Rat Story

My name is Pajman Sarafzadeh, however, please call me Paj. I would like to tell you a little about myself.

At 40 years old, after following a career as a part time artist and full time corporate sell out I decided to make a radical career change. I wanted to be a video game maker. I was going to develop my own studio and grow it into a, (Triple A) AAA company and make millions along the way while producing the greatest 3D art and narrative you have ever witnessed.

The first time it happened, I was sitting at my workstation, the oldest in a group of 15 otherwise young students, at Dawson College, studying video game level design. I felt out of place among so many young aspiring hopefuls. Thankfully, some of the other students were within a decade of my age group although there were a few teens as well on the other side of the spectrum.

We came from all walks of life, one was the daughter of a Bus driver and at the time she had stated that she wanted to be a bus driver as well but decided to study games for the hell of it. She’s at Ludia now making games. Another was an Electrical engineer working for a major construction company. He turned down a 6 figure salary to study games. He works at Ubisoft now.

There were film makers and waiters in our group, Graphic designer and programmers, an ex-pharmacy security guard and even an aging Punk Rocker, ex IBM employee wiz kid now all grown up and unemployed, looking awkward with a spiked Mohawk and a business suit. He’s at Ubisoft as well now.

We were a diverse group. If we were linked by anything, it was our love of games.

And then there was me, Mr., ‘small C’ conservative.  The guy who wanted to be a documentary film maker and writer while working in corporate Canada so that he didn’t sacrifice on having a downtown Condo, 2 cars and regular vacations. You know you’re in trouble when even you think you’re a sellout.

Still, things were mostly working out fine for me until one day; walking to work I fell unconscious. I woke up an hour later, my back in severe pain, I was unable to stand straight, my clothes were torn and I had tremendous pain throughout my body. I made it to work and worked a full shift and then spent the next year in recovery. It took me a month to stand upright again for any length of time and going to the bathroom was, let’s call it, an epic challenge in flexibility and pain.

The year off gave me a lot of time to think, to re-asses my life to that point. My wife and I had decided to be visual artist and film makers and so when I first started working for corporate Canada, it was to be for a short time, a year or two at most. Unfortunately, as salaries increase and as expenses compile, working for corporate Canada became increasingly my vocation. While healthy, I never had the time to consider this. Once injured, this reality hit home hard.

So hard, that I went to see a psychiatrist. His advice, get back to work and take these mind altering drugs to kill your pesky personality issues. Be mindless drone and these happy pills will satisfy you.

That did not go so well, so instead I went to a psychologist. His advice to me, get out while you’re still sane. Find your vocation and explore it rather than chasing a paycheck and running yourself into an early grave.

So I went back to school to study my greatest passion. Video games.

 

So, back to my story.

I was sitting there, at my workstation at school. An accomplished level designer from Ubisoft Montreal, we will call him Mr. E, and one of our instructors had just finished giving a lecture and was meeting with each of us, one at a time to discuss our intentions. This Level Designer was, and is, a big shot at Ubisoft Montreal, one of the highest, most important names there.

At the time, his team was in crunch mode. What that means is that for about 7 months or so, his entire staff was going to work 12-15 hours a day, 6 days a week for 7-8 months in order to get the game ready to go gold, or in other words, to be sent to the publisher and be burnt on DVD’s.

As if that was not enough work for Mr. E, he had decided to add several more hours to his work week to come to our school and instruct us young, (and not so young), hopefuls on how to become Level Designers. It was pretty incredible to me. He was giving back to the industry he loved so much. And what was more incredible, he was not alone in this. We got to have talented and very established game designers from many Montreal studios chip in on our education, including Warner Brothers, Square, Eidos, THQ among others, a veritable who’s who of the Games Industry in Montreal. People responsible for Assasin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Deus Ex, Tomb Raider, to mention but a few titles were teaching me to create games.

Mr. E worked his way through the room until he finally got to me. He asked me why I was here. I told him that I wanted to build an indie game studio.

