We can’t talk about what we’re doing, so we’re talking about the people doing the work. Meet Brian, who loves game design so much that if you cut him open, you’d find spreadsheets. True story, I was once trying to staff our PAX booth with fifty devs each doing between three and twelve hours of work at nine stations with only 24 badges between us and each person wanting to bring a guest at a different time… and Brian offered to give up his free time to develop an algorithm to automate the process. Because he thought it would be fun. Anyway, here he is with his story and advice for future designers. — Sanya
by Brian Giaime
Hey! My name is Brian Giaime. I’m a Designer here at Undead Labs. I happen to have a little brother looking at colleges and pondering the future these days. One of those potential futures is a job in game development. There’s a lot for me to say, here, starting with my story and ending with an understanding I’d like to impart to the young man.
We’ve been playing games FOREVER, huh? Remember sitting on my shoulders while I raided Molten Core, frantically trying to be in the right place, control the adds, and maximize my boss DPS?
You might not; you were, like, seven years old.
But I remember that you had a good time, and that hardly changed over the next decade. You voraciously consumed game after game, asked my thoughts over Steam and did yourself the favor of playing games I sent to you with my caps-lock’d “recommendations”. 😛
In the time since then, you really dove into programming, far surpassing my own efforts in high school, and you should recognize where you’re at: your grades are better than mine ever were, and there are many doors open to you.
Did you ever play Warcraft 3 with me? Did you ever check out my custom maps? I’ve always been kind of bad at RTS’s, but the editor that shipped with the game became a thing of wonder for me – I didn’t just play games back in those days, but made them too. Or, at least, I made a bunch of RPG content inside the WC3 editor within the confines of a custom map. It was fun! I did a ton of scripting (in hindsight, it was horribly inelegant and prone to tons of bugs), and made some stuff work that I never imagined would work , but through that, recognized that there was something of a career in that action – something I could grow up and do. Pursuing that became my all-consuming goal for many years.
You probably remember this part. I was your age, doing exactly what you are doing — pondering college, making plans, writing applications, sifting through a thousand pieces of paperwork, scholarships, worrying about the SATs, and feeling the pressure of the “my-entire-life-hinges-on-everything-being-perfect-here” attitude that’s so prevalent back home with respect to colleges. You also probably remember that I did the unthinkable – I went to a school nobody heard of roughly 3000 miles away from home in a state where I had no relatives, no support network, and when I got there, no friends.
It was a bit of a jump.
But, I went to DigiPen, and figured out who I wanted to be as an adult while I was there. I plugged away at my classes and game projects, often clocking 90 or 100 hours a week of work during the worst of times. I didn’t really meet anyone who DIDN’T want to make games for a living, and those whose dedication wasn’t iron-clad would drop out or otherwise disappear over the course of my four years there. It was a crazy time, but I got to make some really wonderful things during my time there.
Conquering college was one thing. That seemed doable. There was a path, there was help, there was tons of precedent. Breaking into games — actually getting someone to pay me to make them — was a whole ‘nother mountain to climb.
Plan A was GDC — Game Developers Conference — a regular and enormous gathering of game developers, aspiring game developers, and people who do things with games that aren’t exclusively “make fun happen”. We were taught/told/strongly advised that it represented one of the most potent and powerful opportunities in a given year to get a job.
So, being ambitious and convinced that “enough willpower can make anything happen”, I printed a bunch of mediocre-ly designed business cards at Kinkos, and about a hundred resumes on slightly-too-nice parchment colored paper. I packed up my ol’ two door Civic with my stuff and that of three roommates because we were all completely broke, and drove down I-5 for about 15 hours to San Francisco. We stayed in a terrible hotel in the Tenderloin, a terrible part of town. We were broke, but this was the one true way to get a job, or so we believed.
Didn’t get one that year. Or the next. Or the next. Snuck into a lot of parties, though. Being a creature of determination, I basically had zero fun at these parties as I spent the entire time trying to convince people that I was awesome and that they should hire me, with juuuust enough charisma not to get drinks thrown in my face. Ego might be common in game development, but it serves unproven junior devs even more poorly than it does the veterans who might have some claim to it.
Did any of that get me a job? No. Did I learn a lot? Yes! More about how to talk about what I wanted, and how not to be an asshole or too pushy or too excited, but also not disinterested or disengaged. Talking to strangers to get jobs is weird and hard, even more so when they have their students-want-jobs-from-me-oh-god-I-just-want-to-enjoy-this-drink-why-did-I-wear-my-Blizzard-jacket deflector shields up.
