Full Sail University

Hall of Fame Inductee Mark Diaz’s Path from Struggling Student to AAA Game Developer

How he turned an early interest in programming into a flourishing career in the video game industry.

A headshot of a man with short brown hair and a black t-shirt smiling against a white background.

Since graduating from Full Sail University in 2014, Mark Diaz has gone on to contribute to some of the biggest games of the last decade, including id Software’s massively successful revitalization of the DOOM franchise and Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man 2. A Lead Gameplay Programmer at Insomniac Games and currently in development on Marvel’s Wolverine, Mark’s road to success didn’t come without its hurdles.

When I was in high school, I realized [game development] could be a career because I just couldn't see myself doing anything else.”

For most of his youth, Mark felt unfulfilled in educational settings, preferring the controlled chaos of the games that consumed his off-time. From Super Nintendo classics like Super Mario Bros. 3 to niche Sega Genesis titles, Mark had an acute interest in the exploration of new worlds and game mechanics. And when he first played Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the role of games in his life crystalized.

“That was the game that made me realize I wanted to make games because it was the first game that made me feel like I was really in another world. And that just got me excited about trying to make my own worlds too.”

Though disinterested in traditional learning, the young programmer excelled when it came to creativity and technical skills, creating his own stories in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure books and later, learning to write programs on a scientific calculator.

“[My buddy] taught me how to write some simple programs on the TI-83 calculator, and once I sort of like stuck my toe into that water, I just dove straight in… I made just text-based adventure games the same way I made those Choose Your Own Adventure books. But now, I could make it more simulated and I had more control over it. I could have combat and I could have items and inventory and power-ups and hit points and enemies.

“When I was in high school, I realized [game development] could be a career because I just couldn't see myself doing anything else.”

He enrolled in a traditional college after high school, but his attraction to games didn’t subside, putting Mark in a difficult position. “I got [to college] and I just couldn't bring myself to stop playing Diablo II. I didn't go to any of my classes and I ended up on academic probation.”

By his second semester, Bethesda’s genre-defining Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion released, and all hope for Mark’s success at a traditional school dissolved. “I ended up with like a 1.5 GPA by the end of my first year at college.”

After serving in the U.S. Navy, Mark utilized his military benefits to finally pursue his long-time goal of making his own games and enrolled at Full Sail to study game development.

At Full Sail, Mark discovered that school didn’t have to be as tiresome and unengaging as Mark had remembered it to be. The life-long “bad student” suddenly found himself at the top of his class.

“It was here at Full Sail that I finally felt like I had found my calling,” he says. “I would show up on the first day of every class and I would look around the room at the other students, and I would think to myself, ‘I’m going to get a higher grade than everybody in this classroom.’ And it wasn't malicious. I didn't sabotage anyone to do it, but it was just a way to motivate myself to work harder.”

Excelling in his studies, Mark graduated as the valedictorian of his graduating class with a 3.8 GPA – a far cry from the student he once was.

“It seems silly to say, ‘Do all your homework and go to class and you'll do well.’ But that's what I did and that's where I started, and that's really worked out for me.”

After working with Full Sail’s Career Development department, Mark landed an interview with celebrated AAA developer id Software. The studio behind DOOM – which set the standard for the first-person shooter genre – served as an ideal landing place for the game-loving grad.

DOOM was one of the games that was responsible for the poor grades I got in high school,” jokes Mark. “It was the first time I'd ever seen a first-person game. And then there was like a light bulb moment that went off when I realized I was seeing this world through someone else's eyes like I was in a hole. I was on Mars fighting demons, you know? And it was me. It was my eyes seeing that.”

From full circle moments to multiple AAA releases in just 10 years in the games industry, Mark has been able to take his childhood obsession from hobby to career, saying, “I like to put myself back into my shoes as best I can. I'll go back and play the games I played as a kid and just draw inspiration from that… It reminds me that games are fun and that I'm doing something that I dreamed of doing as a kid.”