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.
As games have grown more sophisticated, narrative designers have become an increasingly common part of the industry. But what exactly is a narrative designer? According to Graham Goring, himself a narrative designer who’s worked on LEGO City Undercover, Planet Zoo and dozens of other titles, it’s just “a poncy term for a writer”.
It’s a suitably irreverent answer from someone who made their way into the industry via stand up comedy. Goring clarifies, however, that narrative designer is also much more than “just” a writer. “It can be coming up with the idea, it can be writing barks,” he explains. “It can be taking everything from the word on the page to formatting it right as a screen play so that the actors can read it but also having it in a spreadsheet so that the sound engineers have got something useful.”
Indeed, Goring has worn many hats in his role as a narrative designer (which he discusses in detail in his My Journey interview). He’s written loads of jokes, loads of short, reactive NPC lines (or “barks”, as they're known in game development), many whole scripts; and that’s just the writing part of the role. He’s also found himself directing A-list Hollywood voice actors, compiling voice data and building tools to make his workflow easier.
Talking to Strangers
Goring didn’t start out as a writer however. He landed his first job in the industry via a forum community for Sinclair computer enthusiasts on account of his pixel art skills. “I was talking to a stranger on the internet,” he says. “John Pickford actually, the guy from Software Creations who made Zub and Feud and all these amazing games.”
“I was posting pictures of pixel art I’d done and they happened to need [an artist] and they were like, ‘do you want to come up for an interview?’”
It wasn’t as simple as just sharing some art out of the blue of course. Goring had been chatting on and off with Pickford for a couple of years while also showing off some of his programming abilities on the forum. In doing so, he was able to establish himself not only as a confident all-rounder but as someone Pickford already knew he got along with. For Goring, that last factor is critical.
“I can’t overstate how important it is to be a nice person that people like,” he says. “People will hire someone that they like who can do the job well over someone who’s a technical genius and a pain in the bum. Company dynamics are very important.”
Goring started a job at Pickford’s new company Zed Two and began working on GameBoy Color games, which suited his Spectrum-honed artistic toolset well. When the studio made the jump to 3D games however, he found he didn’t have quite the same aptitude for 3D modeling and animation. Luckily he was able to be reassigned when a new project (the unreleased Nicktoons Snap Shot) came in - as lead designer no less. “I basically went from failed 3D artist to lead designer on this project,” he jokes.
Unfortunately, that spot of good luck was met by a substantial helping of bad. The project turned out to be a “poisoned chalice.” “It was the worst thing I’ve ever worked on,” Goring admits. “It was horrible and incredibly stressful.” In the end, the game was cancelled and he found himself working at a call centre on a midnight to 8am shift. “That ruined me,” he says.
Working With the Stars
After a gruelling nine months, he finally received a phone call he was more than happy to answer. It was from a previous colleague, offering him a designer job for a mobile games developer now known as Hands-On Mobile. Highlights in this role included helping pitch a tamagotchi-style tie-in game based on horror film The Omen (much to the chagrin of “the man from Fox”) and getting a credit on Call of Duty 2 (“it’s a really rubbish j2me version!”)
Again, Goring’s next role came about via an ex-colleague. It was another design position, this time at TT Games, makers of the LEGO games. TT Games was where he was first credited as a narrative designer - first on LEGO City Undercover and then on all subsequent games, including LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was also here that he suddenly found himself plunged into the role of voice director.
When a scheduling mix-up left the team directorless during a recording session, Goring was drafted in at the last minute to walk the actor through his lines. That actor happened to be Michael J Fox. “He was lovely, thank god!” he says. “And after that, they thought, we can save a bit of money if we just use him for directing” Goring jokes.
Becoming a Narrative Designer
Digging deeper into the role of narrative design, Goring explains what differs about “game writing” from regular linear writing. “You have to be able to write every version of a scene based on all these different permutations of factors that are going into that scene due different bits of plot or what the player has done. I think it also helps to be a games player.”
It’s often in games that writers are brought on quite late in the development cycle when things are mostly in place. For Goring, writing reactively in this way can be very fruitful. “I often thought that the best way to write on the LEGO project was to play the level and think, what do I need to know and what can I poke fun at? And then you write those lines.”
