From High Definition Gaming to High Altitude Training

Born in Shanghai, China, David grew up wanting to be an artist. The joy of capturing the magic of his favorite cartoons on paper was overwhelming and creating his own collage has quickly taken over all of his past time. Unfortunately, and perhaps fortunately, like many kids drawn to the interactive world of gaming, David became hooked on Nintendo as a six-year-old. His goal in life to become an artist and create his own cartoon now has been taken over by the desire to make his own video game.

1997 was a year of major changes. David moved with his family from Shanghai to Vancouver, B.C. Everything was different but the dream was still the same. David was eager to learn more about interactive media. His hobby expanded from traditional fine arts to modern 2D and 3D art creations. Photoshop and 3D Max were now occupying his leisure hours.

The only formal course that was related to David’s hobby in high school was AutoCad in drafting classes. Quickly studying a semester’s material in a fraction of its assigned time and finishing the grade 12 course with a 100% overall average, David was now hungry for more. Without a mentor’s guidance, he tried various endeavors. Math Olympics, art competitions, none of these felt steps closer to the dream.

Drawing concepts, creating landscapes and creatures in 3D space, animating polygonal shapes, … these were all fun but there is something that is missing. Getting his foot into the doors of making video games seemed enticing but impossibly far away. Without programming, none of the art skills can truly make an interactive experience. There was actual computer science knowledge that he sorely lacked. Feeling anxious, David made a decision to redirect his studies to catch up. Instead of enrolling in fine art schools, he wanted to study programming in a formal institution. When deciding which school to go to, the high entrance requirement of Computer Science in UBC was the final push David needed. Given his competitive personality, he chose to enroll in Computer Science of UBC. In hindsight, given the opportunities that were at the other side of the program, this seemed to be the right choice.

This was a field that he had no prior exposure to and it seemed daunting. David knew that if he was to enter the interactive domain, the computer science could be the master key that he was missing all along and UBC was the place to seek it out.

Still and all, that good choice proved tricky at first. While he knew what his passions were and although he wanted to study with the best professors and students, David found the first two years challenging. It was almost overwhelming to see how deep the rabbit hole truly was and how competitive this field can be.

“I did not find Computer Science to be an easy undertaking.” Starting to feel exhausted and frustrated, David felt he was slowing losing focus in his studies. He was waiting to see when he could apply his studies to start creating something that resembles video games that he would like to play.

The class “hit” in his third year, when David took professor Tamara Munzner’s 314 graphics class. “And I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is what I’m here for.’ This is the first time in my life when I stayed up literally for days without sleeping working on an assignment. That’s when I knew I was in a zone!” In retrospective, David acknowledges better time management was a skill he had yet to acquire. The excitement of this discovery propelled David into a co-op placement with Electronic Arts, then considered top in the gaming industry. David worked as a Presentation Engineer for eight months on the FIFA ’07 soccer release, working with a team that honed special effects to make the gaming experience more cinematic and realistic. 

Working at a company such as EA was initially intimidating for David. Accustomed to university life with “students in backpacks wandering around looking for their courses” seemed a far cry from a “bright, shiny lobby with big plasma screens showing the latest video games and these suave-looking guys who look like they know what they’re doing—while I know I don’t!” The position highlighted a lot of internal pressure for David as well, because he was both incredibly excited and fearful to find himself in a place doing precisely what he’d always wanted to do. What if he wasn’t up to the task?

But as he quickly seemed to discover, it was exciting to find that he had what it took to be a successful EA team member. Part of his success occurred because he was able to navigate the demands of the workplace, finding his own set point for working hard without burning out, always a possibility in the pressure-cooker world of gaming. Partly the experience turned out to be a great one because he found in his own skill set the ability to speak the languages of both the programmers and the visual artists, helping communicate the needs of each group to the other. In all, David found the experience incredibly fun, noting that he got a real rush from seeing his ideas take shape in the form of a video game. “You sit in a presentation meeting [for FIFA ‘07] and everyone can see the sun coming up and the crowd cheering and it looks really realistic and you think to yourself, ‘Yeah, I did that!’”

After the 8-month co-op term finished, David was back at UBC and taking computer animation to further understand the intricacies of gaming. At that point, looking at graduation, he knew the EA experience had changed him. Instead of wanting to be either a programmer or an artist, he knew now he wanted to combine the two and be more influential from a management position. To that end he decided to enroll in the Masters of Digital Media program, a multi-disciplinary media arts program in Vancouver jointly administered by UBC, Simon Fraser University, BCIT, and Emily Carr University. There he solidified his skills and met new mentors, one of whom secured for him a permanent position at EA, where David returned in 2008 as one of the youngest Producers in EA history, this time working on the FIFA ’09 release.

And this time, the process was about “schedule, it’s about vision of the game, accuracy, beauty. Now,” he notes, “there’s no more C++. Now it’s all about Photoshop and PowerPoint, visually communicating my idea, collecting everyone’s ideas and documenting them, helping the team carry out a consistent vision.”

In all, EA has brought David to different countries and the opportunities to work on many fun projects, such as FIFA ’07, ’09, ’10, the Harry Potter series, Mixed Martial Arts, and Dead Space games. Friends were made and memories were forged. Proudly displayed in his plaque collections, a “thank you” and a drawing of Mario from the Mario’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto was one of his favorite curios along the way.

There was, however, a wrinkle in this happy life. In 2007, following another dream, David had signed on with the Canadian Military Forces to become an Air Force pilot. “Always wanted to be a fly boy, but didn’t think it was possible.” To date the signup had only resulted in seemingly endless tests of his mental acuity, eyesight, and breathing capacity. That was to change when an Air Force representative suggested that David’s number was soon to be called. With that possibility looming, David felt he had to leave EA after his current projects ended so as not to leave them in the lurch in the middle of upcoming projects. In March 2009 he left EA….and then was told that the Air Force wouldn’t be calling him that year after all. From career heights to being out of a job and not training to be a pilot, David ruefully found himself in a tough spot. “Music and exercising helped.” Desperately trying to keep the dream alive, it was a few tough months to endure.

Because all stories have more than one wrinkle, David soon found himself being pursued by Propaganda Studios, Disney’s gaming studio in Vancouver, which wanted him to work on Tron: evolution. Interviewing with the studio one day, David received a contract the following day and thus, he says with a smile, “the sorrow ended.” However, because most good stories have at least three wrinkles, one of which is usually quite major, David finally received The Call two months later while working in Shanghai at Disney’s Game Star studios. Having just been hired into a plum position with Disney, he found himself standing in his boss’s office and resigning. The production for Tron wrapped on October 31, 2010 and on November 2, David was on a plane heading for training camp in Montreal.

Now engaged in basic training, David is philosophical when discussing his future and his options. At UBC, he notes, no one gives you the answers to life’s tougher questions, but they will give you the tools so you can answer the questions yourself. Initially finding university life intimidating, he learned there to face down his fears about not performing well and to develop the confidence necessary to excel, whether it’s in the stressful world of business or the competitive world of an Air Force pilot.

Years of selection and training later, today, Captain David He is a proud member of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Deployed to over 20 countries, he is thoroughly enjoying the new path he took after a rather early retirement from the gaming industry. Qualified on multiple aircrafts and working in various leadership roles in the Canadian Armed Forces, David is quite happy where he is in life.

The technical skills he learned as an UBC CS undergraduate have opened a world of doors for him, doors that remain open and alluring as he cast his gaze onto the horizon from a, now, different altitude.