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Interview: Soon-to-be graduate turns project into employment at top Vancouver game studio

Nov 26, 2012 By webdev

Laurent Giannesini wasn’t sure how he’d fit in with his project team when he started the MDM program last year. Somewhat a digital media generalist, Laurent realized he needed to find his role in the industry – a role appropriate to his visual creativity and story telling interests and expertise. More than a year later, and near the completion of the program, Laurent now has a full-time position as a UX and Game Designer at Roadhouse Interactive, one of the top mobile and social game developers in Vancouver. His story offers a great example of how MDM students can adapt their skills and talents to make the most of emergent opportunities.

A native of France, Laurent learned photography as a teenager, and later ventured into video making and editing, social gaming and visual communications while working in online PR at Fleishman Hillard, in Washington D.C., and as a Content Manager for Paris PR firm, Cohn & Wolfe. When he entered the MDM program, Laurent was looking to improve his skills and take on challenging projects with people who share his interest in digital media. Perhaps his most fruitful MDM project, YATTA brought Laurent in contact with Tarrnie Williams, President of Roadhouse, and through this launched his employment with the company.

Tarrnie Williams, James Hursthouse and former MDM instructor Ian Verchere, who founded Roadhouse Interactive in 2009, are all veteran game developers with a track record that includes some of the most popular game franchises of the past two and a helf decades. Now the leadership team is developing web, social and mobile games that cross genres and platforms. Its flagship games include the Family Guy Online, a browser-based game developed in partnership with 20th Century Fox, and MechWarrior: Tactics, a ‘MMLOL’ strategy game published by Montreal’s Infinite Game Publishing. Laurent’s contribution has been in developing some of Roadhouse’s research and development projects.

The following is a recent interview with Laurent at the CDM.

You’ve now been working at Roadhouse Interactive for about six months. What are you working on these days?

Right now I’m working on a business application. Before that I worked on creating a prototype of a new social bingo game. Bingo was a three-month [MDM] project we did as team YATTA. I was the game designer. That is the first project I was assigned to, and that’s how I met [client Tarrnie Williams, President, Roadhouse Interactive] and [James Hursthouse, CEO, Roadhouse]. That’s how the whole journey started.

Let’s talk about that journey. Out of your project work on Bingo, you also did some part-time consultation for Roadhouse while at school. Can you talk about how that freelance opportunity came about?

Very early on, [team YATTA] had a good relationship with Tarrnie. The whole team did an amazing job. When I started Bingo with [the team], I knew that something was going to become of that project. So I was very passionate about the whole experience, and making it [into] something new.

The prototype was that good that they decided to carry on and launch a project in the real world. They needed to shift from prototype to real product [so Tarrnie] said to me: “Do you want a job with us?” It was still very early on in the process of building their start up. They had maybe ten people, and now it’s around 50 or 60. I worked for three months part-time helping transition that [prototype] to what it is right now – giving all the blueprints to the new designers, the art, and making sure the vision was [consistent].

You actually got your start in marketing and communications, working at American and French PR firms. Your current work as a UX and game designer at Roadhouse seems like new territory. How did you get into games?

I’m a very visual person. My mom [has been] collecting art since I was a kid, and my brother is a street artist. I’ve got a blog about that whole visual universe that I cultivate every day. That’s one of my strengths.

I studied in London – advertising, marketing and communications. It was pretty random why I decided to do that. But I really wanted to go to London, learn English. I [also] saw it as proof of me being adaptable to anything. I’m that kind of guy: jumping on the occasion, seizing the moment, and making it happen, as opposed to thinking about it too much, and not doing it.

After that, I saw the evolution of Facebook and that got me into PR. I started working on digital media and online PR. It wasn’t the sexiest job ever, but I learned a lot. And I got to work on a bunch of serious games – games that are supposed to shape behaviours. For instance, helping students understand that they have to drink responsibly. I’ve always been into the story [with games] - even when I was working in advertising, I was telling stories.

[My prior PR work] was about getting people to interact with the content. That was the first step towards what I do now. I touched on many things at the PR firms: digital, video, UX experience applications, and serious games. They were all digital media. It was clear that I was drawn into that whole [digital] universe, but at the time I didn’t [exactly] know it was going to be games. I guess at some [later] point I realized that I could parlay a marketing background, my storytelling skills, and countless hours spent playing video games as a teenager into a winning combo for success as a game designer.

What drew you to the MDM program?

