Reflection 2: Looking Back, then Forward

So, following my last post, I've had to do a follow up piece. This time, the purpose was to look back at our time so far in the programme, and reevaluate our original assessment. This is particularly in light of a series of guest speakers who were kind enough to come and speak to us about their own journeys and jobs. The long and short of it is that it's been a great experience so far. I'm getting a lot more out of the DESS than I originally anticipated, and I can genuinely say with confidence now that I made the right choice taking it.

But now on the essay. It's in English this time because I was allowed. That and frankly as much as I want to practice my French writing skills, the time it would have taken to write this all coherently would have been much more than I could afford (and it would still look like it's written by an anglophone; I really need to write that piece about my language issues one of these days...).

I generally consider myself to be fairly consistent when it comes to my convictions, not out of any particular stubbornness or refusal to change, but mainly due to having a fairly solid sense of self. Following the series of industry guest speakers, I believe I can say with confidence that this sense has not been shaken, and I am more firm in my prior beliefs than ever. However, that doesn’t mean my perspective hasn’t evolved somewhat as a result. There are indeed a few caveats very much worthy of mentioning.


I’ll start with the ideas that were reinforced. One thing that struck me in particular was how many of the speakers followed paths similar to the one I’ve planned for myself. That is to say, graduate, go to a major studio, and then eventually leave for a small to medium sized studio once I’ve accumulated the skills, experience, and connections necessary to be successful in that environment. This is by no means a coincidence: I actively planned this path in accordance with what I observed to be the norm. I spent a great deal of time studying the industry before joining the DESS, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this revelation might be more poignant for some of my fellow classmates compared to myself. That being said, I was very pleased to see that so many former graduates of the DESS succeeded in getting into major positions. It’s obvious that the likes of Simon Darveau and Nicola Godin are not slouches, and their abilities coupled with their training and connections brought them quite far. I was a little disappointed Jean-François Champagne didn’t come from a DESS background, since his story was perhaps the most closely aligned with my own ambitions. I kid of course.  After all I’m hardly aiming to perfectly reproduce someone else’s life. That notion sounds dreadfully boring.


Another reconfirmation I was quite pleased with was the relevance of my polyvalence. It’s been repeatedly hammered into me that larger companies want specialisation in their designers. I understand and appreciate the logic of this preference of course, but I could never entirely abandon the notion that having a collection of other skills would still be a valuable asset. While I will definitely be revising my portfolio to better reflect the specific skills I wish to focus on, I’ve gained some confidence in knowing that the things I will be purging from my site will not have been wasted. My multimedia skills, even those that aren’t crucial to game design, remain very useful assets, and even if the path from tester to designer seems much less applicable than it used to be (at least based on the stories I hear about it), I can still keep that bit of professional experience under my belt. Knowing that is rather reassuring.


While I’m on the subject of focus, I’ll address a subject that did actually strike me as being particularly pertinent to me personally: the different classifications of designers. Even before Louis-Martin Guay’s class that covered the subject, I did know the basic concept of designers not all being clumped into one single title. Level designers, lead designers, technical directors, and the like were not completely alien terms to me. As of late, I’ve been trying to determine how to classify myself among those categories. It’s an idea I’ve always been apprehensive about, mainly out of fear of typecasting myself into a particular category and as a result locking myself out of others due to the specialisation mindset. Even during the portion of that class where we were asked to assign ourselves to a particular category it was obvious to me that the generalist “Game Designer” position was still the most appealing. But once I got past that, I did find that I naturally swayed much more towards mechanics design and lead design than any of the other types, and mechanics more than anything. These have been my main focuses for quite some time, though it’s been hard to judge my focus conclusively in the past due to having to take on many other roles as well during projects. To call back to my MBTI result (INTJ, by the way), I do have a habit of taking on responsibility for tasks if I feel no one else is doing so adequately. It has led to me performing many tasks for projects I would rather not do, if given the choice.


Since that “types of designers” class, I’ve noticed that I do in fact often find myself playing the role of a mechanics designer more than any other type. It’s certainly obvious in our various class projects. I do think a lot of that has to do with the fact that our class is full of designers (not to mention very competent individuals), so I don’t have to take on a lot of the responsibilities I would otherwise need to handle. I actually find myself trusting my teammates to take care of certain tasks without any supervision whatsoever, which is astoundingly liberating, but that’s another story for another piece. The point is, when I’m left with fewer responsibilities on my shoulders, I’ve been finding myself naturally shifting towards mechanics design, and while I still consider myself a generalist designer (I do after all still really enjoy playing with narrative and the other types of design), I’m much more comfortable now with the idea of ending up in a mechanics design position. Lead design continues to remains a close second. But that said since working with some of my classmates, I’ve found myself feeling much more comfortable leaving management to someone else if I know they are capable.


