By: Jay Rooney
Indie Game Academy’s professors offer priceless insights into the games industry more broadly, as well as what goes into making an individual game. Level 3, Cohort 4’s first professor, Anthony (“Tony”) Sharma, is an industry veteran, currently working at Wizards of the Coast.
In addition to attending his lecture, I was fortunate enough to sit down and chat with him about games, game design, and game careers. And now, I will share select portions of our 2-hour-long conversation with you.
GETTING HIS START IN THE INDUSTRY
Jay: Thank you for joining me, Tony! To start off with, could you tell our readers how you got started in the industry?
Tony Sharma: I used to tell people when I was growing up, “I’ll do one of three things when I’m older: I’m going to be a lawyer, a standup comedian—though I’m not very funny—or a video game designer.” And at the time, when I was growing up, being a video game designer wasn’t really a career path. There were probably a dozen game designers in the entire world when I was very young.
And someone saying, “Oh, I’m gonna be a game designer,” was like saying, “Oh, I’m gonna be an astronaut! I’m gonna be a rock star!” I knew it was what I wanted to do, and eventually, I got to go do it—due in no small part to my wife pushing me and saying, “Go and try, go out there! Keep, keep trying.”
But yeah, I probably would’ve ended up being a lawyer if nothing else. But I did get a computer science degree, so I guess I could have been an engineer. But I wouldn’t have enjoyed that as much as doing games.
Jay: Did you have a big break of sorts, a moment that really propelled you forward in your path?
Tony Sharma: Getting into the game industry is the hardest part. And especially so back in the day. I was working at Microsoft at the time. And while I was there, I was playing MechWarrior: Dark Age when it came out, and I went looking and found that one of the nearby game studios had a club where they were playing. And so I reached out to them and […] I started going over there. I became friends with one of their lead designers, and I would go there after work to go play with them.
And one of the times that we did this, I got dropped off at my apartment. And one of the guys said, “Hey Tony, have you ever considered working in games?”
And I said, “Full disclosure: that was part of why I joined this club at all, to network and make connections and stuff.”
He said, “You’re really good! You should consider applying, we have a game design position.” And I know you’re an engineer, and we also have an engineering position open.”
I interviewed for both jobs, and they offered me my choice of either, and I chose to do game design.
And that was the thing. If I didn’t put in the effort to go out and network, I wouldn’t have gotten that first job. And once I got that first job, I could leverage that into other jobs. Some of it is serendipity. Some of it is tenacity. Some of it—I actually think the bulk of it—is just being in the right place at the right time.
Jay: I have this theory for most creative professions, especially if you’re trying to build something for yourself or pursue a dream: We’re always closer to the brink of success than we think we are.
And it’s really tragic how often we give up on our dreams, when really, you never know if—even just a month later—something could have clicked.
Tony Sharma: Yeah. Something else that was really important was that, even though I didn’t know when it would happen—or if it would happen—I was always putting in the work. I was playing games because I enjoy games, but I was deconstructing them. I was reading up on them. I was talking to other people about, “Oh this game, you know what could be better about this?”
And when I did get the interview, I was as ready for it as I could have been. But even that didn’t prepare me for the realities of sitting down and making a game, as part of a team. I had to learn all the tools. There’s just a bunch of stuff I didn’t know.
But without that foundation, I wouldn’t have made it through the interview.
If I learned anything from formerly being highly competitive about stuff, is that success comes from effort. Everybody I’ve ever played any competitive game with, all of the highest level, highest-ranked, most successful people treat it like a job and just play the heck out of it. Talk about it, think about it, live and breathe it. And the people who don’t are less successful, because it doesn’t matter how naturally talented you are, if that’s even really a thing. There’s no substitute for putting in the work
And we live in a magical time where you can make games! You could just make games and you don’t have to buy an expensive dev kit. When I was working on Nintendo DS games, those dev kits cost $15,000—in early ’00s money, so that’s even more if you account for inflation. So the barrier to entry was very high.
Unity didn’t exist as a thing, so you didn’t have this free/low-cost way to handle all the boilerplate stuff that you used to have to do on your own. Putting a sprite on the screen is a trivial thing with middleware like Unity, but it is very complicated if you’re trying to do it on your own.
