I don’t know where to start writing this or who it’s for, but I need to do it.
Last week (it was ‘yesterday’ when I started this), PopCap Seattle fired some 40% of its staff as it leans up and refocuses.
There’s an official statement you can read on it:
It’s a financially sensible move whose (inevitability / the fact that it has now happened) is nonetheless totally heartbreaking. Even handled with care, layoffs are a capricious and violent force. They disrupt, bringing what was in motion to a violent stop; or they accelerate a course of action that was just barely getting off the ground.
What they bring universally is change. Change, that steadfast guarantee that nothing ever stays that way. Change is at once life’s most awe-inspiring principle and its most terrifying. Change is growth, discovery, curiosity, the intense and unexpected–but it’s uncertainty, the passing of what is into what won’t be anymore. Change marks time and reminds us that even life’s greatest moments don’t last forever. That are there are only so many moments we ever get. Dramatic change is worth a dramatic marking.
I want to talk about PopCap’s audio team, for as much as I’ve gotten to know it, and one of the most remarkable chapters of my life so far. It’s a chapter I never went looking for.
This first part is going to be really heavily about me, so if you’re as annoyed by that thought as I am, you can skip it. But it’s good context.
How did I get here?
Change is at once life’s most awe-inspiring principle and its most terrifying.
If you know the PopCap audio team, you know that smallest unit of measure our science observes is the leap of faith that is the decision to work with the PopCap audio team. They are a diverse band of visionaries spanning decades and specialties, trailing stardust ribbons of renown behind everything they do alone; together, they are almost intergalactic. Their work touches millions and the hearts of those millions.
But in 2014, when I got this message from my friend, RJ, I thought I was doing pretty fucking good. I had learned lots on Project Spark and met my best friend, but had left it burnt out and feeling very post-in-house after just one gig. I am known for my resilience. Just angry, Matthew McConaghuey-style rants on the great helplessness of it all and how bullshit the machinations of game development become at the point where someone’s answerable to shareholders. Stability is an illusion.
I had the chance of a lifetime to roll out of that and into collaboration / wide-eyed servitude with some incredible talent, remotely working on the sorts of titles I knew I wanted to. It was a lottery moment, and after a few months in the relationship, I was where I thought I wanted to be: able to work full-time on 2016’s favorite puzzle game in my freaking pajamas.
(I didn’t actually own pajamas then, but I do now. They say “PopCap” on them.)
And so I leapt from Microsoft not really knowing if all of this would totally come through on the other side, because it’s scary to think about going independent, even as you’re really always independent as a contractor, just temporarily sheltered. It seems very obvious now that this scenario was going to work. It was who I thought I should be and I would try it on for a while. Before I got too deep into it, though, I got that message from RJ.
I wasn’t playing mobile titles. I wasn’t looking to do something like this, or really, anything different at all, because pajamas. Putting myself in the headspace of that time, you can see why Popcap could seem like a good but still lateral move. Certainly not THE move. But, I had done my thing where I give a soft yes, and–because of something my therapist could probably point to–I hate disappointing people more than anything and I was now in it to at least talk to Becky. I talked to her, and she was wonderful.
I agreed to take a short design test for them the following weekend.
I really did not want to take a design test. I hate them the way you hate running and love them the way you love being done with running. I was suddenly sitting here looking at my already way-more-than-OK scenario and thinking, fuck. I have a design test this weekend. Why? Can I bail out of it?
*(I almost bailed out of it but, as happens every time, my guardian angel talked me off the ledge. I have bailed out of design tests and I don’t recommend doing that. We are all works-in-progress.)
But I ran hot on it until 6AM Monday morning and had an incredible time trying to find the aesthetic involved. I was so stuck in Witness mode that I used Paulstretch on several design elements that definitely didn’t need Paulstretch. The sounds I made were trying to be powerful and really textured, really literal, for the most part. Some of them were smudgy and terrible in ways I don’t want to admit to now. Most of my design was very grey in sharp contrast to the colorful vibe of the test’s cartoon aesthetic.
Nothing was working until I basically gave up and started pulling from the library. These things were lighthearted, funny. Forget making the best sounding leaves. What were funny sounds? I broke a previously unverbalized rule and started pulling from the really old stuff, the classic cartoon sounds you say you’ll never use.
Dropping the first of those onto the track was the moment. Classing up old clunkers from the likes of Hanna Barbera with some higher frequency layers and sculpting them all together in WHOOSH was my first foray into a realm I’d go on to speak about almost a year later. I didn’t know if they’d go for it, but I was having fun, just like Becky’d asked.
They did go for it. They called me back a few weeks later, and just about two and a half years ago, I grabbed coffee with Becky and Guy at the Uptown Espresso across the street from Popcap. It was the day I was headed home for Christmas.
This was my first facetime with Becky, and I’d only ever seen Guy from the middle audience row at his GDC talk on the music of Peggle 2. But the two of them felt like old friends as we spoke, mostly about sound design and what I’d done, but also about what we’d all like to see next in game audio. No hints of what I’d be working on, just a pure character assessment.