You’ll figure it out. You’ll do better than I did, I suspect.
I didn’t just go to GDC, though – I also went to a conference called LOGIN. The show was run by a couple who I can now luckily count as friends. I was at the show as a volunteer, meaning I helped staff to setup their booths, kept people going in the right direction and prevented them from going in a wrong one. The first year I went, I had a good time, and met some people, but didn’t find myself a career.
The second one, though. That one did the trick.
It was the summer of my junior year at DigiPen. This was my fourth or fifth conference at that point. I was working the door for the last panel on the last day – closing it when we started, opening it when we finished, checking badges, etc.
When all was said and done, I approached the moderator for the panel and thanked him for sharing. I said that I learned from his offering, and was grateful, and gave him a two line version of “how I wound up here”. He stared through me for a second, presumably using some jedi powers to read my soul. The next thing that happened shattered the world as I knew it into tiny, no-longer-consequential pieces.
“I’m looking for a couple of level designers for a superhero MMO I’m working on. Do you need a job?”
I don’t remember what I said. The gravity of that moment was unlike anything I’d known outside maybe my Torah reading years earlier. I produced a business card with as much conscious thought as a blink, and tried not to yelp with excitement. I shook his hand. I said a bunch of words which meant less than the excitement with which I said them.
Holy Shit, This Might Actually Be Real.
I was in a kind of shock. The studio was called The Amazing Society. Zero percent of people I said that to had any idea what I said without an explanation. The next thing I can remember was the interview itself – it would turn out that the Design Director for the studio had run a talk I had also worked the door for, and we managed to begin our chat with a recounting of the conference. Turns out, sharing your perspective on a shared experience is a profoundly efficient way to convince someone that your worldview and theirs are at least partially aligned.
I talked about my time at DigiPen. I talked about games. I talked about being stupidly ambitious, realizing it, making dramatic scope cuts, and building the most fun thing I could out of a game engine meant for an impossibly large and complex game which we stopped making like 40% of the way through our planned dev cycle.
I told them about the 48 hours I spent basically building Superman 64 in Lua on top of our engine because we learned all too late that we were never going to build the multiplayer, synchronized physics, competitive strategy franken-game we thought we were making. There was a zero percent chance of that pitch ever working.
(Fun side fact: You’re gonna be wrong about the scope of your work. Lots and lots of times. You will have maybe half a dozen moments in life where you think “aha, NOW I get it, I know what is and is not reasonable!”. Between the 4th and 6th time that happens, you’ll probably realize – “Oh, scope is HAAAARD, and I should never assume we know the scope of our work with 100% confidence”. That understanding lets you plan for reality, which is way more useful than just believing really hard that you can make infinite amounts of game in finite amounts of time with finite resources and limited expertise.
Making games is hard. Like, holy-crap-is-this-really-what-it’s-like!? hard. Should you choose this path, and ship something, you’ll have a moment where you think about the stuff we played as kids – the big Final Fantasys, or World of Warcraft, or heck, Minecraft – and you’ll stare wide-eyed into space as it dawns on you just how much human effort, passion, and raw give-a-shit goes into making something that’s great, to say nothing of how much work it takes just to make something kind of okay.)
Anyway. The Amazing Society rose and fell, as game studios, stock prices, and empires tend to do. I’ll tell you the whole story someday. Thanks to the courageous efforts of some beloved coworkers, I was able to start looking for work before I was out of work. This turned into about half a dozen design tests, or “weird approximations of the work a designer might do here”, to try and work at a number of studios. None of that panned out; generally they all found someone with more experience, or someone with experience that was more relevant. I was a titled Level Designer at the time, but the “levels” I was making were in a light action game for six year olds. This basically kept mechanical complexity super low, and meant that I could honestly say I shipped dozens of hours of content, but also that someone working on a AAA shooter could look at my portfolio and think “oh, he hasn’t done the thing we’d want him to do, so, never mind”.
This was tedious and scary, and eventually, I played my trump card. I reached out to a mentor who was far better at reading game studio tea leaves than I, and told her I was going to need work, that my ambitious plans to launch into some big-name studios didn’t quite go the way I planned. Being a proper mensch and just a generally supportive individual, she passed along my resume along with a personal recommendation to the design crew at Glu Mobile, and I had an interview there three days later.
