When Lizi Attwood went to university to study computer science, she didn’t choose the course specifically because it had been recommended by EDGE Magazine, as many of her peers did. In fact, it wasn’t until the very end of her degree, when she saw those classmates begin arranging studio visits and applying to games jobs, that she even considered the idea of working in the games industry. “Just out of interest I sort of tagged along with them and looked at the things that they were looking at,” she explains in her My Journey interview with Games Jobs Live. “And I thought, well this looks really interesting because it’s an industry where it’s OK to be a little bit abnormal, where it’s acceptable to be a bit strange and a bit special. And I’m definitely a bit special!”
Fast forward to today and Attwood certainly is a special case when it comes to the games industry. Now the Technical Director of her own company Furious Bee, Attwood has successfully shipped more games than she’s worked years in the business – quite a feat in an industry where cancelled projects can make up a significant portion of a developer’s CV. Over the course of her career she’s worked for companies all across the UK, run the gamut of AAA, mobile and indie development and got to sit in on a film shoot in Los Angeles. Her credits include the critically acclaimed off-road racer Pure, the mobile reboot of Pitfall! and most recently Telling Lies, the latest game from indie darling Sam Barlow.
Her First Job
Attwood’s first job was at Sheffield-based developer Particle Systems. Her interview for the role was the second of just two she’d been offered after three months of sending CVs to “everyone in the country it felt like”. The first interview was at Bizarre Creations in Liverpool and turned out to be a blunt introduction to the immature behaviour and backwards attitudes that can exist within the games industry. “They put me in a room and the entire programming team came in and interviewed me,” Attwood remembers. “I think there were like seven or eight guys sitting opposite me”. Rather than making a serious job offer, the team seemed more interested in meeting a woman programmer. A piece of internal feedback disclosed to Attwood by her recruiter read, “what a shame she’s no good, I really wanted to see what a girl geek looked like.”
Luckily Particle Systems turned out to be a much more welcoming studio. They even gave Attwood a fairly cushy first assignment to help her find her footing: developing a 3D model viewer which, in the days before proprietary visual editors were commonplace, would speed up the development process. Importantly, it also kept the newbie safely removed from any live code. “This isn’t critical, this is going to mess anyone up, no one’s depending on you. It’s just a little nice to have tool,” Attwood says. Now a mentor to programming graduates herself, Attwood sees this kind of guardrail task as a great way to break new staff in quickly. “One of the things that’s really pointless is when you say to someone, ‘just sit down and have a look’,” she says. “Because if you’ve got no purpose, nothing really goes in. You could spend weeks and weeks just looking.”
Two years into the job at Particle Systems, Attwood was hit with her second games industry rude awakening: redundancy. The team had been bought by Argonaut Software who “ran that company into the ground,” she says. “We were all let go without any compensation, without last month’s wages.”
That said, Attwood admits that there can be a silver lining to studio closures. “Everybody splits up and spreads out and then, especially as a [recent] graduate, suddenly you know people at all the major studios around the country,” she says. Having a dispersed network is extremely useful in an industry where, as Attwood puts, who you know is more important than what you know. “Once you’ve got that foot in it becomes much easier,” she says.
Proving that point, both her and her team lead landed subsequent jobs at Criterion Games. “He put in a good word for me for sure,” she says.
Every Company is Different
The difference in company culture between Criterion and Particle Systems was like “night and day”, say Attwood. While Particle had been a close knit team and a fairly relaxed place to work, Criterion at that time was, in her experience, a more hierarchical, dysfunctional studio prone to crunch. Not long after starting, Attwood was moved to a different team from her ex-colleague for dubious reasons. “These days you would call it gaslighting I think,” she says. “It was not a great environment to be in at all.”
Having been a manager herself, Attwood knows well the role that team leaders play in setting the tone of the workplace. “It’s really dependent on the people that are running the show. The culture comes from above, it comes down. Especially if you’ve got people that aren’t able to shield the pressure that they’re feeling and then they just transfer it straight on to you,” she says.
Case in point: Relentless Software, where she worked for four years and progressed from a regular programmer to a lead programmer. The company’s name perhaps referred to their strict commitment to work-life balance, with employees being required to clock out at 5pm sharp everyday. “You arrive on time, you work your solid hours and then you get to go home and have your life,” she says. “It was a really nice place to work. Really friendly, family atmosphere.”
Just as important was the fact that Relentless valued Attwood’s skillset. “At other places that I’d worked, the sort of outspoken attitude that I have where I’m bluntly honest with people about where I might think they’re going wrong or what they could do better has not worked out great for me at other studios. But at Relentless they really appreciated it. They really appreciated my honesty and that caused me to quickly progress when I arrived there.”
It’s for this reason that Attwood recommends graduates explore the whole spectrum of game development as widely as possible. “Different people will thrive in different situations,” she says. “My attitude didn’t always help me in a AAA studio but it’s but it’s helped me to thrive in other scenarios, so I would just say try as much as possible see what sticks.”
Communication, Communication, Communication
No matter the studio or kind of development however, Attwood stresses that honest communication is key. Another piece of advice she has for those beginning their careers is to feel comfortable asking for help. “Absolute typical graduate behaviour is, ‘I need to fix this myself, I can’t ask for help’,” she says. While many newstarts tend to avoid seeking assistance because they’re worried about coming across as incompetent, Attwood says that asking questions is actually a much more efficient and professional approach. “It’s more important to know the answer quickly. If someone can solve it for you in five minutes, that’s better than you
spending two hours trying to solve it yourself. Then you can be more productive.”
Attwood has more great advice about dealing with imposter syndrome, but before we get to that, let’s stick to the theme of communication – namely, how and where to meet game industry professionals and other aspiring developers. Attwood’s budget friendly pick is the Develop conference in Brighton. “I really enjoy going to Develop. That’s the one I put number one on my list every year,” she says. “You can get an expo pass, which means you don’t have to pay any money to just get into the foyer where the expo is and just try and chat to people.”
There are also volunteer opportunities at the conference which are great for “just getting you into a situation where you’re interacting with people. If you’re standing on a booth helping out then you can talk to people. Take some cards with your name and your contact details on it and just chat to people.”
It’s amazing the doors that just being friendly and polite can open, Attwood believes. “The most important thing in this industry is just not to be a dick. Just be nice and then nice things will happen to you.”
So, don’t be a dick – got it. What else do we need to remember?
“The one piece of advice that I always give to everyone is that everyone is winging it,” she says. “This life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Human beings have got this terrible trait of assuming that everybody else knows what they’re doing and it’s just me that’s just fumbling around in the dark.”
Of course, truly convincing yourself of that is easier than it sounds. “I wish I could take this advice but I never can!” she admits. But even if she doesn’t always believe it herself, Attwood’s career speaks for itself. Her achievements are a testament to the fact that, even if you find yourself feeling a little “abnormal” or lacking in confidence from time to time, it’s nothing to worry about. Persevere, ask for help and be nice and one day you too could be a technical director working on some of the most exciting projects with the most interesting people that the industry has to offer.