From an unlikely start playing lawnmower-themed games at age 5, to working at XBox, and now at an Indie studio developing games as a service, I talk origin stories, inspiration, and all things video game careers with Avery.
Until recently, contemporary gaming was largely a mystery to me. I do have fond memories childhood of playing Sonic The Hedgehog on my Sega Mega Drive, but my interest waned after dabbling with Tomb Raider 2 on my PC at Uni, and finding shooting at dogs with machine guns in Venice just too upsetting! It certainly has not escaped my notice though, that things have moved on *a lot* and gaming has radically increased in popularity across pretty much all social groups.
I’ve learned through Avery that there’s a lot of pressure to develop hit games for those working in the industry. We’ve shared a workspace during lockdown and I’ve observed him engrosed in spreadsheets, writing design documents, doing playtests of games in development (my colleagues are often concerned when they can hear gunshots in the background of my calls!), and generally saying lots of clever things in meetings with studios on the other side of the world.
It’s time I make this former Seattleite a suitably fancy coffee and ask him more about what he actually does all day in this latest installment of the “Fasincating lives” series…
What is your job title?
Head of Player Investment
What does that involve?
Specifically, I’m involved in day-to-day game design, business strategy, and software production. My job is to give players good reason to feel personally invested; to developing a simple activity into a lifestyle they feel a part of. Nowadays, there are lots of players but also lots of games. Players feel invested in different games for different reasons: they might have played for a long time, brought in friends and formed a community around it, created goods inside the game, or built up their skill level in the game. As developers we need to recognise and enable different ways to generate engagement that make sense for that game.
We’re aiming to enable a large number of players to build a life for themselves within a game as a home-away-from-home
“Player investment” doesn’t just mean micro-transactions or setting up an in-game shop for purchases. It’s about designing the metagame and character progression. We’re aiming to enable a large number of players to build a life for themselves within a game as a home-away-from-home. I work as a sort of internal consultant with our various design teams to make sure we’re making the most of every opportunity in a game.
I’ve worked on games across all platforms apart from VR, including single and multiplayer, free and paid-for games. I specialise in “games as a service”. These are games that are modified when live, as opposed to getting them perfect for a single launch. It’s like the difference between getting a restaurant ready to open (ready, aim, fire), versus running a restaurant or pivoting the business after it’s been going a while (ready, aim, steer). I find it very exciting to monitor data and see what’s going on with for our players, and in the wider, competitive market.
Another part of my job is attending video game conventions like GDC, E3, San Diego Comic Con, PAX, and speaking at panels. I like conferences, they exhaust but invigorate me! It’s fun to interact with the public and see their reactions to games, meet up with your group of convention friends (you’ll see lots of the same people at each event in the year), and pick up insights from around the industry. It’s where I learned a lot about the business of making a game.
What appealed to you about this career?
It’s not life-saving work, but making peoples’ experiences more fun is still very rewarding for me
I like selecting, designing and improving the right systems to influence fun within games. I’ve always liked role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons- any opportunity to use a system to allow players to express their imagination within certain constraints. It’s not life-saving work, but making peoples’ experiences more fun is still very rewarding for me.
How did you get interested in video games?
I’ve always loved games. I started programming games when I was five…they were terrible! This was on my first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, which had cassette tapes and a drive. It would load up a history trivia game (after about 30 minutes of waiting!), and I would programme games from the manual- just typing it in from the instructions, I didn’t understand what I was typing. Eventually I got cartridge games for it. A kid in the area had the same computer as me, and my Mom bought one of their games for me at a garage sale- it was a lawnmower game. I loved that game!
I would also play arcade games like Asteroids and Galaga [see here and here for some game play and snazzy/super annoying 80s gaming sounds!]. I’d go with friends but couldn’t afford to play much – a dollar worth of quarters didn’t get you very far! Instead I watched other players (as much as I could without bugging them), and memorised the demos that you can watch for free. There were also some arcade machines on the ferry I’d take with my Mom between Vancouver and Victoria. I’d always immediately head for them and play until we crossed.