He looked at me quietly for a while and then he said, “I do to, so do we all, but I prefer to eat well.”

I asked him what he meant, after all, if anyone could make an indie studio work it would be Mr. E. He had worked in games for years, had been all over North America’s game industry, a wealth of experience and knowledge.

Mr. E responded, “To make the games I love, requires tens of millions of dollars. It’s a huge risk to try and produce something on a fraction of that. I am happy where I am and so are 99% of the producers out there. We all want to be indie’s but few of the truly talented people will ever risk their future on it.”

This revelation was a little perplexing to me and forced some introspection. On a personal level, I didn’t really enjoy most indie games. They generally lacked the polish that the massively budgeted AAA games had. There are many reasons for this disparity. First of all, most indie games are basically trying to be AAA and failing. Second, I had never made much of an attempt at discovering what was available on the indie scene, relying on corporate stores and advertising to take me to my next title. Finally, most of the indie games I had tried were on IOS. With the exception of a few stand outs, these games were terrible.

But something happened since then.

I discovered indie games. Real indie games, Games like Papo & Yo, a beautiful and touching game that the game maker used to exorcise the demons he had of growing up with an abusive and alcoholic father.  Or Fez, a wonderful puzzle game in which you can explore 3 Dimensional spaces in interesting new ways, there was Limbo, a black and white nightmare landscape through the eyes of a child protagonist, or Today I Die, an art game with very simplistic mechanics that manages to use those simple mechanics to build complex poetic puzzles while maintaining a very high artistic standard or even Angry Birds, basic physics with a comical twist.

Games that broke away from the pact by offering what AAA could not. For all the strengths of the AAA, it has one weakness. AAA studios are massive collaborations, costing millions of dollars a month to operate. As such, to stay in business they must produce games which can return on investment without much risk. If a AAA company takes a risk, such as THQ did when they tried to create a peripheral device for the XBOX 360 console, well, the good news is, THQ Montreal is now mostly a part of Ubisoft.

Indie game companies do not need to worry about this. For the most part, they start out bankrupt and work their way up. They can afford to risk because they have, (almost) nothing to lose.

I guess that’s what Mr. E’s issue was. He had established himself through hard work. He built a good life for himself and his family and he was satisfied with where he was. Mr. E is a success story. He was responsible for a 3 million dollar a month budget to develop one aspect of a game he loved. Why would a sane man risk everything for the chance to make a low budget compromise?

I was convinced.

When I grow up I want to work in AAA.

Except they don’t seem to want me and honestly, I don’t blame them.

After all, I am 42 years old now, without any experience in the games industry. My CV includes military experience, sales and corporate bs, Documentary film making and being a Dad.

Why hire me when they can hire a 19 year old, with 5 years’ experience in moding and who knows 5 different scripting languages. I would hire the 19 year old.

Of the hundreds of CV/resume’s I have sent out, I only got 1 response. Not surprisingly, from Ubisoft Quebec City, who asked me to write them a Level Design Document. I did. They told me it was great but that they chose to hire from within. I asked for feedback and they told me they had none, I was an ideal candidate but they restructured. That was it.

Now, I have to say, I have a lot of love for Ubisoft. This company treats there employee’s well and is always helping to develop the games industry of Quebec. They and their employees are always giving back to the industry here in Quebec, so I don’t want it to sound like I was upset at their decision or them.

Like I had said above, the truth is, I would not hire me. I would hire a young kid, someone whose skills can be molded, who has the stamina that only youth provides and whose best years are ahead of him rather than a middle aged man whose only real asset is a dream.

So I guess that is why I came back to Indie Games as my goal, because I have nothing to lose and because I want more than anything, to work in games.

But that’s not my only reason. There is another.

6 Comments

  1. Olivier M July 29, 2013 8:06 pm  Reply

    Paj has been both a great friend and a great class mate to spend our hard times with.

    His wife Katia and him are great people, passionate about what they do and love! I am proud to count Paj as one of my friend and I wish his team and him the best of luck with Rat Story!

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