What about actually getting into narrative design yourself? Goring’s number one piece of advice (besides being a likable person) is being a good all-rounder. “As a small company, hiring an all-rounder is incredibly valuable,” he says. “If you can wear three different hats and to a degree of confidence, that’s incredibly valuable.”
As for building a portfolio, choose what to emphasise. “As a narrative designer, don’t worry about the gameplay. Look at something like Inkle or some other kind of interactive fiction.”
That said, even if it’s not the selling point on your CV, he recommends doing some simple all-encompassing first projects to get the fundamentals locked in. Remaking an existing game is a great option. “Make Tetris!” he suggests. “If you can remake [a game], it teaches you all the systems that go into making a game and you’ve got an appreciation for the whole thing. But it also means you’ve got a cast iron end goal. Feature creep’s not going to happen because you’re just making that.”
Now, Goring is working on his own game Phantom Island under the name Insupposable Games. He’s writing and designing almost the entire thing, bringing together all the skills he’s developed during his career including programming and design. Everything, that is, except the sound and, ironically, art. “It would look and sound terrible,” he says. It just goes to show that where you start doesn’t dictate where you might end up.
It’s a story you’ve heard a hundred times: you come in on the ground floor as a waiter, progress into a kitchen as a cook and then, through hard work and perseverance, you work your way up to a QA Project Lead at EA.
As far as routes into games go, Nick Barrett’s is highly unconventional - and for a business as freewheeling and unpredictable as the games industry, that’s really saying something. Now the Founding Director of Edinburgh-based software testing house Proper QA, Barrett found his way into the upper echelons of one of gaming’s biggest organisations almost by accident. In his My Journey interview, he explained that his friend had been offered a catering contract with a new company in town called “Electronic Arts”. Not being a gamer himself, the friend phoned up Barrett to ask if he’d heard of them. “I said yes, I know who EA are,” he laughed.
Out of the Frying Pan
When the contract came through, his friend asked Barrett - who was working in pubs and restaurants as a cook - to join him as an in-house caterer at EA’s new state of the art headquarters in Surrey. “My role was something called a theatre chef,” he said, “which is sort of like a cocktail barman except [you’re] on a little cooking station in a meeting room cooking for the brass and the higher-ups and managers.”
Barrett soon found himself privy to some of the highest level decision making meetings in the industry. “I’m just standing in the corner making omelettes for them, trying to remain silent and pretending that I’m not listening!” he joked. “The figures and the numbers that these folks were talking about were just fantastical to my ears.” Before long he’d become loose friends with the likes of David Gardner, the head of EA Europe at the time, and eventually he worked up the courage to ask how he could get in on the action. “I thought it was a joke when the response to my query was ‘well you can come and become a tester if you like’,” he said. “It didn’t take long for me to whip off my apron and say ‘right, I’m in!’”
“I don’t think the exact same scenario would have happened nowadays,” Barrett admits. “I would have needed more technical knowledge and a little bit more of the specific skills that lead to becoming a QA tester.” However, Barrett believes it was his proven work ethic and strong problem solving skills that got him through the interview and into the role, despite his lack of computer expertise.
Barrett found QA testing to be “a fabulous, good fun, engaging role to be in” and quickly found he was quite good at it, particularly at getting the team working together on collaborative tasks. Within a year he rose to the position of senior tester and became responsible for more of the communication and organisation side of testing, tasked with collating the information gathered by his fellow testers and distributing duties between them.
From there he moved up to team lead and finally project lead, in which role he spent his last of his seven years with the company. With little scope to progress further within EA, Barrett left to find other opportunities, the first of which was at Scottish developer Real Time Worlds. There he built a team of more than 140 dedicated QA staff to work on the David Jones-led MMO APB: All Points Bulletin. The team bucked what was standard practice for QA at the time by having testers embedded within the various different disciplines and involved in the project from the early stages of development.
After APB, Barrett founded his own specialised QA company called Proper QA, which will soon celebrate its tenth birthday. The company tests games and software across a huge range of platforms and has worked with the likes of Channel 4, Hyper Luminal Games and Chunk.
In the two decades he’s been in the business, Barrett believes QA has modernised and evolved, but he also thinks that the core tenets of the discipline have stayed the same. Nowadays the standard QA lifecycle on a project looks more like what it did on APB, with the QA department brought in much earlier and involved more thoroughly in development than it was 20 years ago. However, the practice of finding bugs, documenting them and compiling efficient reports is the same as it ever was. All the leaps in technology have done is increase the scope of a tester’s work.
