Get to Know a Game Dev: Melissa Davidson
Melissa Davidson is a programmer turned designer/artist, who has held roles for studios like Disney and Mark Media. She also holds O.G. techie status as a former RadioShack/The Source sales associate and competitive DDR player. But what makes Melissa particularly interesting is how she perceives her work:
“One of the best things about art is that it reminds us all that we are all in this life thing together, having the same kinds of experiences, even if we don’t always feel that way.”
Her open outlook and obvious artistic talent has helped her build a strong career in the games industry and. in the process, meet her partner Colin Janowicz.
GameDevCafe ran into this professional couple at a recent Torontaru gathering, and loved hearing about how their personal history tied in to their careers. So, we decided to sit down with Melissa to learn all about how she got her start, and found both personal and professional success in games.
So Melissa, what’s your unofficial job title?
I’m an illustrator, game and UX designer, but have also worked as an art director, concept artist, 2D animator and 3D modeller/texture artist.
And have you always wanted to work in games?
As a teen I considered going into programming. I took a lot of courses on graphics programming and C++ and did very well, but I felt happier when I was doing creative things like drawing or writing. It’s been about 12 years since I’ve done any “real” programming and I feel really confident that I made the right choice for myself, although I have a very deep respect and admiration for programmers.
I enjoy art not only because the act of creation in itself makes me unbearably happy but also because it’s an act of revolution. I think one of the best things about art is that it reminds us all that we are all in this life thing together, having the same kinds of experiences, even if we don’t always feel that way.
How did you break into the industry?
I studied computer animation at Humber College, but graduated in August of 2008, the month a big recession hit. Nobody local was hiring and I basically ended up spending the next three years of my life working as a freelance illustrator and making games for Xbox Live Arcade before I broke into Facebook, mobile and PC game development.
That’s a lot of time invested. What has been the biggest change you’ve seen since you first started?
A lot of the same kinds of patterns emerge in the industry again and again. The popularity of the Wii was the last big shock for me. I bought it day 1 but didn’t like it, and to be honest I was shocked at it’s lasting popularity. VR/AR has been enormously fascinating to me. I really want to see it shake things up. I’m still waiting. lol
Is there anything weird about your job that others don’t get to see?
It can be a lot of pressure to come up with the perfect thing for a project. Not that I don’t love the challenge, but there’s always someone to answer to now matter how high up you are… But, I love hearing that something I made was a player’s favourite part of the experience. It can be hard to sell the people in your company to something that you know the players will love but it’s great when you get to do it and it hits in just the right way.
What kinds of personal challenges have come with your career?
The standards change every year, and I take on a lot of freelance or contract positions. Through my own choices I basically make it impossible for me to be comfortable – I’m always changing how I do things, and am constantly trying new things, meeting new people, travelling, or taking on things I have just plain never done before. Sometimes I fail but I always just get back up and keep going because it makes me smile. People who have the courage to keep trying will always end up having success later.
Have you had any times that were particularly difficult?
I made three grand my first year freelancing. I’d consider that a low point. I couch surfed a lot that year. I’m lucky people put up with me, in all honesty. It was scary because I wasn’t sure if I would make it at all and most of my family was really critical of me. I had a laptop that wasn’t good enough to do some of my work on and worked in all kinds of crazy places. Despite that, I have some pretty funny and positive memories of that time.
What were some of your best memories or high points?
I have a lot of high points in my career. I’ve been lucky. Working for Disney was a high point but I think the happiest point was when I worked for Digital Leisure. I had just overcome a lot of things in my life and I met my partner, Colin, there. I would draw all day and then go home and play video games with him. We rented this adorable house just a stone’s throw away from the office and got up to all kinds of mischief.
I remember one time in the summer hornets invaded our house. I remember waking up and, half-awake, I was like, “Oh, there’s a bee on the ceiling.” I watched it for awhile then thought it would be nice to make some coffee. So I walked into the hallway, but there were a few more bees in the hallway. I walked to the far end of the hall, opened the door, and saw literally our office was packed full of bees. Like, hundreds of them. I was just like, “Nope,” and I quietly shut the door, went back into my room, cuddled up with my boyfriend and went back to bed. We ended up dealing with the problem together later on that day. We made makeshift anti-bee suits and spent the whole day figuring it out. I still laugh thinking about it. Looking back on things, it’s the stupid stuff I did with the people I worked with, more than doing the work itself.
😂 Great people totally make the difference. Do you have any game industry heroes or role models?
Shigesato Itoi, Hideo Kojima, Mega 64, and Shinya Arino. I think it’s important to have a sense of humour about things. My greatest inspirations are simply people that I have worked with who have the courage to keep going. I’ve been lucky to have some incredible colleagues who made miracles happen.
Have you ever had to work apart from close friends or family?
Yes, but the distance liberated me and made me stronger. I made my moves at the right times and for great reasons. I embraced it and took it as an opportunity for personal growth. I thought I would change a lot but I didn’t, but I did learn to have more compassion for myself.
Any advice for others working away from home?
Try not to worry too much, although you probably will, especially if you are young. It’s stressful to move long distances especially several times in a short period, so please have empathy for yourself. No matter where you go your true self will follow, but that is not a bad thing. It’s normal to be lonely but you can have fun even by yourself, and you won’t be alone forever. You can survive anywhere if you believe.
Right on! When is comes to games, which title had the greatest emotional impact on you?
A few stories spring to mind… Zelda III is meticulously interwoven in my life; it’s the first game I ever played, I spent countless hours playing it with a lot of people and I have the entire game memorized.
“The biggest emotional impact always comes from the way the game facilitates a personal connection between myself and someone that I love.”
I played DDR competitively as a teenager and made a lot of friends at tournaments… While playing Pokemon Red/Blue and then Zelda 64 with my brother he learned how to read and it changed my entire perception of the power of games. Games still have emotional impact on me all of the time. I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch with people that I know and I’ve had a lot of fun with it.
Those are great examples. Are there any new games you’re looking forward to?
I want to see some really good VR stuff. I get excited playing Vive games.
Random question (we’ll ask Colin, too): if you could travel to any point in time for a single day, where would you go?
I want to go to Big Apple at 3am so that I can jam with the Ninja Turtles.
Is there anything else you’re working on, or any personal updates you can share?
I’m still at Mark Media, and Colin is still at Gameloft. Things are going really well for us and I’m super proud of Colin especially, I really feel like this year has been huge for him and his development as a game creator. I have a big project coming but unfortunately I am not allowed to talk about it right now… But, I will be able to at the end of the year.
We’ll be sure to check back; and talk to Colin Janowicz in our next ‘Get to Know a GameDev’!
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- On August 19, 2016