Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Inside Job: Lessons from the Street II


Earlier this month, I set out to consolidate folk wisdom from the games industry for the anecdotal benefit of students and developers new to the business. This week, the quest continues. I posed two questions to some of the great people I’ve been fortunate to meet here. The first was easiest:

Given the opportunity to give one piece of advice to an aspiring game developer, what would they say?

“Be persistent! That pays off more often than any other simple tactic I’ve found.”
— Noah Falstein, Freelance Designer, The Inspiracy

“Make a game, a mod or a map in the game editor of your choice before even thinking about going for a real game job. Everyone has great ideas; not everyone has the balance of technical mastery and aesthetic competence it takes to make a game designer.”
— John Feil, Lead Designer, Foundation 9 Entertainment

“My suggestion to a new game developer is try to find another profession. This doesn’t mean giving up programming if you’re a programmer; just don’t be a game programmer.

If a person can’t be dissuaded, I suggest any developer learn a little about other game development disciplines to make it easier to resolve problems. An artist should learn a little about programming and audio; a programmer should learn something about art tools; etc.”
— Joe Pearce, Owner, Wyrmkeep Entertainment

“The most important piece of advice I would give to any newcomer is that you should approach every single task and interaction in the industry as a chance to excel. It is really hard to maintain that attitude and ethic. One of the lessons I learned from my time working in theater is that the most important thing you can bring to the table for anything is simply commitment – which is to say committing to do something wholly, fully, to the best of your ability and with complete responsibility for its success until the bitter end while absolutely not half-assing anything at any level. Treating every task and interaction as a chance to excel is essentially committing to your career at every level. Note that ‘excel’ here does not refer to making yourself look good at the expense of others. It means, rather, exceeding all expectations of the outcome – including your own.”
— Link Hughes, Programmer, CCP North America

“Never pretend to know something you don’t. You get way more cred in the long run for being honest, and it’ll give you many more opportunities for learning new things.”
— Jenny Dybedahl, Systems Administrator, Handelsbanken

“Know your strengths and weaknesses and play to your strengths – even if that’s not what your friends, parents, boss and your own expectations tell you to do. For years I knew I wanted to be a game programmer, and eventually I became one … but after a while I realized that I would never be more than a journeyman. True brilliance eluded me, in part because I didn’t enjoy it enough to put in the effort required to excel. Later I found something that I do excel at – game design consulting and teaching – and I’m a lot happier now. I also don’t have to work as hard – or at least, it doesn’t feel as much like work because I enjoy it.”
— Ernest Adams, Game Design Consultant, International Hobo

The second was more of a challenge. I asked them to look at the full arc of their careers-in-progress and tell me what they would do differently if they had known in the beginning what they knew now.

“I’d been told that I would have a hard time making the switch from text-based MUDs to graphical games. That undermined my self-confidence. Then, I looked at what I could bring to a game company and decided that lack of graphical experience wasn’t my problem; my lack of self-confidence was! As soon as that coconut fell on my head, I was able to channel my energy appropriately and make that leap to the ‘real world” of the gamefully employed. The point being: I should’ve listened to my heart rather than taking a stranger’s well-intentioned criticism to be gospel truth.”
— Tracy Seamster, Game Designer, Sony Online Entertainment

“[I would have] learned better people skills early in my career. As a programmer and then a designer I’ve been too technology focused. The more I’ve learned about being persuasive, negotiating, reading body language – things that haven’t come naturally to me – the happier I’ve been with many aspects of my work and personal life.”
— Noah Falstein, Freelance Designer, The Inspiracy

“I should have listened to my gut feelings when I worked at Bullfrog Productions for a month in the hopes of transferring there from EAHQ. Little alarm bells rang when I found that there were almost no women working in game development – the few women present were
mostly personal assistants or receptionists, and none were in positions of power. More alarm bells rang when I noticed that the company tolerated porn in people’s cubicles. Then there were the company events that family members weren’t invited to, whose chief entertainment seemed to be drinking heavily. EAHQ’s company events were always very family-friendly.

“I ignored all this because I wanted the job so badly. Bullfrog was, or had been (its glory days were behind it, if only I had known) the most innovative studio in the world, period. And I was getting a chance to work on a project that I was really excited about. But I failed to realize that I was used to working among grown-ups, and I would be moving to an environment in which I was a good 10 years older than most of my colleagues, and into a boys-will-be-boys culture. I didn’t fit in and never would.

“Bottom line: if the work environment makes you uncomfortable when you’re at the job interview, it’s going to make you ten times as uncomfortable when you’re putting in 50-hour weeks there. Listen to those alarm bells.”
— Ernest Adams, Game Design Consultant, International Hobo

“Making the connections between my college classes and the Real World. As a student, I was very much of the ‘this stuff is all theoretical and useless and I’m just doing it to satisfy these arbitrary requirements to get my piece of paper’ school of thought. I think my professors share the blame for this, since very few of them placed their coursework in a broader context (or really, said ANYTHING about what it was like to actually work at a full-time job in the field). I’m doing everything I can as a teacher to expose my students to the real-world mentality.”
— Ian Schreiber, Visiting Professor, Ohio University

“Personally, if I could change anything, it would be finishing projects before starting new ones. The energy, ambition, and excitement of starting a new project is amazingly alluring. The possibilities are limitless and the limitations of the software are just possibilities. It makes it extraordinarily difficult to bang your head against the same project you’ve been working on for weeks day in and day out, especially when it’s a side project or a ‘passion project.’ However, finishing those projects out is what will bring you the most satisfaction and success, in the end.”
— Coray Seifert, Associate Producer, THQ Kaos Studios

And there you have it.

It takes guts for a professional person in any capacity to look back on their career and admit that there are things they would change; both business environments and political environments (which are one and the same, ultimately) frown on ever admitting wrongdoing. I hope that these reflections from current leaders in programming, game design, and production (next time I’ll take greater care to pull in some artists) find some fertile ground in those of you approaching the assault on Parnassus. Think of them as commandments and you’ll be a step ahead of the game.

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