And think of hardware. If you get something to show up on-screen on the PlayStation, it won’t work the same on the Xbox. Whereas with Unity or Unreal, you can build, set your target platform, and move it over. So it’s a lot easier.
And as that transition happened, the bar for what I expect when I interview people has also gone up. If somebody tells me they come to an interview for an entry-level position and they say, “I wanna make games,” I’ll say, “What games have you made?” and if the answer is “None,” I’ll be like, “Do you really want to make games?”
Like, maybe you just want to be involved in games in some way, or you want to be in QA, or you want to play games. But if you want to make games, the barrier is so low now that even if the games aren’t great, you should be making them!
GAME DEVELOPMENT: EXPECTATIONS VS. REALITY
Jay: What would you say is the most common myth, or something people misunderstand the most, about being a game developer?
Tony Sharma: So, I get this a lot from people who aren’t in the game industry: they think I play games for a living. And I absolutely do not. I play games for research, I play games with my family, I talk about games a lot with people. But mostly what I’m doing, especially where I’m at in my career? Now I have a lot of meetings. I talk to people a lot, I solve problems, I remove obstacles. Occasionally, I get my hands dirty and do design, which I have to in order to maintain sanity.
But the idea that I’m playing games for a living is a thing that I hear a lot. And no, it’s not that at all. It’s actual work—and it’s hard, intellectual work. Because it is both craft and science all at once. Yes, there are lots of games that have sort of an ephemeral thing to it that makes them really special. But there are also games that just get fundamentals wrong, and are therefore terrible.
And there are many best practices for how to do things. But they don’t always apply all the time, depending on what the game is, or how it’s monetized, or what kind of audience it is. And you have to know all that stuff. You have to have a large mental inventory file system of mechanics and games that are successful and failed that you can draw from.
And that’s not something that you can really acquire without putting in a lot of work to do that.
And actually, one of the other things is: I typically am not able to enjoy games in the same way that a lot of other people can, because I find it very difficult to not critically evaluate the games that I’m playing.
So it doesn’t allow me to meet the game on its own terms, suspend my disbelief, sit down, and enjoy it. Some franchises do that, but I think it is harder for me to enjoy just in, to extend the cooking metaphor…
I think a very well-established chef is going to experience food differently. “This is slightly under seasoned,” or maybe, “This would’ve been better if they had used this cooking method for this,” or, “The plating wasn’t as good as it could have been,” or, “These things don’t pair very well together.”
And it’s not to say that I don’t have fun, but there’s always that part of my brain that is evaluating the stuff I’m playing. And I do think, in some ways, it’s a bit of a loss, not being able to just kick back and enjoy an experience, as a lay person.
The further away the game is from things I’ve developed, the easier I can do that. I love rhythm games. I’ve been playing them for a long time. I’ve never worked on a rhythm game. And so I can just play them and have fun with them, in a way that I can’t for strategy games.
LIFE LESSONS FROM DEVELOPING GAMES
Jay: So, let’s narrow it down a bit. What do you think is the best or most useful life lesson that you’ve learned from making games—not even necessarily from a design perspective—but from a more human or “life” perspective,
Tony Sharma: Everybody’s different, and my assumptions about people are almost always wrong.
When I was working on one of my first mid-core RTSs, it was a Facebook game. And we had a lot of direct connections with the players, and we would do new content updates about once a month. And you could spend between $5-$7K/month if you wanted to speed your way through the content.
And one time I messaged [one of those players], “Hey, far be it for me to discourage you from spending money on a game that I’m designing. But you know we’re not going to have another content drop for a month, right?” He’s all, “No, it’s fine. Besides, my wife loves that that I’m doing this instead of my normal hobby.”
And I was like, “What’s your normal hobby?”
He says, “Oh, buying exotic cars.”
And I’m like, “Oh yeah, this is significantly cheaper than buying exotic cars”.
And he goes, “And I get many more hours of entertainment out of this investment than I do those. Because I have to buy new ‘houses,’ go get more garage space to put the cars in. And I don’t actually get to drive them all that often.”
