It is rapidly approaching 11 years between my entry into the tech industry interning at Pandemic Studios and founding an indie game development studio to build Enhanced Wars. Although it is still early days in my career, I think I have at least gained a modicum of insight worth sharing. When one of my mentors asked me to speak at the college course I credit for setting me on the path from enthusiast to professional, I saw an opportunity to reflect on my time in the industry and codify the lessons I wish I could go back in time to teach my youthfully arrogant college self. It is not like I am not still making missteps regularly; I hope that 40 year old me is telepathically beaming back his list through time to send some wisdom my way. But it feels like a good time to share the top 7 lessons I wish I knew on my first day as a tech intern:
1) It’s a small world after all
The industry is small. Remarkably small. The sort of small that only becomes apparent when you have been working in it for a while. In the past year and change that I have worked as a monetization consultant to help fund Enhanced Wars, I have been recommended for gigs by people I worked with 9 years ago I did not expect to work alongside again. I have been able to pay my rent thanks to jobs I was referred to by people at EA that I am certain I aggravated at one point or another. I have walked into meetings to instantly regret the actions a younger, more abrasive self thought were completely justified at the time.
Continue reading 7 lessons I wish I learned before starting my first games internship
This article is the fifth in a series on how to land a job as a game designer. Check out previous posts for details on setting your career goal, building your portfolio, learning how to sell your experiences and writing your resume.
If you’ve followed the series of articles up till now, then you’ve sent your resume and portfolio out to the world and are landing some interviews. The previous article on writing your resume covered the general process of phone and in person interviews that you can expect, so I will not reiterate. Suffice to say that if you’ve made it this far you will likely have to pass through a gauntlet of interviews to land that job.
An interview is about three things. The team is assessing if you have the skills to complete the job requirements, so you must sell your skills and experience. Beyond just skills, the team will also try to determine if you are a good fit in terms of personality and culture, so you must sell yourself as a colleague. Finally, if you are a candidate the team would want to hire you probably have some options, so the team will be selling themselves to you as the ideal place invest the next few years of your life.
Continue reading Breaking into game design: Part 5 – prepare to interview
To call the Quarter Spiral team process centric would be a bit of an understatement. Two of the three team members have served as producers of software development teams. We love scrum methodology and have been doing weekly sprints with point tracking and post mortems since the first week of our existence. As our tiny team is spread out across two continents, rooting ourselves in process has been essential to maintaining development momentum and creating trust that each team member is pulling his weight.
This devotion to process can be extended to game design and, in this instance, tuning and balance. By nature, game balance is subjective. What feels “just right” for one team member or especially devoted forum goer may be frustratingly overpowered for another. I believe it is impossible to ever get tuning perfect; it can only ever be good enough and with enough feedback, continuously improved.
Continue reading Balancing your game with tuning reports
This article is the fourth in a series on how to land a job as a game designer. Check out previous posts for details on setting your career goal, building your portfolio and learning how to sell your experiences.
Now that I’m devoting my energies to Enhanced Wars, I do not see nearly the quantity of resumes as when I was part of the hiring process at BioWare’s San Francisco office. But I still review the occasional resume for someone who has reached out on Reddit or forums, or for a former colleague asking me to pass it on to someone in my network. If you have read my earlier post about how to build your portfolio, you should have plenty of meaningful material to put on your resume even if you are trying to land your first full time job (or internship) in game design. But learning how to write that resume is a skill unto itself.
The 4 hurdles
Before writing a resume, it is important to understand the purpose of the document beyond the high level goal of getting hired. A resume passes through many hands and must be targeted at a number of different audiences within a single team or organization. For the purposes of this post, imagine that you are applying for a job at a larger company like EA or Ubisoft that will have a dedicated HR department. Although each studio’s processes are different, the general principles outlined below will be a rough guide regardless of if you are trying to join the Battlefield 4 team or a 3 man start up like Quarter Spiral making its first hire.
Continue reading Breaking into game design: Part 4 – write your resume
This post is the third in a series about how to land a job as a game designer. Check out previous posts for details on setting your career goal and building your portfolio.
Now that you’ve built a strong portfolio filled with tangible design works, you may think it is time to write your resume and start applying for jobs. But the same way that when designing features on Enhanced Wars I always set a design goal before writing the actual spec, there is groundwork you need to do to figure out what you want to achieve with your resume before you start writing it.