They took me upstairs to see the rest of the space. We rounded the 7th floor, the area where Bejeweled Stars was being built, and I was offered a drink from the friendly, arduino-driven drinkbot occupying the middle of the room. That day was the Christmas party and there were dozens of folks having a great time with each other in their terrible sweaters. Easily a few dozen more than I’d seen around the corridors of my last gig, and several dozen more than I was likely to run into in my pajamas. I was catching a glimpse of a culture that I’d never really thought about but was quickly becoming an unignorable factor.
We rounded the corner to the hallway. Damian was there. Damian, maybe the first voice of game audio I’d ever heard; in the days before my time at VFS, I’d pace lonely around rainy Vancouver while drowning my anxiety in the Game Audio Podcast. If I’ve posted this to my site, you can probably read all about it. RJ was there, too, excitedly showing off the way they were using RTPCs in Wwise to push MIDI around. I asked a lot of questions through the drink and hung out until it was time for everyone to get back to work.
I’m not sure if I left convinced, because I had a plane to catch that night and lots on my mind. But I left on the line. I was giving this place a chance, and it was hanging in. There was something to it. But I mostly put it out of my mind until a few weeks later.
I worked a bit through the holidays and returned to Seattle ready to settle in to the next several months’ time freelancing, barring anything crazy coming up. A month later, I got the call from Becky–and the offer. I thought about it for a few days. Looking back at how everything’s played out, the internal dialogue is still incredibly relevant; things would’ve worked out either way. But the idea of working in-person alongside that team, on that floor, moving into that tiny bit of culture I’d glimpsed.. I wanted to try it.
So, I jumped from my independent, post-in-house dream to a subsidiary of EA that developed casual titles for a platform I didn’t play games on.
The easy choices aren’t choices at all. It’s the hard ones that really shape us.
This is not my beautiful team
And it’s funny how that worked out. If RJ hadn’t messaged me that day with the soft sell, I don’t know if I’d ever have strayed into the orbit of this all-star team.
I knew I’d made the right choice so goddamn fast. We were throwing sounds into a prototype build within my first two weeks and off to GDC just days after that.
So, I jumped from my independent, post-in-house dream to a subsidiary of EA that developed casual titles for a platform I didn’t play games on.
GDC 2015 was just a few weeks after my start date; we all went down. Guy / Jaclyn / RJ were speaking, Becky was paneling, Damian was suffusing. It was my first GDC as part of a big ol’ audio team, and the company name on my badge still fit me like a hand-me-down. Even as I’d spend time with the team, I had one foot planted firmly outside, in the past. As my solo act. So I feel like I was still able to watch this team in action as anyone else in the audience would. I could not believe what I had stepped into. Everyone was so.. brilliant. They won a fucking GANG award! That talk was one of the best talks I’ve ever seen, and those three people work two doors down from me. They’re my fucking coworkers. How the hell am I going to do this?
I kind of went hard in after we got back. I had this major chip on my shoulder for how amazing everyone else on the team was and I really wanted to be a part of it; I also totally acknowledged that I wasn’t yet. I saw this as, let me do something cool for me, and hope they accept me in.
This attitude didn’t do me any favors. I had all my armor up from previous projects and attacked meetings, tasks and all sorts of management outside my scope because I was used to it not getting done. I think I tried to do Becky’s job, a little bit. I was kinda mean and we had disagreements. In my mind, it was probably pretty unclear to everyone whether I really fit in or not just yet.
Slowly, the positivity of the hallway started to wear me down. Things got done without calamity; interfacing with production wasn’t so bad. I was coming in to benefit from all the developer goodwill that’d been built up by Team Audio in the years before me. That positivity wasn’t to placate, or to make empty promises–it was the real deal. It’s what made PopCap run like it did.
Also, weirdly, everyone in the audio hallway seemed to know the name of everyone else at the company. How does that happen?
I started to find the place where my voice crossed the PopCap vision, and that confidence let me move myself closer to that warm emotional center of the hallway. Over weeks and months, these people became my friends. They’d be in my office making silly voices, they were eyeing up my salads with concern, they got me to buy a car off fucking eBay in the middle of a voiceover session.
And the days go by
Later that year, we hit our first real crunch period on Heroes. Becky and I, in for weekends and weekends in a row. My grandfather got sick. My Mom got terrifyingly depressed, and it caught. I started going to therapy for anxiety; when it didn’t work well enough, I saw my first psych. I kind of had to talk about it, even at work. It turns out that it was totally okay to talk about it.
I want to say that it’s around here that I started really to fall in love with this group of people. When I realized that I could be my messiest self, whether I was trying to work on it or not, and have my entire department there for me as family.
I want to say that it’s around here that I started really to fall in love with this group of people. When I realized that I could be my messiest self, whether I was trying to work on it or not, and have my entire department there for me as family. I say, ‘the entire department,’ but I feel like it was Becky who came first, and everyone else in time. Fair’s fair. It is really something special to have a work environment where you can feel safe like that. You set it out there, you get the support back, you feel so unbelievably lucky and you find a foothold to push off and start making silly, joyful sounds again. You really can’t make those when you’re coming from a bad place.
