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How I Got Here: Tronster Hartley’s path to building video games at Firaxis

The UI/UX team lead at the legendary Baltimore County studio provides some insight on getting hired in the video game industry.

Tronster Hartley. (Courtesy photo)

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Tronster Hartley always wanted to be a video game developer. It’s the reason he got a computer science degree.

Fresh out of college in 1998, he ran into the age old problem of getting the job of your dreams: The entry level job wants you to have experience, but you need the entry level job to get experience. Like most recent college graduates, he accepted the job that would hire him, making education software with Hunt Valley-based Sylvan Learning.

“After seven years of that, I just felt like there was a creative part of me that wasn’t being fulfilled,” said Hartley. He got into computer science to make video games, and wanted to get back on that trajectory.

“At a certain point, I decided I’m going to burn the ship, quit my job and apply for games,” he said.

He found an entry level position in Hunt Valley with BreakAway Games, and broke in. Now, 15 years later, he’s the team lead for user interface (UI/UX) and a senior engineer at Firaxis Games, the Sparks-based studio that makes the Civilization series and was founded by gaming legend Sid Meier.

So what’s changed over the years? The difference between the late 90s and 2007, when Hartley finally broke into the industry, was the availability of open-source game engines. Today there are free versions of Unity and the Unreal engine. Back when he was just starting out, it cost millions of dollars to get a license to use engines like these.

“Unless you were already in the industry or at a studio that had their own engine, you were really limited to what you can do besides modding,” said Hartley. That’s especially important for something that’s as true in today’s market as it was back then: Having a playable game under your belt, even if it’s a prototype, is the difference maker.

“Some form of game portfolio should exist, and frankly that’s the difference between people who get hired into the industry and those who don’t,” he said.

Hartley made Flash games, and had that to show for himself. In those intervening years he began taking off work for a week to volunteer over 20 hours at the Game Developers Conference, which turned a $2,000 ticket into free entry. He also found ways to embed himself into the video game community by joining game developers’ groups and game jams like the Global Game Jam or the Ludum Dare Game Jam. At those events, he made games for his portfolio in a weekend.

While it worked for him, Hartley doesn’t recommend the path to others. He came into the industry late, and he admits it was easier to embed himself in a culture where most people look like him. In the video game industry as a whole, 61% of workers are white, 74% of workers identify as cis males and 81% are heterosexual, according to a 2018, survey published by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).

“I can’t help but be hyper aware that I’m a white dude and the industry is full of white dudes,” said Hartley. He sees Firaxis and other companies working to bridge the gaps in diversity. Before the pandemic he was working to start an internship at Firaxis with Baltimore’s Morgan State University, but plans went by the wayside as the world adjusted to the new normal of virtual schooling and work.

Asked why he is personally invested in reaching out and building those bridges, he said: “More voices creating these games create better games.”

Even if there isn’t only one path to break in to the video game industry, most involve some kind of playable video game to show a studio. Even in the most traditional case — you go to college, get a degree in game development, do an internship at that company, and get a job there — Hartley noticed it often involves a stellar playable video game prototype.

He brought up the example of a junior developer who went to the University of Baltimore that got a job with Firaxis straight out of college.

“He got the job because his final project blew away a lot of the other final projects,” he said. “It was just indicative of his skills as a programmer, game designer and his ability to work with a team.”

Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
Companies: Firaxis Games
Series: How I Got Here

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