Conversely, while my vision for a role in design has focused, my vision for a place of employment has broadened. Since the latter half of last year, I had already expanded my list of places I would be willing to work for, as it became more and more clear that my skills at the time made me ill-suited for what the larger companies were looking for. Coming into this program I did get the impression that I might be able to return to my original plan. However, I have to admit that I’ve gradually become much more open to the idea of immediately jumping into a smaller company after graduation. A big part of my desire to work among the AAAs was to get connections and familiarity with larger scale development. I had the impression that in order to get into the smaller scene in a meaningful way (i.e. employment), you either had to be an accomplished developer, or come from a AAA background. However, meeting the guest speakers and attending La Guilde events has made it much more clear to me how connected the Montreal indie game development scene is. After speaking with guest speakers and my professors I now feel like it actually would be quite valid to jump right into the small-medium studio realm right out of the programme. In fact, I wonder if it might even be a better means to acquire good connections than the AAA companies, at least on the local level. I would also be lying if I said Louis-Felix’s comment about hiring grads for Borealys didn’t intrigue me quite a fair bit. A part of me would still like to have some AAA titles under my belt, but it’s another case where I wouldn’t mind if I deviated from my planned path.


With regards to the guest speakers in general, I think what I found most remarkable was the sheer diversity they brought to the table. It’s impressive that the gaming industry can accommodate so many different disciplines and experiences in a meaningful manner. That fact most hit me on the 6th of October, when we were visited by Ulric Corbeil and Jodee Allen. There was something striking about the fact that two people with such different backgrounds seemingly unrelated to games would end up in the industry. I found it interesting how well some skills and knowledge can translate into the realm of games. It came back to the polyvalence notion from earlier. If nothing else, it encouraged me to keep up my non-gaming hobbies.


Mind you, of all the guest speakers I believe Jean-François Champagne was the one I found the most personally interesting. As I mentioned earlier, he closely followed my ideal path. His role in the side missions of Deus Ex Human Revolution sounds like something akin to a dream job for me. This should come as no surprise; I did after all mention my interest in Eidos and its intellectual properties in my previous text. More recent stories about Eidos and its relationship with Square Enix have left me doubting if the studio still represents the type of environment I would like to work in, but that is something I still need to research before making any conclusive judgements.


Going back to the side mission job, Jean-François presented a role that was very appealing to me. Having nearly full control of the mechanics and narrative for an entire section of a game such as Human Revolution strikes me as being almost more pertinent than the creative director role in such a large project. Furthermore, Jean-François mentioned being able to address subjects that he wouldn’t have been able to in the main story: relationships between side characters, interesting philosophical issues, the exploration of perspectives and player choice, etc. These are all types of ideas I’d like to explore in my own games. It really touched on my desire to remain involved with all aspects of design. I would rather have control over a holistic component like that than be stuck focusing on a single game aspect. It’s led me to wonder just how common it is to end up in that sort of position, and if it really is realistic for me to specifically target such a role. This seems like something I won’t be able to plan for in any real measure, but it is a thought I’ll be keeping in the back of my head as I explore the industry. And if it turns out not to be realistic in a larger studio, then hopefully by shifting into the smaller parts of the industry I’ll find that level of creative control.


That said, Simon Darveau did also bring about some thoughts regarding creative authority. The idea of a “closing designer” isn’t something I really ever thought about, but it does make sense, and it seems fairly in line with the type of role I’ve often ended up with in most of my projects. I’ll frequently take on the “final edit” tasks specifically to ensure that lingering issues or flaws are decisively resolved. Conceited as it might sound, I know that I have good design sensibilities. Generally I’ve been able to recognise and identify good or poor design choices fairly well. In fact, I’ve occasionally observed that I’m better at improving existing designs than producing my own. As such, a closing role might suit my skills well. As of yet, I have no idea how to pursue such a position aside from taking the time to become a seasoned designer, but it is another thought for me to keep in mind as I continue my journey.


To conclude, the guest speakers were among my favourite part of the program so far, and they along with the programme in general have rapidly given me additional clarity in my thoughts regarding where I want to go within this industry. As I alluded to in my previous piece, I already had a fairly solid impression of what I want to pursue after graduation. That general outline hasn’t changed, though it has developed to account for contingencies and possibilities I hadn’t considered before. I now have a better idea of how to focus my image and where I’m prepared to look for future opportunities. I’ve also regained some of the confidence I lost after my unsuccessful job hunt, knowing now that given the resources at my disposal, I have a significantly improved chance of breaking into the industry. With the sheer volume of potential connections I’ve gained access to through the DESS alone, I sense that I might have already breached the hardest barrier of getting my foot in the door, and (assuming the programme goes well for me, which I’m confident it will) now it’s just a matter of taking the first steps.


Of course, I more or less expected to get connections (perhaps not as many as I’ve gotten, but at least more than I had before). It was one of the three things I applied to the DESS for in the first place. The other two were to give me an environment in which to fuel my design work and to provide the resources (mostly manpower) I might need to develop additional portfolio pieces. I’ve gotten all of those things in abundance from the DESS already, and I know that I’ll be getting a great deal more. But what really pleasantly surprised me was that despite all my prior knowledge, I am still learning a great deal. Not all that much on the technical side (at least nothing I couldn’t learn from a website or video), but from a personal one. I’ve discovered practical things about the industry I could only learn hearing from those in its trenches, but more importantly I’ve learned about how I can work towards making myself fit into that ecosystem. My outlook for the future has strengthened, and knowing that others have come through the path I’m now taking and have managed to be successful has left me convinced that I can do the same. As for the rest, it’s just a matter of how much work I put into it. Fortunately, given this motivation, I’m more than ready to go the distance. As I’ve joked to a few friends since, “if I still can’t find a job within a year after the DESS with all the resources I now have, then there’s something seriously wrong with me”.