Playmakers

Want to design video games? SMU's Guildhall can show you how, if you're willing to work like a dog.

No matter how many times he tries, Drew Murray can't finish a meal. Five or six bites in, the nausea will overwhelm him, and he'll drop his fork and wait for the sickness to rise up. But it never does. It stays where it is, this dull pain rotting out his gut. There's no relief.

There's only Murray's work. It's not even hard work anymore, in this, the summer of 2003, not after every corporation in Manhattan penny-pinched its way through entire fiscal calendars, leaving Murray, as a corporate lawyer at Jones Day in Midtown, with little to do but think about how much he hates his job.

And he does hate it. He hates its lack of intellectual rigor; helping the rich get richer isn't demanding, he reasons. Hates its lack of creativity; he'd like to put his bachelor of fine arts to use. Hates the nausea it's causing, the kind that comes from being the son of a prominent Dallas lawyer and the kid who scored in the 99th percentile on the entrance exam, got the scholarship from Southern Methodist University's School of Law, clerked for the federal magistrate, studied at Oxford, landed the job at the Manhattan firm, and, at 32, finds his life miserable.

Derrick Levy, above, waits for the day a publisher will accept his game idea. Drew Murray, below, waits for the day he's done with the Guildhall.
Steve Satterwhite
Derrick Levy, above, waits for the day a publisher will accept his game idea. Drew Murray, below, waits for the day he's done with the Guildhall.
Derrick Levy (center, far back) and his team in a rare moment of rest
Steve Satterwhite
Derrick Levy (center, far back) and his team in a rare moment of rest

Murray loses weight--about a pound a week for 12 weeks. The guy's always been skinny, thanks to a metabolism that burns every double cheeseburger it comes across. But in the summer of 2003, Murray, who stands 6 feet tall, goes from 137 pounds to 125.

He poses outside his Brooklyn apartment complex with his girlfriend Katy and sends the photo to his mother, Carol, in Dallas. Carol cries when she sees it. Here's Drew, with a shaved head and scruffy beard with cheeks as gaunt as any she's seen and a body that looks more fragile than slender.

"Are you sick?" his mother asks when she calls. "You look like you've been in a concentration camp."

Murray goes to a doctor, who finds nothing physically wrong with him. "You're depressed," the doctor says.

Murray has a calendar in his office. It marks the days until April 2004, when he'll have enough financial security to leave. But, instead, he leaves Jones Day in August 2003, because, in the end, even the money, the reason he entered law, where he commands a $170,000 salary in only his fifth year out of school, with annual bonuses up to $20,000, isn't enough to make him stay.

His next job, he vows, he'll do because he loves it.

He hikes the forests of New Jersey for a few weeks, taking classes in wilderness survival before returning to Brooklyn. For 10 days he plays video games and thinks about the story he read on cnn.com a few months earlier, the one about a graduate program at SMU that teaches students how to make video games.

"Do it," Katy says one night in late September. She tells him she's "tired of you doing nothing..." She tells him he plays games all the time, might as well make them. Tells him the gaming industry would forge Murray's analytical strengths with his desire to be creative. Tells him Jones Day, where the couple met and Katy still works, has offices in Dallas.

For days, he mulls over the decision.

In early October, he sends SMU his application.


"Well, we just gotta do it now," Sharon Wright says. She looks at her friend Derrick, and Derrick wonders if she's right.

Derrick Levy, 32 and a networking manager at Nortel in Atlanta, has just returned from his boss' office. His boss told him it'd be better if Levy quit soon. Better for Nortel's bottom line if he quit today, July 8, 2003, rather than in a few months as Levy and the company had projected. Maybe it'd be better for Levy, too; he'll have more time to look for houses in Dallas. Because when do his classes in that video game program at SMU start? Next January?

Yeah, they do.

And that's the problem. In six months he'll have spent a good chunk of the money he's saved. And what if something else comes up? What if he finds another job, a better-paying job?

Levy calls SMU. Gets through to the Guildhall (the name of the video game program). He explains his situation.

Levy's told classes for the first term of students started today. If he can get to Dallas in four days, he will be accepted. Otherwise, he'll have to wait until January.

Levy hunts down Wright, who works in his division as a senior quality engineer, but, more than that, has been his friend since they were put in the same telecommunications department three years ago.

"Do it. Do it now," Wright says.

Yes, but. The thing is, Levy wanted to put off reality for as long as it could be put off. The Guildhall is a great opportunity and one he's looked forward to his whole life, but...but...he's established here. He's risen from his humble Jamaican roots, and he now makes $90,000 a year. He has a house. A BMW. Friends.

And then to give it up? To move halfway across the country and spend $37,000 in tuition for a program that's new, that's untested, that has yet to churn out one graduate? And then, 18 months after that, after he picks up his diploma, to enter a field where he'll make considerably less money than he does now?

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