Let me start by saying, I am not a fan of silos. Making games is just one thing I am interested in and it happens to be the case that I have made a career of it. As games have evolved in the past twenty years, the prevelance of specialization has only increased, making it difficult for us "weirdos" (who have the audacity and explorative nature to wander and expand our knowledge and explore a lot of things), a bit of a challenge. This is especially true when working in a traditional development studio where you are not only expected to be working with in a specialization of your specialization of your discipline, but also expected to be doing so in one particular manner.
When I made it a goal to build a career in the field of game development, I had a love for console games, and fair amount of training as a visuall artist. In addition to improving my traditional art skills, I would need to obtain specialized software knowledge required for an entry level position as a game artist. Although, in my heart, I wanted to be a game designer, I didn’t have any experience and there were no game design programs in my area. It was easier for me to get my career in games started as a game artist. Getting an entry level position in the game industry is challenging on its own; switching from art to design required, time, patience, extra work, the right mentoring and unique circumstances.
While the “for-profit” art school I chose was not the best choice, it was in my home state and enabled me to learn the basics of what I needed to start a career. A few key individuals in that institution made it worthwhile and I fulfilled my entry level career goals. By far the most valuable lessons they taught me are essential lessons for anyone in a technology career:
- Learn the current industry standard software to understand the conventions, commonalities, and patterns of your field’s computer software and hardware - the user interfaces of new tools is usually patterned off of old ones (to make it easier for professionals to adopt to it - see they’re meeting us half-way!)
- Learn to teach yourself - use the “Help” feature in software, scour user forums, find the best online tutorials, read industry blogs, etc.
- Learn to recognize the value of non-specialized or general knowledge outside of your immediate field for a broader understanding of your personal potential. Broad knowledge and self-knowledge are essential for healthy growth, enlightenment and competent collaboration.
Learning is as essential to your career, as breathing is essential to your body, if you stop, it dies. Early in my career, this was demonstrated to me first-hand. While in my junior year or college, I applied for, and was subsequently offered, a 3D artist internship at a large game studio. A subsequent internship at the same game studio the following summer led to the offer of a full-time position upon graduation. 3D Studio Max was the standard object authoring software that my new organization and the vast majority of the game industry utilized. A year into my full-time position though, the studio and a good portion of the game industry suddenly switched from Max to the now dominant tool Maya, and so the lessons outlined earlier came to bear.
Most other artists and I learned Maya quickly, thanks in part to the fact that we had been prepared to expect to have to learn new software frequently throughout our careers and this was just a natural part of the industry’s evolution. I was thrilled to be in a good role at a stable game studio and getting paid to learn a new tool felt fun and fulfilling.
After a few years, the thrill of modeling and texturing props such as chairs, tables, bushes, trees, interior / exterior elements on six different projects started to wane. Continuing as a prop modeler was slowly becoming less interesting to me, and I was getting restless. Being a game artist while dreaming of being a game designer wasn’t impossible, but it was less-than-inspiring the more I did it. I assume it felt like an aspiring writer/ director would feel, stuck in the role of a stage prop artist for production after production of other people’s scripts.
I was delighted when I was occasionally asked to do world building (which is modeling levels on top of “white-boxed” 3D layouts from the level designer.) These opportunities led me to see the potential to find fulfillment through a switch from game artist to level design. I hadn’t spent too much time in the level editor, other than to test out how the models looked in the game, but if I could use Maya, I could learn a level editor.
My mentor/ producer, Stephen met alone with each team member once a week to discuss the project, my tasks, etc. In a one-on-one meeting with him, I told him that I was getting kind of bored with prop modeling. He asked me what I would rather do, and I said that I was interested in exploring the role of Level Designer. He agreed that some of the skills of level design were adjacent to the world building modeling I was occasionally doing on previous projects, but level design was a lot more than just creating the shape of an environment. The scripting and the user-centered design skills needed to be a good level designer would require time and practice for me to acquire.
There were a lot of ways he could have reacted to my honest expression of job dissatisfaction. He could have told me to stop whining and just fulfill the job requirements of my role, or he could have said that if I wasn’t happy, to look for another job. Instead, he asked me what ideas I had that could enable me to become qualified to start working in the role of Level Designer on the team. I thought about it and mentioned a few ideas, and he said, “Ok, next time we meet, tell me what you need to move into that role, and I will help you.”
It is important to note that I am not shy about sharing my feelings. Sometimes, I am candid to a fault. Telling your mentor, who is also your boss, that you are feeling stuck in your job, can be a risk. For this to be the right approach without having to update your portfolio and polish your resume, requires the right circumstances and a healthy work-relationship. If this is not your circumstance, sometimes changing teams or even studios is the right option.
In my case, it worked out for both my team and me, for many reasons:
- I had proved myself on many projects in my position as game artist
- My supervisor/mentor and I had weekly "one on one" meetings to foster mutual respect
- The project was about to take a break for a re-boot
- Other team members were willing to help
Just because you are good, you should not expect to be able to demand a career pivot within your project or even at your studio. For that matter, never demand anything- just ask. Most importantly, be someone that people want to help and work with - this is where the soft-skills, self-awareness and an awareness of project circumstances come into play. Hopefully, you are at a good studio where the conditions are right for you to grow and evolve as time goes on. It is only natural that creative people will get bored and need fulfillment from new challenges.
With my mentor’s encouragement and guidance, l created a series of goals to allow me to acquire the skills I needed to become an acting junior level designer on my team. First, I had to improve my knowledge in the level editing tool and build knowledge about the scripting method it employed. There was a fair amount of documentation considering we were using a proprietary game engine on the current project. Since there was a lot of documentation and I spent the winter break on my own time, learning the level editor. I invested my own time into this endeavor which demonstrated my drive, and I think helped justified the role pivot to the studio leadership.
Once I had demonstrated competency with the level editor, he suggested I ask a level designer on the team, Aaron if he would be willing to help by occasionally looking over my work. I don’t know if he had prepared him for this request, but Aaron enthusiastically agreed to be a part of my role exploration- this mentoring was an important part of his growth as well. (Good mentorship programs don’t just help the mentees, everyone benefits from such a system.) From time to time I would send Aaron a link to my level build or have him over to my cubicle to play through the level and give me feedback. He was very encouraging, but also made excellent observations about my faults.
After a few weeks, my producer told me that our lead level designer, Jason, had a level planned for the game that was already sketched out on paper that they would like me to “white-box” in an editor. This opportunity was the moment I started to move from artist to designer. I was still responsible for a fair amount of Maya modeling in addition to my level design, but it was an incredible opportunity, and it only worked because my studio had the structure in place to enable such a possibility and the right people to make it happen. I don't think I am particularly special, I'm just tend to find success requires being a bit of an opportunist and I am an opportunist who took advantage of the right circumstances to make a career pivot that worked out for both sides.
Good studios realize that their creative teams are made up of diverse individuals, with diverse interests, skills, and career goals. Communicating with a person frequently, and in a sincere and personal way is essential to acquiring and retaining the best people, and is in the best interests of all parties involved. For a studio to mature, it is critical to creating the most fulfilling environment for individuals and teams to work. If you are at a good studio, and have a good mentor structure, it is possible to change development roles, but you must build the right relationships, procure the right skills and wait for the right time.