Anyways, it was always good, but this is when it was the most good. As time went on, PopCap’d try something, not get it quite right and come back a little less confident in itself. Around the time I left my first contract, the world outside the hallway was changing. Bejeweled Stars, one of the most emotional and beautiful sounding games I’ve ever heard–a fucking Match-3, no less–launched to incredible acclaim, but couldn’t stay there. I came back from three months’ furlough to frantically join the GDC pitch session, where between us all we must’ve seven or eight proposals at the committee. It’d been two years since the last talk and we needed to share! I was so goddamn thrilled to be inside the walls and able to participate this time around. I belonged. The Hail Mary’d be a six person panel on Team Culture, and how cool would it be if we could just all sit up there and try to share the warmth of working together and get some of that out into the world of game audio.
We finished off off PvZ: Heroes, flying down to LA to post-mortem it at Game Sound Con before it’d even launched. It, too, hit hard out the gate, but we needed it to hit harder. I would say it was around the launch of Heroes when we knew that things were sliding down. It was sad for a while. I guess, in games, you kind of get inured to after a few years, but it still never feels good. People outside the hallway started leaving and, in January, we lost Jaclyn.
By now, the hallway was a warm huddle. Hugs happened constantly and without warning. We all came together in one final sprint to finish a huge wave of content together, moving one last wave of Post-Its across the whiteboard. I can’t believe that was just last month.
Same as it ever was
I’m sorry that this is so light on useful information. History first. Maybe it’s a bunch of in-club kinda personal grandstanding that no one will read, but maybe it’ll click with you. Maybe it’ll make you press for it in your next team.
And anyways it’s kind of redundant: I realized after starting this love letter that we sort of already had our moment just a few months back, at this year’s game development conference. A last reckoning, some lessons for the time capsule. It wasn’t quite over then.
I didn’t get to writing up a GDC post this year, but if you were at it, you probably saw us. I’m not sure what happened–probably the sweatshirts–but there is something about how we knew the end was coming down that drew us so tightly together as to start a fusion reaction. I felt like, and I say this with all due humility, PopCap was kind of a big deal this year. We all felt so responsible to spread whatever enthusiasm, whatever knowledge, whatever love we’d learned from one another over the years that we might’ve well glowed. I’m just a guy who makes sounds for a mobile game that didn’t hit all that well, but this year, I felt like I had to be someone better than myself. Or maybe, to be my best self. Like we all owed the community that. I’m not sure? Am I crazy? You can’t respond inline?
It’s funny, re-watching the GDC 2017 panel now. A lot of talk about change, impermanence, evolution–Guy Whitmore’s words coming out of my mouth. Boy, you’d think we all spent a lot of time together. What my indoctrination really says to me is that we’ve all knew this moment was coming for a while, and, I think, suspected that our best days within the hallway were behind us. And though the Actual Moment of it hurts, in the time between last week’s send-off and right now, I really haven’t seen so many tears from Team Audio. I think we were weirdly prepared. It was worse at Jaclyn’s departure, the first crack in the ice shelf. The rest of it was just a matter of time.
If you are looking for takeaways, you want to watch that panel talk–they’re in there, along with a lot more stuff like this. Right now, it’s still locked behind Vault access, but I can’t imagine that will last long.
I’ll just add some personal ones here:
- Seek out values like this in your next team. Gender balance, work-life balance, folks you think you could be friends with, that you’ll be happy to see when things get really stressful. Teams over projects.
- Be somewhere you can be yourself. Trust your coworkers to catch you on the other side of that.
- Don’t be afraid of working with friends. Friendship and commitment to a vision + an audience can coexist, and they completely support one another.
PopCap’s taught me a lot, but its final lesson is a really universal one: that when you get moments like these you need that you need to squeeze them as tight as you can, because this shit doesn’t last. For anyone.
Just as there was life before these years, there’ll be life after it. The beautiful thing about change is that we’ll just have to wait and see.
Okay, last lap. If you’re reading this, you probably care a bit about game audio; you had probably heard of PopCap beforehand. I truly hope we helped you along your journey in some small, measurable way. If what we were doing hit you with even a fraction of what PopCap gave me, you are running inspired, rainbow batteries full of ideas and joy and enthusiasm enough to last you the next few projects. Grab the torch Guy, Becky, Damian, Jaclyn, RJ and I carried for those couple of years and run it all the way across the finish line. There may never be a six-person two in-house composer large mobile audio team again so this is on all of us now!
Uhhhh final takeaways: Think big about thinking small! MIDI belongs in Middleware. Make joy your North Star. Runtime sound design is funtime sound design. Use your mouth, filter everything, take the real out. Always be composing. Respect your audience.
Hug a lot.
And, as Becky told me all those years ago when she passed along the design test.. HAVE FUN!
Thanks, Team Audio. I love you.
And finally, Damian’s Storified experience of the community response to his layoff news. The outpouring is real.