Jeffrey Clarke – Game Designer
“I am the sassy gay friend of design.”
Mr. Jeffrey Clarke, how are you today?
“I’m doing well. Perhaps not as well rested as I would like on a Saturday, but otherwise productive and well.”
What is your current job title?
“My current title is ‘Game Designer’.”
Where do you work?
“I work at KIXEYE.”
Can you list some of the games you’ve contributed to throughout your career?
“I have worked to support Battle Pirates, War Commander, and Backyard Monsters – mostly contributing to their development processes, rather than to in game features.”
“I’ve directly contributed to design on TOME: Immortal Arena, Armor, and War Commander: Rogue Assault.”
Can you describe what your typical work day is like as a Game Designer?
“I’m going to include the time before I actually get into work for this, since work sort of infiltrates all hours of my day.”
“I wake up pretty early in the morning and check email, maybe respond to a few. I get ready and head to work. I’m in the office by around 8:30am. For the next hour and a half I typically read emails and sort of map out what I’m going to be doing for the day, and also finish tasks I may have left behind from the previous day. I’ll also update my local copy and also push a new build to my environment.”
“My day technically begins with my first meeting around 10:00am. It’s a sync up of the entire product team to make sure we know what everyone is working on. This is when I find whether or not I need something from the product team, or whether the schedule I wrote earlier is going to change.”
“I do a mixture of content design and balance design, which means I spend a lot of time in spreadsheets. I have three monitors at my workstation, and at any given time there could be two monitors with spreadsheets. I use Excel and Google sheets, depending on what I’m changing. I also have a lot of side conversations throughout the day with the artists and level designers to make sure they’re aware of any balance changes I’m making, or any new art I need for new characters, units, or buildings.”
“On top of all of this, I’m usually pushing data to my environment and checking game balance as I make changes. It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 50 minutes to get a build, so I have a lot of time to start one and then go have discussions as needed, then test and iterate for about 10 minutes before starting the next build.”
“That’s the broad-strokes of my day. I usually try and leave the office by 6, but sometimes have been there pretty late.”
That’s a pretty full day. 10 hours roughly. Must be exhausting.
“It gets pretty tiring sometimes. But it can be really rewarding to see something I’ve created come to life, and have it be something people enjoy playing. My partner makes fun of me, though, because I’ll go to bed sometimes at, like, 9:30pm. Of course, I let him sleep in during the week, so…”
The trials of the significant other who doesn’t work in games.
“He’s in tech, but I don’t know if he’s ever had the luxury of working a 36 hour day because of crunch time. Haha, lucky him.”
Crunch time does seem to be unique to the game industry. Any war stories from a hard crunch you’ve had to do?
“I could share a good one or a bad one. But I think I’ll just do both.”
“The good first: Once when I was on Armor, we had to make a video for a company presentation. I had already shown up to the office pretty early, probably around 8:00am. It took much of the day to get a working build and half block out what we wanted to show for this video. By around 6:00pm we were ready to start filming. Derek (the lead designer), Arron( the Art Director on the team ), and I worked together to start putting together footage and film so that we would be able to have a movie to cut up the next day for the demo. We worked until around midnight, since that’s when trains stopped working, and cut out. The next day I showed up at my usual, unnecessarily early time, and helped shoot a few final shots before it got cut up and edited. The video was a huge success. Totally worth staying late.”
“The bad was on TOME: Immortal Arena. We had a November deadline to hit and it was rapidly approaching. Overall, the team was on crunch time, working until about 10 or so. Well, some serious show-stopper bugs crept up the day before the deadline. I was in QA at the time. All of QA and most engineers stayed and pulled an all nighter, working hard into the night to fix bugs, but build times were around 50 minutes at this time, and so there was a lot of sitting around. By about two in the morning, people were dropping like flies. A few people went home via taxi to return in the morning (or in at least one case, not return.) As the other game teams started coming in, I think I was on my third or fourth redbull, I had drank probably twelve cups of coffee since the day before as well. I should have gone home at this point, as a few people who left earlier came in. Worked throughout the day. By about 3:30pm, the build looked great. Then, come to find out the CEO wasn’t even in that day and it was given, what felt, the most cursory of glances and then it was as though nothing happened. We didn’t quite slip the date, but it definitely felt like an exercise in futility – none of the hard work felt recognized. I went home around 6 p.m., passed out, and slept until the next day.”
“I was trying to figure out whether or not I wanted to go into academia and go into grad school, or law school, or if I wanted to find something else to do with my life.”
Crunch is always hard. It’s rarely understood and felt by the user. All that matters in the end is the player had fun with your game. Doesn’t make it less painful.
