Sunday, October 2, 2011

By Design

This month a lifelong dream of mine came true.  After years of hard work and dedication, two moves taking me across most of Canada, countless hardships but also great memories, overcoming many self-doubts along the way, I was officially promoted to Game Designer.  Accomplishing something you've wanted your whole life makes you take stock of everything that led up to it...

I wish I could say I remember the very first time I played a video game.  I find it hard to picture any version of myself having difficulty understanding controls, not intrinsically knowing to go right in a side-scroller, knowing falling off the screen usually means death or that enemies are almost always killed by jumping on them.  But I imagine it must have been the case.  I do remember the era I got into gaming though.  I was exposed to it through my cousins, Bill and Rick.  Bill was especially into gaming.  I remember we'd go over and play Mario 1 & 2 for a while, and then our moms would play some NES spelling game together.  I even have a memory of going over to their place the night Mario 3 came out for the NES.  We were all so excited.  I remember finding a secret in level 3 and being so proud.  It wasn't long after that I got my own NES for Xmas.

Mario 3

From then on I was hooked.  And even from an early age I loved the idea of being able to design levels for the games I loved.  I'd see the game's levels and get ideas of my own I wanted to implement, but obviously this wasn't possible to an 8 year old kid in a time before internet offered all kinds of hacky solutions.  So instead I started drawing elaborate Mario levels in pencil in giant note pads.  I'd have entire games drawn, split into worlds and sub-levels.  Whenever my friend Tim would spend the night my Mom would drive to pick him up, and as soon as he got in the car I'd hand him the notepad and he's start playing through my "levels" right there.

JetpackAs I grew up some games started coming out with level editors.  I remember finding an old NES game with Mario in it called Wrecking Crew, and I used to make levels for my brother to play.  Then I found a PC game called Jetpack, and again designed levels for Tim and my brother to play.  It was shareware and only let you save one custom level at a time unless you bought it, but I quickly learned I could move the level files to a  backup folder and just put whatever level I wanted to play/work on in the proper folder with the right filename.

When I was entering my teen years Duke Nukem 3D came out for pc.  And with it came the Build engine.  This was before the days of youtube training videos and online guides, the internet was still in its infancy.  But somehow I managed to teach myself the Build engine through trial and error.  I must have designed dozens of levels for that game.  By then Tim lived in Saskatchewan so once I'd finish a level we'd play it over the modem.  At first it was all deathmatch levels, but I started to find coop levels with NPC enemies really fun to build.

Duke Nukem 3D

Eventually I decided to design an entire Duke Nukem 3D campaign.  12 maps that could be played either single player or coop with an over-arching story/theme etc.  It took 6 months but when I was done I played it with Tim and we had a blast.  I then submitted it online to several Duke Nukem 3D custom maps communities.  It quickly became one of the highest rated campaigns.

For a few years after that my level design hobby, and even gaming in general, took a back seat to teenage drama, girls, drugs, booze and music.  This lifestyle left me lost and directionless.  I was getting older and had no idea what to do with myself.  I knew I wanted to make something of myself, but I was also afraid of failure.  I tried once or twice to get back into Level Design as a hobby, but the tech had come so far I felt left behind and gave up.  For a while I tried to convince myself I was happy where I was, but it was a lie anyone could see through.  Then I found joy in photography and for a while tried to make a career out of that.  As I was beginning to see success I quickly realized I preferred it as a hobby.  Still, my sense of adventure and ambition was growing, with nothing in sight to spend it on.

I still didn't know what I wanted out of life, but I knew I wanted much, much more than I was getting out of it at the time.  I was in my early 20's now and hadn't made much tangible progress since I was a teenager.  I decided to take an epic road trip to try to find myself, and get some answers to these questions.  I went by myself, something that terrified me.  I'd been a pretty sheltered, dependent person my whole life so to do something this big by myself was scary.  And that was the point.

