Paid to play

Getting excited about school can be tough, especially during fall semester. Maybe it’s just me, but graduation seems like a lifetime away, and now that dropping classes is no longer a free affair, I’ve noticed some disconcerting changes in my previously benign professors. So what’s an increasingly disenchanted scholar to look to in the face of monotonous assignments, droning lectures and frantic cramming sessions? Well, to the future, of course.

Now, if you’re anything like me, all of your future plans revolve around new games and forthcoming episodes of Lost and Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles. However, for the responsible, career-minded individuals that have managed to infiltrate our ranks, we managed to score an interview with the creative mind behind some of the most innovative and fun ideas in gaming. This month’s career spotlight is trained squarely on Chair Entertainment’s Donald Mustard.

Position: Creative director

Demand: Moderate to high. “The game industry is growing so fast,” Mustard said. “We’re always looking for good artists, good programmers, good management, good everything.”

Salary: The median salary for an experienced video game artist is $66,000, and programmers make about $72,000. Creative Directors make more, but it’s not a fresh-out-of-school kind of job, Mustard said.
Favorite part of the job: “I think that one of the unique things about our company is that we’re small enough that we’re a very unified team,” Mustard said. “Every person on our team is extremely creative and participates very heavily in the directorial process . . . I love that.”

Worst part of the job: “What I don’t like the most is that knowledge in the back of my head that someday the world’s going to wake up and go, ‘Wait a minute. These people shouldn’t be doing this.’ You know?” Mustard said. “They’ll boot me out and I’ll have to go get a real job.”

Average workday: “The basic rule is that you’re going to work until it’s finished, so you’re going to work a lot.” So much for the idea that working with games is all play. “Working 40 hours is a luxury — a rare luxury — in the gaming industry,” Mustard said.

A day in the life: A creative director’s schedule depends on the phase of the project. Time might be spent brainstorming, creating assets, programming, play-testing and fixing bugs or glitches. Then there’s the gameplay phase. “That’s kind of the phase where I’m spending 90% of my day . . . working on ‘Is this fun?’ Is the gameplay fun? Is it fun to be this character?” Mustard explained. “I mean, really working on bringing the whole game together.”

Desired education: This part gets a little fuzzy. “In the specific case of the art side of the things, your degree doesn’t actually matter very much: It’s your portfolio. Your portfolio is everything,” Mustard said. “From a programming standpoint, your degree really matters. There’s not . . . a ton you can bring, other than your degree, to the table.”

Perks: “I can make a phone call or two and easily get any game, any book, any comic, any film, any script that’s being written in Hollywood, I can get it within a day,” Mustard said. “The biggest perk is getting to do something that you love, but yes, I like the free stuff.”

Advice to students: Mustard, who paid for his college tuition by working construction, is an advocate of hard work. “If you’re a student, apply yourself. Work hard to get really good grades,” he said. “Whatever job you’re in, just learn to work. I don’t care if you work at Taco Bell. If you’re making the freaking awesomest tacos, you’re learning those skills.”

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