Interview with Champlain Montreal Alumni, Ubisoft Employees, and Twin Sisters Cait and Gabby Kenney

What follows is an interview with Champlain Abroad alumni Caitlyn Kenney (Champlain Abroad Montreal Spring ’16) and Gabrielle Kenney (Champlain Abroad Montreal Fall ’15).

Cait and Gabby Kenney

What inspired you to want to make games?

When we were little we would play our Mom’s old NES. Our family wasn’t really into gaming, so it was the only game console we had for a long time. It wasn’t until our tenth birthday when our grandparents got us a PS1 that we were able to see an actual 3D video game. Tetris and Super Mario Bros were great and all, but with the PS1 we were finally given a taste of what a video game could be. Video games still weren’t a huge part of our lives until middle school, and of course leading into high school. That’s when they ask, “what do you want to do for your career?” 

Cait:

Like most teens, I had no clue. Maybe something scientific? I really liked art, but everyone always told me you can’t make a living selling paintings. Then one day, while playing a game I realized that someone had to make this thing. It didn’t suddenly poof into existence. I started looking into who made video games and what that job entailed. It was a beautiful marriage of technology and art. It was the perfect career. Senior year and I hadn’t a lick of 3D graphics knowledge, but I definitely wanted to make games as a 3D artist. 

Gabby:

I started out as a film major for my first year of college, but halfway through I made a drastic and sudden change in my education. I realized film was more of a hobby and not a career path I’d be happy with. I knew I liked games and math so I applied for both game design and programming. I failed the designer application, but was immediately taken in for programming with my math scores from the good old SAT. Having zero programming experience and one more semester at my first college, I managed to find a programming class at a liberal arts college. Unfortunately I had missed the first two weeks of classes (after deciding not to do film classes anymore), and most professors wouldn’t let me in their class. The java programming professor was a very intimidating Russian woman. I went to ask in person to join her class. She flat out told me ‘no’. I had to make a case for learning something I had no clue about and in the end, after a lot of back and forth, she allowed me to join. I caught up and found I loved programming from her class. Making small games in that class made me confident in my choice to pursue making games. Once at Champlain, after a few months I realized I found my people and making games was definitely the thing I wanted to do. 

We both went to college without any hands-on experience with coding or modeling. We didn’t know the job titles or how the industry was divided into different specialties until much later. We didn’t have much inspiration or support from family or friends to pursue these careers either. But none of that mattered. We had stumbled upon jobs that included challenges, creativity, and potential growth as part of the age of technology and information. Being related to something we enjoyed as kids was just icing on the cake. After studying at Champlain for a few semesters the thought of having a career making video games and being part of the entertainment industry in general, now that was a “rock star” job. 

What are your favorite games?

Gabby:

I am a big fan of the Dark Souls series. Dark Souls was the first game that really challenged me. I liked that it didn’t hold your hand, but rather mercilessly killed you over and over. For me, everything was unexpected in that game and I loved every moment of it. I played through the second and third installments, enjoying those as well. I definitely play Dark Souls 3 the most. I loved Bloodborne, another favorite game, with fast pace fights, really cool weapons, and the story and environment were incredible. One last favorite would be Bioshock, the first game. I’m a huge fan of fps games and this one had crazy abilities and an insane story to boot. 

Cait:

My favorite game is actually one of the very first video games I ever played on the NES: Metroid. I spent hours and hours running through the labyrinth on planet Zebes. I’m proud to say little me beat that game without any internet help. I even drew out a color coded map as I played to help keep track of where I’d been. I would tape more pieces of paper together when I reached an edge and added notes of secrets or really difficult pits I found. It wasn’t until just before Metroid Prime 3 for the Wii was being released that I found out there were more Metroid titles. I was ecstatic.

You better believe I’ve now played them all many, many times. My next favorite games are the Dead Space games. I guess space based games are pretty cool to me. Shadow of the Colossus is my third runner up for sure. 

As twins, are there any similarities between your professional careers that stand out to you? How about any differences?

Well, both our jobs are part of the video game industry, but they’re kind of on opposite ends of the spectrum: art and programming. I think the biggest crossover is that both require a technical understanding of how games are built. Our jobs are separate areas, but both are needed to make a single complete project. When you work on a game together everyone asks for and gives support to their colleagues regardless of their expertise. Games aren’t made in individual vacuum chambers, everything connects and collides, we’re all working together in one big soup pot.

Were some parallels (going to Champlain, going abroad, working at Ubisoft) planned? Were there some coincidences?

