Breaking Into the Industry: An Interview with Tomm Hulett

Code name Tomma Center: Under the Interview


Ever pondered the possibilities of making a living in the video game industry? Most of us have at times; daydreaming about getting paid to help bring video games to the masses while catching our breaths between shifts at jobs that pay, but aren't necessarily fun. A lot of us here at RPGamer have had similar thoughts, which is why we sought to track down Atlus' Assistant QA Manager and Editor Tomm Hulett for a discussion on his history in the business, and any enlightenment in breaking into the business that he would be willing to share with RPGamer's readers.

Before he started working for Atlus USA, Tomm led Team XKalibur's development of Mythri. After Mythri, Tomm went on to play important roles in the localizations of several games you're no doubt familiar with. Most recently, Tomm played major roles in the localization of both Digital Devil Saga titles, as well as Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity, and he also worked as the Project Leader for the surgery simulation title, Trauma Center: Under the Knife.

If you've ever had the desire to break into the industry, this is an interview you won't want to skim through. Read on to gain some insight into how to better make this desire a reality.

RPGamer: Let's begin with some background information: what is your educational background?
Tomm: Well I graduated high school, got my AA (Associates of Arts degree) from a Jr. College, and then got a Bachelor's degree from a 4-year in English (Creative Writing). I took a year of Japanese in there somewhere.

RPGamer: What games have you worked on, and in what capacity did you work on them?
Tomm: Well, let's just talk about the ones at Atlus since we don't want this list to be too long. I tested on Tsugunai, Hoshigami, Wizardry, DemiKids, Shining Soul (1 and 2), Shining Force, Go! Go! Hypergrind!, Double Dragon, and Lufia (and probably some I'm forgetting) I've localized text for Robopon 2, River City Ransom EX, Phantom Brave, Digital Devil Saga (1 and 2), Stella Deus, Samurai Western, Riviera (only partial), and Trauma Center: Under the Knife. Localization usually includes being in charge of the debug testers, as well. And, I was also Project Lead for Trauma Center.

RPGamer: What sort of jobs have you had in the past?
Tomm: Mostly just crappy retail jobs in such places as Target, EB, GameStop, etc...

RPGamer: Was being in the gaming industry your original dream? Did you expect to be doing something else?
Tomm: I started drawing out video game concepts in elementary school during recess, and in Jr. High I had friends creating character designs and writing game plots... So I guess you could say that games were always a passion of mine. Why? Are there other jobs out there?

RPGamer: How did you get started in the video game industry?
Tomm: Well, I started testing games for Virgin Interactive when I was twelve, and did that for a few years. Later I started testing for Atlus part-time, and after I did that a while I got hired full-time as a Localization Writer.

RPGamer: Do you feel your entrance into the field is typical?
Tomm: Testing games in sixth grade was definitely luck. But, I think a lot of people expect to just "fall" into the industry, and it doesn't work that way at all. Working on video games is the same as any other job--you have to apply for a position and get experience and work your way up. I definitely had to work to get my current position at Atlus.

RPGamer: Game testing isn't as glamorous as it sounds I'm assuming?
Tomm: Well, if you like playing the same RPG through over and over again for a couple months (8 hours a day)... and talking to every NPC every time you come across them... and keeping track of just about everything you do... then sure, Game Testing is great.

RPGamer: How often would you say that game testing leads to more desirable positions within the company?
Tomm: That all depends on the company, really. Some companies watch their testers in search of future talent. But, in my experience, testers are more likely to stay testers unless they take the pro-active approach and try for more important jobs. I got my first localization job (Robopon2) because I asked for it--not because anyone approached me.

RPGamer: What is the hardest part about getting into the gaming industry?
Tomm: The hardest part of getting into the industry is that everyone wants to get into the industry. If you have talent or something that makes you unique--keep doing that until someone takes notice. If you sit around waiting for a game company to call you up out of the blue--it's just not going to happen. Someone already has your job.

RPGamer: Where's the best place to start when trying to break in the industry?
Tomm: Video game companies? It's easier to get a job if you live near a video game company--nobody is going to pay to relocate you if they have dozens of locals applying for the same job

RPGamer: Just what are companies looking for in new recruits? Does it change more often than is possible to keep up with, or is there a general trend?
Tomm: Again, it all depends on the company. Some companies want level designers that can create 3D graphics--others want level designers that can code everything. Since there are a number of schools with video game programs now, it seems like companies expect applicants to have a wide range of skills. But I think there's still room for a really good programmer who only knows how to code, or (hopefully) a really good writer.

