Trey Smith – Video Game Designer, EA SPORTS

June 18, 2006
June 18, 2006 brett

Trey started at Northern Arizona University (NAU) and got a theatre degree. After graduation he moved to Los Angeles to pursued his acting dreams. After looking for his acting break, like so many others in the area, he stumbled across an opportunity. One day, Trey was playing the first Tony Hawk video game with a friend that worked in the video game industry and found a glitch. When going up a ramp he was able to get Tony Hawk’s character stuck in midair. When he showed it to his friend, he asked him to do it again. He did, and his friend offered Trey a position as a video game tester, right then and there.

He had never even sent an email before he started working, and ended up having to send 200 to 300 emails a day. As a part of training, he had to take apart a computer and put it back together, as well as learn how to use programs such as Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint.

He tested games for about a year and a half at Activision when he got a call from the production team of Tony Hawk. They asked him to be a trade show demonstrator for their new game. Essentially, his duty was to play the game in front of people and make the game look appealing. At the expo he realized that this is what he wanted to do as a career, and ended up dropping his acting career to pursue his love for video games because it “got the creative juices flowing.”

Trey soon grew tired of L.A. and moved up to Vancouver with his girlfriend to work at EA Sports, where he was brought up to work on one of the games in production. When he played MVP Baseball ‘05, he wrote down the top ten things that he would change and sent it to a producer. The producer offered him a position to work on the next MVP baseball game. This opportunity was the first time he could actually have some creative control in the design of a game.

His advice to anyone that wants to get into the video game industry is “to be patient, because you’re not going to be making a lot of money right off of the bat. I was making more money in college than outside of it for the first year and half. I was making about $7 an hour and living with six guys in an apartment while working as a tester.”

“Also, another big part to getting into games is being where they’re made. There are a couple of studios in Tucson. One is called Running with Scissors. You would never know, but they sell about 500,000 copies a year. Rainbow Studios in Phoenix, does BMX games. L.A. is a Mecca for video games. In Vancouver, I’ve seen about five or six companies start since I’ve been here. Austin, Texas is also an up and comer, but outside of those areas it is tough to find a place.”

More advice to gamers that want to get into the industry:

“Find a game that you like and try to look at it differently. It’s not a game anymore it’s a product. Break it down. Find its mechanics because all video games are is just a roll of the dice. It’s numbers, it’s graphics, and it’s a board game on TV.”

We also asked Trey if he had any advice for students in general, and here is what he had to say:

“I’m really big on preparation. If I ever had an interview I would do some research on them, (visit www.mobygames.com for video game related interviews), what games they’ve made. If you haven’t played them yet, I’d play them. So at least you go into that interview knowing who is sitting across from you. Getting your foot in the door is the most difficult thing to do, so do your research. Be confident, yet humble.”

One of the coolest experiences Trey had while working at EA was going to Roger Clemens’ house. Being a University of Texas Longhorn, Mr. Clemens wanted to be a part of the new college baseball game. Trey made the trip down to Texas to show Clemens the game. He explained to the “Rocket” and family how to play the multi-player mode. Roger even let him hit in his home’s batting cage, which Trey admitted was pretty cool.

Further advice for aspiring game techs is:

“Search out experiences where you will work with a lot of different types of people that are working towards a common goal. The experience you will get is invaluable because it puts you in a situation in which you will work with people that are difficult. And no matter where you go you will have to work with difficult people. Try to find a collaborative thing, and communication is vital. Whether it’s public speaking, an email or a PowerPoint, it is key to get your point across.”

Interview: How To Become a Video Game Designer

How did you get involved with EA Sports?

I got out of high school and didn’t quite know what I wanted to do.  When you’re in that situation, it’s like ‘Military’ or ‘College.’  I’m not the military type, so I ended up going to Flagstaff and got a theatre degree.  It was something that I enjoyed doing and it was a place where I felt I belonged. 

I went out to LA after that for a couple of years.  I did the acting thing.  A buddy of mine was working Activision.  I didn’t even know. I met up with him and was playing Tony Hawk.  The first Tony Hawk that came out.  And I was just playing and all of a sudden I went up a ramp was just stuck in the air.  I was stuck in the air.  My friend walks by and he’s like, ‘Dude!  You basically just crashed the release version of Tony Hawk!  Hit reset and do it again.’  I’m like, alright.  I went up to that ramp, did the same thing, and sure enough I hung again.  He’s like, ‘That’s it.  I’m taking you into Activision and you’re going to be a video game tester.’