The whole thing was a coincidence. It just sort of ended up that way. We both started at different colleges, Gabby at SUNY Purchase as a film major, and me at Sage College of Albany in the graphic design program. I had always planned to transfer to Champlain College to study game art and animation. Gabby found film to be unchallenging, and missing that good old math and science, she took a closer look at making games and decided she could take a stab at programming. She came to Champlain and found programming to be awesome. 

We both did study up in Montreal, but during different semesters. It was all dependent on the classes we wanted to take. I came during the later spring semester. All the CORE professors were either really excited to meet me, or thought I was Gabby the whole time. Good thing Gabby was a good student! 

As for both ending up working at Ubisoft, Gabby landed her Ubi job a year and a half before me. Even after making it up to Montreal, I worked at a little indie studio before getting a job at Ubisoft. Neither of us planned to work at Ubisoft, but we both wanted to work in Montreal regardless of the studio. Ubi just ended up being the destination.

As someone with a similar aged sibling to myself, I have to ask: has one of you ever been confused for the other in a professional setting?

Cait:

Oh yeah, many times. I wasn’t even hired at Ubisoft yet the first time I was mistaken for Gabby. I had come in for an interview. The front desk doubled as a post office pick-up for employees. I was waiting for the recruiter to come get me when a guy popped by to pick up a package. He struck up a friendly conversation with me. As always with the case of mistaken identity, things started off with generic small talk, but then you realize they think you’re the other twin. Our conversation was generic enough, so I didn’t bring it up. We said our goodbyes and as he walked away, guess who he bumped into? Ah yes, other me! After several double takes and a brief explanation from Gabby, he carried on with a chuckle. I guess I had a lovely conversation with one of the lead programmers for Far Cry 5. 

Gabby:

We did a skiing event for the Far Cry team a few years ago and Cait ended up skiing with my team, the gameplay team (she’s on the biomes team). I wasn’t able to ski at the time from an injury and stayed in the lodge playing board games. It wasn’t until hours later when they came back to the lodge that they realized they’d been hanging with Cait the entire day.

To be honest, being confused for the other started way before Ubisoft in terms of a professional setting. At Champlain I was a programming tutor. During the second semester as a tutor, about three weeks into the position, Cait was looking for me. She knew I was in the tutor lab, but didn’t know where the lab was. Our friend suggested Cait ask Professor Wei Chen (who was my boss) where the lab was. Professor Wei Chen thought I was asking where the programming lab was, not Cait. It all came across as if I hadn’t been working the last three weeks. It wasn’t until the following week when Cait crossed paths with Professors Hall and Wei Chen in the parking lot that Professor Hall revealed that Cait was my sister! Suddenly everything made sense. 

Cait:

Mistaken identity happened frequently when I was working in the Student Accounts Office. A good one was during the summer when Gabby was a counselor for the Game Academy for high schoolers. Dean Lawson, the one who was running the academy, came into student accounts and there I was, sitting behind the desk, doing my job. I did my formal greet and asked how I could help. Dean did a lot of odd staring, squinting and long drawn out answers. It was strange, but I thought maybe he was lost. I turned to go deliver the paperwork, but paused to ask for his name. There was more squinting and silence before finally he said, “You’re not Gabby, are you?” And that’s how I met Gabby’s other boss. Wow, I almost got Gabby in trouble for ditching work twice. 

Going to Champlain together and now working together, we have an endless supply of twin stories. These are just a few from a professional setting. 

What I got from Studying in Montreal:

Cait:

I got many things out of studying up in Montreal, but most importantly was a clearer perspective and understanding of the industry. The professors up here are actively in the industry, and in taking their classes you not only learn the material, but you also have access to their knowledge and advice about getting a job. They know which areas are harder or easier to break into, what recruiters are looking for, and can introduce you to the right people. Of course, it’s different for what each professor has to offer, but after studying up in Montreal I had a much more solid understanding of what I needed to do and which direction to go. I highly recommend students spend a semester in Montreal and get those golden opportunities to ask questions, meet people, and help you form the best battle plan to break into the industry.

Gabby:

 I think the biggest thing I got from studying in Montreal was my current friend group who are all in the game industry now, many of which currently live here in Montreal. Since the group that went to the Montreal campus was much smaller (about 30 people), we all had to work together. Maybe my group was different, but we all made a point to try to get everyone in on hanging out or doing things together. All group work was with the same people and I got to know everyone from all the game disciplines, not just programmers. Here I am years later, I’m still very close friends with all of them, we help each other out in the industry all the time, and I don’t see that ending ever. My life wouldn’t be the same without all the people I got to meet in Montreal and all the friendships I made. For any students going to the Montreal campus, I highly recommend not falling into smaller groups, but instead put yourself out there and get to know as many people, both students and faculty, that you can.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Making games is awesome. Making games with your twin, comedy gold.

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