A Wise Old Man's Valuable Lesson In Game Development

"If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion." - Spock, Star Trek 2 - The Wrath Of Khan

James Tiberius Kirk's career is an interesting one. A fictional one, yet one which we can all learn from. Let's not focus too much on that Kobyashi Maru stuff where Kirk cheated like a bastard to get by. No, let's focus instead on his Captaincy. As a Captain, Kirk did it all. He commanded a starship and explored the far reaches of space. Green lady aliens were ensnared by his charms and often frisky limbs. He punched a giant man-lizard in the neck. He got pissed on Romulan Ale and probably told the best stories to his crew-mates.

Starfleet were so impressed with Captain Kirk that they ended up making him an Admiral. Sadly, this is where it all went wrong for him. Kirk spent far too much time in meetings over Starfleet uniform redesigns. What noise should the red alert siren make? Is the current one too alarming as an alarm? That was swiftly followed by a session on Space Excel as he hastily worked out which engineer would suit that tricky warp core alignment issue. Sometimes he would look mournfully out of the porthole into space and think back. What became of that green lady alien?

This appears to be the destiny of many career professionals. You start out being an enthusiastic rebel with a brainspace full of ideas. You'll make mistakes, but those mistakes are lessons which will ultimately form you as an individual in the industry. Which industry, you say? GAMES! The games industry! Everyone's favourite industry! The strangest industry!

The Best Plans...

The games industry is indeed a strange beast; I guess that's one of the things that interested me - the numerous possibilities. I can't lie - videogames was not the plan. Before videogames, I wanted to be an animator. As a student, I religiously devoured the likes of John K and Chuck Jones. I painstakingly put together the most intricate of storyboards and animatics. I bit off more than I could chew with my final project, though the enthusiasm was hard to ignore. Sadly, after all of that dedication, the jobs were not there. The animation industry is cyclic - large numbers of animators get employed at once. I guess we missed the rush...

A phone number on a Post-It note given to me by my Scouse computer tutor gave me a lifeline and my foot in the door of a place called Jester Interactive. I started my games industry career in September 1999 and before I knew it, I was directing people in motion capture suits with tape wrapped around their knees to help give life to a gimp-suited character for an unreleased project on the original PlayStation. As I said earlier - the games industry is indeed a strange beast.

Jester did have a knack of exploiting green recruits - like myself at the time - with "job dependency deadlines" which often had us sleeping in the office to try to complete - and ultimately fail to complete - a badly-managed Dreamcast project. Peter Moore's email to other development studios no doubt ended many more Dreamcast projects. Jester continued to be a rollercoaster of redundancy and then un-redundancy following a rebirth. The variety of jobs spanned from music creation software to racing games and I adapted all opportunities with gusto.

I worked my way up the ranks of the company, though I often amused management with pleas to not promote me to higher positions. I mean... what was wrong with the job I had if I enjoyed it so much? More responsibility, more money. The money is great for paying bills, but it shouldn't be the motivating factor. Creativity does a lot for the soul. The job should be one you love and continue to love, otherwise you will be counting the days to payday.

The pattern of moving up the ranks continued - career improvement. Although I was in a variety of leadership roles, I still had the time and ability to work on what I loved - the artwork. I love creating art for videogames - even the boring stuff. I would often embrace requests for icon design and screenshot taking as I continued to become ingrained in the intricate processes of game development - food for my hungry brains. I soon specialised in UI/UX - a position which was the end result of constant discipline evolution. Animation, texture creation, environmental art creation - all of these helped flavour my UI work and it's something I would recommend to you all. Sticking to one discipline won't expand your horizons that much. These were my giant man-lizard punching years. The years which involved a lot of grimy, hands-on development work. The work I truly enjoyed.

Where It All Goes Wrong.

You'll know when they'll make you an Admiral. It starts off being a celebration of you and those around you. "You've made it!". Yes, I guess I have. I should be very proud of myself, right? Well done, me! Admiral Me! You'll take on board a lot more work than you could possibly handle, though consider it more of a challenge than a mistake of management. It'll soon dawn on you that all that cool stuff which you got into the industry for gets chucked onto the back burner. You'll have no time for all that exciting art-type stuff because you'll be busy managing a team of developers doing the work that you really would like to be doing instead of filling out Excel documents with an assortment of numbers. Oh god. Those numbers.

Is that a target painted on my back? Yes, it is. "Don't be paranoid!" mentions one of your numerous superiors. It's hard not to feel paranoid with a target painted on your back. You'll soon be criticised for your artistic ability due to the lack of time you have to actually create art. Even though you'll be giving a shedload of artistic feedback to your team members, you'll still be criticised. And before you know it...

It's been a strange couple of weeks looking for a new job. Games industry job? Of course. I can't see myself quitting now. I've been a game developer for so long. 15 years. No, no. This is still my passion. I can't quit now. It would be foolish to even consider the notion.

There was an important (and very recent) decision in my life. Do I stick to being an Admiral? Or do I go back to being a Captain? Being a Lead of such a large team of people in such a high profile project gave me an amazing amount of experience in the joys of Scrum and Agile proficiencies. What are those, you ask? You really don't want to know. Trust me. At the end of the day, you have to work out if you will truly enjoy the job. If you hate the job, get the fuck out of there. Life is too short to suffer such a fate.

I don't think I enjoyed my previous job. I loved many aspects of it, but I missed that feeling of getting dirty with pixels and textures; that hands-on part of the job which felt like I had more of a connection with the game itself. There were other unsavoury aspects which I won't dwell on too much; that painted target was far too tempting for some. ("Don't be paranoid!")

Kicked Out Of One Door, Welcomed Into Another.

So I'm back in a new job and - this is the best bit - doing what I loved doing for the vast majority of my career. During the interview for the role, it was mentioned that the job would be "all art, no management" for me. It was a lucky opportunity that I had to take over other roles in consideration. Call me an old romantic, but I miss those early days of being a developer. I'm glad that excitement is back in my heart again.

So please learn from my experiences if you want to work in videogames. You'll know when the time is right to step back. Stepping back isn't a bad thing if it's a step back to a more enjoyable job experience. Hell, all of this is probably irrelevant to you as you have dreams of becoming a famous indie developer like that Swedish bloke in the hat. You are your own Admiral at that point - maybe with enough money to buy his own goddam starship. Surely that really is living the dream.

Saying that, those giant man-lizards won't punch themselves...