When Ziyad Duron ’15 was a teenager playing video games, he probably had no idea that he was preparing for his future career, in which the mobile game he created as an undergrad at Cornell would make it onto the front page of the App Store. Family Style, a cooperative multiplayer cooking game, has players racing against the clock as they assemble dishes, trade ingredients, and try to keep their kitchen afloat. It’s fast-paced and fun--and it marks Duron’s successful entry into the competitive field of video game development.
Duron’s path to gaming wasn’t quite a straight line. After graduating from Webb and beginning his BA at Cornell University, he tried out several majors before committing to Information Science. His degree focused on the design-oriented aspects of computer apps and interfaces, and his work with user experience sparked his interest in video game development. As luck would have it, Cornell also offered a minor in Game Design.
Family Style began as a project for the final class in Duron’s Game Design minor. His professor assigned teams of students to build out a single mobile game. In his team’s first brainstorming meeting, Duron suggested using phones like kitchen cutting boards and chopping virtual “ingredients” on them, an idea inspired by the Wii game Cooking Mama. “The team took that little kernel and blew more life into it,” Duron says. “Before the meeting was over, we’d clinched our idea.”
For the final project, each team in the class set up a booth at a games showcase. Attendees and judges played the games and voted on their favorite: Family Style won easily. In November 2019, just three days after its release, the game had accrued tens of thousands of downloads, and made it into the Top 100 Free Games on the App Store. To fund ads on Facebook and Twitter, the team then launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. The campaign had a goal of $1,000, and ended up raising $2,100. However, they haven’t yet needed to run any ads: Family Style is already a hit.
Duron sees his Webb experience as integral to his success. “Webb taught me how to collaborate with others and how to articulate complex thoughts,” he says. In class, he learned how to manage group projects, delegate, and meet deadlines: as an Honor Committee member, he resolved conflicts among his peers. “These skills are crucial in my field,” he says, “since every major project I’ll probably ever work on involves collaboration with a team.”
The connections Duron made at Webb also helped him further his career. “Johnson Lightfoote ’08 graduated the same year as my sister, and former Webb teacher, Christina Durón,” Duron says, “and she put me in contact with him.” With Lightfoote’s help, Duron landed an internship at Schell Games.
Lightfoote also mentored Duron when he decided to pursue a Master’s in Game Design. He is now working toward an MFA at New York University, while simultaneously working on Family Style -- and his Webb study skills are coming in handy. “I allot time to either Family Style or grad school, but I never go over time,” he asserts. “If I say I’ll fix bugs in Family Style for two hours, once those two hours are up, I’ll stop, regardless of whether I finished fixing the bugs. It’s important to keep structure for mental and physical health.”
What advice does Duron have for aspiring Webbie game developers? “Don’t be afraid to utilize your Webb resources! Johnson [Lightfoote] has been an incredible catalyst in my career so far.” He also recommends reaching out to established developers. “Ask them about their story! Every developer entered the industry in a different way. Hearing these stories is inspiring and helps you carve out your path.”
As for Duron, “I’m still figuring out my exact place in the gaming industry,” he says. “Once I graduate, I’ll probably join a smaller studio and help them make games. I have a few more game ideas up my sleeve, but my skill set needs refining before I’m ready to tackle those. In the meantime, I’ll keep sharpening my skills, making small games, and continue working on Family Style until it’s absolutely perfect.”