“I think that’s one thing that players never realize is just how much work it takes to make a game. We, as developers (lumping everyone involved into that term), really try hard to make players like a game. Sometimes, we do some crazy stuff that breaks a lot of stuff. It’s not easy to fix, painful, all of that. The player sees the game and has fun. They don’t see the blood, sweat, and tears behind it.”
Where did you grow up?
“I grew up in a suburban part of northern San Diego county. It’s technically city-of, but it’s a community called ‘Rancho Bernardo.’ Upper middle class, predominately white, and mostly republican. Also, my neighborhood was right near a sprawling development of 55+ Only housing. So, it made for an interesting dynamic as a kid. Not a lot of kids on my block.”
Well, how were you first exposed to video games in such a elder community?
“I don’t remember the first time it happened. My brother (I’m a twin) and I had friends with Playstations and Nintendo 64’s. This was the era of Blockbuster Video, too, and you could rent a video game console. So my brother and I would do that every holiday or during school breaks, when we had saved gift cards or allowance. I got my first console (a used PS1, during the era of PS2) when I was in 7th grade. Then my brother and I graduated into PC games during High School. And I’ve been a pretty heavy PC gamer ever since. My brother goes back and forth between console games and PC games.”
You were in Quality Assurance prior to becoming a game designer, if I remember correctly. But before that, you were in law school or something, right?
“Yeah. So, I have a degree in Literature. I was trying to figure out whether or not I wanted to go into academia and go into grad school, or law school, or if I wanted to find something else to do with my life. I opted for law school. I attended one for about 6 months before I got over it. I liked learning, but I didn’t like the work.”
Law School is a somewhat a large difference between a career in academia and law.
“True. I had pretty different voices in my head directing me at what it was I wanted to do with my life. I felt like academia was fitting because, and I don’t want to sound too egotistical or anything, I was pretty good at the literary analysis of my undergraduate career. Law school presented a different challenge, but I liked writing and found the court-room stuff interesting. But of course, 95% of a career in law, and law school by extension, is writing. And none of it is as interesting as I had hoped. It gave me the chance to take a good, hard look at what it was I wanted to do with myself. However, I would never have said, even at this point in my life, that I was going to work in video games.”
You made the leap into games. How did the opportunity come about?
“So, I dropped out of law school and had about, uh, I think it was 6 months before I had to start paying back my student loans or re-embark into grad school and pick up more loans.”
“I started looking for work. I had done mostly office-administration sort of work, so I started for that, first in San Diego. Then I expanded to Los Angeles, where I had a friend living at the time. I of course applied to a few game studios (like everyone’s favorite, Blizzard), but never heard anything back. Then I was talking to another friend of mine who lived in San Francisco. He pointed me at a few craigslist postings.”
“I got a call from KIXEYE on Monday, interviewed on Wednesday, and then got the job by Friday. I started two weeks later. The position was for a Customer Support Specialist, a position I would be in for about six months.”
When you applied at the other studios, like Blizzard, was it for QA/Customer Support jobs as well? Or other positions?
“I can’t remember all the roles. I think a few of them were for game-master or customer support. A few were office manager roles, and one was for an internal communications specialist (that was the Blizzard position.) I always had thought, previously, that QA required a ton more technological skills than I possessed, so most of the positions I applied to were more admin/support roles.”
“Curiosity at what makes a game fun, or different, or unique, or maybe not fun – I think that’s important to any game designer.”
You have a degree in literature… little to no technical skills… some might say you were completely unqualified for the position you were taking? How has your education and experience up until that point helped you with your new position?
“That’s sort of tough. For the office manager roles, I relied on my experience doing administrative tasks in past positions. But for a lot of the customer service / game master type roles, I relied heavily on my background in, well, dealing with people and my ability to communicate well.”
“In college, I was a resident assistant. I shared responsibility over about 150 residents in, I think, about 50 apartments, with two other people. And then halfway through the year, it became just the two of us. I worked really hard that year to deal with my residents and their problems. I had a few nights where I was woken up because ‘So-and-so wouldn’t turn off the light,’ or because my residents thought it would be a good idea to start playing a game of ‘ultimate ninja’ right outside my window. I was also the senior speaker at my graduation, and spoke in front of, like, 1500 students. Add to that whatever their families were, and it was a lot of people.”
You started in Customer Support, then moved to QA, and now a Game Designer. Did you plan this career path after you started or did you “fall into” this direction?
“So, yes and no? When I was in Customer Support, I actually wanted a different path. I had a really good rapport with the VP of Engineering at the time, and actually wanted to be her executive assistant. We had a long chat about it over coffee and then she turned me down, but promised to help work and find a role for me. Maybe a week later, or two, I was having a talk to the director of Quality about a role. A few months after that, I was in QA.”
