Category: Lessons


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.

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.

The Spirit Realm from The Amber Spyglass (work C/O Jown Howe)

I have a meeting with friends to work on a game idea tonight, and we’ve been asked to design baddies/weapons/environments.  This simple request has been helping me figure out my skillset incredibly well.

1)  I can’t draw.  Period.  I cant event make a clear sphere.  So actually designing the baddies has been a disaster.
BUT

2)  That lead me to thinking a lot about how baddies would integrate and reflect their environment.  If they evolved on this planet with this ground and this gravity, how would they move.  And in a game, how could a small change in the environment change your weapons?  The villains you are fighting?  And even your basic mission there?  And this I found a lot of fun.  (Clearly we’re thinking about a space-themed game).

AND

3)  From thinking about the environment and the type of baddies that might be there, I could better think of the sorts of weapons that might work on place and not another, how their functionality would change, and what you could do with even just 2/3 core weapons (Knife, object shooter (bullets, explosives, etc.), and energy shooter (laser, freeze ray, flame thrower, or even gravity changer).

And even earlier in this process, I found that it’s hard for me to think of the theme of games and the core mechanic,  but that I have a lot of fun finding variations on a theme.

LESSON FOR OTHERS:  Give at least a little time to any potentially relevant project.  Notice when you find something hard to do or frustrating, and ask why.  Decide whether it means you need practice, or whether it’s just not in your skillset.

I’ve found the baddies really hard to do – too specific a request.  So I think about the environments, and how I could

Say Yes To Everyone

Okay, no.  Not really.  Then I wouldn’t have any time for myself.  But for the most part, I am trying to say yes to just about ever phone call or meeting request I get – or at least offer to do a quick skype chat.  The “why” made itself very clear today.

I, stupidly, scheduled 7 meetings today.  Well, 3 calls and 4 meetings.  All of which, at the time, didn’t really seem relevant to my job search.  But they were wonderful people, I had a lot of fun, caught up with friends and…

…got someone with a mailing list targeted to C-level executives at growing gaming companies to offer to let them know I’m looking for opportunities to shadow producers and/or designers.  Now of course, I don’t know if this will actually happen – since this guy’s never really met me in person – but I can certainly keep asking. 😉

So you really never know who knows whom and what they might be able to provide.  So regardless of status, give everyone at least a little bit of your time.

Close Every Door Behind You

What is the biggest motivator for anyone to get a job?  Running out of options.

So if you are planning to make a career change (especially if, like myself, you are changing to something you know nothing about and have little experience with), having other options can just keep you putting it off – even if it’s a dream.

I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to turn down client requests and work, despite my not even wanting to do it anymore.  Knowing I have a paycheck coming is relieving, and having clients reaching out to me – with no marketing on my end – is easy.  Pursuing a dream, on the other hand, is hard work.  And really frightening.

So not only have I spent months prepping current clients that I’ll be leaving in November and turning down clients that approach me now, but I’ve also been training a protege to send all these clients to.  This makes it impossible to turn back, impossible to take the easy gig or keep putting off studying.  And some days, it’s the most exciting thing ever; it leaves me feeling empowered and in control.

Some days, I just want to curl into a tiny ball and cry.  It’s hard, really hard, to stop doing something reliable, even if you don’t really like it any more.  You need to be ready for that fear; the kind of fear that feels like it’s slowly simmering in the pit of your stomach, sometimes boiling over into your lungs and chest.  The fear that makes you physically ill and doubt everything you want to do.  You need to face it, deal with it, and then move on.  (HOW to deal with it is another whole post…and with #NaBloPoMo, I won’t waste that here.)

Here I stress the importance of closing every door behind you.  Take the time to close them neatly and nicely – we’re closing doors, not burning bridges: you never know who those old clients might know – but make sure they are really closed.  Start your new journey with a clean slate, so you’ve got no where to go but forward.

And of course, as new clients approach you, don’t just say “No, I am no longer available” but be sure to tell them why.  I’ve had a number of people offering introductions and suggestions for gaming careers when I tell them.

Create Structure

So about a week before I planned to tie up every loose event thread and leap into learning about game design, I realized “Wow, I have a lot of free time coming up and…

Oooo, Skyrim is coming out; I gotta reserve it on Amazon!  And oh yeah, I need to play Portal 2, still.  And I should really pick up the Violin again.  And finish that felt bag, and practice Spanish, and take up….”

Uh oh.  Getting myself to actually work – with no incentive of a due date, a paycheck, or an unhappy client – is going to be really difficult.  So I sat down and planned out an agenda.  I’m writing it on a white board by my desk, on post-its on my computer screen, and in my cell phone calendar.  I’ve listed it below, to feel peer-pressure to stick to it, and for any suggestions people might have.  I don’t want to overwork myself, as that’s what I’m trying to get away from for the next few months.  But I also don’t want to sit on my butt doing nothing and then just get angry at myself when I realized, weeks later, that I really am the lazy-ass I frequently think I am.

This is also why I’m doing this #NaBloPoMo thing; if I HAVE to write something about my progress in this blog every day, well by damn I better be making progress.

**POST LESSON: For anyone un- or self-employed right now, set up a strict schedule for yourself and really stick to it.  Tell your friends about it and ask them to encourage and gently remind you (both about work hours AND play hours.)  If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up (that doesn’t solve anything) but do ask yourself “why did I step off the track?” and figure out if there is something you can put in place to stay on in the future.**

MY SCHEDULE:

8:00am – Wake up, shower, and enjoy a nice breakfast.  Read a book, catch up on webcomics, do whatever I want.

9:30am – Start “Assigned Task”
Monday & Wednesday:  Study coding (Ruby on Rails)
Tuesday:  Work on a game and/or read more game design stuff
Thursday & Friday:  Head downtown to work at a game company that’s offered me some mentorship. 