And so, everybody’s circumstances are different, and change over time.
So I try not to make too many assumptions about other people, and how much they can or can’t spend, or how much they do or do not want to play a game. What I do, is try to be as transparent as possible with people so that they can make informed decisions about what they’re going to do. I think that’s the fairest way to go about doing stuff.
It’s, “Here’s all the information. Here’s what you’re gonna get for your money.” If it’s a premium game, it’s, “Here’s everything that’s in the game. Here’s what you’re getting into.” If it’s a game as a service or, something with microtransactions, it’s, “Here’s what you’re getting for each of the microtransactions you could be doing.”
It’s one of the reasons why I don’t love loot boxes. Because a lot of that is hidden information. And I think even that’s okay if you’re like, “Here are the odds of what you’re getting.” And there are a lot of countries where you’re required to give those odds now.
So, you let people know the likelihood of getting a particular thing. So they know how much they’re actually gambling. So I think that’s the biggest thing.
ON THERE BEING A GAME FOR EVERYBODY
Jay: My wife’s not a geek. She’s not a gamer. But she did sit through the entirety of What Remains of Edith Finch recently. Because the narrative was what engaged her and kept her interested. What games might you recommend for a “non-gamer” to introduce and ease them into the hobby?
Tony Sharma: I say this all the time: I do think that there are games for everybody. To say that there is not a game for somebody is like saying that there’s no music for somebody. I think I would’ve suggested Edith Finch. I would’ve suggested Journey.
Jay: Yes, that’s another one. Actually, one thing that has engaged her is tabletop RPGs. She does seem to enjoy those because of again, the narrative focus. She very much likes stories.
Tony Sharma: Yeah. That’s one of my great loves. Stories. Not necessarily the stories in the game, but the stories that the game generates. It’s these shared moments that people have because they went and they engaged in this game—experiences. That’s really what brought me to games a long time ago and has kept me engaged with them.
Because I’ve been playing video and tabletop games for almost my entire life. We had a pong set a long time ago. When I was six, my older brother’s friend introduced me to Classic Battletech, the maps and miniatures game. And so I’ve been playing Battletech/MechWarrior in some form or fashion through most of my life.
One of the games I was third in the world at was MechWarrior: Dark Age. I got cheated out of first, which is a completely different story for another time.
Jay: Finally, if you could give a one-line platitude that distills the number one thing you would advise any of our readers who are also budding game designers… what would it be?
Tony Sharma: I think the most useful one is the topic of the lecture that I did just: eating is not cooking. Know the difference between the two, and learn how to cook really well. Figure out a cuisine that you like, and become exceptionally good at that cuisine, but don’t neglect all the rest of them.
Because having a broad range of skills is going to be useful because the people that you’re working with may not want to do the type of game that you want to do. And you need to be open and flexible to do whatever’s necessary—and to find joy in the work.
Back to cooking: even if you’re making a dish that you personally don’t like that much, the act of creating it should be enjoyable. Because if it isn’t, you’re trying to get into the wrong line of work.
So, if you can’t think of a cooking metaphor for something, you’re not trying hard enough. There’s always some kind of food metaphor for everything!
Tony’s Life Lessons from Designing Games:
- Don’t make assumptions about people
- Be transparent
- Be fair to your players, as much as possible
“It doesn’t matter how naturally talented you are. There’s no substitute for putting in the work.”
“Everybody’s different, and my assumptions about people are almost always wrong.”
“There are games for everybody. To say that there is not a game for somebody is like saying that there’s no music for somebody.”
“It’s these shared moments that people have because they went and they engaged in this game.”
“Eating is not cooking. And if you can’t think of a cooking metaphor for something, you’re not trying hard enough!”
TONY AT A GLANCE
Favorite Games: Monster Hunter, XCOM (The original 1994 one), Company of Heroes, Elite Beat Agents
Favorite Magic: The Gathering Set: Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty
Favorite MTG Color: Blue
Preferred Diablo Class: Rogue
Alliance or Horde?: Alliance
Preferred StarCraft Race: Zerg for mechanics, Protoss for lore
One-sentence advice to budding game designers: Eating is not cooking!