Following his passion leads Calgary man to success

After a lifetime spent in school, life after post-secondary education is a daunting concept for many graduating university students. Such was the case for local freelance video game developer Sean Dunkley, who attended the University of Calgary more than a decade ago.

Dunkley majored in zoology at the university, but now works as a video game developer in the city. His journey to a career in game development has been less than conventional, but he says he has no regrets about taking the road less travelled.

How it Began

Dunkley’s love for video games stems from when he was a child growing up in Thailand.

“Over in Asia, it’s very easy to get video games,” says Dunkley. “From the ages of 13 to 16, I just consumed video games.

“I played every single game for the Super Nintendo.”

Dunkley did not understand how deep his love for video games was at the time; it was just something he did for fun.

Zoology major turned Video Game developer, Sean Dunkley.
Photo by: Michael Chan
Dunkley moved from Thailand to Canada for university, and it was while studying zoology that he took interest in the inner mechanics of the games he loved.

Dunkley says he wasn’t particularly interested in learning how to cheat the games, but rather wanted to know how those cheats got created, and what had to be done to enable them.

Once Dunkley understood the variables behind game coding, he found the possibilities were endless within the games.

“I found that I could change the games entirely,” says Dunkley. “I could change the physics, the mechanics and the logic.”

It was his experiences with coding that revolutionized Dunkley’s perception of games.

A brief detour

Once he finished his degree, Dunkley found himself at a loss for what to do in life. Dunkley found himself more and more disenchanted with zoology, and found that he had no desire to pursue a career in the field.

In a search of direction, he found himself turning to art, working as a freelance artist. In a fateful string of events, his work as an artist led him back to video games. He landed a job with a Calgary-based video game publisher and developer called Orbital Media.

“First, it was just an art job,” says Dunkley. “Then I started getting pulled into the design meetings because they were trying to find ways of optimizing the games.”

At the time, Dunkley was one of the few people who understood the concept of tiling, which is something perfected by Nintendo. Tiling is a way of taking just a few graphic pieces and turning them into something complex.

For example, in the video game “Super Mario,” which sees the character run across one long background, the background is not one long piece of artwork. Rather, it is the same pieces of art rearranged to make seemingly unique designs.

The concept of tiling allows for intricate levels to be formed without sacrificing memory.

Tips of the trade

As a zoology major turned video game developer, Dunkley has advice for anyone aspiring to break into the field of game design.

“Start making video games,” says Dunkley. “You are way better off joining a small community and working towards whatever small project they are working on to develop your skill. “

Aspiring game developers take note; the most traditional route may not land you in your dream job. But Dunkley’s story should offer hope, as a prime example of a timeless sentiment; hard work and passionate commitment are the most important keys to success.

“At this point of my career, I don’t really have to hand out my resume anymore; it’s about what my portfolio looks like and what have I done,” says Dunkley.

“That was the secret to Super Nintendo games,” says Dunkley. “It allows us to make large levels without taking too much space on the chip.”

Dunkley’s knowledge of resource management and creating complex levels in a game became the catalysts that kickstarted his career in video game development.

The big break

One of his most successful lines of games came in the form of “Sally Salon” and “Sally Spa” for the iOS and PC. The game found critical acclaim, and was raved about on the “Jimmy Fallon Show” by “Transformers” star Megan Fox.

Dunkley worked on “Sally Salon” with his partner at the time, Dan Kratt, who thought the game was never going to be finished.

During the development of “Sally Salon,” Dunkley was offered a job with Edmonton-based developer BioWare, the creators of many popular video games, including the “Mass Effect” series and the recently released “Star Wars: The Old Republic.”

“If Sean had accepted that job, (‘Sally Salon’) probably would never have seen the light of day,” says Kratt. “The fact that Sean didn’t take that job and stayed with us to finish the game speaks volumes with regards to the kind of person Sean is.”

“Sally Salon” achieved tremendous success and was ranked the best-selling game from the RealGames Family of Sites and Syndication Network in 2007.

“Sally Spa” is still being played today, like by Mount Royal University business major Dan Mai.

“The game is addictive,” says Mai. “It’s a good way to kill time when you’re bored.”

mchan@cjournal.ca