From earning an MFA in electronic music composition, to creating his own indie record label amid the 1970s punk scene, to rising to prominence at Mattel for his work on the “Captain Power” interactive TV series and as game designer of the 8-bit NES smash hit “Super Glove Ball” for the infamous Power Glove, William Novak (professionally known as Novak) has checked off quite a few creative experiences on his road to becoming chair of Woodbury’s Game Art & Design program.
What each stop has in common is comfort with and mastery of 40 years of the technological explosion that, among many other things, has made the game industry one of entertainment world’s most dynamic genres. Novak brings his singular background to a program that aims at sending graduates into the world ready for anything.
It helps to be agile, Novak says. “Technology changes under your feet on almost a weekly basis,” in a recent interview with Animation Career Review. “For just about every project I’ve done, I’ve used different hardware and software. That’s part of the gig. You don’t know what you’ll be working on.”
Chalk it up to an attitude that is at once both aspirational and go-with-the-flow. “I thought I’d be a starving artist until video games came along,” he says. “My knowledge transferred very well to the early video game industry. I didn’t know that you could get paid for doing weird stuff. I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and never learned game design in school: there were no accredited programs at that time. I had my own software development company and we could only afford to hire inexperienced people.”
Who better to share that intuitive understanding that when everything is new, creativity can best flourish?
After leaving music for game development, Novak spent time at traditional toy companies before starting his own independent game development company, Zono Inc., where he created properties for the top names such as Sony, Electronic Arts, Sega, Nintendo, Microsoft, Fox Interactive, Activision and Virgin Interactive for over 14 years.
He came to Woodbury to build a program he believed existed nowhere else. As a professional, he knew what he needed from working designers, and he wanted an academic program that could deliver those skills.
“I spent a lot of time looking at other schools and some didn’t make sense to me,” he recalls. “A school would advertise themselves as focused on game design but they were really doing game art and 3D modeling; others were focused on theory. Having worked as a professional designer, I put together this program in a way that would enable students to make a video game.”
He sorted the curriculum into two intertwined tracks: game design for students who want to create user interface, play mechanics, narrative backstory, and scoring systems. In the second, game art, students focus on 2D and 3D art, special visual effects, and animation.
“There’s a lot of crossover,” Novak says. “That’s been the hallmark of my life — you’re all over the place, learning as many different things as you can.”
Novak views the department as more of an ideas/skills incubator than one devoted to producing entrepreneurs. At the same time, he says, it helps to know how the game is played.
“Going into business is not for all students,” Novak says. But teaching best practices to fourth-year students has its purposes: “Entrepreneurship is a way of initiating actions on your own. Entrepreneurship is knowing the job functions in the real world.”
Today’s business climate is a challenging one for graduates, and students benefit from Novak’s real-life experiences, from the very formative days of game development.
“What changed everything in music, video games and movies is digital distribution and the ubiquity of the Internet,” he says. “Ultimately, I don’t care if something becomes the next big thing, I just want us to be involved in it all.”
The industry’s cycles have pluses and minuses: independent game development has taken off, but that boom fosters a challenging business environment. Novak wants Woodbury students prepared to ride the pluses and withstand the minuses.
By his calculations, if you have that mindset, it all adds up.