Working his way up from junior designer to game director at Traveller's Tales and then from senior to lead games designer at Sperasoft, Steven Thornton has risen through the ranks of two triple-A game studios in the last six years. In his current role, Thornton is contributing to post-launch seasonal updates for Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege, working in partnership with Ubisoft Montreal
Here he gives some advice to those looking to advance within their current studio, and what to be cautious of along the way.
Patience or chance might bring you the next step in your career, but it could happen a lot faster if you make it an active goal of your working life.
It’s easy to do a good job and for nobody to notice, it’s easy for your presence to get lost in a large team. Often it’s the lead behind your immediate lead who actually has the power to promote you, and it can take a long time for enough word of your value to pass to them by osmosis. If your day to day tasks don’t pass through the eye line of the right boss, there are plenty of valid reasons to put yourself there. Include them when you send your best email reports, speak up in their meetings, join studio-wide committees beyond the project, if you have a specific information or a question for them visit their desk or office personally. Don’t be shy, but don’t be annoying either; keep the interaction concise and valuable. It won’t take much to get on their radar.
Many cringe at the concept, but self-promotion translates into actual promotions. This effort doesn’t need to distract from your day to day job; it’s an inevitable side effect of increasing your engagement with the project and improving your team-wide involvement and communication. Climbing the ladder is about becoming a larger presence within the team, and finding new ways to contribute.
Making games is messy; there’s a lot of complex moving parts, they all touch and overlap with each other, and everyone is very busy. Even in triple-A, there are always swathes of data going undocumented, systems with only part-time support, old processes struggling under updates. Find a segment in that messy Venn Diagram and plant a flag in it.
In my first year at TT I volunteered to centralise the character unlocks, collectable locations and store economy in one document; tasks I noticed were connected but spread across multiple designers or managed on a level by level basis. Games always need global tracking for pacing and consistency; many even become export sheets to control the in-game data. Creating or taking charge of these is great foreshadowing for management roles; they expand your team contact, raise your visibility, and get you out of the trenches into the big picture. Find something that will help the team, and provide it.
For non-designers, a great way to contribute globally is to create new tools and systems. An artist colleague of mine basically 'invented' a promotion for himself by creating a new destruction flow tool for props and managing the small team implementing it.
Almost any move up the ladder will involve drifting further away from hands-on development and deeper into team management. Demonstrating strong soft skills is essential. Management has a lot of political optics even in the games industry; showing sensitivity to team morale by doing small things like taking a heated discussion off the floor to a private room can go a long way.
Look out for opportunities to prove yourself in faux management roles: Assist in mentoring the junior members of the team, if key staff leave in the white-hot centre of development: Jump in and fill that hole. If you get an interim title, drive it like you didn’t steal it. “Battlefield promotions” tend to stick, and several of my own ladder leaps came from working the next job up from mine alongside my actual job for just a few weeks. But be wary that your salary doesn’t fall behind your titles and workload.
Find the Balance
Finding a place in the hierarchy that has the right balance between influence over the game direction and detachment from the details can be difficult; even impossible in the wrong studio structure. Really look at the titles you want, and think about what you might have to give up to wield them. I have seen many talented people promote themselves out of job satisfaction. When climbing the ladder, find the rung you want to hold on to; you don’t need to be at the top to be happy.
This piece is part of our New Year New Job coverage for the start of 2018. If you want to get in touch to share your insight, email [email protected].