My Journey, James Parker, Design Director, Ground Shatter Games

This is a summary of a livestream conversation, which can be watched in full here.

Like most in the games industry, design director James Parker has enjoyed a varied career full of surprises; some more welcome than others. Before founding Ground Shatter Games, where he’s been making stylish, action-movie inspired games like Fights in Tight Spaces for the last seven years, he worked for a host of different developers, including Argonaut, Blitz Games and Opposable Games. He’s also been made redundant on several occasions, been assigned to at least one doomed movie tie-in project and, in a moment of desperation, found himself selling boiler parts to make ends meet.

As part of the My Journey series, Parker explained how he went from working as a database programmer at an insurance company who wrote plays and made Doom maps in his spare time to landing his first job as a junior games designer. He talked about what it’s like to navigate the uncertain waters of the videogames industry and touched upon some of the things he wished he had known when he was beginning his career.

The first job

Parker had always been interested in programming and was lucky enough to get into a graduate trainee programming role at an insurance company at age 19, despite not having a degree. A year or two into the job, he met up with a friend who was working at the games company Particle Systems and decided a career change was in order. His friend agreed to let him know if any relevant jobs popped up and sure enough, one did.

What got him the job, Parker reckons, was his broad combination of skills and interests. He had the technical background from the database programming, creative chops from scripting plays and taking part in sitcom competitions, and he was also a hobbyist modder, giving him an insight into the game development process. “I think I was able to convince a games company that all of those things together made me enough to be a junior designer.”

Although there’s now plenty of direct routes into games, like games specific degree programmes and graduate schemes, Parker thinks following your passions as he did is still a viable option. “People are always looking for people who care about what they are doing.”

From passion to portfolio

Nowadays, there are so many accessible tools and platforms available to make and show off your work that it’s easy to build up a solid portfolio from the stuff you do for fun. “I think all of those extracurricular things are always going to be good ways to sell yourself to a potential employer because in large, the people looking at your application are the people who have been through the process themselves and who care about games as much as you do.” As long as you can show employers how skills you’ve learned are relevant to the role you’re applying for, there’s no reason why passion projects shouldn’t make a strong application.

If you do decide to take a games specific course, Parker recommends looking ahead to find out what employers are currently looking for and preparing yourself accordingly. Rather than just “absorbing the curriculum” and leaving it at that, he suggests tailoring your learning towards the specific role you’re interested in and actively picking up any extra skills or knowledge that aren’t part of the course you’re studying.

Finding his feet

But back to that first job at Particle Systems. On his very first day, Parker witnessed one of his colleagues climb across a table and slip into his chair, ready to begin the morning meeting. “It was immediately obvious that they were my kind of people,” he said.

Even so, he took some time to feel confident at the company, realising that his coworkers were producing a level of work that was a step up from his own. “My level designs were kind of blocky and mod-ey,” he remembers. “There was this sudden feeling of ‘I need to up my game on this, I need to learn very quickly how things are done’ because there wasn’t a lot of time and space for me to be dragging everyone else down.”

With the support of his team, however, he quickly found his feet and about a year into the job, he was promoted to the role of lead designer when the position opened. In retrospect, Parker sees this as a typical example of how a combination of luck and preparation is often key to moving up in the games industry. “I’d worked my way into a position where they were like ‘well this guy’s gone, we’d rather give [the job] to you than hire externally’. So I was leading a team fairly early in my career.”

When things go wrong

But luck tends to go both ways in the games industry, as Parker discovered while working for Argonaut Games, who bought over Particle Systems in 2002. He and the rest of the Sheffield team were brought in to help finish off the Catwoman game, a movie tie-in based on the Halle Berry vehicle that turned out to be a complete box office disaster. On that project, he saw first hand the effects the crunch can have on a development team. “We saw how the team had been thrashed through this whole process and they were falling asleep at their desks tired. It was a mess really.”

Argonaut did ship Catwoman in the end, but it would be their last project. Shortly after, the company closed down and the development team was laid off, beginning Parker’s “brief period in the wilderness”. He applied for a number of jobs, including at Blitz Games, who turned him down, and CodeMasters, who hired him only to then make his whole department redundant through a restructure just a few weeks later. After several more months of jobhunting while moonlighting as a boiler parts salesman to keep the lights on, Parker eventually landed the gig at Blitz.

While obviously quite a scary process, Parker admits that there’s a degree of inevitability to layoffs in the games industry. “In advance of it happening you can be incredibly worried about it and imagine that it’s going to end your career or what have you. But actually it’s one of those things that a lot of people have been through before and a lot of people are going to go through again. You hope it’s not going to happen but if it does, there’s ways out of it and you build yourself and start again. You find a new job. And in a lot of cases that leads you on to bigger and better things.” 

The whole process

Having put in several years as an assistant design manager at Blitz and then as a director at  Opposable Games in Bristol, Parker started his own studio Ground Shatter Games in 2014. Founding the studio was made possible by funding from Creative England and by having access to the Bristol Games Hub, where he found affordable desk space and a like-minded community of knowledgeable and supportive developers.

With more than 20 years of experience under his belt, Parker places great value in knowing something about everything in game development. “There’s a huge advantage in understanding the whole process. My job as designer has always been enhanced by the fact I have a technical background so I can understand what I’m looking at from a slightly different perspective.”

When it comes to finding jobs, a good balance is key. “The danger of specialising too much is that very specialist jobs come up less frequently – but when they do come up you’re going to be well placed to do [them]. Or if you’re more of a generalist, it increases the potential pool of jobs that you’re going for but there’s going to be more people that you’re up against. So I’d attempt to get the best of both worlds.”

So what does that look like in practical terms? “Learn as much as you can about the whole thing – whether that’s in a discipline like art where you learn about characters and environment art and VFX and animation – but within that have a specialty that you can leverage when applying for jobs.”

Every day’s a school day

Of course, even a veteran like Parker never stops learning. In the early days of running Ground Shatter, he found there was a whole lot on the business and admin side of things he was going to have to wrap his head around if the company was going to work. “I’d been kind of shielded from that,” he admits. “I think it would have been nice not to do that off the hoof and understood a little bit more about it before I had to kind of blunder in and just make things work.”

And that really is the main takeaway from Parker’s journey from junior designer, right through to running his own company and being responsible for a team of nine full time staff. While having a specialisation is important to a designer, it pays to have a well-rounded knowledge of all aspects of releasing a game and to go out of your way to keep learning every step of the way. Whether it’s thinking about the things that are NOT included in your university course curriculum, or it’s drawing up your passions from outside of game dev, like Parker and his script writing: stay versatile, and even a flop like Catwoman can’t stop you.

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