It only took a few minutes when Roy Contreras started his entry-level position at Nickelodeon to realize that he had landed his dream job.
He worked on games like The X’s: Virtual Insanity, and Jimmy Timmy Power Hour 2: Retroville Rescue. He was getting paid to play video games all day, testing games as a production assistant and loving it. He was also learning how to lead a team.
Today, more than ten years later, Contreras oversees delivery of online games across multiple platforms for Nickelodeon. In his time at the Viacom-owned media company, Contreras has produced or directed more than 800 games. This year, his team will release or update at least seventy titles online.
Nickelodeon is the first and only employer Contreras has had since graduating in 2005 from Fordham University with a bachelor’s degree in communications. Contreras, who was raised on video games, says he’s enjoyed every position from day one as a production assistant to his current role as senior director of games production. Actually, saying “raised on video games” may be an understatement—his video game habit would be better described as a rampant obsession.
In 2005, when Contreras was a college intern at Madison Square Garden, he was leading one of the world’s top World of Warcraft guilds. Because many of his online guild members lived in Australia, Contreras would set his alarm to wake up at 3:00 a.m. so he could start raids and battle evil bosses. Contreras then landed an internship with MTV, but his gaming habit was causing severe neck pain. When he delayed his start date to see a doctor, MTV—another Viacom company—rescinded their offer. Ever persistent, Contreras pursued employment with Nickelodeon instead. He was on the subway, on his way home from the interview when Sean McEvoy—who is still his boss today—called to offer him the job.
In his early days with Nickelodeon, Contreras worked with McEvoy to create the successful “Game of the Week” franchise. Now, as senior games director, he manages content production for games that work in the Nickelodeon app and the games that work on tablets and mobile. The team releases a new title every Monday, making Contreras’s current team responsible for at least fifty-two games a year—although their annual grand total is actually closer to seventy.
Contreras says his department is both casual and collaborative. “We’re laid back, but we’re busy and we work very hard together to deliver great content. We want everyone to contribute ideas, whether you’re a temp employee or the head person,” he says.
That philosophy helps motivate a small team in a high-volume environment. Games, promoting new and current Nickelodeon shows, are both localized and launched worldwide. Each one takes between three and twelve months to produce.
Here’s how it works: Contreras and his boss receive a directive from programming. For example, they want to promote the season premiere of The Loud House. Contreras and other executives will decide what format (runner, side-scrolling, puzzle) the game will take before assigning the project to a producer who formulates a more specific idea.
“We’re laid back, but we’re busy and we work very hard together to deliver great content. We want everyone to contribute ideas, whether you’re the temp employee or the head person.”
It’s during that process that Contreras takes a step back and gives his teammates the necessary room to work. “Those who micromanage miss out on good ideas. I’ll always encourage people here to take a fresh look or pursue a new idea,” he says. Contreras—who knows what it’s like to hold lower positions—simply provides guidance and input when needed.
While smash hits are hard to predict, Contreras and his colleagues have discovered a few key ingredients. First, they target boys and girls equally. Because their research shows that kids love choice, they weave in many options and avoid traditional A to B style games with only one route or answer. After discovering that kids tire of complex combo moves, they started making controls more simplistic. Lastly, games aimed at six- to nine-year-olds must limit on-screen text when possible.
It has been more than ten years since he started at the company, and Contreras is still passionate about his work at Nickelodeon. The ever-changing field keeps holding his interest.
“We have a very talented team here, and it’s exciting to think about what’s next,” he says, adding that the department has good relationships with major software companies and may add in virtual reality features and other tech advancements in the coming years.
Contreras plans to work in the field until it’s no longer fun—but he can’t imagine a day when he’s not playing and creating video games for a living.
How a Game Goes From Idea to Product: A Thirteen Step Process
1. Department heads receive strategic direction from upper management and deliver guidelines to producers
2. Producers develop concepts and report back to pitch game proposal
3. With input from their leaders, producers make suggested changes and return with an updated proposal
4. Once a concept receives the “green light,” it goes to an outside vendor who generates a price quote
5. After negotiations, both parties agree on a price and finalize the contract used to guide the game’s creation
6. The vendor (also known as the game developer) produces a game design document that outlines every detail and feature of the game including levels, characters, backgrounds, and power-ups
7. Producers and designers tweak and alter the design document
8. The developer builds a prototype of the game’s mechanics and controls
9. With the prototype approved, the developer moves to a first “rough build,” which has a few bugs but helps the in-house team visualize the game and provide feedback
10. The next step is a beta build—a more sophisticated version with better features and minimal bugs
11. Finally, the developer produces a version known as a “release candidate”—a nearly final version ready for approval
12. Nickelodeon’s internal department approves the release candidate
13. Vendors finalize the release candidate, upgrading it to “gold master” status, and sending it to programming for implementation