“Life has given me a unique lens that keeps the world in focus.”
Vernon, so glad you can take time out to talk with me today.
“No problem at all, I’m glad to be able to help.”
We met a few years ago at a GDC. I think I was shocked and elated to meet another black game designer. In my experience there are not as many as I would like to see.
“Yes, that was some time ago. I was partially surprised as well, though I remember a friend of mine from school telling me she saw that the lead designer on an ‘airplane game’ was black in a video and that gave me some confidence that we weren’t completely non-existent in the industry.”
Hilarious. I assume that was my “airplane game,” 1942: Joint Strike. That’s good to hear. Can you give me a list of few of the games you’ve worked on?
- Desperate Housewives: The Game (
- Rise of the Argonauts (PC/PS3/360)
- Gardens of Time (Facebook)
- Star Wars: Commander (Android/iOS)
“I’ve… been around.”
You’ve worked on both free to play and console games. I’m sure there was a bit of adjustment there.
“There’s certainly an element of learning that comes into play whenever you’re working on a different platform or catering to a different audience. At the same time, the fundamentals of design remain fairly standard — whether you’re slaying a Satyr or solving a mystery, the player’s experience is always the first priority.”
“Stay in touch with your target player, and understand the nature of their experience.”
Player experience, I believe is key to a game’s success. That does seem to get lost within certain games.
“It always comes back to being able to define your target player, and then identifying with them enough to understand what they want out of your game.”
“The day to day responsibilities varied, but the generalized role definition is that of a player advocate. That manifests in a lot of ways in a strategy game, through planning new features or units, as well as observing player trends and opinions about the current state of the meta and adjusting accordingly.”
Did you always want to be a game designer? How did you get your first job in the game industry?
“I initially wanted to be a Game Programmer, back when Game Programmer and Game Designer were pretty much the same role. I attended school for a B.S. in Computer Science, and then an A.S. in Game Design & Development. By the end of my formal education, I found myself tending more toward the design side of things.”
“My first job in the game industry was the result of my first trip to the GDC in… 2005. I was one of those overzealous kids that went to every booth on the expo floor handing out business cards and CDs of my projects. I even remember my hustle when recruiters told me they were ‘out of cards’ — I gave them my card and a pen and told them to write their contact info on the back.”
“One booth in particular caught my eye because they were showing The Nightmare before Christmas on a monitor, I got to talking with an HR recruiter before I realized I was at the Disney booth and she told me that I was perfect for the internship program they were starting up.”
“Following an interview with the head of the program the next day, and several post-GDC calls to the recruiter I was accepted into the program. I moved out to California with 3 duffel bags and a laptop.”
Going to GDC to look for a job is a pricey risk. Not many can afford to attend. Not everyone who goes can get a job. I like how persistent you were. It does take a bit of pushing without being pushy to succeed.
“Pricey is an understatement, for sure. It took being cajoled by my girlfriend, and splitting a hotel room with some of my Full Sail classmates for me to feel comfortable taking the leap.”
“I find that wherever I go, people generally respect hustle, provided it’s applied with a decent amount of charm and tact.”
Where did you grow up?
“Upstate New York. Syracuse to be specific. There wasn’t much of a game industry out that way, so I had to bounce around the country a bit to find what I wanted.”
Where did you bounce?
“I went to school for Computer Science in Delaware, then to a Game Design school in Florida, before finally flying out to Los Angeles to work in games.”
So, you went to a couple different schools? Did you finish a formal education before going to the Game Design school? I assume the Game Design school was Full Sail.
“Ah yes, the plan was always to have a solid degree I could fall back on if I didn’t like game development as much as game playing.”
So, what did you get your undergraduate degree in? Computer Science? What school was this?
“Yes, specifically it was Computer Science with a Game Industry concentration at the University of Delaware. Part of the program there was that all students could make their own minor-esque specializations. I tried to get them to let me take Japanese but my dean thought it wasn’t difficult enough for the program.”
Did you feel the University program didn’t prepare you enough to enter the game industry? Why did you head to Florida?
“The concentration was effectively about 2 semesters of courses that I selected and justified as relevant to being successful in the game industry. I believe it included some computer graphics courses, creative writing, and leadership in business. Pretty general, and not specific to the needs of game development.”
“The key impetus to attend Full Sail (or any gaming school for that matter) was to get hands-on experience developing a game. It’s what anyone hiring is usually looking for — has this person contributed to a team, and have they learned from those experiences. That can come from solo projects, or group projects and attending a school specifically for that experience provided me with both.”
“…don’t forget to go out and experience life. You’ll be surprised how much of it relates.”
Did you find your Full Sail education useful? How well did it apply to your experience professionally?
“It familiarized me with the game development cycle, placed me onto teams with people I wouldn’t have otherwise worked with, and even simulated some of the random encounters that occur in the game industry.”
“Specifically, one of my better teachers, Dustin Clingman, had a very aptly named prop called the Wheel of Misfortune. We were initially given a project to complete in a reasonable time frame, and just when we thought we were finished he brought out this device and prompted each project lead to give it a spin. Some of the slices on the wheel included: ‘Publisher wants Multiplayer’, ‘Localize your Game’, and ‘Create a Tutorial’. Effectively all the things that could go wrong, did. It was a perfect exercise.”
That’s a fantastic set of curveballs.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t realize how perfect it is until you see it happen in the real world on a real project.”
As a game designer, what do you think is the most important trait or skill that makes one successful?
“Contextual Empathy. Stay in touch with your target player, and understand the nature of their experience.”
What advice would you give an aspiring game designer if they were trying to get into the industry today?
“Designers draw from a wide variety of influences to create their work. Take your courses, play your games, work on your projects — but don’t forget to go out and experience life. You’ll be surprised how much of it relates.”
If people wanted to connect with you, how could they reach you?
“I will say that I’m better at responding to emails than I am at responding to tweets.”
Thanks for your time, Vernon.
“It was my pleasure, Marcus.”