How I Got Into Games

This is a story. It is told in the same life lessons I give new designers and ends with my number one piece of advice for getting into games, specifically for those who think they can’t.

Lesson One: Do everything, enjoy nothing.

This is obviously a joke. But as game developers will tell you, we spend the majority of our time making games for people to play, rarely playing them ourselves. It’s only recently that I’ve started to realize I need to stop putting the “pedal to the metal” and just relax.

Before I got into games, I didn’t even know what “modding” was. Hint: it’s what game developers call the act of making a modification to an existing game. Such as Skyrim, the base game made by developers, and Skyrim mods, made by fans, or people like me who embarked on an epic piece of branching narrative you can see in my Trials of Dushara article. [internal link coming soon]

What I did know, however, was that I did everything you could sign up for. Since a kid, I was involved in piano, dance, and vocal lessons. I also did sports (only soccer), but took tennis lessons, golf lessons, and swimming lessons since I was three. Thankfully, in high school, I pared down to the basics: theatre, debate, and drama. I was a pretty introverted kid, but getting up on a stage was easy. I couldn’t see anyone! Debate, however, kicked my teenage ass.

Getting up in front of your peers and people’s parents to be rated on how well you can make an argument about a topic you only studied for 30min is terrifying. There was also immense pressure. We had a four-diamond coach. This meant he was an elite among elites. I was on the top team, with top players.

Don’t get enough scores, and you don’t get enough points to get through to the next stage. If you don’t get through the next stage, you don’t advance and have to sit with your peers for a full day waiting for everyone who did. Not fun. And I didn’t even know how to play.

This, my friends, is game design.

Lesson 2: Never stop learning, constantly know nothing

When I got to college, I quit debate, theatre, and band. No more performing! I vowed to myself. I was done with that life. Time to start a new life filled with video games, anime, and writing.

Yes, you know me by now. I failed. Miserably.

Learning the ropes

Running an anime convention known as Anime Iowa taught me how to manage people. While I wrote travel articles and did volunteer work, I learned how to observe the world around me and make random friends in coffee shops. I visited 10 countries, fell in love with San Francisco, and started my own company by 21 to share a new way to crowdsource stories and art pieces.

That was when the fun really kicked in.

I was back in debate, only this time for Business. Speaking in front of my peers, their professors, other people’s professors, I argued about why my storytelling platform was going to “change the world.” How it “put you in control of the story, not as a reader, but as a creator.”

I had no idea that I was talking about games. All I knew was that I was talking, people were listening, and I loved it. I described how the world would work, how the readers would engage with content, and most importantly, how they would impact the world, the narrative, with their choices.

Letting go of the rope

Then a small indie convention known as EPX Con brought in indie developers from around the world. We interviewed them FAQ style. What was it like to work in games? How did you get there? No one had answers, but basically, even if you knew nothing, you could be in games. You needed to be willing to learn, and learn fast.

I could do that.

By the end of my short start up career, I had interviewed over 400 people about storytelling. I had learned how to build a business from nothing, helped other students start their ideas, and gained valuable contacts for the rest of my life. But as I ended my final pitch speech for my interactive fiction game, there was one thought that terrified me more than anything:

I wasn’t making a service; I was making a game.

And I had no idea how.

Lessons 3: Find what you love, do it so much you hate it.

The years of 2015 and 2016 were the most important years of my life. They were harder on me in ways I could never imagine. I found out what I loved, and what I loved uprooted my very foundations as a writing.

I loved writing, yes, but in games, I love systems.

Finding my passion

Systems are the foundational structure of a game. For an easy example, think of playing a game and taking damage. When a player takes damage, that damage amount translates back into a “health system” to identify not just how much damage they took, but from what, if it could be reduced, and finally calculate the damage they actually took.

In narrative, systems provide the foundational structure for both the player’s choices and how the player sees the story.

I loved it.

I spent hours figuring how a methodology for story telling (internal link) to get emotional and organic conversation. I loved this so much, I wrote a piece on Journey‘s mechanics-driven storytelling.

Mechanics-driven storytelling got me into the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC). It became the basis of my thesis on combining game mechanics and story, and propelled my career at Crystal Dynamics.

But I can’t design systems and write. At least, not at the same time. And I don’t want to choose.

Making it a career

Systems rely on your game engine, your tools, pipelines, stakeholders in the narrative, such as directors, and when you mix mechanics (or in-game actions) into this mix, you’ve get your lead animator and you standing on the mocap (motion capture) stage figuring out how to characterize a certain character’s interacts for things like holding a piece of paper or standing idly. It’s insane!

Narrative is in every part of game design. Game design relies on systems to create structures players understand. Systems rely on people like me to figure out how we can make it as easy as possible for players to use them. None of this requires me to do any actual creative writing.

I hate it. And it’s okay to hate the things you love.

My Number One Piece of Advice

Don’t be afraid to do something everyone else tells you you can’t.

Lauryn Ash