When I was deeply involved in the hiring process at BioWare San Francisco, I spent a lot of time working with our HR partners on identifying candidates. Although I would spend time on LinkedIn searching for candidates, this may be one hour or less a day because I had responsibilities on my game team. The majority of the searching was done by HR.
It is hard to explain to someone who does not have hands on experience developing a game the difference between a content designer and a systems designer. Or to explain that you need a systems engineer who may have previous jobs listed as a system administrator, but you don’t want anyone with traditional sysadmin experience you only need someone who works with cloud services like AWS. These are very complex, specialized requirements and there are no standards or guidelines around job titles and seniority levels in our industry.
Continue reading Breaking into game design: Part 3 – learn to sell yourself
This is post is the second in a series on how to land your first job as a game designer. You can read the first post about how to set your career goal at this link.
Although I do not review as many resumes now that I’m an indie developer working on Enhanced Wars as I did when I was at BioWare San Francisco, I still review the odd resume here or there as a result of a Reddit or forum post. When I do, my top line feedback is almost always the same: “You need to work on your portfolio website.”
At BioWare San Francisco, we had a strong affinity for interns and co-op students (who would work a full semester at the studio for credit). In a very real sense, we would not have launched Dragon Age Legends on time without the contributions from our co-op team members. As such, one of my favorite times of the year was when the fantastic university relations team at EA would deliver the resumes of potential interns they were bringing to campus for interviews.
It was not unusual for me to review 50 resumes in one marathon session to pick out the prospects that I thought would fit a need on my team. Whether I was reviewing a stack of resumes for intern candidates or a single resume from a recruiter for a full time position, my process was almost always the same. Open a resume and scan it for about a minute to look for highlights. Open the portfolio website link and spend a significant amount of time reviewing (if possible). If a portfolio was great, I would request a phone interview. On more than one occasion, I called someone instantly because the portfolio was so good I didn’t want to waste any time lest the candidate be snatched up by another studio. Sometimes the candidate already had. A high quality portfolio was the single biggest factor in landing a phone interview.
Continue reading Breaking into game design: Part 2 – build your portfolio
Before I left to work on Enhanced Wars, I was a producer and manager at BioWare’s San Francisco office. The majority of my time at BioWare was spent as a producer leading the Dragon Age Legends game team. During my most crunched state I had a team of 25, 19 of whom I managed directly. Hiring truly takes a team to do right (and I was lucky to have a strong team at EA between the fantastic HR department and my colleagues at BioWare) but one of my primary responsibilities during that time was to serve as hiring manager for a number of positions across game design, art and engineering.
Since I left BioWare, I have turned to community participation on Reddit and forums to fill the hole in my life where co-workers used to be. Since my two partners in crime on Enhanced Wars are in different time zones I don’t have a lot of water cooler conversation. So, I hang out on threads trying to add value by lending my advice to current and prospective game developers.
I find myself repeating a few pieces of advice over and over again about how to break into the industry as a game designer. I thought it would be valuable to take my perspective as a hiring manager and turn it into a series of articles about how to position yourself best to land that first gig.
Continue reading Breaking into game design: Part 1 – find your mountain
Click the Play button to listen to audio of the talk
Slides and audio from a game design lesson given to middle school students participating in the Comic Book Club at Aim High in July ’12.
Continue reading Game Design for Middle School Students
Click the Play button to listen to audio of the talk
This Pecha Kucha style microtalk was given at the IGDA San Francisco meetup in April ’12. If you enjoyed the talk, check out some of the full length interviews on the “What is Game Design?” project page.
On the first day of GDC, I was introduced to a designer from a venture funded, Bay Area mobile/social start-up interested in BioWare Social. I recognized the studio name from one of the dueling sets of recruiting billboards adorning the 101-N, and its top performing iPhone App. When I asked why she wanted to change companies, she said “All we do is make clones, and I’m better than that.”
“No one’s better than cloning,” I replied, eliciting an amused chortle from former colleague and master designer Soren Johnson, who I had been catching up with.
“Wow, Ethan’s so grizzled,” Soren observed.
Continue reading No One’s Better than Cloning