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Cover art: my notebook from when I was an in-house UX Designer at Midway Games, 2004


Part 1 – The Question Nobody Asked

I’ve been a professional video game developer (a UI and UX Designer) since early 2004. I had slipped the surly bonds of hobbyist-level Flash and a torrented copy of Photoshop. I was now a professional video game User Interface Artist and User Experience Designer. An Insider. A made man – but in lieu of pinstripes, I had a company sweatshirt that smelled to high hell (since nobody takes those home). 

Today, in my battle-scarred veterancy, it’s funny to think that not too long ago I was a never-was. It’s even more hysterical to think there is an entire generation of men and women who now loom in the shadow of the places I once stood, hungry as I ever was.

And I suppose most of them have the same question – a question which I never thought to ask myself: How do you get into the video game industry?

UX Designer John "The Wingless" Burnett Commodore64 image
The 1981 Commodore 64 redesigned as a standalone system for 2019

How I got into the video game industry

Part 2 – What’s Old is New Again

Let’s go back to the wild and neon-drenched 80’s, where an absolutely cherubic me is falling madly in love with the Commodore 64 (the proto-personal computer). I can remember being young enough to literally have to climb into a chair to play. Running programs was something of a harrowing in and of itself (Load,”*”,8,1), but everything about it captivated me – the music, the art, the concepts, the abstractions

Smash-cut to a present day and the Industry has grown in lockstep with me. In my childhood it was pixels, crashing sine-waves and Atari. Early teens saw the rise of 386’s, soundblasters, and multi-button controllers. Early adulthood flourished with inter-connectivity, flirtations with photo-realism and gateless acceptance. All the way to present day – where games boast budgets that eclipse major movies and a cultural relevancy that tops almost any other artistic endeavor we produce in the West.

The whole time, I never stopped coding, drawing, making music, writing, acting, designing, etc, etc…

The idea that I would make my career as a video game developer a drunken zigzag rather than a straight-line is shocking in retrospect. The pieces were all there – but one person had to put the last piece in place before the puzzle made any sense to me.

And that’s why the pithy disclaimer before we tear into the meat of the story: the payoff is… odd.

UX Designer John Burnett The New Forge Fantasy Name Generator App screen
The New Forge, an App I wrote in 2003 – revitalized from the ground up in 2020

How I got into the video game industry

Part 3 – The UX Designer Origin Story

It’s 2002, and a very grizzled me is attending Graduate School at the University of Illinois in Chicago for my MFA in Graphic Design. I had nary a thought in my head beyond the profound wisdom my Cousin once told me, “Little Johnny, stay in school as long as possible.”

I did and it was wise. But school was ending; the Colosseum-gates to adulthood trembling and threatening to burst. By 2003, the Graduate program was nearing its end and we had to present all our work for the year to our professors – a sort of creative audit.

Most of the presentations that day went smoothly. The one exception reviewed my work grimly, shook his head and said, “John, I like your work. It’s just… it’s just so gamey.”

By my best estimates, the work was… contemporary(?) – with very little in the way of video game references or aesthetics. But the confusion wasn’t so odd to hear I suppose; many of my professors were literal typesetters and viewed the encroaching digital age as enigmatic at best (annihilative at worst). But gamey? 

The hell does that even mean?

So during lunch, I reported the professor’s criticism to one of my fellow grad students.

“He called my work gamey.” I said with a pout.

And she, quite matter-of-factly, replied, “Okay – well, maybe you should make games?”

UX Designer John Burnett Midway Games Flash website announcment
My website in 2005 announcing I had been accepted by Midway Games as a UX Designer / UI Artist

How I got into the video game industry

Part 4 – Sacrifice

I remember blinking at her a few times, statuesque in my stupidity. I had been madly in love with games and, of my own accord, coding and designing them for decades (well I mean like… proto games) and only now considered this as a career? Why wasn’t this my damn Calling?

Make no mistake, there are plenty of things you can do with good design chops and a healthy professional attitude – and I certainly had eyes on Graphic Design as a career. But standing in front of her in that moment, I couldn’t believe that my 20/20 vision had one blind-spot: my passion. 

And so now, gentle reader, the story dies a rather surprising death from an aneurysm.

After graduating, I spent a few months making a portfolio.

After that, I applied to a few Chicago studios.

I got into Midway Games on my first try.

This is not typical.

And truth be told, I’m not even sure if it’s exceptional either. In my experience, people rarely talked about their “Origin Story” of how they got their big break – if that’s even the right term for it. There were a few stories here and there, though…

I’ve heard 1st-hand accounts of a man who slept in his car outside of a game studio for interviews because he had no home to go back to. I’ve seen a man fly from Australia to America and drop in on his former colleague (at some great shock) because he had been blacklisted off the whole damn island.

I don’t know if these stories are typical either.

Success, perhaps rightly so, has a transactional relationship with suffering: pain goes in, reward goes out. Sometimes the pain is disproportionate to the wafer-thin rewards, hollower still in the shadow of once-grand promises. Sometimes success shears pieces of us away – sacrifices made on our behalf, without our consent, beyond all imagining or repair. 

…And then sometimes the machine already has a gumball inside of it. 

John “The Wingless” Burnett is a 15 year User Interface Artist (UI Artist) and User Experience Designer (UX Designer) in the video game industry and digital design sphere. He is an award-winning artist available for hire or for UX Design Mentorship