Working in an often hyper-specialised industry, it’s easy to sometimes feel locked into a career path. With so many jobs relying on previous experience and non-exchangeable skills, the prospect of taking your career in a drastic new direction can be a daunting one.
But while it often relies on a specific set of skills, the games industry is a broad one – with a range of disciplines available for those looking for a new challenge, while still remaining in
The reasons for making such a change are numerous: from dealing with burnout from your previous career path, to simply being inspired by those around you to follow another path – as Sean Gorman, an artist turned level designer at Rocksteady Studios notes:
“As an artist, I really enjoyed creating and capturing an artistic style in my work. It feels great to provide the player with an appealing aesthetic, creating assets, materials and arrangements that focus them on the adjectives used within these spaces.
“Over time however, I began to grow more interested in the player experience and player function. Working closely with designers, I would see how they think and focus on the verbs used inside of the spaces they were creating, to craft meaningful unique experiences for the player.
“As I grew more curious, I began to learn from them. Then after developing my own skills in this area over many months, through reading, studying and personal projects, I eventually made the decision to pursue a career as a level designer myself.”
“I mostly ended up on the business and publishing side by accident,” adds Alastair Hebson, who moved to become head of business & publishing at Superhot, after spending a career working as a game designer at Guerilla Games.
“Being in triple-A game design for most of my twenties was great but I felt like a change was needed. I left with cash in the bank, but without much of a plan. I was going to write a book. I ended up starting a micro mobile studio instead.
“The pitching, biz dev, operations and studio strategy side was way more interesting than expected. Business felt like a natural fit.
“I’ve always found building, creating, and improving things inherently fun and exciting. As a game designer all that energy went into helping make games. Now I put it into helping build and grow businesses. Seeing an idea or hunch or early pitch develop into a fully-fledged ‘thing’ is still magic to me. If I can help make that happen, even better.”
James Ganis meanwhile, who went from programming to analytics at Sumo Leamington, has this to add: “I enjoyed programming as a means to an end rather than an end in-and-of-itself. Over time, I found that my career as a ‘pure’ programmer wasn’t giving me the same creative freedoms that I’d enjoyed in the types of projects that had gotten me into programming in the first place. I like data analysis because you’re constantly asking new questions and thinking of creative ways to solve them with the data you have. This is often quite the exploratory adventure and requires programming as a tool, but without the code you write being a product.”
A NEW JOURNEY
So now that they’ve set off on this new career path, what is it that excites our switchers about their new roles?
“Through these new challenges, I’m able to focus on the player experience, creating interesting scenarios for the player to engage with, using a recipe of different tools,” says Gorman.
“I’m even able to draw from my experience as an environment artist, which adds an extra dimension to the complexity of interest in the levels that I create. Most exciting to me is seeing how players engage differently with the spaces that I create, seeing how they react to everything from the subtle nuances of the level to the many different challenges directed at them.”
“I feel like a detective,” adds Ganis. “People often have a question about why something happens or what we should do for XYZ feature in a game, that feels like something one can only guess at, and it feels glorious to be able to sit there and be like “wait, maybe I can find out the real truth, from the data itself”. I also like that the types of challenges you face are varied all the time.”
Of course, being able to make these career moves requires support from your employer and colleagues. Hannah Trevellion, who went from admin assistant to project planner at Sumo Sheffield, shares her pespective:
“I started this job during lockdown, so it was a lot harder than being in the office as I couldn’t ‘meet’ people and easily sit in on meetings. When I initially applied for the role, the world was starting to close down due to COVID. We were in the middle of packing up kit and sending out 200 plus monitors and arranging taxis home for people, so I didn’t have much time to ask questions to people currently in the role.
“Once I secured the job, I had numerous people reach out to see if I needed help with anything, regular calls to check in on me and how I am getting on. It has been such a smooth transition over to my new role!”
“Some colleagues thought it was a massive mistake. Others thought it was the best idea ever,” adds Hebson. “Everyone was supportive and that was immensely helpful.”
“I’ve been lucky that despite current circumstances; I have great teachers around me helping me with my starter task and answering any questions I have,” notes Idene Roozbayani, who went from IT technician to junior designer at Sumo Newcastle.
“My mentor, Emily Knox has been providing me with fantastic feedback and helped me a lot with getting my head around the complexities of creating levels from scratch. Special shout out to Lucy Smith and Sam Ward who have also both been fantastic teachers”
Beyond just the support of those around you, you’re going to need to rely on having a set of transferable skills in order to help get you started. When our skills at work are often so specialised, how adaptable have our panel found themselves?
“There is a space between environment qrtists and level designers, where both teams are able to work together in a shared understanding,” says Gorman. “Particularly because both departments work on the same areas together in tandem. Because of this, a lot of my skills were transferable into level design.
“For example, the importance of understanding space and scale. As I also understand the processes used inside of the environment art team, I find it easier to communicate across departments. I did have to learn some new skills, such as improve my understanding of visual scripting, but overall the shift was very rewarding. Most important was adjusting one’s focus to function over form.”
“It’s a massive oversimplification, but a lot of game design is trying to reassure your team that your great plan or idea is actually smart and sensible and worth pursuing,” adds Hebson. “It turns out that this is a very transferable skill.
“Creative problem solving is also massively transferable. Trying to figure out a sensible path forward while balancing creative constraints, conflicts, budget, schedule and team bandwidth is naturally important for both disciplines. Being comfortable exploring many different (possibly ridiculous) solutions for any given problem is something that being a game designer definitely helped me with.
“Reading and understanding contracts was probably one of the most obvious (and boring) skills I needed to pick up.”
“General coding skills were transferrable,” notes Ganis, “and knowledge of the project’s codebase, for setting up analytics events in the project we were working on. New skills are/will be learning the particular software for each project and learning industry standards and approaches for our projects, which are on a scale beyond the hobby projects I have done previously.”
Big changes like this are hardly made on a whim – what kind of preparation was needed in advance of the move?
“Personally I did a lot of reading into different methodologies,” says Trevellion. “I watched numerous ‘making of’ videos on YouTube, and listened to various GDC talks – All of which really helped me get to where I am today. I continue to listen to gaming podcasts and take Udemy courses regularly.”
“I read a bunch of books, watched a lot of talks and spoke to a lot of very helpful people,” notes Hebson.
“Fairly shortly after branching out I attended some business and pitch training organised by Games London which was very useful. Luckily, I also found myself working alongside some talented business-type people, and watching them operate was extremely educational.”
“Before moving into my new role, I studied for several months,” adds Gorman. “I read books on the topic, I studied online courses that helped me develop my skills and understanding for the role, as well as developing personal work in this area for many months. This training allowed me to slot smoothly into the new role, and it’s worked very well so far.”
With all of that said, if you yourself are looking to make a career switch, Hebson has some words of advice for you:
“Sometimes in your career, you just have to do what feels right and hope for the best, even if it’s terrifying at the time.”