August 4, 2012

By Andrea Emmes

Have you ever heard of a little something called Social Media? You know, this tiny little website thingy called Facebook or the birdy Twitter? Well, my friend Justin Fitzwater knows A LOT about them. He has a really cool job where he posts on Facebook and Twitter all day, making sure everyone knows what’s going on with any number of video games. I know I’m understating his job and he will explain more soon. But it’s unsung heroes like, Justin, who help get the word out about all of the games that you love!  He’s one of my favorite people of all time and my go-to guy for any game info that I might need. Seriously, he’s a walking encyclopedia! I don’t know when he finds the time.  He’s also one of the most talented artists I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

Enjoy getting to know Justin Fitzwater!

1.     Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into the gaming industry.

JUSTIN:  I’m a country boy, originally from a small town in Missouri, who always knew there was something bigger waiting for me. I’ve been drawing since I can remember, and my passion for art saw me getting a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from the University of Central Missouri. Once I graduated, it was only a matter of time until I found my way to Southern California to pursue my career and passions.

After floundering for a bit and trying to find my footing, I decided to go back to school at the Art Institute in Hollywood to get myself back on a creative path. I had moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the videogame industry, so I enrolled in the Game Art and Design program…but soon became sidetracked by a freelance position working with a small newspaper, which then became a small magazine. I moved through the ranks there, going from Illustrator to Writer to Editor to Editor-In-Chief.

Eventually that didn’t quite pan out (though it was a lot of fun) and I was again on the hunt for a new job. I was picky for a while, but wound up applying for any and everything I could find just to pay the bills. I happened to come across a Craig’s List ad for a position in Social Media that seemed too good to be true (and, honestly, it really feels that way even now) and later found out that the position was for an agency known as The Ayzenberg Group, moderating and maintaining social networks for several large companies in the gaming industry.

I’m currently a Social Media Strategist, working with some of our clients in tracking their social media channels, sentiment toward their brand, and assisting in content creation and strategies for building their fan-base and finding new ways to engage with them.

2.     What excites you about gaming?

JUSTIN: To me, games have always been an escape from reality. I’ll be honest and admit that when I was growing up I really wished that many of the games I played and the movies I watched were real. Real life bored me, and every day I dreamt that one day things would change and all the things that were in my head would become real. Until that happens, videogames are my outlet.

Being an artist, also, I’m constantly amazed by what can be done in this interactive medium. I’m the type who will play a game like Metal Gear Solid or Xenosaga just because I WANT to see the cutscenes. I want to experience the story and the way it’s visually portrayed, often more than I’m actually interested in PLAYING the game. To me, video games truly can be Art…and everything from the visuals to the music to the writing work together to create that piece of Art.

3.     Now that you’re in gaming, does it still have that “OMG, I’m in gaming” feeling, or is it just another job?

JUSTIN: Every day I feel that “OMG” feeling! Aside from the fact that I get paid to work on Facebook and Twitter all day, I am amazed every day by the things I get to see and experience on the job. I’ve already met a lot of great people working in the industry, but my co-workers are also really amazing and teach me so much. It very much feels like a perfect fit for me.

4.     We met in college, pursing a degree in Game Art & Design. What’s it like now that you’re out of school and working in the industry?

JUSTIN: Well, when we met I already had a degree and was looking for jobs. I didn’t so much get that “Now I’m finally out of school and doing what I want to do!” feeling after leaving the Art Institute because I had already been looking for that for a couple of years. Nothing I’ve experienced, before or since, has come without first having to put myself in the right place at the right time to make it happen. However, everything that I’ve experienced has been worth it … even the times where I was jobless, had my car repo’ed, and could barely afford food or rent. I’m just thankful, really, that I have such a great job that’s constantly challenging me and taking me places I never expected (worked E3 and Comic-Con this year, and going to PAX for the first time!). It still doesn’t feel like it’s really my job!

5.     What do you like most about social games and the mobile movement?

JUSTIN: Honestly I’m not a huge fan of either, but I’m definitely aware of the trend towards them. Being someone who prefers single-player, AAA titles … social gaming (I’m assuming we’re talking about games like Farmville and other made-popular-by-Zynga titles) doesn’t have a lot of appeal for me. Mobile is more appealing, but until they figure out a better way of controlling those games with a touch screen, I doubt it will be anything that holds much of my attention. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of the mobile games that are on the market…I just think that there’s still quite a bit of room for improvement. I’d like to see stories that take themselves more seriously and more creative uses for touch control. At the moment, I’m just not quite sure where this market fits into my gaming lifestyle aside from something to kill time on the bus or while waiting for a movie to start at the theater.