1:00pm – Go to the gym and get lunch

2:30pm – Resume “Assigned Task”

7:00pm – Stop Working and do something fun.  Like Skyrim, or the violin, or knitting and a movie.

11:45pm – Go To Bed.

Make Listening Easier

A quick update today.  I found myself slowly following more and more game producers, manager, developers, and designers on Twitter, but that their updates were getting lost in the stream of start-up folks I follow (over five hundred…)

To get into a new industry, I feel it is important not just to understand the terminology being tossed around by professionals, but also who those professionals – who are the influencers, the do-ers, the folks in the know.  Who are the people I should try to help or work with to get my foot in the door?  While it is still a bit impersonal, by following them on twitter I can get a sense of their personalities and interests, perhaps start replying to their questions or retweeting their ideas and articles, and eventually not only understand things better myself, but get to know the right people faster.

So for my own sanity, I started a Game Designers twitter list.  You are welcome to follow it yourself, or not.  I don’t mind.  I also set up an additional column on a twitter client I use called HootSuite.  I now have a column featuring the startup leaders I follow, one for game designers, one for @messages at me, and one for people references my event “FailCon.”

You can follow the list at http://twitter.com/#!/WebWallflower/game-industry

Please let me know if you think there is anyone I should add.  And of course, feel free to follow me @webwallflower

LESSON LEARNED:

As you try to enter a new community or industry, be sure to engage politely and intelligently with the leaders of said community.  Twitter is a great place to start.

This interview with Jonathan Blow – creator of what I felt was the truly innovative Braid -has been the first thing (of whats to be many, I am sure) that I have read in my new quest to game design that has taught me something new.  Prior to this I had been revisiting gaming mechanics I already knew (but are not terrible to be reminded of) – different types of points (experience, skills, and reputation; given for time spent, tasks completed, and others), metagames, etc.  It was nice to be able to start being inspired.

Adventure Games still Need a Lot of Renovation

Looking Outside the Captain's Quarters

What happened here? Who was the captain and why did s/he leave all this behind?

I was glad to hear a game designer speak on the flaws of adventure games.  As a kid, I played perhaps a half dozen of these, and really wanted to like them.  The concept is beautiful – giving the player a lot of freedom to explore a world and make choices that will affect the future, to solve puzzles without guidelines and NPCs hopping in essentially telling you what to do.  I played Myst for hours (and I admit, needed a little guidance), just to immerse myself in the world; I would revisit that old ship level just to explore hear the sounds and watch the graphics and invent stories in my head of what happened.  Myst did what Russell Davies talks about in his article, Playful, better than most games I had seen before: it gave me a platform to play pretend.  Too many Adventure Games, I felt, either held my hand too much (putting an aura around things I should pick up, or telling me what to use in each situation) or gave me too little to work with.  I’d find myself wandering out, clicking on everything, and then figuring out what to do with it just through process of elimination.  It wasn’t fun, it was a chore.  But I always felt they could be done right, and hearing that other people see the same flaws I do makes me want to do it myself.

Social Games Need Innovation

Dragons of Atlantis

Dragons of Atlantis by Kabam - playing synchronously with people you don't know, and making new friends.

Well, Jonathan didn’t seem to think this specifically – he seems to think they are just plain evil, and not at all social.  I can’t tell you how long the latter has been a thorn in my side.  My first conference was on the creation of the Facebook Platform and where it would go, so trust me when I tell you I have ridden by this beast from the very start.  I do not hate “social games” as Jonathan seems to – I play a handful of them, and understand the audience they target – but I do recognize they are still in their infancy, and have a lot of growth to do.  In the same way that I and many others say that console games need to learn from social games, I think social games need to learn from board games and MMOs.  Jonathan summed it up better than I ever could: “it’s about the game exploiting your friends list that you already made, so it’s not really about meeting people. And it’s not really about doing things with them because you’re never playing at the same time. It’s about using your friends as resources to progress in the game, which is the opposite of actual sociality or friendship.”  I will definitely be using that line in the future.  But I don’t think this is reason for “good” game designers to give up on social games; I think it’s just an area for improvement.  Before reading this article, I thought “No way in hell am I working in social games;” now I feel like that could be a duty, especially since Jonathan mentioned:

The Ethics of Game Design
Here is where this article really started to teach me.  What first drew me to game design was the power designers have over people.  There are so many simple behaviors we as humans still hold from our animal nature; the desire to compete with our neighbors, the drive to collect more than them, the necessity to show it off.  In game design, we become more conscious of the activities that trigger these and make use of them.   Initially, when I thought of apply to ethics to game design, I figured it meant working on things like Jane McGonigal is – gaming for good, to teach kids how to read, or identify bombs.  This left me feeling guilty that I wanted to get into platform or mobile gaming rather than use my skills to change the world.  However, this limited thinking on game design ethics also leaves room for many designers to blow it off: “well, social service isn’t the goal of my game, so it doesnt apply to me.”  But Jonathan brings it down to an even more basic level that resonated with me, and I hope all gamers: “[I ask designers,] Are you trying to take advantage of your players and exploit them? Or are you trying to give them something?…To me it doesn’t matter if people feel like they’re having fun or feel like they want to play the game, because the designers know what they’re doing.”

I may not feel as driven (yet) to create games that change the world, that help impoverished nations or teach children life skills.  But I do want to create games that add – rather than take – from our overall value of life.  I want to work on games that are not just “fun” but that get the player to approach the problem from a new perspective, to experience a different sort of reality, and to perhaps apply some of those lessons to the problems they encounter in their own lives.  I never want to look at a game I have worked on and only measure the money it is earning (which is still an important metrics).  I want to know that it is empowering the user and helping them feel truly accomplished.