Ashley Academy students video chat with Fortnite game developer for Career Day

Zach Vance • Nov 20, 2018 at 11:31 PM

Ashley Academy students got a unique opportunity Tuesday that video game players across the world would surely covet.

As part of their annual Career Day, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in Rucht Lilavivat’s language arts class interviewed Jim Brown, a senior designer for Epic Games, the video game company that created Fortnite.

First released in July 2017, Fortnite is a battle-royal game, available on Playstation 4, Xbox One, mobile phones and PC, where 100 players compete to be the last one standing. In August, Fortnite reported having 78.3 million players.

A 20-plus-year employee of Epic Games, Brown shared an important lesson with the class about how he transformed his passion for video games into a profession.

“I actually had a degree in biology. I was a marine biologist for a few years. I started working more specifically on behavioral systems and statistical biology. So weather patterns, migration patterns, (and) things like that,” Brown said.

Brown said his job as a marine biologist was almost intermittent, because he had to apply for grants and wait to conduct the research. During his downtime, Brown played video games, tabletop games and role-playing games.

“I was playing video games so much on the side that I actually picked up a sponsorship and became a professional gamer for a few years. So that was a big career shift for me. It was during that time I figured out I could combine the two — my passion for playing games and all the math and science — and start making games, as well.”

Brown said he got his foot in the door by creating his own levels for various games, like Doom and Duke Nukem, and sharing them with his friends. His work became popular, and he was eventually recruited to work in the video game industry.

“When I got into this industry, everything was self-taught. There were no schools for game design. Video games were just a weird hobby people did at home,” Brown said.

“Now, there are schools where you can go to learn all this stuff. At the time, that didn’t exist so I was very much self-taught. It was a matter of taking existing math, science, art and design learnings and just applying them in a new way.”

When asked for his advice on how to break into the video game industry, Brown said creating levels for existing games is still a good approach.

“That’s really one of the best ways to get involved, in my opinion, because it gives you experience on how games are made. It gives you experience on what it’s like to have other people come in and play the games that you yourself have created. Then you start setting up this kind of network and this community. Being part of that community is one of the biggest things you can do in terms of building connections, learning things and meeting people,” Brown told the students.

In his current position Brown said he does a little bit of everything related to user experience, often referred to in the industry as UX.

“So basically, we handle players’ experience with the game, which could be anything from visiting the webpage to loading the game to actually playing the game. Every piece of it you could possibly touch or interact with, we want to make sure your experience is fun, entertaining, and interesting,” Brown said.

While he’s also helped create some of the environmental features in Fortnite, Brown said there is also a lot of work he’s completed that has yet to be released for the game.

In addition to Brown, Ashley Academy students heard from an attorney, a graphic novel artist, a chemist and a car mechanic.

Ashley Academy Headmaster Ramona Harr said the annual Career Day event is a great way to motivate students and allow them to think outside the box in terms of careers.

“You don’t become the senior designer for Fortnite just because it happened. There’s a lot of work involved and a lot of experience. They need to know its discipline, sticking with it, hard work, and, yeah, dreams can come true,” Harr said.

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