Letter to an Aspiring Game Designer – Chapter 1
Note: This is the first draft of the first chapter of a book I am working on. I’m publishing here in its raw, unedited form (sadly, with no pretty pictures either), to hear what people think about the format of the book.
Chapter 1: I kind of just… leapt into it
In the spring of 2001, just a few months before starting my career in the computer games industry, I still had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was about to graduate from what is known in Sweden as “gymnasiet”. I’m not really sure what the equivalent would be in your country, but you could probably figure it out for me. I was finishing twelfth grade, eighteen years old. It’s whatever you do prior to College or University or whatever.
This level of education, in Sweden at least, lets students make some preliminary choices on what they want to do after they graduate. Some schools offer theoretically focused programs, designed to prepare you for further schooling. Others are geared more towards job training. Mine was the latter – well, sort of. I was enrolled in a prestigious program tailored for aspiring musicians. I say prestigious because it was kind of rare for a school at this level to focus on such a profession, and with good reason. Musicians struggle to make a living all over the world, and Sweden is no exception. It was pretty clear to most of the students that a precious few of us would actually end up working as what we were training to become, at the very least we’d have to do a lot more practicing and studying after graduating before we’d even have a chance to compete for the few gigs that were available in Sweden.
My original reasons for enrolling in this school were as few as they were uninspired. I just simply couldn’t envision myself studying the sciences (ironically enough – stay with me and you’ll see why). Furthermore, working in a practical field such as plumbing or construction conjured images in my head of depressed middle-aged men who hated their lives (I didn’t know at the time quite how much bank these people actually made). My mom and grandma seemed very hopeful they’d see me do some sort of high-paying, high-status job such as doctor or lawyer, but getting there would require a massive commitment on my behalf, and I was pretty sure that making my parents happy at the expense of my own enjoyment was pretty low on my list of priorities. So I chose the path of least resistance; I liked playing the drums in my spare time, so why not train to do it properly. It felt like a pretty simple way to get through three more years of school without dying of boredom.
While I did enjoy studying music, eventually making substantial efforts to improve my understanding of the subject matter in spite of my laziness, I did know that I didn’t really feel like my future was to be in that industry. When I applied for further musical education, I did so mostly as a formality. Naturally, that came across in my applications, and I was rejected from every school I applied to. I can’t exactly say that I was sad about it. But I was at a loss for what to do in the future.
My biggest hobby at the time was playing games. If someone would have asked me whether I’d be interested in working in the games industry, I’d probably be intrigued, but have absolutely no idea how to proceed. You see, back in those days there weren’t that many schools teaching computer games development in Sweden. Correction: there were, but they were very technical and programming-focused. And I felt that I was no mathematician, and that programming and mathematics were pretty much one and the same.
The only other path to somehow working with games that I knew of was to write about them. And this I did do; I wrote for various amateur web sites and even landed a kind-of-sort-of Community Manager/Editor position at one of them. At one point, I was even looking to land a paying job when the then biggest games magazine in Sweden had me up to their office for an interview. I was interviewed by the Editor-in-Chief, the Godfather of Swedish games journalism, and felt right then and there that I was going to land the gig and make it big as a games writer. I didn’t, someone else got the job, but the experience still managed to awaken the slightest whisper of mad hope in the back of my mind. “Maybe there is something to all of this… maybe somehow I can actually find a way work in the games industry in one form or another”, I thought to myself. I just needed to figure out what exactly it was that I wanted to do, and how in the world I’d manage to get around to doing it.
After all this time, I hope you’ll forgive me for forgetting the odd detail, but I can’t seem to quite remember how it was that I ended up finding the ad for the entry-level QA job over in Canada that required the applicant to speak fluent Swedish. What I do remember doing is staring at the application form for the longest time, debating with myself, unsure about whether or not I should apply for the position. It was almost as if I were trying to talk myself out of it; people sometimes do that because they don’t want to get their hopes up and then get rejected. I think the biggest reason I had for not applying was how attractive the position seemed to be. My thought was “well, here’s an entry-level position in the coolest industry in the world, why would anyone even consider my application over the countless others they are bound to receive”. And that’s a valid question. What ultimately got me to fill in the form and send the application were the following two reasons:
1.) I guessed that there were probably hundreds of potential takers who’d all probably decided against applying for the job for the same reason that was holding me back
2.) I felt that I had nothing to lose from spending half an hour filling in an application, even if the odds of my getting the job were indeed low
This brings me to the very first tip I want to share with you:
TIP #1: If you’re even slightly interested in the position, just apply already
You have very little to lose from filling in an application for a job you’re even moderately interested in. The worst that can happen is that you don’t hear back from the employer, or that you are rejected immediately. Anything short of that is a win, even if you don’t ultimately get the position. If you get a phone interview, that’s a positive and useful experience. An in-person interview is even better, of course. And even if you feel unsure about whether you’d accept the job if you were offered it, you’ll be in a much better position to make that call when you’ve spoken to the people you’d be working with, inspected the premises and gotten a feel for the place. It’s much better to tell someone “no” than not even being asked.
