. Those who don't work won't get the jobs—it's as simple as that. At DigiPen, school must be the top priority if you hope to do well. However, DigiPen is like any other school in that you get out of it what you put into it. Sure, you can come to DigiPen and play games, but do you think you're going to get a job when you graduate, if you graduate? I doubt it. Plus, what's the point in coming to a school like DigiPen if you're just going to do nothing but play games? Personally, I see it as a waste of time and money. I'm only here for two years, and my first year is already over. They'll be plenty of time for playing games later. I want a job when I graduate, so I need to make the most of my time here.

From Blackbelt Jones: Ben, in the last installment of Ben at the Pen, you basically talked about how you spend every available second working on your stuff. I was just wondering how the heck you make money for food, clothes, or anything. How could you possibly have a job when you're at that school from sunup to sundown?

Go USA! Ben and friends cheer with Sam's Army during the USA v. Venezuela game in Seattle.

Yeah, this is definitely a big concern for a lot of prospective (and current) students. Most of the students at DigiPen don't work while they're in school. A typical semester at DigiPen involves taking 20 credit hours a week, which is a heavy course load no matter what school you're enrolled in. So it's pretty difficult to hold down a part-time job and still go to school full-time at DigiPen and expect to do well. You have to expect that going in and prepare for it accordingly. I pay for my tuition and living expenses with student loans—currently it's the best way for the average student to do it. If you're not taking summer classes, working over the summer break is a good way to save some money. Of course, if your parents are willing to cover all that for you then it's a totally different situation. But getting financial aid to attend DigiPen is getting easier now that it's a federally accredited school, so I think it'll be less of a problem for future students. The financial side of things should definitely be a concern for anyone thinking of going to DigiPen though.

Thanks much for your time Ben, and we'll check back with you in a few months!

No problem, dude!

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