Breaking Into The Industry: Blade Olson



With more and more colleges offering game-related degrees, it looks like the path into the industry is finally being paved. Join us as we speak with one of its travelers, Blade Olson, about his recent transition from USC undergrad to EA employee.
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Breaking Into The Industry is a weekly interview series that speaks with video game professionals from all across EA. We hope that by sharing how some of the industry's biggest (and smallest) players got their start, you can learn how to do the same.

Okay. I have to start with this to get it out of the way. Is "Blade" your real name and, if so, can you explain the origin of it?
[Laughter] I get that question a lot.

Blade is my real name. I actually tend to make it an opportunity to practice some improvisation skills when someone asks, and will often make up a different story every time. It would be rad if 20 years down the line people say, "I heard he got the name from killing a dude in a bar with a knife," then the other guys responds, "That's not what I heard! I heard he..." and so on, and so on.

The real story is that my parents were hippies. Before I was born, my mom and dad were brainstorming names and they thought "Blaze" would be a great name for me. After I was born, and they discovered I was a boy, they decided that name wasn't a good fit. Three days went by and they couldn't think of a good name. Out of desperation, my mom said "let's call him Blade – we can always change it later!" They never did, and here we are.

Continuing with your origin story, where did you grow up?
San Diego, California. You'll hear me dropping "dude" and throwing out fist-pounds quite frequently if you ever meet me in person.

Where did you go to college?
I attended the University of Southern California (USC) for a Bachelor’s Degree in Interactive Entertainment. My brother had attended the film school there and saw the beginnings of a game development program starting up.

I was originally on track to be a doctor actually, until my brother mentioned the idea of making video games as a career. My parents originally let me pursue video game development as a major under the pretense that I join a college that was prestigious in multiple fields of study, just in case I regretted pursuing games as a career. It only took one semester to realize this was the only thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Blade Olson

Before you heard of this major, did you ever think about working in the game industry?
I fancied the idea, but it just seemed so separate from my life despite having talked about video games every day at lunch with my friends. I was one of the more hard-working students at my high school. Typically, the hard-working kids at school go on to be doctors, so I just kind of said "yea, that sounds good."

In my mind, I placed "video game designer" next to "astronaut" and "president," but when my brother told me about the existence of the program, it seemed so much more attainable. All in all, I'm still surprised that I am where I am today and thank USC and EA for the opportunity that I've been given.

What’s the most important thing you learned in your college studies?
The thing that makes universities great is the mindset that it instills in young academics and aspiring artists. When you hang out with a bunch of like-minded, spirited professionals, it makes you work harder and have a much more significant and powerful perspective on the industry than you ever would at another college or program. As USC puts it, we're still waiting on the "George Lucas" of the interactive world to pop out of USC. Wouldn't you want to be around and hang out with the people that are most qualified and prepared to become the world's greatest video game "rock stars”? It's that same perspective that led me to EA.

How did you manage to get a job at EA?
That is a long story. It's a wonderful one though, and it paints a lot of people in EA and the company in general in a really great light.

Just to throw names out ahead of time – I'll always be indebted to Tom Frisina, Elena Rente, and Richard Hilleman for all the help they've given me to get me here. I love where I work and what I do more than anything in the world.

Tom Frisina is one of the founders of EA Partners (EAP), the third party publishing arm of EA. In fact, if you visit EAP at the EA Redwood Shores campus, there's a little italicized inscription just below the EA Partners logo that reads "The house that Tom built."

Tom Frisina handed over the keys of EA Partners to other leadership some time ago, moving on to teach classes at universities that sought to prepare students for life outside of college, both from a “video game professional” and “life coach” perspective. Over the course of a semester, Tom would have a sit-down with each student and talk about generally one of three things: 1) You're not going to make it in this career field at your current trajectory; 2) You're in the middle of the road, and you either need to step up your game or get out of the industry before it's too late; 3) You are above the curve and you’re special – let me help you become even better.

