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On Starting Over

I’ve been asked by the team over at the awesome Women 2.0 to write a blog post on my career change and lessons I learned to help others transition.  I’ll start the process by sharing some basic, hopefully widely applicable, thoughts here.  I’ll turn this into more of a personal story after I get my thoughts in order.

To start off, a career change is a massive commitment, and not something to enter into spur of the moment.  Before I decided to switch careers, I spent months studying my work and thoughts around it.  I noticed whenever I liked and didn’t like something, and wrote out lists of both. I thought about what was lacking, and how that could be better incorporated.  I researched the different careers I might be able to realistically move into: which would best cover the list of likes and remove the most dislikes.  If you leap into a career path without truly understand why (outside of “Well, I hated the old job!”) then your new job will be no better. No job is just honey and ice cream, even an ice cream maker’s.

Once you have decided to take that scary step of “New Career,” there are a few things I find made the transition easier:

0) Prepare your exit.  It’s easy, when things get tough – and the WILL get tough – go just fall back into what you know.  Make sure you’ve worked with your clients or employer to find a strong replacement who you are both happy with.  This leaves your past contacts as great recommendations for new things, and makes it a lot tougher for you to go back.

1) Don’t listen to doubters.  Just about everyone I told who knew my past work that I wanted to get in game design had the same answer: “But you don’t have any experience; why would you do that?”  While no one flat out said “you CAN’T do that,” it was pretty much implied over and over.  These people are generally just trying to protect you; they only know one skill of yours and don’t want you to have to deal with a serious failure.  But they aren’t helping you move on.  Thank them for their advice, and then throw it away.

2) Listen to anyone in the new industry.  They may give you great advice; they may give you terrible advice; but either way, they are telling you something about the way people think and share ideas in this new space you are exploring.  For example, I wanted to get into Game Design, but during my internship I sat in on product management talks, listened in on sales calls, watched the analytics tools, eavesdrop on artist debates, etc.  I don’t know what I’ll need to know, so I’ll absorb everything I can for later use.  Do NOT assume all of this will be important or “right” – you have to make that decision on your own – but do NOT assume that just because someone is junior level or not a designer means they have nothing to share.

3) Find the fun in entry level.  Because you will be doing entry level work.  You’ll be doing data entry, cold calls, proofreading, note taking.  But if this is the industry you’re excited about, you should be excited about that, too.  Make sure you find a place where you have room to grow, and make it clear that it’s your plan to grow.  Im incredibly lucky in that I found a place that talks regularly with me about my long term plans and goals and wants to help me get there.  But along the way, I recognize and generally even enjoy the small things I need to do.

Just finished watching this TEDtalk for the second time this year.  Three key points I take away from it relevant to my life choices recently:

1) Unbounded ambition inevitably lead to unhappiness.  I will forever see what I could have done better, where I could have worked harder, when I should have dreamed higher.  This is counter to just about everything the startup industry and perhaps even The American Dream will tell you, but from my past experiences I do believe it to be true.  Set a reasonable goal, design a track to it, and work for it.  Recognize when you reach it and allow yourself to rest there awhile.  Enjoy that feeling, relish in what was accomplished, and meditate on how the path felt.  Was that a journey you enjoyed?  Was the work valuable to you?  Are you proud of what you accomplished.  When the “yes, but what next voice??” starts to echo in your mind, acknowledge it and do not fight it (as that is likely to make it scream louder, calling you lazy and recognizing everything you did wrong on your journey so far) but do not give into it either.  Create a space for it and approach it again later.

2)  There is surprisingly little difference, if any at all, between natural happiness (how you feel when you get something you want) and synthetic happiness (how you make yourself feel when you don’t get what I want.)  Again, this is something we all tend to scoff at.  When someone says “I didn’t want the job anyways,” we tend to roll our eyes.  But were you to map their brain waves a week after they were turned down, it’s likely look exactly as if they truly DIDN’T want the job.   What does this mean?  It means that you truly can make happiness in just about any situation you may be in, if you take control of it and let yourself.

3)  Giving someone a choice makes it more likely they will be unhappy with the choice.  I was presented with two job options at the same time: to take a senior level position in startup events or to take an entry level position in gaming.  I got 1 week to make the decision and 2 weeks to then dwell on whether it was the right decision or if I should make a different one.  These have been, by far, three of the worst weeks of my life in the last 10 years.  By the end of it, I had placed my entire value as a person on this decision and decided that the rest of my life happiness depended on what choice I made.  Had someone just said “you start tomorrow at one of these jobs; which is it?” I would saved SO much misery.  What does this mean?  Actually, I’m still figuring that out, but what I feel like it means is the importance of going all in and living in the moment.  Do what feels right now and don’t worry too much about how it will affect your future (now, if you were a psychopath or someone who continuously committed crimes, this may be bad advice.  But I assume my few readers are pretty stable smart people).  You aren’t going to fuck things up too much.  And even if you do, studies show that in a year, you’ll have the same level of average happiness as a paraplegic AND a lottery winner.