So a couple weeks later, he kind of trained me up on it.  I never sent an email before I worked at Activision.  I did not know computers.  I had never installed a PC game.  I was strictly a console kid.  Nintendo, Genesis, Attaire, and television all the way back.  That helped, but in order for me to get my foot in the door, I really needed to bone up on…I mean he ripped apart his computer and made me put it back together.  That’s going a little far and beyond what was required, but it helped me figure out what was going on.

Computer training, it’s a lot more standard for you guys, but when I was in school it was an elective if that.  It’s really important.  I sent probably 200-300 emails a day.  And spreadsheets and powerpoints.  All those programs are super, super essential whether you’re a tester, producer, or in marketing.  Each one has their own strengths, but really knowing a computer is where it’s at.

So I got my foot in the door as a tester.  I tested games for about a year and a half before I got a call from the production team of Tony Hawk because they found out I was one of the better players down there.  They wanted someone who would play games at their tradeshows and make the game look pretty. 

There were a couple guys who would just tar me at the game.  Just waste me at it.  But the fact was that I could make the game look pretty.  And my theatre training, I don’t have a problem talking in front of people, so immediately they put me on the floor at the big expo thing in LA.  So I was demoing the game.  My first interview was with CNN at like, 9:30.  I was still hung over from the night before.  It was so loud and all these things are going on, but right then I was like, ‘This is what I love to do.’

So I stopped the acting thing.  It was going okay, but I just could get my creative juices flowing playing games. 

I spent five years at Activision and just got sick of LA.  My girl is also into games.  She works at Radical down the street on the Scarface game.  She’s the project manager.  So we’re both into games.  When we get home, we’re nerdy, but we play games.  That’s what we do, that’s what we enjoy doing.  So Vancouver just ending up being a beautiful place.  EA was really cool.  They set us all up.  And so far so good.  We really like it. 

So how did you get involved at EA Sports? Did you apply for a position over here?

I was originally brought up for another game.  Unfortunately we can’t talk about it because it’s still in the works.  But it has something to do with the games I worked on prior.  Then there was a need in the studio for someone to work on the baseball game. 

I played baseball my entire life.  It was something I’d always wanted to do.  So what I did was I got a copy of MVP ’05.  The last MVP game that came out.  I played it, and I had a pad and paper next to me.  I just wrote down all the notes.  As I played it, I wrote down the things that I didn’t like, the things I liked, and compressed it all together into a single page email of the top 10 things I would do to make the game better.  I sent that to the producer of the game, and he basically offered me the job and said I want you on my team. 

The great thing about it was that the first five years I worked in games, a lot of the day to day stuff, I was handling the bug bases and that kind of stuff.  I didn’t really have a lot of say in design.  I just made suggestions on what I thought I’d be cool.  Sometimes they listened, most of the time they didn’t. 

But this opportunity, after he saw the things I wanted to do with the game, he just gave it to me.  For the first time ever, I didn’t really have to check in anything.  It was just provide an idea and get it signed off by all the people involved in implementing that feature I wanted to implement.

The game went off really well.  Everyone really liked it so they gave me the next one.  So yeah.  It was a huge step once you get to that point where you actually have a say in things.  But you really have to…it takes some time. 

The biggest thing about video games if you’re going to get into this is that you have to be patient.  Because you’re not making a lot of money right off the bat.  I mean, I lived with six dudes in an apartment for the first year and a half because I was making like, seven bucks an hour straight out of college.  I had more money when I was in college than my first couple years in games.  That’s one way to get in.

A lot of the time you can do co-ops.  A big part of getting into games is being where they’re made.  There’s a couple studios in Tucson.  Running with Scissors, they make Postal.  Ultra, ultra violent PC game.  They’re crazy bastards.  They’re on Campbell.  You’d never even know, and they sell like 500,000 copies a year.  I mean, Congress, Lieberman used to hold up that game and say it was corrupting our youth. I mean, it’s right there in Tucson.  It’s really incognito.  Just go to Postal.com. 

