Christine Brownell is an independent game design consultant who knows a thing or two about how to carve your own path in the professional world when it comes to utilizing your talents to make a paycheck. We got a chance to talk to Christine about her experiences leading up to this point and what advice she has for young professionals working towards their own independent goals.
UnCollege: So to start things off, tell us a little bit about what you do professionally and what areas you like to counsel people in.
Christine: I’ve been involved in game development for fourteen years now, working at various video game companies as well as independently. In the very beginning, I started out as a game tester and I was able to work my way up from there. I became a game designer and then from there a senior designer, lead designer, creative director. My first game as a designer was World Of Warcraft, and I worked on the Sims for a long time -- I was at Electronic Arts for almost five years.
Since 2013 I’ve been working independently, and I’m basically doing the same kinds of things that I was doing while I was working for larger companies. I’ve done contract game design, writing documents, designing features. I’ve done audits, those are evaluations of games, providing feedback and making suggestions for things that need to be improved or things that could improve player retention. Right now I’m working with a friend who I used to work with at Playfish and we’re working on a mobile game together. We’re not only doing the design, but also the coding of the game, a first for me. We’re also doing, you know, marketing, production, planning how we’re going to deploy to devices. We have to do everything, wear every hat, because there are only two of us.
When I get fellows from UnCollege they’re usually interested in game development. They want to know how to get into the industry or how to make a game on their own. I’ve worked with two fellows so far and they were headed in different directions, they had different goals. One wanted to go back to college so, along with an independent project, we focused on getting him an internship for the summer. The other person that I worked with was very interested in going his own way, creating his own game and working independently. There are a lot of other considerations you have to keep in mind if you want to work entirely on your own versus going the more traditional (school) route - a lot of skills to learn outside of just game design -- project planning, running a business, marketing. Things like that.
How did you get started in games and design in the first place? What drew you to the area? Was it storytelling? Visual design? Interactivity?
I’ve always been a huge gamer, even as a kid. I had a Nintendo (NES) that I loved; it was a big part of my childhood. When I was a kid, game design wasn’t as much of an option as it is now in terms of a career. There weren’t different editors or engines that let people make games at home. So I went the traditional route, I went to college and at that point there weren’t many schools that offered game development degrees. And at the time I thought I wanted to be a game artist. So I got a degree in art rather than trying to do something that was game specific. I’m actually really glad I did that in hindsight.
I graduated in 2000 from college and I was in a good area as far as the game industry goes -- southern California. But it’s a really hard industry to break into if you don’t have any experience. I had a couple of friends that were in the industry and they just said, “Get in any way you can!” Even with a college degree I said, “You know what, I’m going to.” I quit my job and I got a job as a game tester. It was a big risk. I was making eight dollars an hour or something like that but I knew that once I was in I might have the ability to move up and apply for a job internally and, because I was already working there, I might have a better chance of getting it. So that was kind of my foot in the door.
One of the most important things that I learned while being a tester was that although game artists contributed significantly to the quality and outcome of the final game, that they could make the game look awesome, it was designers that made the game play awesome. The game isn’t likely to be fun or successful if the designer hasn’t done his/her job. So that experience shifted my plans from being a game artist to being a game designer because that intrigued me.
After working in QA for nine months or so, a position on World Of Warcraft became available. I applied for that along with almost the entire QA department -- it was very competitive. Obviously everyone wanted to work on it. There were some highs and lows during the process but eventually I got the job and became a quest designer. It was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and pushing really hard and putting in a lot of effort.
Where did you stumble when you first started out in this field? What advice would you have for any young professionals looking to learn from your experience?
In the game industry, the job is challenging and the hours are really long. That’s been part of the industry long before I joined. If you work in games you’re going to end up in crunch time on some project or another. Some companies do everything they can to keep their employees from having to work crazy hours. And there are others who are kind of a bit more relaxed about it, unfortunately. On one particular project, I worked 7 days a week, and they were really long days, sometimes ten hours a day, or more. There were a lot of people on the team doing that. But I’ve also worked on other projects where I was working fairly normal hours and people were able to be with their families on the weekends. But it’s definitely a struggle for anyone who wants to get into the industry. There are going to be very long hours sometimes, and you need to be prepared for that. For me when I was on projects that were in crunch I was at a point in my life where I didn’t have a lot of outside responsibilities and so I was able to kind of manage that. I didn’t have a family at the time. If I had, that would have been more of a problem. It’s definitely something that as an industry, we need to work on and improve.
The other thing that has been a struggle for me is that there aren’t a lot of women working in games. I feel that I’ve been lucky that I’ve not had experiences where people have been outwardly sexist, but I know it absolutely does happen. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing people, both male and female, largely it’s been a positive experience. I think sexism in the industry has more to do with unconscious biases that people have and don’t realize. Guys speaking over you, not valuing your opinions as much, taking credit for ideas that were yours -- that kind of thing -- subtle.
In the beginning of my career, I had a really hard time speaking up at meetings. I was in the room with a bunch of guys at every meeting -- and I was expected to speak up and contribute, and at the time, that was very intimidating. Just speaking up was really challenging for me, especially in an environment where the loudest voice gets the attention, and it was hard to be the loudest. This was something I had to learn; I had to learn to speak up even if someone happened to speak up at the same time, like, don’t back off. Don’t give up that moment you had to say something. I think learning to trust myself and have confidence in my opinions was all very much part of the learning process in my first two to three years in the industry.
I think another big area of learning for me was that game designers have to take a lot of feedback. They get a lot of criticism -- sometimes this is constructive criticism, and sometimes they get unhelpful criticism as well. I think learning to manage that and learning to listen versus getting defensive is key. It’s hard to get feedback, especially if it’s not good, right? “Hey, I don’t like that thing you made.” That’s not always the easiest thing to hear and designers hear that all the time. So learning to hear that and be okay with it but to also use that as a tool is important. Then you can look to find the answer to the problem. You can say, “Well that’s really interesting. Tell me why you don’t like that.”
What is the most important thing for a self-directed learner to master when trying to achieve their goals?
What I think I would want to say to anyone who is following a path of self-directed learning is something that took me a really long time to learn -- that practice is the most important part of becoming great at anything. And that it’s ok to be bad at something when you first start out. I think this actually stops people from trying sometimes. If something seems too hard, some people don’t even want to start. They just say, “That’s beyond my current ability. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it.” It took me forever to learn that practice and consistency is always more important. Someone who is willing to put in the time to practice a skill is going to end up being the person that excels at that skill. And failure is part of the process. Getting it wrong is just a step on the way to getting it right.
To find out more information on careers and how to successfully navigate them when you’re just starting out, check out UnCollege’s resources here.