As my computer grew outdated and the Atari crash left me feeling that players weren’t really respected by the games in the shop, I lost interest in games for a little while, then stumbled across a Nintendo that my cousins had and played Legend of Zelda for an entire Christmas break! It was amazing. Zelda had a whole had a whole world to explore with secrets and it’s own lore.
Eventually my family surprised me with an NES, then years later a Genesis. I was fascinated by games. On the only international holiday of my childhood I was lucky enough to visit Disneyland where instead of more rides I wanted to stay in the arcade to see the first Virtual Fighter cabinet I’d ever seen. I even skipped SeaWorld to spend as much time I could at “Virtual World” where there was an awesome LAN of Battletech MechWarrior cockpits I still remember fondly.
Then eventually, I remember getting my first Playstation while at Uni, and having difficulty staying in a three-hour evening Linguistics lecture with the brand new PlayStation sitting under my desk in an Electronics Boutique bag. I just wanted to get home and play Final Fantasy 7! By this time I had also found a community of arcade players around the same time I had a little more money to spend on quarters if I spent a little less on food.
Some of Avery’s favourite games:
- Street Fighter 3 Third Strike
- Legend of Zelda
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- Blade & Soul
- Cyberpunk 2077
- Peggle 2
- Kingdom Come Deliverance
- Summoners War
So you love games, but how did you end up working in this industry?
I didn’t really believe I could work in the industry as it was notoriously hard to break into. I was an undergrad working on different kinds of media for my Communications degree, I noticed there were dozens of books and papers about every form entertainment and media from Film to the Telegraph, and still virtually nobody was studying games, their means of production, and impact on society. I started writing papers about games specifically, and it turns out that was pretty good timing for that area of focus. My undergraduate honours thesis turned into an academic research job, then a Master’s Degree as I learned how to research and publish papers.
But before pursuing a PhD, I took a job inside the industry at Xbox, initially thinking this would give me the grounding I’d need in my academic career. After about a week, though, I realised I really loved working inside the games industry instead of studying it from the outside.
Since then I’ve worked for games companies in various different roles in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Orange County, and now here in London.
Please describe a “typical day” in your job…
My typical day changes every 6 months, as I’ll be working with different studios within my company, and on different games. At the moment, I’m working with a studio on the West Coast of the USA, so I sleep in and work shifted hours from London.
The first thing I do is check all my messages in Slack and email. This takes four hours because most communication is asynchronous between the teams, and replying usually requires doing a chunk of work like making strategic decisions, or doing a bit of design work.
Around 4pm I’ll start having meetings with the US and I’ll usually be back-to-back until around 7.30pm. They are working meetings on a video conference with 2-5 people where we make decisions about what systems to tackle, how they’ll work, and in what order. I’ll be working on things like game economy, character progression design, and crafting systems. There’s usually a spreadsheet to edit!
Besides design work, right now I’m also asked to look a lot at business strategy stuff – working with PC and console platforms, selecting sub-contractors for us to work with, and determining what sort of tools we need for player support. It’s really varied work. We’re still a start-up in how we operate, so everyone wears lots of hats. Even if you have a little experience in an area, you’ll probably end up pitching-in and working on it.
Usually there’s also a playtest in there somewhere. We play the latest build of the game and report feedback and bugs while checking out the systems hands-on. This is also social time for us as a team, as we play multiplayer- we basically hang out and shoot at co-workers!
What do you do to relax outside of work? – do you play video games for fun too?
I’m old enough to remember a time when you could have played every video game!
I don’t play as many video games as I probably should, but there are so many great ones you can’t be conversant in all of them. I’m old enough to remember a time when you could have played every video game! Live games tend to be a lifestyle choice for players, and I don’t have time to keep on top of many games, so I play what and when I can.
To get away from screens now and then, I like socialising with friends, going to concerts and nightclubs, and nerdy historical reenactment groups. I like to wear historical costumes from the European Middle Ages and do arts, sciences, and martial arts from this period.
Other than that, I like walking around East London on weekends, sampling the food and drink and enjoying the street art.
What are the best bits of your job?- what do you love?
Working with intelligent, enthusiastic people who are passionate about the product. The industry is lucky as there are a high proportion of motivated and talented people operating with integrity. It’s a passion industry and most people are there because they really care about games and gamers. Not a lot of game developers are in it for the money or hours!