On The Road

The road trip was a huge success, though I didn't realize it immediately.  When I got back I knew I'd grown, changed in some fundamental way.  I just couldn't quite define it yet.  But as the months went on I realized how claustrophobic I was feeling in Winnipeg.  I didn't fit in my old life anymore, and needed to get out.  I decided to move to Edmonton, for a change of scenery and a new experience.  I made some calls and my cousin Bill, who now lived in Edmonton, said I could stay with him.  This was the same cousin who'd let me come over and play his NES when we were kids, and now he was living in Edmonton working in the video game industry for a studio named BioWare.  He then told me he could probably get me an interview for a term tester position.  I still didn't quite know what I was looking for in life, or what exactly I had to offer, so I didn't recognize the opportunity I was being presented, it just sounded like a cool job for a few months.

I had a going away party with all my friends, had a dinner with my extended family, and prepared to leave.  At the time I assumed it would only be for a few months, but that would still be the longest I'd ever been away for.  When the night of my departure came, I packed as much of my belongings that would fit into my car and headed off.  I'll never forget that moment, walking down to my car with my friends, hugging them all goodbye as I got into my car, fighting back tears.  And as I drove off I watched them waving at me in the rearview mirror.  I think on some level I knew I'd never be coming back...  One of the hardest, most emotional moments of my life.

Goodbye Party

I arrived in Edmonton and got settled in, and started at BioWare.  Within a few weeks of working there I started to suspect this was what I was meant to be doing, and that I wanted to make a career out of it.  The first game I worked on was Dragon Age: Origins and I knew it was one I'd be proud of the rest of my life.

At the time I figured QA was good enough.  I'd gotten this far, and I shouldn't get "greedy".  I knew I wanted to be a Designer, but even after everything I'd been through recently and all the growing I'd done I still wasn't ready to believe in myself that much yet.  And maybe I was right not to, I had a lot to learn.  I had no idea how office politics worked, how industry in general worked, let alone this industry.  But I didn't believe I ever would, and that was a mistake, but one I would soon begin to remedy.

After a few months I knew this was something I had to do, and made the hard to decision that I would not be moving back home to Winnipeg.  I fought hard for a contract extension and then immediately set my goals to taking on more responsibility to prove myself for an eventual permanent full-time QA position.  By constantly volunteering for extra tasks, and making it known I was interested in QA Design (where your feedback is more about design elements than technical glitches) I was eventually moved to the PRC team.  PRC stands for Post-Release Content.  In this case I would now be working on Dragon Age: Awakening, an expansion pack for the original Dragon Age.  My role was now QA Design, and once the acting QA Lead moved on to another position I took on a lot her responsibilities, and was essentially doing the job of a full timer.  I was giving design feedback that was incorporated into the game, running my own meetings, training and assigned new QA Term Testers, etc.  I loved the new responsibility and the professional growth it afforded, and I really loved getting to give Design feedback.  I still wasn't quite ready to see what should have been obvious though, that what I really wanted was to be a Designer.

Me @ BioWare With My Mom

I was told several times they were looking to get me a full-time position, but honestly, BioWare was somewhat bloated, and the economy was in tough times.  EA instituted a hiring freeze, and I knew things were going to be tough.  That meant for me to get hired, someone else had to be let go.  I just kept on working hard knowing sooner or later, in some way or another, it'd pay off.  But then I also found out an EA policy stated that anyone on contract couldn't stay on contract for more than 1 year without 3 months off in between.  It was a policy instated to prevent the abuse of contract workers...  As Dragon Age Awakening was finishing up, so was I.  I'd managed to get my contract extended 3 months past my 1 year mark, the only term who managed to do so, but even then, my time came and I was let go for 3 months, though I was promised I'd have a job waiting for me once those 3 months passed.