As for getting an entry level QA role today, Barrett says it’s “obviously an advantage” to have some kind of games development qualification or experience on your CV. That said, it’s not a necessity. “As long as there is a cross-over skill, that’s the important thing,” he says. “The discipline of QA is about a problem solving mindset and working collaboratively with others and being diligent”.
So how do you go about demonstrating those kinds of things? Barrett’s main tip is to volunteer for some open beta tests. “If you can get involved in a beta and you can help find a bug, when you get through to the interview phase or even in your application, mention that,” he says. “Say ‘I participated in these beta tests and these were the things that I discovered’.” In fact, he believes being able to show that kind of experience would stand out more than having a qualification.
Barrett thinks game jams are a good place to start too. From a hiring manager’s point of view, he says game jam experiences suggest the candidate “has a strong interest because they've given up their time and they’ve hopefully got to the end and participated - and that’s fantastic.”
He adds, however, that “if it was a choice between that and a candidate who’d participated in a load of open beta testing programmes”, the beta tester would be who he picked first.
People often think of QA as a kind of stepping stone to other roles within the industry, and while Barrett agrees that QA is a fantastic way to make face-to-face contacts with developers and see how they work first hand, QA is also a viable and fulfilling career in its own right.
“For me, it was always QA. I just absolutely fell in love with what we were doing - problem solving and taking complex things and breaking them down into simpler tests, and then smashing them to pieces and smiling and presenting our handiwork to people and saying ‘look here’s this thing you made we’ve broken it in novel and inventive ways!’”
Finally, Barrett addressed the notion of people volunteering to work for free as a means to break into the industry. Though you might feel like there’s no other options available to you if you’re applying and receiving no responses, he says a better response is to apply to the same companies again. “Two or three applications isn’t a bad thing,” he says. If a person applies again, that raises a little mental flag in HR managers heads that’ll pop up again next time they’re hiring.
As for CVs, make them succinct, he says. “Don’t write a five page CV.”
A Tester is You
So, whether you’re a graduate looking for some hands-on industry experience to help decide what’s next or you’re a natural problem solver who loves breaking things to learn what makes them tick, QA could be the right role for you. And as Barrett’s journey attests, it’s a varied and fulfilling discipline that can open up all sorts of opportunities.
Just as his route into QA wasn’t what you call routine, Barrett finds that even twenty years into his career, QA is anything but boring or predictable. “Now that we’re all working from home, part of my role is now a motorcycle courier taking various bits of equipment and devices between all the testers houses,” he reveals. “It’s fantastic fun!”
A lot of Steve Bromley’s job involves explaining to game developers what it is he actually does. Steve is a User Researcher, meaning he is the person who finds out whether players actually experience a game the way its developers intended. Most game enthusiasts have probably heard of “playtesting”, and part of Steve’s job is to design and run those playtests. He gathers members of the public and watches them play while, in his words, “observing their experiences and asking them questions to understand what’s going on in their heads.”
However, as Steve explains in his “My Journey” interview, there is a whole other side to user research that many game developers aren’t fully aware of. While playtesting tends to happen after a project is well underway, often to help developers fine-tune their game in the final stages of production, Steve says there is a great value in bringing in players much earlier in development. “As well as actually running these playtests, a lot of what a user researcher will have to do is advocacy work,” Steve says. “[We have to] explain what we’re doing and convince developers that it’s worthwhile doing usability testing or doing other types of research earlier in development to help inspire [their] game design decisions.”
It’s an approach that comes from other areas of software development outside of games, where companies want to “understand their users’ needs and understand the problems that exist” before they begin production. Imagine someone making a taxi booking app, for example. “They might want to understand how people book taxis currently in order to come up with a new app that helps you book a taxi better,” Steve suggests. “Games haven’t traditionally had a history of doing that, partly because games are a creative art form and design is very strong there.”
While some developers might think that making fundamental design decisions based on user feedback might limit their creativity, Steve says this isn’t the case. Instead, effective user research can actually enhance it. “We’re helping the design vision be realised in the way the designer intended, not trying to change the design vision,” he says.