If you feel that you are not quite qualified for the position, try to write a very specific application where you focus on every relevant quality and body of experience you may possess. When I applied for my first position in the industry, I made an effort to write a reasonably long cover letter where I flexed my language muscles, showing off my grasp of English as well as stressing how much I’d previously worked with the written word, as well as audio engineering – preferred if not essential qualities for someone working in the localization department.
I recall sending the application a few months before graduating. The reason I remember this is that I have a vivid image of myself chatting over a cup of coffee with some co-students about what was to become of us after we were done with studying. Everyone had some sort of plan, ranging from overly grandiose down to refreshingly mundane, but I struggled to even think of something. So I just mentioned in passing that I’d applied for a job overseas, but that I didn’t think that I’d end up getting it. And the more time passed, the less I expected anything to come of my application. So it totally caught me by surprise to get an email, well after graduating, where the HR department of the big-name developer/publisher wanted to schedule a phone interview with me. I was both ecstatic and nervous, to say the least, in part because I’d never done an interview over the phone before, or in English for that matter.
I couldn’t tell you in hindsight what the hell was said during that interview. Not only has too much time gone by for my memory of it to be particularly vivid, I remember being a bit of a nervous mess, focusing mostly on stringing together proper sentences in my third language, which was probably the right thing to do considering the nature of the position. Having successfully managed to not come across as a big, bumbling mess, I was asked to do a face-to-face interview at the Swedish branch of the company. Being that it would be too impractical to fly me over to Vancouver for an hour-long chat, my prospective employer chose to simply trust in the judgment of their Swedish counterparts. After finishing the interview in Stockholm, I was more convinced than ever that I wouldn’t get the job. I remember being amazingly nervous and jittery. I remembered thinking that unless the Swedish office had it in for the office in Canada, there’d be no way they would recommend me to advance in the process. The truth of that matter is still not known to me, but either way I was scheduled for yet another phone interview with my prospective employer. At this point, I really felt like there was an actual chance that I’d end up getting the job that I wasn’t even originally going to apply for. But I didn’t dare get my hopes up, and so ended up being more than a little surprised – in fact more like shocked – to find the job offer and contract in my inbox after returning home from my then-girlfriend’s country retreat.
For the following two months, I was absolutely ecstatic. I was so happy that I had “made it” by landing a QA job. Yes, it’s a bit stupid, but you have to think of these things in context; I was a kid with no plans for the future, unsure about what I wanted to spend my life doing and even less sure of my chances of achieving it. And now, suddenly, I was going to work for one of the biggest names in my favorite industry. The human mind is more than happy to jump to conclusions about what all of this would mean for my future, and some of the dreamy stuff that was racing through my head at the time has yet to materialize in the slightest. I was so happy – and inexperienced – that I even agreed to do things that in hindsight seem more than a little unprofessional. For example, I was told by my employer to go visit the Canadian embassy in London, because my application for a work permit could not be done from the Swedish consulate, or remotely. I accepted to do this even though it clearly said on the printable application forms on the embassy’s web site that there was a post address you could direct your application to. I thought that it was a given that the people over at my new job would be intelligent and well-educated enough to explore such options before forcing an eighteen-year-old to get on a plane to just to have a desk jockey stamp two pieces of paper without even looking at his face. But I digress – I was going to be making computer games before summer was even over. What a sudden, lucky twist of fate.
As I sit here writing this, I can’t help but think about my dear father. When he was very young his mother, my paternal grandmother, died in a plane crash. When he learned about this, I can imagine him feeling like it was the end of the world as he knew it. Meanwhile, towards the end of July of 2001, I was boarding an airplane and feeling like my world was ending too, in a way. I really felt like this was my happily-ever-after moment. In movies, the hopeful ones at least, the main character’s plane trip towards a promising new future is an excellent place to end things on a good note. However, real life is not a movie, and the take-off of my own plane didn’t end the story any more than the tragedy of my father’s youth ended the world. Life would move on in both our cases, and though my father’s outlook on life during his predicament must have been diametrically opposed to my own and I would never even consider wanting to go through what he has, I can’t help but wonder which one of us had the more realistic, useful mindset in the long run. Because my happiness knew no bounds as I was cruising across the Atlantic. I was on such a high that I took continued success for granted. From such a naïve and unfounded feeling of empowerment and superiority, there is nowhere to go but down.
And down I would go.