It’s finding the place that makes games.  In Phoenix there’s a place called Rainbow Studios.  They do a BMX game and that kind of thing.  It’s really finding a place.  LA is a mecca for it.  Vancouver, there’s been five or six companies that have started up since I’ve been here in two years.  Redmond, Washington is Nintendo and Microsoft.  Austin, Texas is actually becoming an up and comer for games.  But outside of that, it’s tough to find a place. 

So if someone wanted to get into games, my advice would be to find a game that you like, and you have to look at it different.  It’s not a game anymore.  It’s a product.  Break it down.  Break it down.  Really figure out what the mechanics are.  Video games and just D&D.  But you have no idea how many times during the day where I’m just like, ‘It’s a dice roll.’  That’s all it is.  It’s numbers, it’s graphics, it’s just a board game that’s put on the TV.  When it comes down to it.  You just play with a controller. 

Suddenly the industry is moving forward.  It’s not just a stick with an orange button anymore.  We’ve got all these functions.  There’s the Wi controller now.  The Wi team is working on some stuff.  I wish I could show it to you, but I can’t.  But they showed Madden.  You hike the ball with the controller.  You throw the pass.  That kind of stuff, that’s kind of where it’s going.  It’s exciting to be a part of it.  It really is.  I’m thankful every time I come in.  I know how lucky I am to be here.  But if you want it bad enough, it’s there for you to grab.  You have to be willing to be patient and make no money in the beginning. 

And just kind of play the game.  You have to be able to play the corporate game.  Even though we’re making games, it’s still a business.  You have to keep that in mind.  Anytime I do interviews or stuff like that, I have to be careful with what I say.  Because if I release something, it’s like PR has embargos on information.  We get front page on some magazine if we give them the exclusive on this feature.  If I’m on the radio the week before saying that we’re going to do this, then the cat is let out of the bag and they pull that.  That’s a lot of copies of our game.  It’s just weird stuff like that.

They used to be really tight on what you used to say.  But now they’re letting us do blogs and stuff and reach out to the community.  You get to have this one on one relationship with the people making the games instead of it just being the studio.  It’s just that if we want to make gamers happy, what gamers don’t understand is budgets and time constraints and team size and licenses.  All these things come into play.  We had the Major League Baseball license snagged from a competitor.  All of a sudden we had a baseball game with no license. 

So we looked at NCAA Football and March Madness and said, ‘Fuck it.  Let’s make a college baseball game.’  It was something that we wanted to do all along, but that opportunity fell right in our lap.  Within two weeks, we went from making a major league baseball game to a college baseball game.  We all had to shift gears and do it. 

It’s really high pressure sometimes.  Other times you’re sitting around playing games.  The majority of the time you’re working your tail off.  Because you know that there are a thousand people behind you that are willing to take your job in an instant.

What’s your favorite part about working here?  The most enjoyable thing?

I’ve done a couple things.  I worked at Disney World.  I’ve done telemarketing.  I was a cook, a dishwasher, all these different things.  I think the thing that I like the most about it is that I can be me.  I’m wearing my slippers right now.  I’m wearing my ball cap.  You’re allowed to be a nerd.  You’re allowed to be creative.  You’re allowed to not be good at things.  Like spreadsheets make me want to vomit.  So they have production managers that take care of the spreadsheets.  It allows you to specialize in what you like to do and what you’re strengths are.  That’s it.  I really look forward to coming to work every day.

Our generation, when our parents came out, they were raising kids because they had kids so early.  They were forced to do jobs just to pay the bills and keep everything going.  When we got to college or out of school is to just do something that makes you happy.  Well, that’s why I went into theatre.  ‘Oh, I’ll be an actor and jerk around and be happy. La la la.’ 

On top of that you have to find something that will make you happy, but also put you in the comfort of living that you want to be in.  I was lucky to find this.  I really was.  It does fulfill just about everything I want.  I think that’s what it is. Just being content.  I’m always looking forward for what’s to come, with that pay raise or that promotion.  But on a day to day basis, I have food on the table, bills are paid, and I have enough money for my X Boxes, HD TV’s, and that kind of thing.  That’s all I care about.  That’s probably my favorite thing.  Everything is covered, and I’m okay with for now.