Changing the Meaning

I’ve decided to change or grow the value of this blog.  It started as my first step pursuing a career change into game design.  I was an NPC (non-player character) in that industry and escaping to become someone who actually did something in that industry.

But this journey has led to a lot of bigger life explorations, lessons, and struggles.  And so I am shifting the purpose of this blog somewhat.  I’d still like to keep it relevant to gaming, a bit.  But I’d like to expand it, and hope that posts may inspire people to change whatever it is that makes them unhappy in their job and strive toward even the little things to make it better.  I’ve feel like I’ve been a Non-Player Character in my own life, and making these drastic changes and choices has forced me to actually start playing the game.  And damn, the game is scary.  It’s confusing, and dark, and filled with monsters.  And you can’t always tell who’s going to be on your team and who’s going to betray you or die; or is this room the boss fight, or is it another floor down?  Maybe I aught to have switched to a melee character, maybe I’d do better with lighter armor, maybe…maybe…maybe.

And while I become more conscious of the choices I make, I start to stagnate seeing all the choices.  And so this blog expands – to be update perhaps more frequently, perhaps just as unoften, but with thoughts on changes in general and taking a more active player roll in my own life.

Enjoy the adventure.

NimbleBit's note to Zynga

Part of NimbleBit's public note to Zynga

I’ve recently wrapped up a week at GDC (or the Game Developers Conference), a one week event attracting thousands of the leading players in console, mobile, social, and indie game development from around the world to San Francisco to learn about the newest technology and ideas in the industry.

This year’s event had a clear underlying theme, mentioned in some way at every single one of the talks I joined: idea theft. Idea theft / inspiration has been a part of innovation in every industry since the dawn of human history; it’s an inescapable part of public creation. In the gaming industry, the topic has recently heated up with the very public display of Zynga’s Dream Heights’ “theftspiration” from NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower, and now the lawsuit between Spry Fox (Triple Town) and 6L (YetiTown).
On the one hand, I am thrilled to see this becoming more publically shamed and pointed out. It’s especially disgusting when a multi-billion dollar company blatantly steals from a smaller indie developer, and we should hold these companies accountable for their actions (regardless of whether it was “accidental). However, many of the GDC speakers now seemed nervous to even mention that they looked at competitors. For example, when one speaker spoke about how she watches competitors’ games and uses the changes she sees as a way of judging what users like and do not, she was quick to say “not that we steal their data directly; we just watch their design choices and incorporate it into our decisions.” Or when another speaker mentioned how he was very inspired by a competitor, he was quick to add that “we were very careful to create a unique experience for our users.” In both cases, the thought that what they were describing might have even been mistaken as theft never crossed my mind. So why were they so nervous about it?
We may be creating a dangerous level of fear within our industry, which has just as much risk of stalling innovation as encouraging theft can: theft and inspiration dance on either side of a very hazy line. While we should continue calling out clear cases of idea theft, let’s not create an atmosphere where developers are afraid to look at existing products, draw inspiration from competition, and/or iterate a better product on one that they’ve found lacking.
Where is the line for you? How far do you think a company can go before an “Inspired by?” becomes a “Stolen from?”  I’m looking forward to sharing more next week on my personal definition of “Theft” vs. “Inspiration”, but I’d love to hear yours.
{Image from a note NimbleBit shared online to Zynga}

The lean movement has clearly taken off in the startup community.  First designed by Toyota in the 1950’s to improve their production cycle and minimize faults, it has gone through multiple rounds of adaptations for small business development, and recently been popularized by Eric Ries and Steve Blank.  But like so many movements (#occupy, the Atkins Diet, and a few religions I can think of), what began with good intentions has become severely overhyped and underdeveloped.  Too often now, companies decide “we’re going lean!” before they understand what it means, how to do it, and whether it’s right for their business model.  The Lean Movement was meant to improve innovation and reduce time, but when applied carelessly it risks doing just the opposite.  This is especially true with the most often mentioned lean concept: the “MVP” or Minimum Viable Product, and its application to game development. View full article »

With Zynga’s less-than-stellar IPO last fall (going from $10.00 to $9.50 on opening day and down to $9.00 the next), people are seriously considering the lasting value of Facebook games.  Zynga reported stable (rather than growing) DAU in the last few quarters, despite launching a number of successful games (including Castleville and Empires & Allies), suggesting they are predominantly shifting users from one game to another.  This lack of investor confidence seems to be truly just in Facebook games; Japanese social gaming company Nexon was considered to have a very successful IPO this past December, earning $1.2 billion early on.  So what’s wrong with Facebook? View full article »

What Is A Game?

