Byron Atkinson-Jones is a game designer, writer, speaker and teacher from the United Kingdom (Byron's twitter). He has been in the games industry for 21 years and continues to expand his own knowledge as well as other on the art of video game design. He's worked on a number of games, including FIFA, Football Manager, and NHL. He is also a tutor in his spare time and has students of various ages from around the world.
Want to know the best ways in which to get a job at Ubisoft? Or are you unsure which field of game design you should become an expert in? In this interview, Byron discusses the best ways for young video game designers to get into the games industry.
Hi Byron, thanks a lot for speaking to me. Firstly, did you study game design at university?
There weren’t any games courses when I went to university - I did computer science.
Has your degree been important for you in order to work in the industry? If you were studying now would you do a game design course instead?
The degree is the first foot in the door of most companies, it certainly helped me as the Job I was going for required a degree. I wouldn’t do a games course these days; I’ve not really been that impressed by the courses I’ve seen up close.
Do you think it is difficult for young wannabe game designers to get into the industry? I guess a degree isn't enough, they need to do something that makes themselves stand out, right?
Anybody starting out as a designer is tough enough anywhere, unless you’ve got a proven track record of published games it’s a hard call to allow somebody very new to be at the helm of a product that’s going to cost a lot of money. Most I knew went in via a different route such as QA.
What would you recommend to university graduates trying to make their way in the industry?
Make as many games as they can to add to their portfolio, it’s important to finish those games and get them in front of as many people as possible. It’s never been easier to do that now that we have too, so like Unity.
I guess they don't necessarily have to show they can come up with any original ideas do they? Only that they can do what is likely to be required of them at a studio?
Originality isn’t necessary but the ability to commit to and finish a game is. When I was interviewing for a AAA (as in the one interviewing potential candidates) I was always more impressed by those that came in with Games they were making either by themselves or with others.
Are there certain elements of game design that are more in demand than others? For example, should a student concentrate on one element more than others in order to get a step ahead?
No, early on in their careers they should be generalists. Chances are they are not going to get to work on what they want from day one so why restrict what you can apply for?
So it is best to narrow your field as you grow into the industry I guess? Although it is important to have a broad range of skills?
Better to go with the flow, see where your career takes you. I never imagined when I started out as a coder I would end up doing stand-up comedy for instance.
I guess young wannabe game designers shouldn't put so much pressure on themselves then?
Yeah, totally, no need to rush!
Looking back, is there anything different you would have done in your career?
No, I’m pretty happy with the way it’s turned out.
Is the teaching going well?
I love teaching - it's amazing seeing somebody who thinks they can't make a game leave at the end of the week having made a game.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the course you offer?
It is a course we do in various locations around London. The class size is usually 22 people. Mostly in the age range of 16 to 22 and it's open to all.
You said earlier that you have not been that impressed with game design courses that you have seen, why is this the case?
In general, I wouldn’t recommend a games course, mainly because games courses are in their relative infancy and the wider world hasn’t caught up - for instance what if you try to get a non-games job? There could be bias against you if the recruiter doesn’t consider a games course a ‘real’ degree. Of course that bias is ridiculous but it’s a possibility currently. Also, as with all universities the quality level is vastly different. This is down to funding and how integrated the university is with the industry. This is perhaps something we have to change as an industry.
I guess the games industry is constantly changing so the lecturers themselves also need to continue learning in order to be up to date. It is not like a history lecturer for example teaching about the history of Ancient Greece, for example.
That’s one aspect yes.
Any other reasons why you think the quality is lacking sometimes?
It’s complicated, I’m sure they will get there but at the moment a lot of work needs to be done.
Would you be able to recommend a potential route for a student that wants to work for Ubisoft, for example?
That's a tough one. The best thing is to look at what they are after. What current jobs do they have? Also, try to meet up with them when they attend games conferences like develop, GDC etc... noting beats meeting the actual people doing the recruiting and being able to ask them questions.
Would you recommend unpaid internships so they can get their foot in the door?
Never work for free, never. If somebody has an unpaid position, run a mile. Everybody should be paid for their work, bet it actual money or a revenue share in the product. I know it seems like a good way to get experience but it isn't.
Have you ever been tempted to work as a developer for casino games? Would you ever advise a game designer to work for an online casino games company to build experience or is that completely different?
Very early in my career I worked as a coder on slot machines and it was a fundamentally toxic environment to work in. It was a completely male dominated workplace and it became Lord of the Flies very rapidly and just was not a pleasant work environment. As a result, I try not to work in male only environments. It’s not really game design working on slot machines - it’s more about statistics and art (to make them look flashy).
So you wouldn’t recommend it as a stepping stone?
Personally - no.