Michael Stout loved video games from the time he sat on his father’s lap and played Centipede on an early computer. But it wasn’t until years later, when he designed a game for a high school class project, that he realized he could create them for a living.
“It was like, ‘Oh wow, people make these things,’” Stout said.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and several gaming systems later, and Stout has compiled an impressive 14-year career as a video game designer, a job he likens to an architect of a virtual world. He’s worked on the successful Ratchet and Clank and the trend-setting Skylanders franchise.
Stout’s next stop will take him back to school for a year-long stint as Harrisburg University of Science and Technology’s next Game Designer in Residence. Starting in January, he will use his real-world experience to inspire and train the video game designers of tomorrow.
Eager to teach
After once aspiring to be a teacher, Stout is ready to hit the classroom.
“When you do anything for long enough, it’s easy to get a little jaded about it,” Stout said. “Working with young artists in the field is the best way to remember why I decided to do it in the first place.”
Stout’s resume is impressive, with stops at Insomniac Games, Obsidian Entertainment, and Bionic Games. He followed with a four-year stint as a senior game design analyst with Activision Publishing, one of the world leaders in the industry. Stout now owns his consulting firm, Interactive Axis, and helps developers work through challenges.
Even with all of his experience, Stout still gets a kick seeing his games for sale. He visits the store to see each one and marvels that his work can be sitting near Spider-Man games.
Harrisburg University students aspire to those same moments. Building upon the work of past Game Designers in Residence, Stout plans to teach a class about Unity, a game engine, and help students with their projects. It will be much like his current consulting work.
Stout also plans to teach them an old-school skill – how to design a game on paper, just like he did. It encourages designers to strive for the correct answer the first time and has even been a useful lesson for pros.
A demanding job
As fun as it is to imagine creating the next Legend of Zelda, Stout cautions that the job is demanding.
Plenty of people jump into the industry and burn out a few years in, Stout said. Finding a work-life balance is key.
Ultimately, students should be passionate about their pursuit.
“The video game industry is the place to be if you want to make video games more than anything else,” Stout said. “Don’t get in if you just think this is a good way to make money. That won’t get you through. You need to love video games.”