First off, Ben, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, I’m 26 and I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. I come from a family of four including my Mom and Dad, and my brother David. I’m a fanatic about soccer and read literature and historical nonfiction when I’m not on the field. I spent the last 12 years in a small town called Henderson, Kentucky where I went to high school and attended community college. After that, I transferred to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where I finished with a bachelors of arts in creative writing. Oh, and I’m a big fan of Italian food.
Enough of that stuff, tell us about your background in videogames.
Well, like many people I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid. After growing a bit taller, I started taking a more active role when I began writing articles about them for my high school newspaper. One of my first pieces was about the level of violence in Mortal Kombat and Nintendo’s censorship of it. I did these types of articles through college, and even did a few for Chi Kong Lui’s "The Art Of Videogames Homepage", the forerunner to GameCritics.com. I got a job at a local newspaper after college, and continued the trend by starting my own game column. It was about this point when Chi asked me to write and edit for GameCritics.com, which got me more involved in video games than ever. I really learned a lot about this process with GameCritics, and going to E3 in 2001 kind of topped it all off.
That sounds more like a lead-in to professional game reviewing than the development process. How did you go from playing games to wanting to create them?
I’ve wanted to create games for as long as I can remember, actually. Playing my Atari 2600 as a kid I would think of ways to make some of those lousy games better. During the NES era, I even drew out my own game design documents for games, although I have no idea where they are now. I once created elements for a theoretical Duck Hunt 2, because I thought the ideas in the original Duck Hunt could have been taken so much further. However, once I got into college and tried to decide what to do with my life, making games always seemed like an impossible fantasy. Essentially, this opportunity to go to DigiPen is like a dream come true for me.
Are there any particular games or companies that influenced you more than others?
Treasure would have to be the developer that has influenced me the most. What I love about their titles is that they’re small, but remain totally action-packed and fun. They also seem to relish avoiding trends, and that’s a good fit with my own game sensibilities and life in general. If I had to pick my favorites, I’d say Gunstar Heroes, Guardian Heroes, Radiant Silvergun and (believe it or not) Bangai-O are four of the best action games ever made. I don’t want to give Treasure all the credit, though. There have been a number of other influences including Thunder Force III and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Konami’s Snatcher is unlike anything else I’ve ever played. But, if I could pick just one game that I wished I could have made, it’s Super Dodge Ball on the NES. That game is just about perfect in my opinion.
It sounds like you’re a big fan of 2D action. Do you plan to revive the art with your own million-seller in mind, or do you have any idea of what you’d like to eventually create?
I would definitely love to start with something 2D, although not for the reasons you’d expect. I actually think there’s a lot to be learned from working inside a reasonably limited environment such as something on the Game Boy Advance. As you may have noticed from my list of influences, I’m also a big fan of quirky action games, so that’s the kind I’d like to try making first. After that, anything’s possible.
Now that we’ve gotten inside your head a little bit, can you tell us how you took those ideas and got started making them a reality? At what point did you decide to take the plunge, abandon what most people would think of as a normal life and reach for the brass ring?
Well, I had been working at the newspaper for some time, and although it was a good job I just knew that it wasn’t where I wanted to stay forever. I had thought about going back to school and getting a Master’s Degree, but I wasn’t sure in what discipline. I also knew that I needed a change of scenery because Kentucky just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. These different elements going on in my life actually combined to make it a fairly emotional time for me, and I felt like I needed to do something and break out of the rut I was in. Since making games had been a dream of mine, I thought this was as good a time as any to see if I could make it happen.
After coming to this so-called crossroads, I wanted to learn the basics about the school and decide if it really made sense to apply. Not only would I be taking the big jump out west if I got accepted, my family and friends would be several states away. I did some reading at the school website, and then requested their free information packet. Once everything checked out and I learned what I needed to do to apply, it was just a matter of getting everything organized and being brave enough to actually do it.
Since you’re now halfway across the country in a new town, in a new school, chasing a new career- are you nervous?
