Michelle Juett Silva: Lifelong gamer draws up a successful industry career
by Patrick Scott Patterson
Originally published April 5, 2013
The earliest generations of video gamers have now grown into the people who create all forms of entertainment. Among them is Schenectady, New York resident Michelle Juett Silva. As one-half of the married couple behind indie video game developer Ska Studios, she has turned a lifelong love of video gaming into a storied industry career.
"My first experiences playing games were in daycare on an NES, Super Nintendo and a Macintosh," she recalled. "We had games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Super Mario Bros., SkiFree, Number Munchers and Oregon Trail. As there were many kids, we had limited time to get to play."
After Michelle and her brother were given a Super Nintendo console as a Christmas present, her passion for gaming continued to grow alongside the advancing generation of Nintendo consoles and eventually into the gaming creations of other companies.
"I was convinced I'd be a Nintendo fan for life and even into college I was anti Xbox and definitely not into PC gaming," she said. "This is now pretty funny because I almost entirely play only Xbox 360 and PC. My favorite games of all time are easily Eternal Darkness and Silent Hill 2. These darker, more horror based games play an influential role on the kinds of games I want to make. As an adult, I made the switch to Xbox, primarily due to my first profession testing Xbox games. I still look back to those first influential games as the inspiration that molded me."
Majoring in art during college, the idea of working in the video game industry was sparked by her roommate's desire to become a concept artist for video games. Choosing to take a similar path, Silva turned to an industry contact given to her by a family member.
"My aunt knew a game artist and helped set me up with an advice interview and that helped me get an idea of where I stood in the industry," she recalled. "It didn't look too promising. I wasn't an amazing, jaw-dropping artist and the industry is incredibly competitive. I also didn't know anybody except my aunt's contact and I already felt like I was imposing on him. Don't get me wrong, he was incredibly nice and helpful, but at that point I felt that pestering questions of any industry professional was a waste of their time."
Michelle then decided to aim for as many industry positions as she could.
"I cold-applied as an artist to ArenaNet and some other, smaller game companies," Silva said. "Interestingly, ArenaNet was the only one to take the time to send me a rejection email. As hard as a rejection is to hear, to this day, I still appreciate the crap out of them for letting me know. A few months after graduation, I found 'game tester' on a job search website that didn't look like a complete scam and gave it a shot. When I received a call from a contracting service asking for a phone interview, I was completely surprised. The interview was basically a history of my experience playing games. It seemed like a gamer's dream, still potentially a scam, but I also saw it as a foot in the door. And it was. In more ways than I could ever possibly imagine."
As her career continued to advance, one of the games Michelle encountered also led her to meeting her eventual husband and partner.
"The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai was one of the first titles I got my name into the credits for being a tester," she said. "Dead Samurai was developed by Ska Studios, the one man team made up of James Silva. I felt unworthy but quality assurance is still an important part of the game development process. A while later, and a few jobs later, I became a lead in quality assurance at ArenaNet on the Guild Wars live team. At the time I felt this was where I would stay for a long time working my way up into the company. I got to work on some art tasks even in quality assurance. In late 2010, I started talking with James more again who became an acquaintance at PAX in 2009. Talking lead to more and eventually I would move across the country to upstate New York to live and work with James as an indie game developer."
Ska Studios current project, Charlie Murder, is described by Silva as 'a 2D stylized four player co-op RPG brawler with a punk rock theme set in a zombie apocalypse'. As the first game she has been part of creating from start to finish, Michelle says she feels the various highs and lows that are part of game creation.
"Charlie Murder isn't out yet but I'm already feeling all the thrills and depressions of people loving and criticizing the game," she added. "This most recent PAX was incredibly invigorating yet I have to remind myself to not read the comments sections of reviews. I'm trying to remain professional and diplomatic about the more negative of commentary about our game. I feel the game is me now as much as it is James, which I haven't felt before. I'm still learning and growing and it's exciting to see the results."
While an integral part of Ska Studios, Silva says she has experienced some industry scrutiny based on gender stereotypes.
"My first time officially exhibiting with Ska Studios at PAX East in 2011, I was actually called a 'booth babe'," Michelle recalled. "James and I were talking with some attendees for a while when they asked if they could get a picture. We assumed they meant James and he agreed. Then the guys awkwardly said 'Oh no, we meant with the booth babe' and gestured at me. I wasn't sure how to respond and even more awkwardly replied 'Uh, I worked on the game' to which they just replied 'Oh'. At the time I was completely shocked and withdrawn but now every time I think back to it, it makes me angry. It doesn't make me as mad at the guys as it does that I did not stand up for myself. It's up to each individual to call out what is unacceptable to change our culture."
As the industry continues to grow and become more accepting of indie game development, Silva notes that success can take time.
"Although my situation is somewhat unique and I joined an already successful indie studio, my advice carries over from trying to get in the game industry in general," she said. "Don't expect to be successful overnight. It takes a lot of work and diligence to get where you want to be. Of course, there's the rare 'successful over night' stories but for the most part, successes come from perseverance and the refusal to give up."
In addition to her work at Ska, Michelle also participates in group runs, triathlons and races on weekends. Her and James have also recently started a YouTube series entitled Michelle and James Play Video Games!. The indie game duo will be at PAX Prime later this year and aim to release Charlie Murder later this year.
Ska Studios official website and merchandise can be found at Ska-Studios.com.