Jose Estrada loves video games, and with three years of programming experience in high school he thought a career in game design would be exciting. So, he started to research what he could do with a degree in game design and where he could go to school.
“I was already working in game engines and programming. But I have a creative side too. I like drawing and theater,” Estrada said. “People don’t think about the art behind the games.”
Estrada had three specific criteria for schools in his college search. His school needed to be listed in the Princeton Review's top 30, it needed to offer a fine arts degree and it needed to be an affordable public university. When Estrada was awarded the Multicultural Student Scholarship at UW-Stout, he made his decision
“Stout fit the bill,” he said. “The experience I had helped get me into the game design and development-art program. I was super happy to start.”
Four years later, he still feels that way. Estrada will graduate Saturday, May 8, and begin an internship in Los Angeles with a top game-maker.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without Stout. I felt myself growing and saw myself becoming better, transitioning into a professional. It gave me time to get what I’ve learned etched into my brain,” he said.
Estrada will walk at the in-person commencement, which is for graduates only. With around 1,300 graduates this spring, a virtual commencement is also available for students who prefer a private ceremony.
Combining art and technology
The first time Estrada saw UW-Stout was the day he moved in. He drove with his parents from their home in Miami. “The first thing I noticed was the elevation change and the rolling hills. Florida is flat,” he said. “And I liked all of the red brick buildings on campus. The architectural style in the Midwest is very cool.”
Estrada arrived on campus two weeks early as a scholar with Stoutward Bound, a program coordinated through Multicultural Student Services for incoming first-year underrepresented ethnic minority students.
In Stoutward Bound, he had extra time to adjust to college, navigate campus and the Menomonie community, meet people from his residence hall floor and start a course early. MSS also offered Estrada social justice activities and professional development opportunities.
“I remember going to the cafeteria those first couple of days with other Stoutward Bound students. I didn’t realize the Stout football players were on campus early too. These really large dudes sat at a table by us, and I thought, ‘Is that what people from Wisconsin look like?’ I thought I was going to be this tiny person on campus,” he joked. “Then everyone else moved in and classes started, and I realized I was an average person.”
Estrada’s first year was the hardest. He knew he had an advantage about how to make games, but his studio art courses helped him nail down fundamentals.
“I came into the program as more of a techie person. I could always find out how to do something,” he said. “But artistically, learning the elements of art – color, line, shape – it took me time. I really built on my artistic side.”
Doubling down on visual effects
The game design and development program, within the School of Art and Design, focuses on teaching 3D modeling. Estrada was more interested in specializing in the visual effects side of GDD.
“As a VFX artist, I get to make the explosions and sparkles – the short-dosed dopamine. My specialization is a mix of both my techie and art interests,” he said.
Estrada passed on the option to pick up a minor or enroll in Honors College. He wanted to dedicate his free time to his own projects and gain mastery in game engines and visual effects.
“Every break, I would look for an experience – a game design event, a class to take or teach. I always like to be learning something new regarding the field,” he said.
For the past three summers, Estrada taught at iD Tech at the University of Miami. The iD Tech camp teaches students coding for 3D models in video games. He taught on-campus for two summers and online last summer.
He has worked on the IWOCon app on Steam, where players’ avatars visit convention booths and play games in a digital environment. He’s also done freelance for SoulKeeper on Twitter, a Dungeons and Dragons style game.
Estrada had two independent studies to double down on his skills: making visual effects in game engines with his adviser Joshua Seaver, GDD assistant professor; and drawing 2D visual effects and animation with Ellie Nikoo, design assistant professor.
“Jose hit the program running and hasn’t slowed down,” Seaver said. “He has been a leader in self-directed learning with video game technologies and gives generously of his time to teach others by creating game engine workshops to share his knowledge with his peers. I can’t wait to see what Jose does next.”
“Jose sets high standards for his work and knows how to receive feedback. He actively asks for notes to improve his work. I greatly enjoyed our discussions,” Nikoo said.
Estrada recommends students find a mentor and research professionals in their industry. He found a mentor from Blizzard Entertainment, the company that created World of Warcraft and StarCraft, on Twitter. He met his mentor virtually for about five months, working on his portfolio and practicing interview skills.
Team building and career readiness
Estrada’s favorite memories from the GDD program are being in the International Game Design Association’s student organization, for which he served as an officer.
“IGDA helped expose me to the program and plant my roots. I met my closest friends there. Maybe we’re a bunch of nerds,” he joked. “But there’s a whole major with people who share my interests.”
IGDA hosts Game Jams, an on-campus challenge where students work in teams to create a video game in 48 hours.
“Working in teams pushes you to learn, helps you troubleshoot on a deadline and teaches you how to communicate. Over the weekend, you’re so sleep deprived and running on adrenaline. I learned so much,” Estrada said.
With a team of 11 students, Estrada created Dawn of the Falkonir. The team's senior capstone project was released virtually at the Stout Game Expo on May 5.
This spring, Estrada was awarded a highly competitive internship with Riot Games, one of the biggest names in the esports domain. Game designers from around the globe applied for the position with the Los Angeles company, which created League of Legends. Working remotely, Estrada will be the only VFX artist on the skins team, developing custom graphics to change characters’ appearances.
“The internship program helps professionals get a head start. In terms of our industry, getting started is the hardest part. I’m super grateful for my internship and am excited for what I’ll learn,” he said.
Estrada will begin his internship after he graduates.
The School of Art and Design offers seven fine arts programs, including a master’s in design and a B.S. in arts administration and entrepreneurship. First-year students in SOAD start their college career in the Pre-Bachelor of Fine Arts program, which is the gateway to a BFA degree and a way for students to discover if it’s right for them.
A Reuters report from last spring predicted revenue in the gaming industry would reach nearly $160 billion in 2020.