Any entertainment medium can offer a welcome distraction or escape when people are having difficulty
For me, it’s also rewarding to interact with fans. To find out a game you’ve had a small part in making helped someone through a tough time or had a surprisingly positive impact on their life, that can be really touching. Any entertainment medium can offer a welcome distraction or escape when people are having difficulty. Especially during a lockdown- people are looking for ways to connect to one another. I’ve been told that players have met their partners playing a game I’ve worked on, visited online with sick loved ones in hospital, and reconnected with distant family members. It’s nice, as a developer, to feel that I played a tiny part in something that really did matter to someone.
I also like the excitement and trepidation around a game launch. This is stressful but exhilarating!
What are the biggest challenges?
A culture in which “crunch” is ok! This is the notorious extended period of working 60-100 hours per week for months to get a game ready for launch. It can be fun for a little while but not when it becomes overdone. Many studios now work hard to retain employees and will take a strong stance against crunch though, including mine.
making a game is like shooting a movie while inventing the camera at the same time
Another challenge is that games are hard to make while consumer expectations are high. It’s an old saying that making a game is like shooting a movie while inventing the camera at the same time. There are tools out there, but they always need to be modified and rebuilt. The final product requires developing a whole creative product and a technical platform involving the work of hundreds of people in teams across the world.
Players are a passionate community and now have high engagement with developers. Player passion can be a double-edged sword: they are highly technical, online, and highly vocal, so expectations around a game need to be carefully managed. There have also been negative incidents of online bullying and harassment, so developers need to be aware of this and moderate online communities carefully.
Business constraints can also be a challenge. With big games, it’s a hit driven business. Most games strike out and most studios can’t bear the risk of striking out 4 or 5 times before getting a home run. Likewise, even though the audience is growing it can be difficult to make a game stand out with literally tens of thousands of games coming out each year. You don’t have to wait for your Mom to bring one back from a garage sale, you can go online and play thousands of titles for free! In a lot of ways that’s good, but it presents some challenges bringing a game to market profitably.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I think I am most proud of helping launch other people’s careers. I love helping others grow their roles in the industry, and I am thrilled to have some small role in the backstory of some of the strongest, smartest leaders in the industry now…. I Hope they’ll give me a job one day!
What is the most common reaction you get when you tell people what your job is?
It’s changed. “So you get to play games all day??”, is what people used to say. But now there’s more awareness of the industry, so the most common question most people ask is: “what are you working on, can you tell me?”
Are there any frequent misconceptions about your job and how would you clarify these?
That everyone’s a programmer. I’m a terrible coder, as I learned from a young age!
Any advice to others wanting to follow this career?
My path was a little but obtuse and not recommended! I did an academic undergrad and a master’s degree focussed on social sciences and the political economy of video games. Years on I’m still studying the business of games and what motivates players.
participate in game jams. These are short film festival type events where you spend three days with a team of volunteers making a game
But the games industry doesn’t have a hard degree requirement. Now the industry is more open than ever, with a permeable membrane between fan and professional. I’d say participate in game jams. These are short film festival type events where you spend three days with a team of volunteers making a game. You’ll know if you like it!
Spend some time learning about the different roles and where your skills fit in. It’s a huge
industry with 2D artists, programmers, game designers, producers, voice actors, professional cosplayers, journalists, marketing teams… Figure out what you want to do, and what you have the capability to do, then do a bit of research- the life of a programmer if different to an ESports commentator.
Just get started even if you don’t know what you’re doing!
What would you be doing if you weren’t in this career?
Probably still be an academic studying games from the outside. Or a chemist (a chaotic neutral one, not evil – don’t worry!).
What’s next for you in your career?
Launching our next game!
So, what are you working on and can you tell me? (see, I’ve learned!!)
Haha! We’ll be launching in no time, so watch this space…
Thank you, Avery, for a fascinating glimpse into the world of making games! I really like the idea that the objective is to maximise fun for people, and love that games bring people together and generate connections (especially at this time!). It was refreshing to hear that developers are so passionate and think of themselves as players and fans too. Good luck with your next launch!