I’m definitely nervous, but it’s more excitement than anything. I’m eager to dive in and see where this takes me. I also know it’s going to be a lot of work, so it’s hard not to be a little intimidated. At orientation, DigiPen makes a point to scare the hell out of students who think this is going to be an easy ride playing videogames all day. It’s not like that at all. The deadlines and workload here are going to be pretty damn insane from what I can tell. I’m nervous, but I think you have to be or you wouldn’t be normal.
What does your family think about all this? After all, the goals our parents have for us are rarely the same ones we have for ourselves. I also know for a fact that convincing people videogames can be a career might be tough… was it a hard sell?
I’m lucky in this respect because my family has been totally supportive of me from the very beginning. They understand that this is something I’ve always wanted to do, and they’re proud and excited that I’m getting the chance to follow my dream. I can’t say enough about how much I value the love and support from my mom, dad and brother, as well as the rest of my family. Everyone that’s close to my heart is excited for me, and there’s no better feeling in the world than knowing that you’re backed by all the people you love. It’s sad being so far away from them, but oddly enough this whole experience has brought me closer to them then I’ve ever been, in a way.
Besides the considerable changes and risks required to actually try and do this, what was involved in the application process, and was it hard to qualify?
Well, first you have to fill out the application an send it in with a small application fee Along with that, I had to include a personal statement, in which I answered three essay questions that basically outlines why I was applying to the school and what I hoped to gain from the experience.
Besides that, the most important part of applying was sending off my portfolio, a requirement for all 3-D Computer Animation students. Your submissions have to be organized and presented in a specific way, so I spent a lot of time working on it to make sure it was just right. In fact, a co-worker at my old newspaper job, who is an accomplished artist helped scan all my artwork and gave me some great suggestions for content. I felt that having a good portfolio was crucial to getting accepted, that help was a godsend.
However, once you do all that there’s still the four-hour entrance exam, which I was able to take in Kentucky. The test is made up of basic drawing exercises and art concepts, but required a lot of focus and energy to complete in the allotted time. Once that clock started ticking, I couldn’t even stop to breathe until it was over. I damn near collapsed when the adrenaline wore off. Basically, the application process was a challenge but my art skills pulled me through. After all was said and done, it was totally worth it.
Now that you’ve crawled under the barbed wire and made it safely inside the complex, exactly what will you be studying?
Most of two years at DigiPen will focus on art, animation and computer graphics. I’ll be taking two animation classes, one art class and one computer graphics class for my first semester. There’s also an ongoing series of "project" classes that help you compile demo reels and a portfolio for when you start looking for a job. There are also some basic English courses to help you write stories, which is really what good animation is all about. Luckily, I already have a four-year degree in English, so I’m thinking about skipping over those courses if I can, but I’m going to see what they’re like first. If they’re geared more towards writing for games and animation they may be worth taking.
Sounds like you’ll be kept pretty busy. Do you have enough energy for any goals right now besides survival?
My main goal is the same one that all the students share—to go from amateur to professional. I feel that I still haven’t explored my full potential as an artist, and I’m looking forward to re-educating myself at DigiPen and eventually making a living at it. If I can do that, I’ll have accomplished something truly special.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us Ben, and we look forward to following you throughout your journey through DigiPen. We’ll be checking back with you soon, but is there anything else you’d like to say right now?
Yeah, I would. It may sound kind of corny to say it, but I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to follow your dream. I never thought I’d have the chance to become an animator or game designer, but here I am and I can hardly believe it. I just want to emphasize that it’s never too late to do things you’ve always wanted to do, no matter what it may be. I a lot of people out there are probably like I was—always thinking about what they’d like to be doing but never believing it could ever happen. It’s been said a million times, but it’s absolutely true: Nothing is impossible if you work hard enough. Getting accepted at DigiPen was just the beginning for me. The real fun starts next week.
We’ll be checking back with Ben approximately once a quarter throughout his two years at DigiPen. Look for the next chapter in the ongoing saga soon. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments please post them here, and we may use them for a future segment of Ben at the ‘Pen.