John “J.J.” Williams ’00 can tell you that the mouse has clout.
After 10 years in the video game design industry, Williams can drop lots of respected and recognizable names in the gaming world; he’s worked on Mortal Kombat and Rockband, titles that resonate with more than a few avid players.
“I have to say that the crown jewel of my career has been getting to be a lead designer at Disney,” he said. “I’ve never gotten this much respect. The mouse gets their attention.”
Williams has been a lead designer at Disney Interactive/Wideload Games for nearly five years, but — looking back — the self-proclaimed nerd may have always been destined for this career.
“I have played video games pretty much since I remember being around,” he said. As a kid, his gaming fascination began with The Legend of Zelda and Mega Man.
A business and communication major at Saint Mary’s, Williams remembers he and his roommates playing a ton of Mario Cart and Golden Eye. Later, games that made him want to get into the industry were Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII and Diablo.
“It may have been why my GPA was so low,” he said with a laugh, adding in a serious tone, “I’ve got to go back and tell them it was research.”
Fresh out of college, Williams entered the business world but quickly knew it wasn’t a good fit. “I didn’t feel like my life’s ambitions were being met,” he said. “I felt I was a little more imaginative. I always enjoyed my creative writing courses in school.” So, he went back to school to study art. And, he set his sights on breaking into the video game industry.
“I knew this was a field where I could really enjoy what I do and be good at it, so I asked myself, ‘How do I get into this wild industry because it’s nuts.’ I had never even heard of how games were made. I got into my first gig working on animation for a wrestling game.”
Along the way, he worked for several different companies including Midway (which was bought by Warner Brothers) and Harmonix. Along the way, he gained good experience and made close friends and valuable connections. He also came out with a game of his own, Pirate Blitz and owns his own independent game development company, 12 Gauge Studio.
He’s been able to cross several things off his bucket list throughout his career. Through Disney, he was able to work with the Marvel characters in Avengers Initiative, and he just completed work on Disney Infinity.
“A designer, for lack of a better way to describe it, makes sure the game is enjoyable to play,” he said. “That’s the bottom line and first priority, making game-play fun. I have a staff of six guys and girls (in Chicago) and we’re working on a pretty big title now but I can’t tell you what it is. I juggle a lot of things with engineering and audio and art and sound, and I manage all these pieces and make sure it all works together and that the game is enjoyable to play.”
Williams said he works with a Japanese developer and is in constant contact every evening. “I’m meeting with designers and talking to them about how the process is going, proofing and approving things, going over schedules with producers.
“If someone came up to me and said, ‘I want to be a game designer,’ I’d tell them you have to learn how to write and explain your thoughts on a piece of paper, and be able to communicate that thought verbally, be able to pitch the idea for a studio. You also have to have a technical knowhow to be able to bring it to an engineer. My art background really helps me to get my ideas across to artists. And my business degree helps me with pitching ideas and getting buy-in from the studio. It’s a jack-of-all-trades kind of deal.”
After 10 years, Williams said he feels like an old sage. “My advice is that it may seem like a big industry, but it’s really small, and your reputation, getting to know people, is the big thing. Get into it any which way you can, even at the bottom. “I was lucky. I just persevered and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. When you start at the beginning, you’ve got to just expect to work a ton. It’s called crunch. It’s a very deadline-oriented business. That’s 60- to 80-hour workweeks and that goes on for months, especially with the bigger titles. It’s a great industry and super-fun to see your ideas come to life, but it does get rough.”
Williams’ favorite fan is his 1-year-old daughter, who enjoys watching him play video games and drools (literally) over the controls. Williams, as a proud dad, is patiently looking forward to passing the controller to the next generation, saying, “She’ll be ready.”
This article, written by Deb Nahrgang, was previously published in the Spring 2014 Saint Mary’s Magazine.