I wanted to improve my skills. I wanted to return to America. I knew that I would be working with a lot of companies by coming [to the MDM program]. The business, industry connections was what sealed the deal at the time, and that I’d be working with programmers and designers from around the World. I knew that that kind of context could benefit me in so many ways. I didn’t have a specific goal [in entering the program.] As always, I just [made] a quick decision and made the most of it.

As long as the project allowed me to be creative, try new things [then I was interested]. I disagree with the idea that everybody’s got one talent. You can have many talents even if they are not [all] strong ones. I couldn’t be an artist, I couldn’t be a photographer, I couldn’t be a director, but I can [still] do all those things.

Did you find the MDM program offered you the right niche for your interests?

When I first came [into the program], I was very shy, modest, because I didn’t have any hard skills. Being creative isn’t a skill that you can [easily] show on paper. So you really have to prove yourself. I was a little bit scared the first week. I came in not understanding that teamwork was the most important thing here, so I was trying to do everything myself. In the second project, I remember not seeing the importance of defining specific roles [within the team] and that was a disaster. After that, I started integrating into the program [and adopted] the team bound relationship and dynamism. That’s where I restarted and I had awesome projects after that. Sometimes you get frustrated in the program, but you understand everything clearly when you get out of it.

Did you find the team environment a good one to work in?

It was amazing. When you come here, time stops. It doesn’t matter [your age or background]; in here you have to find your way as a creative, designer, programmer. That’s the way the industry works: there are not that many roles, so you have to fit into one. That’s the only requirement. After that, you work really hard for three months, finishing ideas. The first three months [of the program] are very much about yourself and the team. Then you start applying that to an industry project.

[In the program], you can do good projects, and then people in the industry start taking an interest in you. Then you start taking an interest in new things and directions. [Also] I need contact. I could not have gone to school without teachers [who are] involved. If they don’t give feedback, you can get lost. You put your whole self in this and [need that feedback].

Would you say MDM's hands-on environment offers a good model for how the actual industry works?

Most companies are not as intense [work environments as the MDM program]. The program breaks you, in some ways, to build you. A company would not push you as much. It’s the same in terms of management in the way it’s agile and adapts. You have to be in the present and understand things quickly. [When I first started the MDM,] I was afraid I would not fit in. I was afraid they were going to put me in a room with geniuses. [But] it’s all about fitting in, and this school is really good for that.

As a student, you’ve worked with some great mentors like Tarrnie Williams. What impact do you think this mentorship has made on your professional development?

With Tarrnie, it was a special relationship. [By our] second meeting [on project Bingo], I knew that something was happening, something that will eventually influence my career. He was amazing to listen to, to follow. He was the best mentor to have.

We had a week to prepare something and present it. And either implement it or improve it. Every time that I was with [Tarrnie], my ideas [or] the group’s ideas would be improved by [his] input. And [this process] is very natural for him. When we would brainstorm, he’d be part of the group – he wasn’t a boss. You could see he was looking for the answer exactly the same way we were.

As far as faculty mentors, I had a very good relationship with each of them. They influenced me in different ways. [The MDM] is different than any other school or institution that I’ve been in that the teachers transcend from teaching to mentoring... always between personal [coaching] and teaching. The nature of the school is like that.

I worked the hardest for [MDM instructor] George [Johnson], because, like I said, I’m a visual guy, so Visual Story was really a class that I embraced from day one – dedicated to it 100%. Every week I wanted to have the best project. I really enjoyed what we did in Visual Story, because I think we changed the class. We took it to the next level. [George] gave good feedback, but he doesn’t get personal with you, and I respect that. I loved the class, in terms of the critical thinking. Learned a lot.

[Another instructor, Patrick Pennefather] is the kind of teacher that is going to tell you things you will remember the rest of your life. I remember I was creating assets for Bingo, and I was so angry at my designing skills. I’m not getting anywhere. And [Patrick] told me “You’re a natural designer.” And that’s all that I needed to hear at the time. It’s that kind of feedback that really makes you a better person, [not just] a better student.

Switching gears a bit, what has been your impression of the opportunities and industry connections available for students in Vancouver?

I feel like you can do anything in Vancouver. If you want to be a photographer, you can be a photographer, if you want to be a digital artist, you can be a digital artist. You can do anything you want, and I’m the best example of this. [I came in] as a creative guy – not specifically a designer per se – [and] became a game designer at one of the best companies in Vancouver. That really proves my point that you can do anything. The only requirement is that you live in the present, be 100% dedicated to what you do, and seize the opportunities. If you do it well, it can open so many doors.