We had the good fortune of connecting with Jonathan Jennings and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jonathan, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
Making a little out of a lot is an example my mom has always set as an example for me throughout my life and something that plays into my work and the worlds I build as a Software Engineer and Designer in the Game Development and Virtual Reality spaces today.
My mom has always been a sort of magician to me , making a lot out of a little bit is her signature skill no matter what she’s doing . You give my mom a $100 budget and she’ll put in the work to make it feel like a $500 event . My childhood was filled with moments of watching and helping her on lots of late nights stretching to manage all sorts of things. Putting together small centerpiece displays for weddings by hand meticulously gluing flowers , stones, and plates in place. Filling brown paper bags with candy, easter eggs, usually some piece of fruit as we wrote the name of everyone in our small church on them . Or doing my best to not mess up her prized Banana Pudding recipes she produces with surgical precision which my nieces and nephews still help her with on thanksgiving even now .
Watching all those late nights of her toiling to do something she enjoyed for the people she loved always left an impression on me that that’s what love , passion, and commitment looks like and that’s the type of passion I try to bring to all of my game and VR projects today . My career is filled with lots of small projects and me asking what little can I do to accomplish and complete this project and how can I amplify and make this experience feel large enough to feel like it’s worth the money , time, and energy of the people playing / experiencing it .
Some moments are easier than others I just launched my game Galactic Bar Fight on the Oculus Quest which I largely developed by myself for the first iteration including the core game design , the environmental layouts, programming the in-game Artificial intelligence , developing the game mechanics , establishing the creative direction, and even writing a small script as I voice acted the little robot tutorial guide which helps train you to use weapons and play within the VR experience.
I was the only one working on the project so I did everything I could to make the most out of the small resources ( time , money) and one individual contributor I had to work with ( myself) and that’s all a product of watching mom work so hard those late nights . Much of my success and the meticulousness I approach a lot of my work with comes from my mothers example and is core to who I am today both professionally and personally .
So shout to my mom Helen Fortson I could not be where I am in this life without you and if I had to point to the most valuable individual contribution to my success to date it’s all because of watching my moms work ethic and ability to stretch a little into a lot in a multitude of ways throughout my entire life.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m a software engineer and a game designer so I build game worlds , mechanics, and systems and then write the code that powers them and makes them fun interactive experiences for people to play. I’ve worked on all sorts of projects digital puppet shows, educational games , Avatar Dress up games , Location-based gaming platforms and many more.
Some of the projects I am most proud of that I’ve worked on are Sonder (A Story) , Thunder Jack’s Log Runner, Galactic Bar Fight, , Animal Planet Wildlands , and the Magic Leap Augmented reality application I built for my previous employer Relaycars. They all represent various firsts or big milestones in my career Animal Planet was my first professional game project, Thunder Jack was the first paid project I was responsible for prototyping, GBF was my first released indie game project, , Sonder was my first more narrative-driven game project , and the Magic Leap application was my first work with a Augmented reality glasses headset . All very special to me in different ways and all very different projects.
How did I get started though? I was an obsessed gamer highschooler in my senior year trying to figure out what to do with my life when the Devry Pomona campus had a local ad advertising their game design program . I applied to the school, fell in love with the campus on my first tour, and then began studying game & simulation programming for three and a half years. Coding did not come natural or easy to me and It was very hard to wrap my head around it but I wanted to make games so badly I was willing to push through all the headaches( literally) coding gave me at the beginning.
In my Senior year/ towards the end of my junior year I was applying like crazy for internships and jobs and sent out over 300 resumes to game studios up and down California , I received 10 interviews and was rejected from them and then lucky number 11 was my first game studio Sabertooth Interactive.
What did I learn along the way ? Perseverence and focus are everything , I was pretty relentless with my drive to get a game job striving to send out at least 3 resumes a day most week days , working on small side projects to boost my portfolio and make it look good , and just trying to make an effort to pursue my dream and after a LOT of trying the right opportunity found me and changed my life.
I’m a big believer in the fact it only takes one “yes” to dramatically change your life so if like me you heard or are hearing 310+ no’s on the road to your 1 yes ( maybe fewer maybe more) than just keep going . That 1 yes can change everything for you.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
This is a great question and super hard to answer
So first as for places to go :
The Griffith Park Observatory is a lot of fun and I think the view of the city from up there is breath taking so that’s first on my list.
The Getty Museum is amazing I love all the art exhibits there and one of my most fun dates with my girlfriend was a Harry Potter scavenger hunt which combined our love for Harry Potter and the museum into one fantastic combo event.
I also would suggest the Getty Villa the plant life and statues there are mesmerizing the grounds are so beautiful up there.
If the world was opened all the way up I’d love to see who was performing at Staples Center or the Novo I saw Rakim and Deadmau5 both perform at the Novo on separate occasions and love it for concerts.
I also can’t wait for the Lakers/ Clippers games to resume in the staples center so that would be first on my list if they were playing again.
My Friend Thom Denick invited me to my first Luchador wrestling show at Lucha Va Voom and that was a blast so i’d see if they were going to be in the area too!
A few of the Restaurants / trucks I’d love to take them to include :
The Little Easy I love the atmosphere and the food is phenomenal ,
Pinks Hotdogs because of course,
Sage Bistro which has some of the most mind blowingly delicious vegan food I’ve had in my entire life!
All Flavor No Grease has the MOST BOMB Quesadillas I like to get mine with shrimp and steak and they are so good
In N Out , I think it’s a crime to come to California and not visit In N Out at least once.
Roscoes Chicken and Waffles is a staple we’d have to visit too
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
First and foremost my family. My mom for being my biggest cheerleader , My sisters for their constant support ( Ese, Amber, Channy , and Onomeh) and always keeping me grounded. My older brother Joseph who got me hooked on videogames at 3 years old when I’d just sit and watch him play with such skill that it seemed like I was watching an interactive movie that he was directing.
Have to give a shout out to both of my grandmothers as well both Hattie and Mildred , I moved into my grandmas house in order to pursue my game development career and without that support I would have no career.
The Black in Gaming organization headed by Carl Varnardo it’s the most inspiring group of talented game and interactive content creators in the industry in my eyes and knowing we all love and strive to be great in games together has been amazing for me over the years.
My friends and mentors who gave me jobs and valuable information along the way including Nick Falzon , Willam Pitts, Roger Miller , Bryson Whiteman, Steven De La Torre, Yifu Qiao , Istvan Bartha, Veronica Flint, Joshua Yu, Apel Keshishian, Valmore Riera , Randal Staewen , Travis Van Essen, Victor Villalobos , and Randall Maynes.
A special thanks to Syd Stewart and Shawn Jackson of the Better Youth foundation who gave me my first opportunity to teach a dedicated Game and interactive design class. They believed in me and that meant the world to me as I began to explore teaching and they’re doing amazing work to help give our disadvantaged youth more opportunities in the entertainment space.
Not to mention the Game Industry legends behind a lot of the games I loved growing up and made me fall in love with the medium including Shigeru Miyamoto, Lorne Lanning, Peter Molyneux, Hideo Kojima, and Tim Schafer.
I could honestly go on for days if I thought of every single person whose helped me reach this point of success in my life but my favorite quote is from Isaac Newton and it says ” If I have seen any further it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants” and all of these people and more represent the giants in my life who have made my success possible.