6.     What do you do in your position at Ayzenberg?

JUSTIN: I’m under NDA, so I can’t go into many specifics. Let’s just say that I work heavily in social media and do anything from engaging communities one-on-one, to strategizing ways to engage or excite entire communities through content, promotions or something out-of-the-box. Fans want more out of social media than just tech support or news. They want to be engaged and they want to feel like they have a voice and that their favorite brands actually care enough to listen to what they have to say. We try to make sure that these fans know they’re heard.

7.     Are we trending to move away from consoles and PC?

JUSTIN: I hope not! Like I said previously, I’m not a huge fan of mobile gaming just yet. I think there’s still a huge market for console and PC gaming, but it’s obvious that they’ll need to evolve if they want to stay relevant. Sony Online Entertainment has taken pretty large strides toward such an evolution, bringing all of their titles into a free-to-play format and allowing players to play their games for free before deciding whether they want to spend any money to enhance that experience. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more studios taking strides (maybe not making their games free-to-play necessarily) to maintain relevance as the market shifts and gamers begin to expect something different from their gaming experience.

8.     What is your favorite game and why?

JUSTIN: Such a tough question! Ultimately I’d say it’s between The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario World. There are no other games that I’ve played through to completion (100%) more than these two games. Zelda was the first game of its kind that I had tried and the huge world, engrossing story and genius puzzles and gameplay have kept me coming back for years. Super Mario has been one of my favorite series since I was old enough to hold a controller, but it was SMW that perfected the formula and had me replaying levels repeatedly in search of every secret. The controls are still some of the most perfect I’ve experienced in a game, and it’s amazing that I can still go back to it after so many years and still feel joy from it…though I’ll admit many of my repeat play-throughs for both titles were the result of my sister’s insistence that if you’ve beaten the game 100%, you should delete it and let someone else try. You wanna push my buttons, try deleting one of my save files!

9.     What is the worst game and why?

JUSTIN: Tough question again! The worst games that I’ve played have probably been Quest 64 for Nintendo 64 and Brute Force for the original Xbox. Both were games that I was anticipating for quite a while before they released, and I bought both on their respective launch days. Quest 64 was graphically a mess, with horrible gameplay and hit-detection. From the moment I started playing it I hated it (which rarely happens), and was most disheartened by the fact that I had wasted my money on it at a time when money was hard to come by (being a middle-schooler and all). Brute Force was actually not a horrible game, but was so un-spectacular that I just couldn’t bring myself to play it for more than an hour or so. The multiplayer fared better, but I couldn’t find anyone who was interested in the game enough to play with me.

10.  If you could be any game character, who would it be and why?

JUSTIN: Link! He was raised in an idyllic forest (I grew up in the Midwest, surrounded by woods and fields) and called upon to do something great…something he was alone was meant to do. I’ve always been attracted to that idea that you were born for something greater than you could have ever imagined; it’s probably why I connect so greatly with Harry Potter and similar characters who do something not only because they want to, but because they’re the only one who can. Link takes his responsibility in stride and does what he has to do, what he was born to do, and I’m incredibly drawn to that on a personal level.

11.  Have you had any geek out moments?

JUSTIN: Pretty much every day of my life is a “geek out” moment! I used to geek out every year during E3. I’d get so excited, like it was Christmas Eve, and I’d follow the coverage (live on TechTV!!) all day while it was happening. I also geek out pretty much every time I meet Jeff, Dan and Alex from the Totally Rad Show. I’ve met them several times, and even interviewed and illustrated them for a feature story. I don’t geek out in the sense of being super loud or awkward in their presence, and I doubt they even realize that anything is off with me…but I have a tendency to end conversations with them quickly and generally probably come off as if I’m not interested in carrying an extended conversation with them. I just worry that I’m going to say something stupid, and my brain shuts off! I’d probably do the same if I ever came face-to-face with Leo Laporte. I know, I’m such a nerd!

12.  Tell me your favorite gaming moment?

JUSTIN: What a broad question! I’ll list a few to cover all the bases. The first I can remember is beating Bowser in Super Mario 64 for the first time. I’d been playing the game for months and finally made it to the end, and it just happened that all my sisters and several of my friends were around to witness it. Everyone was cheering me on and cheered when I had beaten him. I doubt any of them even remember it, but it was an amazing moment. Second, I remember vividly the first time I played Halo on my brand new Xbox. Both were the only things that I received that year for Christmas, and my family knew how excited I was to have them. The graphics were some of the best I’d ever seen, and, never having been a huge FPS fan in the past, it was a new experience for me on many levels. Lastly, beating the hidden Star World levels in Super Mario World. Those are some of the most challenging levels I’ve ever struggled through, and beating them was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done in a game.

I told you Justin was super cool and one of my favorite gamer-geeks!  Keep your eyes out for this one as he’ll be in the game industry for a long time!

Game On, Justin!–Andrea

illustration by Justin Fitzwater

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