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Game designing alumnus’ advice to students: “Make stuff now”

Timing, luck, and “a magical accident” have been the secrets of success for Matthew Schwartz (C95). The game developer, who has worked with MTV, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim Games, shared the path of his career, along with advice for future game producers, to a packed room of students and faculty Dec. 3. It was the third event in the monthly speaker series sponsored by the School of Communication’s Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises (MSLCE) program. Moderator Eric Patrick, who is an associate professor with the Department of Radio/TV/Film, and a specialist in animation and experimental filmmaking, led a Q&A with Schwartz.

After graduating Northwestern with a degree in radio/TV/film, Schwartz moved to New York City and got a job scouting locations for film. He didn’t love the work, or the long hours. That’s when the first magical accident occurred: his then-girlfriend’s (now wife’s) aunt was riding the Port Authority bus to New Jersey, when she struck up a conversation with a man who worked for MTV. The aunt later told Schwartz about the encounter. “I met this nice boy and you should call him. He does cartoons,” he said, imitating the aunt’s East Coast accent.

It turns out, she was referring to Eric Calderon, development director for MTV Animation. Schwartz reached out and, because he had freelance experience in reading scripts, he was hired as a development assistant.

“Finding your career path can be just by sheer luck,” he said.

From there, timing—and more magical accidents—played a role. This was in the late ’90s, when media companies across the country were rapidly building digital departments. Through his contacts at MTV, Schwartz met people at Cartoon Network, and was hired there as a content designer. His job was to create Flash games that drove traffic to the website, including the first massively multiplayer online game, FusionFall.

Creating Flash games was a dream job—but a career category that was so new, few people had even dreamed of it. At this time, there weren’t yet classes on game design. There were no books on game design. Rather, Schwartz said that all the time he’d spent in arcades as a kid actually paid off. “Suddenly, all of this information was relevant,” he said. “Tons of games I worked on were inspired by those old, golden-age arcade titles.”

In 2010, he went on to work as a producer for Adult Swim Games (which is owned by Turner Broadcasting System, the same company that owns Cartoon Network), where he collaborated on games such as Robot Unicorn Attack and animated shorts, like “Calling Cat 22!” There, much of his work revolved around project management, and he oversaw a team of outside developers, some of whom were still in high school or college.

After discussing his career path, Schwartz offered tempered words of encouragement to the students in attendance, noting that technology has really democratized the industry.

“Anyone can go and make a game,” he said. “If you have an idea, you can go put it on YouTube and have a fair degree of probability that someone is going to see it.” At the same time, he added, that can be a curse: there’s stiff competition out there.

He shared a number of suggestions to students interested in pursuing a career in gaming: Meet professionals in the industry via social media, pitch game ideas to potential buyers and collaborate with other recent graduates to find opportunities. And if you have an idea, get working on it.

“Now is the time to make the stuff that you’re interested in making,” he said. “Because those opportunities are always there, but they decrease over time.”