I talked about the games that were memorable to me. We talked about what worked and didn’t, what I would change, and how I think those games could be improved. One of the most powerful answers I gave was “If I knew how to fix problem X, I probably wouldn’t be here right now”. This was a pretty good indicator that I had a handle on my own abilities, and what they are worth, and that I didn’t assume I had the answer to everything.
That’s probably a surprise to you, considering that I was (am?) infamous for thinking so, but progressing as a professional designer has been profoundly useful as a crucible to grow into a better human being.
Anyway. I took the job at Glu as a sort of “general purpose designer”, doing everything from UI mockups to scripting to asset wiring to game balance to actual no-bullshit feature specs, for the first time.
That game was a bunch of fun to make! I cut my teeth on game systems and progression in a very real way there, getting coffee at dad-o’clock in the morning with my boss’s old mentor to try and steal his brains away, before finally settling in and building a big ol’ spreadsheet that spit out game numbers.
I had no idea at the time, but that would become my “schtick” in a powerful and valuable way.
That game shipped, and some people loved it, but not enough of them. Sometimes, these things go wrong and we can’t fix it and that’s just the world we live in — I have learned it’s best to find a way to work within the constraints and learn from them, rather than flail uselessly against things we have no control over.
After that game was en route to its own personal sunset, I was reassigned to Deer Hunter 2014. Working closely with a very talented “BI” or “Business Intelligence” guy who has a background in behavioral modeling, we put together an enormous “economy model” – a bunch of numbers and graphs that tried really hard to predict what players would experience at various points in the game, given some input parameters which approximated our actual content designs in terms of difficulty, time, cost, etc.
It worked! That econ model is probably my greatest accomplishment in terms of contributions to product successes to date. I’ve since distilled that process into a talk I gave at PAX DEV this year.
Anyway, as you might remember, I didn’t feel great working there. Priorities were clear – this place was about making money first, and wanted to use fun games to achieve that goal. You couldn’t really make a logical argument for why resources and time should go into making a game more fun for its own sake; you had to examine your proposals from a business perspective.
I won’t say they don’t make fun games, and I’d never think to say the people working there don’t want to make good games – I learned much there, and not all of it on the economy/monetization side. But the company’s priorities and mine didn’t align much at all.
So, one lucky PAX later (which my wife, Melissa, gets credit for because I hadn’t planned to go that year), I stopped by the Undead Labs booth to thank the staff there for making State of Decay – it’s a crazy unique game that really shocked me – not that it necessarily had a lot of shock value, but that it felt to me to be bold, innovative, and deep – a crazy thing to achieve with a studio’s first venture, and a crazier thing still to convince a publisher to fund and support. But the damn thing shipped! And it did great! I loved it! I told them these things, and, seeing a very specific glance from my wife, asked –
“Are you guys hiring designers?”
I was working here roughly 20 days later. It took barely a week for my wonderful Melissa to tell me how much happier I was, and I’ve been here ever since. In the time since that, we got married, bought a condo, got a new car, and like to stare at real-estate apps over sunday brunch to try and figure out what kind of home we eventually want to raise a family in. We’re happy. I’m happy.
It would appear I’ve managed to become the adult I dreamt of being as a child. So far, at least.
That’s my story. I won’t be shocked if, here and there, your own story has moments that feel a lot like these. I hope mine are instructive – useful, even. I know you’re looking at programming over design, and that’s a smart call – there are maybe two dozen entry level design jobs in the country at any given moment. With programming as your focus, many more doors are open to you than to I, though I’m pretty sure I’d break my own heart to try and leave games now. I’ll be doing this till I’m old and broken, and even then, I’ll probably find a way.
Maybe this all sounds like exactly what you want. Maybe you’d rather do research on machine learning, and forward the world’s understanding of what a computer can do. Heck, maybe your happiness is in making banking software. I couldn’t possibly know. It’d be selfish as hell for me to really push you to get into games – this is a tough business, famously featuring long hours and layoff shenanigans and cancellations and other drama.
Do some homework on it. Ask questions. Be skeptical. Guard your heart, it’s so easy to fall in love with this stuff, and easier still to find yourself heartbroken.
But I still love it, having dodged half a dozen layoffs, survived a few game cancellations, and weathered two separate, fruitless “maybe now is the time to start a company” efforts. Maybe you’ll find that you love it too. If so, you know you’ll have the full force of all that I’ve wrought and fought for behind you, as best I’m able to teach and support and connect and suggest.
Maybe you’ll find other ways to use your time on this earth to make others’ lives better.
But this way is the only one for me.