I decided to go on EI for those 3 months since I knew I'd have a job waiting for me in 3 months, and looked at this as an opportunity.  I decided to spend my 3 months off learning the Unreal Engine.  As I mentioned, I'd tried it a few times before, but this time my cousin pointed me to some excellent free training videos (3DBuzz).  I forced myself to follow a strict routine of waking up by 10:00 AM, and spending most of the day learning the engine.  Within 2 months I was designing professional grade levels, and documenting my progress on Facebook, my blog, and other mediums, and got feedback from many people at BioWare.

Building My "Rooftops" Level For UT3

When I returned to BioWare after my 3 months off I was put on the Content Team of Dragon Age 2.  I had several people comment that they'd been following my Unreal Engine progress and were quite impressed at how quickly I picked it up, and the initiative to do so during my 3 months off.  Chad moved out to work at BioWare as a term tester like I head, hoping to get into the Art Department, and life was going great.

Then, within a few months into my second contract another EA mandate reared its ugly head.  I, along with all the other QA Terms I'd been hired with now on their second terms, found out EA had a strict mandate that states no contract workers could be used more than twice on contract.  Again, a rule in place to try to prevent the exploitation of contract workers.  The idea was that if they were good enough to use twice, they should be hired.  Of course the hiring freeze was also still in effect...  So things weren't looking good.  But then 3 QA positions within BioWare opened up.  Two in Edmonton and one in Montreal.  I of course applied for all three.

The application process was pretty intense, mainly because so many people were applying.  I have to imagine close to a hundred people applied for the positions across all of BioWare's studios.  They made a short list of candidates after taking a preliminary test.  I was ecstatic to learn I'd made it to the short list for two of the three positions, the only person to do so.  The positions I was considered for was either the Edmonton Dragon Age position, or the Montreal Mass Effect 2 position.

Around this time I was also contacted by an old work acquaintance about a job possibility as a QA Lead at a smaller studio in Halifax called Longtail Studios.  While my goal was to get one of the BioWare positions, I wasn't about to turn down opportunity in an industry that presents it so rarely.

When the results came back from the BioWare hiring committee I hadn't been selected for either position.  I was told it'd been a very close call on both counts, but that didn't change the fact.  My options then were to either stay at BioWare as a term tester hoping for another position to open up, which I knew was incredibly unlikely, or pursue the Longtail Studios offer.  I obviously did the latter.  And after being flown out for an interview, seeing the studio and the city, the idea started to grow on me.  It admittedly felt like a consolation prize at the time, but a consolation prize was more than many of my fellow term testers at BioWare were getting, so I couldn't pity myself too much.  By then I was just beginning to believe MAYBE I had what it took to get into Design.  During my interview with Longtail I was asked what my long-term goals would be and I said eventually I'd like to try my hand at Design (I also said maybe Production, which I think I could be good at but would probably find much less rewarding personally, though certainly not financially).

Once I got the call telling me I was accepted, it was a whirlwind of change.  My start date was in 2 weeks...  I gave me notice to BioWare, started packing and making moving arrangements with Longtail (they paid for moving expenses), and getting everything in order.

I decided to stay in Winnipeg for a week before moving on to Halifax, so I left Edmonton early.  After a nightmare fiasco with the movers, Chad and said our goodbyes and I drove off, leaving Edmonton behind me.  This time I knew I'd probably never be back, and it was heart breaking, no easier than leaving Winnipeg.  I'd grown so much in Edmonton.  When I'd arrived I had no idea what I was looking for, or really even who I was.  Now I was leaving with a clear vision of myself and my goals.  Edmonton will forever be the city I found myself in, and I miss it to this day.

