“Omnia mea mecum porto”
(All that I have I carry with me)
Grace, how are you today?
“Doing well, thanks.”
I’m glad you’ve made some time to chat with me today. Can you give me your full job title and where you are currently employed?
“Sure. I’m a Senior Level Designer at nWay, a mobile games company located in San Francisco, California.”
What’s the current title you are working on? Or can you say?
“I’m currently working on ChronoBlade, an action-RPG for mobile devices.”
I love ChronoBlade. I remember playing it when it was on Facebook. A lot of work has gone into making it a mobile game.
“Definitely. It’s not just the UI that needs an overhaul (to be compatible with touch devices), but the game systems and the gameplay loops have to also be compatible with how we interact with mobile games.”
Can you give a bit more insight into what your responsibilities are from day to day? As a level designer I assume you are in some level building tool most of the time.
“Yes, you’re right. I have Unity 3D open pretty much all the time—for building, testing, and iterating on gameplay. As a level designer at nWay, my daily responsibilities are actually a bit more broad than what may be typical, since I’m also responsible for developing the enemy combat for my levels. This means I also spent a fair amount of time on things like enemy animations, hit frames, and damage.”
If I recall, you have schooling in architecture, right? So, level building may be a bit more familiar. Is combat design something you’ve entered into recently?
“That’s right. I did my undergrad in architecture, which seems to be a relatively common launchpad for people into game development, especially for level designers and level artists. I’ve actually done a fair amount of combat design for a long time in my career, starting with the Star Wars: The Force Unleashed series.”
Where did you complete your undergraduate degree? Did you go on to graduate school?
“UC Berkeley (Go Bears!). I also have a degree in Art History. I actually contemplated graduate school, but just so happened that a contract QA gig at LucasArts turned into a permanent position… and the rest is history. I’m currently reading Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson (he runs the Oniropolis Twitter) and am so jealous of the far-reaching writing he’s done. The book (and the Twitter account) are all about imagined landscapes—utopias, dystopias, and everything in between—that come from a wide variety of sources: art and architecture, literature, film, comics, and video games.”
You still have half a mind in the world of architecture. Let’s delve into your game history. You graduated from Berkeley with a degree in architecture and art history. I don’t think anyone would predict you would go into a QA job at a game company. How did that come about?
“My mom certainly did not predict (nor approve)!”
Parental disapproval is a running theme throughout most of these interviews.
“I think she has since come around, although the relative instability of the industry causes her to worry. My parents always encouraged me and my siblings’ artistic, creative talents, so it wasn’t a matter of pressure to become a doctor or something. The unfamiliarity was probably the source of disapproval.”
“To answer your previous question—at some point late in my college years, I had felt that architecture wasn’t exactly the career field that I wanted to pursue. I was always more interested in world building on a more abstract level. I remember working on a school project about a library, but I was way more interested in designing a system to store and access the library’s contents. That’s not to say that I didn’t like designing spaces, because that’s a big part of level design, but I wanted to do something where I could possibly do both. That didn’t seem like a possibility in architecture, but it’s certainly more possible in games!”
“After graduation, I applied for a contract QA gig at LucasArts doing testing in the multiplayer lab for Star Wars: Battlefront II.”
First application, first job?
Lucky you. So, how did you move from QA into game creation?
“After Battlefront went gold, a few of us were picked up as permanent hires in the QA department. I was assigned to the Star Wars: Galaxies team, where the focus was less on bug-hunting per se, but on qualitative feedback. It gave me a chance to work on how to articulate my opinions and to provide gameplay suggestions on a daily basis. One day (about six months into the job), my manager informed me and others in the QA department that the in-house development studio was looking for junior designers and suggested that we apply. There was a written take-home test and an interview. I was so nervous!”
Well, you must have done pretty well. So, you were in QA about 6 months before the opportunity presented itself?
“Yeah, it’s like the old saying: ’Timing is everything.’ LucasArts was ramping up its ’next-gen’ (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) development and I was able to join an amazing studio and project with little industry experience. I consider myself very lucky in that regard.”
So, how has your architecture degree helped in your career? Are there some things you have to unteach yourself? I imagine, some elements don’t work in both spaces.
“It has helped in a variety of ways. The first and most obvious is a foundation in how spaces relate to one another and what common spatial tropes exist. We can all develop this skill by paying attention to our surroundings, especially our built environment. I think that the most common challenge I’ve encountered with building a virtual space is accounting for the game camera; in that respect, working on games (at least third-person action games) is more like designing a stage set than a real building.”
“Most importantly, I think an architecture degree was invaluable for the experience of a rigorous design education. You are presented with requirements, you do research and look for inspiration, then develop and iterate on a solution, and finally present it to your peers. Juried panels taught me to have a thick skin and accept criticism.”
The stage set, is great insight.
“Thanks! I’ve definitely heard it echoed by my peers, so I can’t lay claim to it.”
You mentioned you have Unity open almost every day. What other programs do you use? What are your favorite/most used development tools?
“Excel! I think everything from widgets to airplanes is probably designed in Excel, to some degree.”
“I haven’t had to dive into Maya while working on ChronoBlade, but I have used it in the past to edit animations (I’m no animator, but I can position and scale a collision box) and even as a level editor.”
“A text editor is key. I’ll use either Notepad++ or Sublime Text.”
How long have you been in the industry? And knowing what you know now, what do you wish you knew when you first started?
“I just crossed my 10-year mark this past summer! I look back with little regret. Each year, each project was a new lesson. I was pretty naive about the industry coming into it, but I’m pretty happy with how it’s all turned out.”
Ten years, makes you a veteran! Congrats. What trait or skill is most important in your area of expertise?
“Communication is everything.”
What advice would you give to someone pursuing your career?
“Be a sponge. Absorb everything. You’ll never know what random source of inspiration may trigger your next idea.”
“Develop an expertise. Become an expert in something that you love and share your knowledge.”
Describe yourself in one sentence. What is your tagline?
“Turns out I do have a tag line! it’s been written on my wrist all along: ‘Omnia mea mecum porto’ (All that I have I carry with me).
Is that Latin?
“Yup! I guess it’s not a tag line so much as it is my life credo or mantra.”
Grace, thank you for your time today.
“My pleasure. Nice talking to you!”