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Five things I’ve learned going from Student to Developer

By Liam McDonald, February 2, 2016 · Failbetter

Liam McDonald, known around here as Mac, was a Developer on Sunless Sea and now Zubmariner. He’s on twitter as @wgoodspeed

Just over three years ago I was enrolling in a Games Development course. I had never coded before. Now, I’m very proud to be a Developer with Failbetter Games. The process of getting here has often felt like having my head stuck in a waterfall, continually being flooded with knowledge, only occasionally having the chance to pull myself out to breathe and to reflect. This is one of those rare times. I’d like to use it to share five things I think might be useful to the next person on a similar journey.

1. Don’t hunt whales

Research studios and don’t box yourself in by only searching online.

When I started my studies, it felt like there was the world between me and the studios I wanted to work for. That impression didn’t change when I started job hunting. This was partly because of my naive bias towards studios that I had known of for a while – typically big studios. When searching for a role in games development, if you look beyond job sites, you’ll realise quite quickly that there are many varied opportunities out there. Sometimes it’s meeting an interesting person at a conference or contacting a studio directly that leads you down a path to a job.

Don’t write one CV and canvas the world with it. Don’t blanket the big studios with applications. Decide what sort of games that you want to help make. Find as many examples of those games as you can. Think about why those games inspire you. Soon you’ll find yourself with a precious list of interesting places you want to work at, and it will be full of studios you hadn’t heard of in places you hadn’t considered.

2. Saturate yourself with anything that interests you

Be open to new things, what you’ll learn will surprise you.

One of the things that really struck me when I started working in the industry was just how pigeon-holed I had become – from the genres of games I was interested in, to the very medium through which games entered my world. The newsletters you get, the accounts you follow, are your window into the industry. Make sure you cast your net widely, so that you’re exposed to areas of the industry you might not otherwise ever experience.

The benefits from this approach isn’t always immediate. But on a basic level it will improve your awareness of what’s going on in the industry. More importantly it will allow you to develop your own thoughts and ideas on a range of genres, and provide you with a broader vocabulary.

3. “I find that if I just sit down to think… The solution presents itself!” – Professor Henry Jones

Have a life outside your work.

I’ve usually got three or four tech problems sloshing around in my head while I’m trying to pursue whatever creative interest I’m currently working on. The struggle of working all day, coming home and not having the head room to do your fun side project is real. The struggle is real, people.

Something that has become painfully apparent to me is the importance of living outside your work. Fixating on one topic or routine will burn you out. Just as it’s true that a varied taste in games is a great resource for creativity, so are broad general interests. The ideas that I find most interesting come most often when I’m doing something completely unrelated. This is especially true for finding solutions to a technical problem that you’ve been staring at for days. The great moments come when that completely unrelated activity gives you direct inspiration for your work – you can claim divine genius.

4. You stupid boy! *flips table over*

Don’t be precious, take on feedback and refine your ideas.

Fresh out of college with rosy cheeks and an apple in my hand, I was perhaps too eager to voice my ideas and opinions. This was somewhat down to my exuberance about having things to say about games design and finally being in a place I could say it.

What I learned though, is that the feedback from a rejected idea is often more valuable than the idea itself. There are very good reasons why a lot of things that are suggested by players to developers aren’t implemented. Appreciate when you get feedback from those you’re working with and work out why what you’re suggesting doesn’t work. Then refine your ideas and apply what you’ve learned to the next pitch.

5. You need help

Ask for help, there’s nothing wrong with it.

It took me far too long to realise that there isn’t anything wrong with asking for help. Instead, I’d opt to toil in my inadequacy until it was plain to see that I was lost. The thing about asking for help is: everyone benefits. You aren’t stuck on a task wasting your own time and development time. It also lets your manager know a bit more about your abilities and where you might need a hand in the future. It’s also just a hell of a lot easier than freaking out. If you try to bottle up your stumbling blocks and struggle on, you’ll work yourself silly trying to prove you can achieve the impossible, and will eventually burn out.

This industry provides a constant learning curve – you’re never far from something that’s completely new to you. It is how you handle work you find challenging that determines whether you are a good developer and an asset to your studio. I’m lucky enough to be at a studio where saying you’ve failed isn’t a problem – the goal is to fail better and better, until you only suck a little.

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