One of 2 Going Away Parties

After a great week in Winnipeg it was off to Halifax.  I won't lie, I was terrified.  This was even scarier than moving to Edmonton.  This time I had no one I knew in the city to make me feel at home or show me around, and it wasn't for some low responsibility entry level job, this was a full-time salary position with some high expectations.  I was nervous!  The city felt much different than the prairie cities I was used to.  In fact working on a peninsula meant driving really didn't make sense, so I was forced to start taking the bus and eventually sell my car.  But as the months went on I began to realize I was not only capable at my job, but that it was really beginning to foster confidence in myself.  I'd implemented and rolled out a new bug database for the studio, handled relations with our off-site QA team in India, interviewed and hired new QA Term Testers, begun researching and implement ion new Agile Scrum software for sprint planning, and more.  And I was getting great feedback.

Longtail StudiosAfter my first project with Longtail Studios shipped, a PS3 Move dancing game Dance On Broadway, we had a wrap party.  During this party it was made clear to me by some higher-ups that I was definitely being eyed for Design after I'd volunteered to help the Design Department a few times in my down time.  I was excited, but also nervous.  After all these years and successes, I was still afraid I'd fail when it came to what really mattered, my lifelong dream of being a Game Designer.  But I didn't let it show, and expressed full enthusiasm for the chance.

I was put in the Design Department for our next project, the one I'm on now, an extreme sports game for Xbox Kinect and PS3 Move, Motion Sports Adrenaline.  I was eventually made the Acting Level Designer on the Extreme Ski tracks.  I spent the past five to six months designing some awesome tracks I can't wait for people to play.  All this was in a Junior position however.  My title within Longtail was still officially QA Lead, and I was still making QA Lead salary.  I helped hire and train more QA to replace me in my absence, but for the most part I was no longer in QA.  But this was an amazing opportunity to learn what exactly being a Game Designer meant, and to then prove that I had what it took, not just to the studio but to myself.

Me @ My New Desk In The Design Department

Our acting Lead Designer, Nick, mentored me, and I owe so much to him for doing so.  He really took a chance for me, and I think saw something in me before I fully saw it in myself.  As the project was coming to a close it was time for my probation review.  I don't want to get into specifics, but it was very positive.  I was told I'd done great work, given advice and direction on how to continue to grow as a Designer, a never-ending process, and then, at long last, officially promoted.  The kid who drew Mario levels in notepads, hacked Shareware games to make levels, and taught himself 2 game engines to design levels, was now officially a Game Designer.  Three years climbing within the industry paying off.  The countless pitfalls, self-doubts and legitimate reasons to quit along the way weren't enough to keep me from achieving this.

Not many people get to say they grew up to do the thing they always wanted to.  Not many people can say they truly love going in to work in the morning.  I don't know many people who wouldn't love to get paid to be creative.  And even though I worked my ass off to get here, and made countless sacrifices along the way, I still feel incredibly lucky.


Updating my LinkedIN profile I realized I think this is the first time I finally feel like I "made it".  I have a well-respected job-title in the industry I love, the work is extremely rewarding, and I get paid a handsome salary that I can live quite comfortably at.  This is the first time I don't feel like I'm just trying to get in, to prove myself.  For the first time I truly feel like I'm in, I'm here.  It's also the first time I've ever really felt like a grown up, a man.  A man covered in tattoos who makes video games for a living...

Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell previous versions of myself it was all leading here.  I could tell the kid who thought of Level Design as a hobby that someday he'd get paid to do it, the teen who was anti-establishment that he'd some day work at one of the few industries that accepts you for who you are.  Or maybe I wouldn't tell them at all.  because all that uncertainty and confusion is what drove me to search for more out of life.  It's what led me here.

I turn 28 this week and I'm a Game Designer.  This entry was written on a plane on my way to Winnipeg for a vacation.  Returning to where it all started.  To recharge between projects, and celebrate with friends and family.  And when I get back to Halifax, I will begin a new chapter.  One that starts with me as a Game Designer, and takes me to new places, presents new challenges, and new adventures.  I have plans for my career, and it's only just now beginning.


1 comment:

Georgine Green Johns said...

Three years.  Wow!  I really enjoyed this post after reading your blog for so many years.  :)  Very happy for you!