#PeopleOfPeace: Justin Johnson, Creating Worlds as a Game Designer & Professor
It’s not just fun and games for Justin Johnson, Assistant Professor of Simulation and Game Design (SGD) at WPU, who seems to be immersed in a real-life Role Playing Game, or RPG for true gamers. For every talent that Johnson has, with it, he plays a different role. Whether he’s on campus meticulously planning and teaching his curriculum, or at home spending time as a devoted husband and father, like a true artist he always finds time to create – as a game designer.
For Johnson, it all started as a kid. He grew up a fan of Nintendo – citing Mario and Zelda as two particular favorites, among others. Fandom quickly turned into creation as he began making simple computer games in middle school and adding modifications to, or “modding”, games like Doom and Duke Nukem. Even then, Johnson had no idea that he could eventually make a career out of designing games. After high school, while deciding what he wanted to do, he enlisted in the military.
“I work in the industry now doing freelance and contract work and then I teach here, so it’s kind of like doing both of my passions at the same time.”
Things began to fall into place for Johnson after he served in the Army; he started looking for the next step, realizing his passion in game design.
“I saw an advertisement for an art school that had a game design program,” Johnson said. “I thought that was awesome – that was something that I’ve always wanted to do, and I found out I was pretty good at it.”
After graduating, Johnson began working on design teams for video game companies in the Raleigh-Durham area. Johnson worked as the lead artist for the MMO (massively multiplayer online) game, Fallen Earth, by Icarus Studios, then served as a digital sculptor for a table-top game company called WizKids. He also performed design work for Ubisoft Red Storm in Cary, known for its successful video game series: Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon.
It was also during this time that Johnson found another passion – teaching. He decided to combine his knack for designing games and teaching into yet another role as a professor.
“While I was doing that [doing design work], I started teaching adjunct and I really liked teaching,” Johnson said, a computer monitor glowing behind him in the WPU SGD lab. “I work in the industry now doing freelance and contract work and then I teach here, so it’s kind of like doing both of my passions at the same time.”
Despite taking on contract work in the video game industry and teaching at WPU, Johnson finds plenty of time to spend with his wife, who is also an artist and programmer, and young son, Jasper. The couple has started an independent game company, finding time to create and tweak projects in the evenings when their son has gone to bed. In fact, one of their games has been approved for commercial sales on Steam, an online software and game distribution platform that boasts an active user base of 75 million.
Johnson is quick to remind any would-be designers that creating games not only requires ability or interest, it requires hours of practice and studying to perfect the craft.
“You can do it as a hobby and make some cool stuff, but if you really want to excel you have to be passionate about it,” Johnson said. “You have to practice a lot and if you don’t like doing that, then it’s going to be hard. I think it’s definitely an advantage to come here [to WPU] and hone your craft.”
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