I landed in the third category for Tom, and Tom recommended me to Elena Rente, a University Relations Manager for EA. From there, I managed to get an internship, and at the end of my time they said, "We had fun working with you and we think you’re good – would you like to come back?"

I could go on and on. The story is very long and I'd love to tell it all, but you'll have to just ask me to share it over a drink sometime.

Blade OlsonWhat did you do as an intern?
As an intern at EAP, I worked on the Rock Band franchise, ran play testing for a few of the titles, and reviewed game pitches from groups that were looking to be published by EA. I loved watching the pitches the most. The game makers are so impassioned and enthusiastic; you just want to high-five them when they're done.

What happened after the internship?
Coming out of EA Partners, I wanted a role that was more directly involved in development. Like I said, I loved watching the game pitches while I was at EAP because I admired their passion for games and creativity. I wanted to be in the hot seat. I asked to be put on a development team.

EA's development teams, however, are composed mostly of very talented veterans, so it was a little difficult trying to find the right position for me. EAP recommended me to any team that would have me. Richard Hilleman heard about me – I'm not sure how – and gave me an interview. It should be noted that I turned down an offer from a top games company just so Elena could set up the second interview! Shortly after that, I got the offer from Rich to come work on his team in the Chief Creative Office as a “kid” –  the term he likes to call us new-grads. I’d like to think he felt my enthusiasm for EA and that that helped influenced his decision to bring me onboard.

Most of what I do is very much R&D, so I can't speak very much as to my role or work, but I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. My work, my project, Rich, and the people I work with are beyond exceptional. I wish I had a mattress in my cube – I don't like going home at the end of the day. [Laughter]

Can you talk about the types of things you work on?
Right now I'm working on an unannounced project. From time to time, I will provide support to EA's development teams by running play tests, but my current project has subsumed most of my time. I love the project, so it's a good thing, but it's always fascinating to conduct play tests and see how different people approach the same game.

Is it your team that gets to see all the cool new technologies before they are public? Things like Kinect would have gone through your team long before anyone knew about it I imagine.
The Chief Creative Office manages relationships and is a point of contact with the major hardware manufacturers. Additionally, we tend to fund a lot of "blue sky" projects that explore ideas that will be prominent within the video game industry in the next five years.

Each studio does their own R&D and design for how they would like to interact with a new product. We would have acted as a “gatekeeper” for Microsoft on the Kinect, but we probably wouldn’t have done our own R&D – we would have had development studios do that work for us.

Honestly, this division is so flexible to the demands of the company, it seems like we change our operations plan every year. My project doesn't quite fulfill the description I just gave for the department, and I know of other things our division is working on that absolutely do not fall under that description at all.

How big is your group?
The group is comprised of about 13 to 14 people, four of whom are new graduates, and it’s generally split into two categories: High Value Veteran Specialists and new hires straight from school. 

What's the skillset someone needs to work in that office?
Again, it changes so wildly that there's no strict definition. Richard Hilleman will find people that he believes will play an important role in the company's future – these are the "veterans," – and will direct them toward internal teams that need help.

Additionally, he'll find new-grads and "kids" that he discovers and believes have a lot of promise. He'll train us for about one or two years and then we'll be placed on a team that needs us.

This all sounds so mysterious and cool. I can see why you like it so much.
It's a wonderful, wonderful place.

I don't want to go home at the end of the day because we are pushing the future of the industry every day that we work on the projects in this division. The power to influence games, interactivity, and entertainment on such an important level is so fulfilling and exciting.

Is it hard to be working on such cool things, but not be able to talk about it with certain co-workers or friends?
It's actually most difficult at parties, given that we're in Silicon Valley. You want to evangelize, let your friends know where the future is going, open their mind about the future of entertainment and the video game industry, but you have to keep your mouth shut. Loose lips sink ships.