I’ve recently begun a bi-weekly column at a new tech blog – http://betavanguard.com.  I started with this post and will be cross-posting my columns here, for your convenience.

To start this series, it seems apt to cover what I consider makes something a “game” – since it’s a term tossed around pretty loosely nowadays.  I’m inspired largely by the podcast RadioLabs; they host an interesting discussion on the power and purpose of games during this podcast.

I believe games must have two components:

1)  A clear set of rules agreed upon by all parties and unchangeable until all parties once again agree.
2)  Established goal(s) or “winning” situation(s).  A “winning” situation need not indicate an endgame; a new goal can be established during or following a completed one.

To give a game lasting entertainment value, it requires one more variable: View full article »

Lots of Spreadsheets

This is a wuss-out blog post for #NaBloPoMo, as in it is very short.  But I still think it’s important for anyone thinking about getting into game design.

 

Holy F-in sh-t there are a LOT of spreadsheets and math.  I mean, I knew this was the case; people had told me.  But I wasn’t ready for just how many graphs and numbers and equations and spreadsheets of data there were.  I sat with a not-yet-launched game today and looked over just their data for early-stage development, and I was already overwhelmed.

It hasn’t made me think twice…yet.  But it’s definitely made me more willing to slow down my process and urge myself to have more patience in me while I learn.  Yikes.

Anyone know if this is the case in other game studios?  Lots of spreadsheets and graphs for designers?

Limitations Generate Creativity

So as I mentioned in a post a few days back, I’m interning twice a week at a game design studio in downtown San Francisco, a position I got through my event work.  I was hired as the production manager for Inside Social Apps, which is hosted by Inside Network, where the game designer at this studio used to work.

The first task I’m lined up to do is to write about 50 daily quests for a Facebook game they are working on.  These are all small one-step grinding sort of things.  You RPG players know the type: “Rats have invaded my garden! Go Kill 10” or “I need some Iron, go find 5 pieces.”  And sure, most of mine are about as creative as that – when you need to write 50 of them, they can’t all shine.  But with these limitations in place (one step, straight forward to complete), it’s been kind of fun to find little *wink wink*s I can give to the audience.  Like naming a giant spider that lives in a cave Sheleb.  Or referencing a Rat King that stole the bar tender’s nut cracker.  Or even just trying to write some sort of character quirks into the 4 people you tend to get quests for: like how the bar tender loves experimenting on new drinks, the trainer really wants a girl friend, etc.

And reminds me again how important limitations are for creativity and design.  If your game has a limitation, don’t try to hide it; embrace it!  Some friends and I are working together to try to build our very first game…ever.  So right now we want to keep it to one screen and one character that goes back and forth killing enemies that just walk across the screen.  So we’re using those limitations to create a reason for them to be there: a space-person who’s task was to terraform a planet.  But the terraform-machine broke, so it’s radius of breathable air is small.  And your gun wasn’t meant to be a weapon, it was meant to be a terraform machine or some sort, so it can’t shoot anything fancy.  And tadah, compelling (we hope) story where coding challenges once stood.

So for myself and others learning something new: give yourself limitations before diving into the process, else you’ll likely stall before you start.

ALTERNATE READING:
Marissa Mayer at Google agrees – Turning Limitations into Innovations.
(I wish I could find something on where games have been innovative due to limitations, but I couldnt find one.  Please link if you have a good example!)

Staying Relevantly Balanced

ADR sessions for Trash and Progress

So along with playing Skyrim, which I will delve into in a later post but will summarize saying: it’s awesome if you really relish open-world experiences.  I ended just now because my next quest was easily a 20 minute run away.

But anyways, so along with playing some Skyrim, I actually spend the majority of today working as assistant (IE new) producer on my boyfriends feature-length film, Trash and Progress.  It’s his first feature, and he’s been working on it off and on for 3 years.  We’ve decided to get this thing done and screened by the end of January, and were doing some final ADR recordings today.

Why is this relevant to this blog?  Because I continue to see my unemployed friends making a mistake: they say “I’m treating applying for work as a full-time job” but instead of the 40hrs/week that would entail, the spend 15 hours a day for two days and the burn out and watch TV, play video games, stay out late, etc. and don’t complete the important follow-up and balance that is required.

I offered to help produce Abe’s movie because it both sounded like fun and was still a bit relevant to what I want to do: produce creative projects.  It let me both watch how a different creative team communicated, while taking a breather from “work” and enjoying a day with friends.

So remember, while you pursue a new career, job, or education be sure to keep balanced time between friends, activities, and work.  40 hours in 2 days of one is NOT healthy nor will it lead to much success.