I've met a lot of different people over the years, all with varying degrees of skill. So, in the example of a programmer, one person might be able to code whatever is asked of him. However, Person 2 might understand how everything in the program works and be able to do his job more efficiently than the first guy. Or, he might be able to code in a way that makes everyone else's job easier (better sound or graphic design, etc). So if you have talent like that, don't just do the basic job. Use your skills to do it even better than anyone was expecting.

RPGamer: Is working for a news website (ie, RPGamer) considered a plus/boon when trying to break into the industry?
Tomm: It would all depend on what you did there and how it relates to the position you're trying to get. Obviously contacts you make working for such a site could work to your advantage.

RPGamer: What is the hardest/easiest part about being in the gaming industry?
Tomm: The easiest (or coolest) part of my job is that I'm doing something that I grew up appreciating (localization). So I know that if I do a good job, some kid out there somewhere notices. The hardest part is that nobody in my extended family really understands what I do--they all think I "work with computers."

RPGamer: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about being in the industry?
Tomm: Really, like I suggested earlier, I think the biggest misconception is that the industry will just "happen" to you if you play a lot of games. You don't get to make games by sitting around playing RPGs and dreaming (unfortunately)--you have to get out there and work hard. I've known a lot of really smart people who just never applied themselves. So, now they're just playing FFXI and talking about how they're going to make games someday.

RPGamer: What are the hardest parts about localizing games?
Tomm: Well, a lot of people don't realize that once text is translated and localized, it's sent back to Japan--that's where they put it into the actual game. So there are times when the developer won't put the proper text in, or sometimes they refuse to fix an error. That's really frustrating, because it reflects on me even though I'm the one who wanted to fix it!

RPGamer: What credentials do you look for in hiring for a localization team?
Tomm: Obviously good writing ability is a requirement. An English/writing degree is more or less required, and any Japanese skill is a plus. At Atlus we have translators who translate before the text is localized--but that varies from company to company, so you might have to be bilingual. Number one thing, though: PROOFREAD YOUR RESUME AND COVER LETTER!!! If there's a writing error when we're looking for localization candidates, we throw the application out right away.

RPGamer: How much attention to companies pay to indie developers?
Tomm: That's an interesting question. I know that at Atlus, we look at any full games that are submitted, but submitting a partial game and expecting a company to fund the rest is unrealistic. There are several games in Japan the company could pick up for a fraction of that price, so funding a game from an unknown group of gamers is risky. So if you have a game you want published--make sure that it's complete and finished. That would increase your chances by about 500%.

RPGamer: What opportunities exist in the video game industry for those looking for a non-technical position - ie, not a programmer/designer?
Tomm: Again, depends on the size of the company; however, smaller companies probably don't advertise jobs like that--so it might not hurt to send in a resume If you're applying for a secretary / sales / etc job, gaming knowledge would probably give you an advantage over other applicants.

RPGamer: What's your favorite game you've worked on?
Tomm: Definitely Trauma Center: Under the Knife! It's the kind of game that really shows what the DS is all about. But, RPGamer is about RPGs--so I'll pick Digital Devil Saga. I really liked the characters and their different personalities. That game was a lot of fun to write. Runner up goes to River City Ransom--since I played that game growing up.

RPGamer: What's a game you didn't work on that you would have liked to?
Tomm: ANY game? That's a tie between any Metal Gear Solid game and any Katamari Damacy game. I love Solid Snake and I love the King of all Cosmos, so writing their dialogue would be awesome

RPGamer: At your company, who actually decides which games get made (localized)? How much experience in the industry is typical for that kind of position?
Tomm: Well, when we get a game to evaluate, everyone in the office plays it. Each department/person is obviously looking at different aspects when considering something for release here. Then we meet and discuss whether or not we should bring the game out. So it's really more of a collaboration than one single person making the decision and of course, if there's a game one of us knows about that we'd like to evaluate, we can request that everyone check it out.

RPGamer: Describe the feeling you have when you see your name in the credits of a best-selling game.
Tomm: It's really cool. I'm kind of a silly kid when it comes to my work, because i like seeing it in the game and try to forget what I wrote--so I can appreciate it "fresh." But it's great seeing your name there in the game--not so much in a self-centered way, more in a stupid fanboy way.

RPGamer: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Tomm: The video game industry is fun and exciting, but it's still a lot of hard work. Don't be discouraged--if you try hard enough, that dream job can be yours. Also, buy my games. ;)

We'd like to give a huge thanks to Tomm Hulett for giving up a few hours of his weekend to talk to us. If you would like to take a gander at some of the games Tomm has helped bring to this part of the world, stroll over to

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