A happy accident
To be fair, Steve Bromley didn’t know very much about his job either until he stumbled upon it by accident. Steve went to university to study history, where he wrote his dissertation on science fiction and utopias. After struggling to find a career that suited his skills, he went back to university to study a masters in human-centered computing, a discipline that combines software design and psychology to better understand how people use computers. One of his lecturers was Graham McAllister, the director of Vertical Slice - the UK’s first games studio dedicated specifically to user experience. Through McAllister, Steve was given the chance to work with Black Rock Studio on Split/Second as part of his studies, opening his eyes to the world of games user research. “As I imagine everyone has, I had childhood experiences of growing up being interested in games but I’d never really considered it as a career until the opportunity came up,” he says. “So when I recognised that those user research skills and the ability to be a user researcher enables you to do that inside games, I was just very lucky.”
Something else that Steve did while studying was approach indie developers and offer to conduct usability tests for them as practice. “Obviously I made all sorts of mistakes in the usability reviews and [the reviews] were probably failing to find all the issues that did exist, but it was good practice for talking to real developers and understanding what a real game halfway through [development] looks like and what kind of feedback is useful and relevant for these game developers.”
Showing your experience
Between his masters degree, his placement experiences and his extracurricular activities, Steve Bromley’s CV clearly demonstrated not only a well-rounded understanding of user research but a passion for it by the time he finished university. Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe certainly thought so - not long after graduating, Steve landed a Junior User Researcher role at the home of PlayStation. He worked for the company for the next five years, assisting in the development of games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and No Man's Sky while rising in the ranks from a junior to a senior position.
Though Steve does think his degree was a key part of why Sony chose to hire him, he also thinks it’s possible to work in user research without one. “It’s just one way of demonstrating that you have a background in user research or that you understand how to design a study. I know lots of people who work in the field who don’t have a formal qualification for it,” he says. “If you don’t have that qualification, you might want to have a history of doing a similar role outside of games or have a lot of practice on your own terms and be able to say, look I’ve done all these projects with these teams.”
Infectious energy and “suspicious stains”
So - what was it like being part of the PlayStation family? “It didn’t disappoint,” he says. Of course there were the launch parties and big events, but what excited Steve the most was working with passionate people - both the developers and the players. While user testing a finance app probably isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, participants are generally really enthusiastic about testing games, he says, and that enthusiasm is infectious. “If you bring in someone to play a game that perhaps hasn’t been announced or is years out from being finished and it’s part of a franchise that they care about, that’s definitely the most exciting that a person has done this month or possibly this year. There’s just really great energy in those playtests.”
That said, it can be repetitive work. Steve says he’s watched hundreds of people play through the same tutorials, for instance, and estimates that he’s conducted about 20,000 combined hours of playtesting sessions. And as with any job involving the general public, it can be a bit unpredictable. “Especially working with kids games, I’ve had suspicious stains after they’ve left where maybe they’ve needed to go to the bathroom and didn’t want to stop playing,” he says. “Maybe that’s a good review for the game!” He’s also conducted sessions where participants have turned up drunk or high, and says that colleagues have even had brawls break out during tests.
A supportive community
Nevertheless, he loves the job - so much so that he’s written a book about it. How to Be a Games User Researcher collects all of Steve’s experiences in user research to date - from his time at Sony, and his time mentoring through to the consulting work he currently does - and turns it into a digestible guide on how to find a career in user research. It covers the kind of skills you’ll need, offers advice on how to design a good study and outlines ways of getting the experience you’ll need to get your first job.
Steve Bromley also started the Games User Research Mentoring Programme with IGDA, which connects prospective user researchers with professionals from big names companies like Sony, EA, Valve, Ubisoft and Microsoft. The scheme is a great way for anyone interested in user research to get some support and advice about conducting their own studies and to develop their skills.
So, hopefully you know a lot more about what a games user researcher does now than you did at the beginning of this article. If you are interested to learn more, Steve Bromley’s book is the obvious place to start, but he also suggests the book Just Enough Research by Erika Hall which he recommends not just to prospective user researchers but to anyone interested in design. Furthermore, there’s a lively Games Research and User Experience community (“grux” for short) that has its own Discord channel, LinkedIn community and more. Get it, get involved and who knows? Maybe you too could soon be making someone’s year by letting them play an early build of the next big PlayStation title.
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.