How drastic are the technologies every single year?  Are the technologies just that major, where you have to make an ’02, ’03, ’04.  Or do you get more money out of it?

It’s interesting.  Every game is different.  We make games based on an engine, which is basically the skeleton of the game when it comes to the code.  That’s the basis of the thing.  We can go along the same lines for a couple years using the same engine, but after a couple years it gets stale and you have to change it up. 


A lot of times what happens with the hardware cycle, like we’re just now moving into the PS3, the Xbox 360 and the Wii.  We’re having, we can’t just port it over and make it work on this new stuff.  We have to write a bunch of stuff. 

So year to year, it’s not so much.  We usually go by the depth cycle.  So when that new hardware comes out, the first step is just to get it going.  Just get it running.  The next step is to make it look pretty.  And then after that we can start learning.  Like the PS3 cell processor is brand new.  So we’re still trying to figure out stuff that’s going on with that.  It’s going to go on for two, three, four years before we can really tap into that hardware and push it to do the things that we really want it to do.  So I’d say that’s where the technology comes into it.

And as a producer, I don’t have a whole lot of say in what’s doable or not.  I’ll come up with something and my guys will come back and say we can do it or we can’t do it.  You have to be realistic and you have to push the boundaries but at the same time, it takes a lot of time to get some of this stuff in there.  And you’re putting together a capacity plan that says ‘This is going to be done by this date.  And this is going to be done by this date.’  All that kind of stuff.  So you really have to work together with your team and figure out what’s doable and what’s not. 

Sometimes you have three years to make a game and that’s glorious.  You can just mess around with prototypes and stuff.  But when you’re on an annual cycle, you have to have it all worked out.  You can’t waste three months doing something that’s not going to make it in the game.  You have to operate on a lower risk than thinking outside of the box. 

So there’s a lot of teamwork that goes on in making these games.  Can you tell us a story or an experience of yours that the team you worked with was great and was easy to work with and what made that team?

Sure.  My team from last year was above and beyond any team any other I’ve ever worked on.  It really was like family.  It was great.  It was the team of MVP ’06.  I think it was 40-50 people who had been working on that game for years.  They knew it in and out.  They knew what I could do and what I couldn’t do.  And I was kind of a newcomer coming in.  At first, I was new guy.  Then I got a little bit of clout, and everyone was iffy about what was going on. 

But after I proved myself, I think the big key to the collaboration with that team was that everyone respected each other.  Really, that’s what it was.  Everyone was good at what they did, and everyone just respected each other. If someone said that it was going to get done by this time, it got done. 

When it comes to managing and that kind of thing, I’m all about the golden rule.  I know it’s kind of lame and Bible schooly, but just treat other people the way that you want to be treated.  It makes it so much easier.  It really does.  It takes a little more time and effort than standing over and saying this is what’s going to go on, but that’s who I am.  I can’t play that other part.  I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to work that way.  The teams have been great.  I’ve learned a lot from every one that was on that team last year.  That was the most rewarding team I’ve ever been on.  It allowed us to spread our wings a little bit and challenged us to put a really big game together ourselves.  It was a lot to do in one game, and it was tough.  There were some times where you’re being brothers and sisters and just butting heads.  But at the end of the day, we all drank together.  It was that kind of familo thing.  It was sick.  It was holding hands singing Kumbya sick. 

But, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen with every team.  Sometimes you’re paired with a team and you’re just trying to get the game out of the door.  You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.  I haven’t experienced that at EA yet.  But, there are some times when you’ve just got to get a game out because there’s a $30 million dollar marketing campaign out that starts July 24th.  If you’re game isn’t out and on shelves by July 24th, then it’s gone.  You don’t have that marketing budgeting.  The company takes a hit, and you’re going to hear about it the next day. Big time.  And there are going to be many, many people investigating what’s going on. 

There are a lot of checks and balances with games that comes along with the $30, $40, $50 million dollar budgets.  It’s a lot of pressure.  There are some times where I just can’t believe I’m in charge of this thing.  I wouldn’t even put me in charge of this thing (laughs).

But it’s really gratifying when you see the game on the shelf and it ge