“Once in QA, I had no idea what I was going to do. I wasn’t really sure what the different ‘paths’ were from here. I started working with the lead designer on Tome at the time, and he really fostered my interest in it, but I also had interests in all other aspects of development. I was still really drawn to the creativity that design allowed me to express, and so even after the lead designer left to a different team, we continued to talk and chat and collaborate, to some extent. It was sort of him that really helped me to aim in the design direction.”
“On top of that, my QA lead was really big on fostering other skills for his analysts, and so he sort of pushed me to work closer with the designers on Tome – come up with new guardians, analyze the game as a player and offer more feedback, etc. Then I had the chance to be a designer on Armor, and took it.”
I think it is key you spoke with others about other opportunities. If you had not made it known you had other interests you may have remained in Customer Service, when your interests lie elsewhere.
“I agree. While I didn’t always have the confidence to sort of have those talks, I had some supportive friends who knew I wanted to do more. They sort of pushed me to have those first discussions. That being said, I enjoyed the people I worked with in CS, and many of them who are no longer with the company I am still friends with. There was something of a natural progression through the hierarchy there, but … no offense to CS people … I’m glad I got out.”
Well, CS has the patience of saints. What skill or trait is important to a game designer?
“That’s a really tough question. While I think that there is a number of skills/traits, I think curiosity is a really important trait. The yearning to know why, the yearning of ‘what if I do this?’ I feel like, if I think of all the little things I do every day, the biggest thing is that I ask a lot of questions. I try to probe through a problem and figure out why it’s happening as much as how I want to solve it. Curiosity at what makes a game fun, or different, or unique, or maybe not fun – I think that’s important to any game designer.”
What is one of your favorite tools or programs to use? What can’t you work without
“Okay, I’m going to name two tools that essentially do the same thing for me. So I’m sort of cheating, but I promise I’m only bending the rules.”
“Google Sheets / Microsoft Excel. These two programs form the foundation of everything I do at work. I model data in them, I have the game data in Excel. I can easily share and collaborate over Google Sheets. I think that, without it – if I was putting data directly into the code to make the game work – things would be awful. A – Because I’m secretly bad at math. And B – The game probably would be terribly imbalanced.”
How do you keep up on the latest game design trends and techniques? Any websites your frequent? Twitter accounts you follow? Or other things like that?
“Now’s when I start feeling somewhat self-conscious. The biggest thing I do to keep aware of trends and techniques is that I just play a lot of games. While I’m somewhat platform specific (PC), I am usually very aware of the games coming out for all platforms. I frequently check on those sort of dates, watch trailers, etc. But for the most part, I play a lot of games, and a lot of different type of games. I might only play a racing game for an hour, but I’ll try it if it’s something new and making waves.”
“Occasionally, I check things like GDC Panel schedules, or I check Game Informer. Gamasutra is also a terrific place for some game design discussions for many platforms. Actually, I tend to check Gamasutra once a month to read through articles.”
Gamasutra is a solid site. They will have articles predicting trends and such. Are there trends or features you see appearing in games that interest you?
“VR. I got the chance to work with some VR tech while I was on Armor, and it is phenomenal. Games like Star Citizen and Elite:Dangerous do VR with the Oculus very well. I worry it is more of a ‘fad’ – sort of like how 3D TV’s were. But it brings a whole new level of immersion, and I really think that it allows for game-makers to really start messing with the medium – through interesting mechanics, or story-telling, or even just visuals in the fact it’s much more immersive.”
Yeah, I fear a “must have VR experience” is probably 2 generations away.
“Yeah. I really do agree with that, sadly. But the tech we have now is still really good.”
If you had to give advice to someone wanting to become a game designer, what would you tell them?
“I recently was having this same sort of discussion. And I think I would say this:”
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy to get into. But work on your own projects, dissect other games to figure out what makes them good, and always keep playing games. Not just one game, but as many games as you can. And don’t give up, if it’s what you want to do.”
If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say? What is your tagline?
“Uuuugh. I knew you were going to ask this question. I was dreading it.”
“I think it would be this, and I’ll give a reason why after.”
“I am the sassy gay friend of design.”
“Why? Because I’ll tell you what you’re doing is wrong. But I will support you with whatever you want to do. I’m a very feeling person, but I also have no problem calling you out on your bullshit. It works pretty well for me, I think. A friend once wanted to hire me back because he simply ‘wanted a pit bull’ on his side. I contended I was more like a chihuahua in a sweater.”
That is perfect. If people wanted to reach you, how can they contact you?
“Well, there’s always email in this day and age. email@example.com I have a linkedin, as well https://www.linkedin.com/in/jroyalclarke . I don’t really do Twitter or any of those things, mostly since I don’t really want them.”
Thanks for your time today, Jeffrey!
“Thank you, Marcus. I hope that I’m at least a little helpful, if not an entertaining interview.”
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