Now, granted, the "future" can change any given month when we find out information on a new breakthrough in technology, or if a competitor markets an idea or product better than we were anticipating, so it's not like we have the next five years mapped out. We try to keep our hands in every pie, which is pretty reflective of EA's overall strategy of diversifying its game portfolio.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps and work in a role like yours?
Don't burn out and you'll do amazing things. I read somewhere that the average time someone spends in the video game industry before moving on to another career is 5 years. This is commonly because the work hours can be tough and the job can be stressful. However, if you regulate your working hours and just don't give up, amazing things will happen for you and you'll get to experience amazing, rewarding moments that no other job can deliver.

Also, and this is important, don't join a video game team because you like a certain game. Make sure you join a team where you believe your personality will fit and where you enjoy the atmosphere. You'll enjoy your life much, much more making games with people that are funny and easygoing and that enjoy your company, than for a frustrating, uptight, angry group of geniuses. Yes, your name might be credited on a blockbuster, but the journey there will be agonizing and you'll regret it in the long run.

Making video games is supposed to be fun. If you're having fun while making fun, you'll usually produce good fun.

Would you recommend people who want a role like yours go to a college where they offer game design degrees? From the way it sounds, since Rich accepts a variety of people with various skill sets,
your major doesn't really matter.

I try to choose my wording carefully when describing my game design degree.

I'm very satisfied with my education and I'm happy I attended the program, but universities in general have become a tricky topic these days. Did you know there's a start-up incubator that's paying hard-working high school seniors to avoid college and start their own company instead?

I don't think I would have developed my passion for game design and learned so much about enthusiasm, design, production, organization, working in groups, sharing ideas, and appreciating people had I not attended college, let alone USC's Interactive Entertainment program. There are events that happen throughout your life that can dramatically alter the way you live for years. Attending a university, and attending USC's game design program, altered the way I feel about entertainment and the collaborative process of games. I might have been successful in the long run regardless of whether I attended USC. However, if I never attended USC, I might still be a doctor.

Paging Dr. Blade…
[Laughter] Dude! Wouldn't that have been awesome? I would've been a surgeon! It's too perfect! It should be noted though, I'm very happy I decided not to be a doctor.

What games are you playing?
Right now, I'm running through every EA SPORTS game that we make. I'm in a position where I have to interact with a lot of the different departments within EA – I want to know what I'm talking about and what makes each game great before I talk to people from that team. I'll always make time for FIFA, though. That game is expertly crafted.

You play any non-sports games?
I typically don't play sports games. I tore into Star Wars: The Old Republic pretty hard for a couple weeks before I had to slow down. I hadn't shaved for a few days. Things got a little dark.

It's so cold in San Francisco compared to San Diego, I go through a morning routine where I wait for the heater in my room to turn on and warm up before I get out of bed. During those 10 to 15 minutes, I'll usually play a new iPhone app. Jetpack Joyride is my current love.

It's clear that you love games. Do you think that someone who wants a role like yours needs to be a lover of games?
This might be surprising, but not at all.

A lot of my incentive for wanting to work in games started from playing games as a child. However, most of the projects I work on are for games that I might never play. Additionally, I'd say most of my time spent playing games is with the audio low enough that anyone in the room can critique what's happening on-screen. It's ironic that I often become annoyed that I have to play a game for research when I'd rather be getting some work done. I'm sure my audio artist friends are going to sock me after reading that...

People who typically don't play games can also have some of the most interesting, out-of-the-box ideas that will completely blow my mind.

And you mentioned wanting to eventually join a game development team. What role would you want there?
To tell you the truth, I wish I could never leave this division or that this project spins off and become its own thing. If I do end up joining a game development team, I'll probably end up being a producer because that's where my skill set would prove most useful. Every job would be fun to have, though.

Okay I think I'm out of questions, but I enjoyed the chat. Thanks for doing this!
Absolutely! This was fun.

Is there a specific video game job you’d like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week’s interview with Ellana Fortuna, Global Associate Product Manager at EA Partners (EAP), for more insight into the industry.

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