Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is one of America’s most beloved (i.e., most frequently assigned in high-school) and most misunderstood poems (i.e., guess we didn’t read hard enough). Nearly a century after its first publication, the poem is now lending its name and themes to an upcoming game release by indie-dev darling Spry Fox. I thought it would be super interesting to chat with the folks at Spry Fox about their own paths, choices, and roads less traveled by. In the first of this two-part series, I interview Spry Fox CEO David Edery about his own twisty, turn-y path to the games industry, and ask what advice he might have for those looking to follow in his footsteps. Next week, we’ll talk to Spry Fox CCO Daniel Cook. – Marie
For those who may not know you, could you give a little background on yourself?
Hi, my name’s David Edery. I’m the CEO of Spry Fox. We’re a small independent games studio. We’ve made a bunch of different games, like SteamBirds, which is a very popular turn-based, aerial combat game; a very popular puzzle game called Triple Town; and we co-developed a game called Realm of the Mad God – an MMO, bullet-hell shooter – a very unusual game that was subsequently sold to Kabam! We’re currently working on a game called Road Not Taken, which is a roguelike, puzzle game coming out sometime this summer for PS4, PSVita, PCs and Macs.
Before you got into the games industry what did you do, or what did you think you would do, for a living?
When I first enrolled in college, I thought I was going to be a doctor. I mean, my whole life my family had been telling me “You’re gonna be a doctor.” So, that was the plan I was on. Fortunately, my college had an unusual program with Mt. Sinai Medical School which enabled [students] to get in early if they met certain criteria, which I got very lucky and did. I ended up getting into medical school in the middle of my sophomore year, which was way ahead of schedule – without even taking all the classes you normally have to take. So, ironically, because I got into that program, I ended up having the the time to think about everything else I’d rather be doing. I realized that I didn’t actually want to be a doctor.
I spent the rest of my time in college focusing on my English degree. I majored in English and American Literature. By the time I graduated, I decided I was going to try to find a job in games writing, but, as you may know, that’s a really hard job to get, especially with no experience and right out of school. (Even with lots of experience.) But, I wasn’t able to find any jobs and I didn’t have that much confidence, so I kinda just gave up on the whole thing and thought, “Well, it’s 1999. It’s the DotCom boom. There’s tons of stuff going on. Anyone with a few weeks of programming experience can get a job being a programmer (at that time, at least.)” So, I taught myself programming over the course of a month and I got myself a job. I did that for a few years. During that time I still really wanted to make games and was looking into ways I could make them with my friends. But, we didn’t know any good artists and it just never really worked out. I was kind of sad that I wasn’t able to do it. I finally thought, “Well, maybe if I go and get my MBA…” which was something I was interested in for a variety of reasons anyway. I thought: “Maybe that will finally make me interesting to the games industry!”
Maybe that will finally make me interesting to the games industry!
So, I got into MIT Sloan, which I was really excited about and, within weeks of starting and starting to reach out to folks in the games industry, I realized: “Oh, wait. The games industry doesn’t care about the MBA at all.” They really couldn’t care less about that degree. That was kind of a bummer. Here I was putting a lot of time, and energy, and an enormous amount of money – going into crazy debt – to get this degree, to get into this industry which couldn’t care less. But, fortunately for me, the people in the games industry did have a lot of interest in MIT’s engineers and I realized I could leverage that. So, quite selfishly, I ended up creating this game industry club, and inviting people from the games industry to come speak to the club and to do recruiting events on campus, which they were really happy to do because the club included engineering students. They got access to their engineering students and I got access to them. And, that’s how I did a bunch of networking and met folks and eventually got an internship at EA. Then, when it came time to graduate, because of all that networking I’d done, I was able to get a couple of offers, but unfortunately they paid so little, because, again, they were treating me as someone with no industry experience and they couldn’t care less about my degree. The offers paid so little that I was so afraid I wouldn’t even be able to cover my bills because I had literally over a hundred thousands dollars in debt from business school, plus all my other expenses. Even though it was a soul-crushing decision, I ended up deciding not to take those offers. I stayed at MIT working in the media studies program for a year because they were kind enough to make me an offer which, ironically, paid more than those other job offers, even though it was academia.
So, what happened? How did you break out of academia and into games?
Obviously, I really wanted to get into the game industry. That was the whole point of all this work. So, after a year of working for MIT, I finally got my break. A guy I’d met who worked at Microsoft and who also had an MBA (so, he kind of sympathized with my struggles) pointed out that there was this position open on the Xbox Live Arcade team, and that the people who were interviewing for that position didn’t care that I didn’t have a lot of industry experience. They were mostly looking for someone who would be bright, and invested, and open-minded. Fortunately, they thought those things about me and I got the job on the XBLA team. That’s how, seven or so years after I decided I wanted to get into the games industry, I finally, actually got into the game industry.
Any advice to someone considering a career in games?
Nowadays, it’s not like when I started. When I started in 1999, it was really hard to make your own game, and even if you made your own game… I mean, it wasn’t impossible, you could certainly do it, but the tools that we have today are a lot more mature. Not only are the tools more mature, but, more importantly, you can get that game in front of people. You could put it on Google Play. You could put it on iOS. You can put it on any number of web portals. You can even do Greenlight on Steam now. There are a lot of ways you can get your game in front of potentially a fairly large audience. Whereas, back in 1999 that just wasn’t possible.
So, that’s really it: Go and make games. There’s no excuse not to.
So, what I tell almost everybody is, regardless of what you’re interested in and even with rudimentary programming skills, you can make a game and you should just do that. You should make games. You should meet other people who want to make games, which you can easily do online and by going to local meet-ups and things like that. Make games alone. Make games with other people. After you’ve done that a few times, you’ll have a much better chance of getting into the games industry. The interesting thing is you might find yourself already in the industry in the sense that something you do might actually do okay. The odds are low, but it’s always a possibility. You could end up being the next high-profile indie simply by working that path. That wasn’t an option I had. That wasn’t an option that most people had who started more than 7 or 8 years ago. But, today you can do that. In fact, if you don’t do it, anyone who’s interviewing you is going to wonder if your’e serious. It’s so easy to do it that if you haven’t done it, it makes you look questionable. So, that’s really it: Go and make games. There’s no excuse not to. It doesn’t matter what your function is. If you want to be a writer. Fine, be a writer. Write for games, but learn basic programming skills. It’s not that hard. You want to be an artist for games? Fine, do the art, then pair yourself up with a programmer or learn the programming skills. Either way, get a game made. Don’t just talk about it.
David Edery is CEO of Spry Fox, whose original roguelike puzzle game, Road Not Taken, will be available for PS4, PS Vita, PCs and Macs (via Steam) this summer. You can follow David on Twitter @djedery.
Next week, we’ll chat with Spry Fox CCO Daniel Cook about his own road not taken and his awesome advice for folks interested in pursuing a career in the games industry, or another road less traveled by.