“Stout fit the bill,” he said. “The experience I had helped get me into the game design and development-art program. I was super happy to start.”
Four years later, he still feels that way. Estrada will graduate Saturday, May 8, and begin an internship in Los Angeles with a top game-maker.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without Stout. I felt myself growing and saw myself becoming better, transitioning into a professional. It gave me time to get what I’ve learned etched into my brain,” he said.
Estrada will walk at the in-person commencement, which is for graduates only. With around 1,300 graduates this spring, a virtual commencement is also available for students who prefer a private ceremony.
Combining art and technology
The first time Estrada saw UW-Stout was the day he moved in. He drove with his parents from their home in Miami. “The first thing I noticed was the elevation change and the rolling hills. Florida is flat,” he said. “And I liked all of the red brick buildings on campus. The architectural style in the Midwest is very cool.”
Estrada arrived on campus two weeks early as a scholar with Stoutward Bound, a program coordinated through Multicultural Student Services for incoming first-year underrepresented ethnic minority students.
In Stoutward Bound, he had extra time to adjust to college, navigate campus and the Menomonie community, meet people from his residence hall floor and start a course early. MSS also offered Estrada social justice activities and professional development opportunities.
“I remember going to the cafeteria those first couple of days with other Stoutward Bound students. I didn’t realize the Stout football players were on campus early too. These really large dudes sat at a table by us, and I thought, ‘Is that what people from Wisconsin look like?’ I thought I was going to be this tiny person on campus,” he joked. “Then everyone else moved in and classes started, and I realized I was an average person.”
Estrada’s first year was the hardest. He knew he had an advantage about how to make games, but his studio art courses helped him nail down fundamentals.
“I came into the program as more of a techie person. I could always find out how to do something,” he said. “But artistically, learning the elements of art – color, line, shape – it took me time. I really built on my artistic side.”
Doubling down on visual effects
“As a VFX artist, I get to make the explosions and sparkles – the short-dosed dopamine. My specialization is a mix of both my techie and art interests,” he said.
Estrada passed on the option to pick up a minor or enroll in Honors College. He wanted to dedicate his free time to his own projects and gain mastery in game engines and visual effects.
“Every break, I would look for an experience – a game design event, a class to take or teach. I always like to be learning something new regarding the field,” he said.
For the past three summers, Estrada taught at iD Tech at the University of Miami. The iD Tech camp teaches students coding for 3D models in video games. He taught on-campus for two summers and online last summer.
He has worked on the IWOCon app on Steam, where players’ avatars visit convention booths and play games in a digital environment. He’s also done freelance for SoulKeeper on Twitter, a Dungeons and Dragons style game.
Estrada had two independent studies to double down on his skills: making visual effects in game engines with his adviser Joshua Seaver, GDD assistant professor; and drawing 2D visual effects and animation with Ellie Nikoo, design assistant professor.
“Jose hit the program running and hasn’t slowed down,” Seaver said. “He has been a leader in self-directed learning with video game technologies and gives generously of his time to teach others by creating game engine workshops to share his knowledge with his peers. I can’t wait to see what Jose does next.”
“Jose sets high standards for his work and knows how to receive feedback. He actively asks for notes to improve his work. I greatly enjoyed our discussions,” Nikoo said.
Estrada recommends students find a mentor and research professionals in their industry. He found a mentor from Blizzard Entertainment, the company that created World of Warcraft and StarCraft, on Twitter. He met his mentor virtually for about five months, working on his portfolio and practicing interview skills.
Team building and career readiness
Estrada’s favorite memories from the GDD program are being in the International Game Design Association’s student organization, for which he served as an officer.
“IGDA helped expose me to the program and plant my roots. I met my closest friends there. Maybe we’re a bunch of nerds,” he joked. “But there’s a whole major with people who share my interests.”
IGDA hosts Game Jams, an on-campus challenge where students work in teams to create a video game in 48 hours.