For many new grads, we all want to get out and start our careers. However, 2020 wasn’t the most welcoming year. Everyone is working remotely and the job searching process became harsher on those who lack experience, especially in the games industry. I managed to have some success and wanted to share it with my fellow recent grads.
First Step: Finding the Right Network (and taking advantage of it!)
In July 2020, I signed up to be a mentee through the Games Research and User Experience (GRUX) Mentorship program. There are lots of great resources there to read through. They also have a Discord that is very welcoming to new grads.
I wanted to get a better understanding of UX Design in games and see if this was the field for me. I had questions like:
What happens behind the scenes?
What part of my UX self-education will I use in games UX?
What are some skills I should work on as I job search?
How do you work with clients?
In about a week, I got an email from my mentor, Jason Schklar. He's one of the founders at UX is Fine! and a Game & UX Consultant. We chatted a bit regarding what I want to learn more about and he suggested that I intern at his company. At the time, I wanted to keep my expectations low - it’s just an idea and there is no guarantee that I will be an intern. But, it made me happy that someone wanted to give me a chance in the game dev industry. This was my first lesson from Jason: 1) Find a network and don’t be afraid to use it!
Initial Internship Expectations
By August 2020, I not only gained a mentor but an opportunity to intern at my mentor’s company! I’ll be honest - I didn’t expect to get an internship of some kind this way.
Before the internship began, I sent over my initial goals:
“As an intern at UX is Fine, these are my goals:
Understand the UX workflow at a games UX studio.
Build up my skills by assisting with client projects.
Network and learn more about how the field came to be.”
I shared my goals with them and, in turn, they gave me their goals:
“For UX is Fine, they want an internship for the following reasons:
Identify new talent
The current team is mostly top-heavy with senior designers, researchers, and more.
Want to teach others about the field
Share what we do.”
By outlining our goals, it helped us organize what we want to get out of this partnership. I personally believe that interns can provide a lot of perspective into how an organization is run. Afterall, interns see the company environment in a fresh light. So for those interns out there, be confident in yourselves - you’re providing more to the company than you anticipate!
Before I logged into their Slack, I had to fill out some paperwork since this was a paid internship. This is routine for those who get jobs, but this took me by some surprise - it’s common for businesses to take in unpaid interns. Jason explained to me that UX is Fine! believes in paying for all work created. To be honest, this made me feel more inspired and motivated to help as much as I can. It also helped me set good standards for myself: 2) I deserve to be respected and well-compensated even as a junior. It’s important for seniors to help juniors set this standard for themselves so that junior game developers know what is good and bad for them. In the long run, this gives the next generation of game developers better preparation and will help them focus on how to improve the game industry.
There was also an additional piece of paperwork that I was unfamiliar with: nondisclosure agreements. I often saw memes discussing NDAs and saw that it didn’t give game developers credit - it’s frustrating when many jobs want to see a shipped title. Nonetheless,these agreements are set in place to protect both the client and the contractor involved. For one, investors on the client-side do not like to see work being contracted out. If you’re blamed for potential theft of intellectual property, it’s a big deal. Overall, 3NDAs don’t just protect the clients - they protect you too.
Here’s an article that details non-disclosure agreements more: How NDAs Work and Why They’re Important.
The First Week
For the first week, I was a bit unsure on what to do - for one, after syncing the calendar, there was a specific meeting called a “Stand-Up Meeting”.This was actually the first time I heard of Stand-Up Meetings; the staff shares their progress with each other and reconvene regarding meetings with clients. They are typically quick 30 minute meetings. Apparently, this concept is a part of Agile Project Development and allows team members to sync up on what everyone is doing. I like this activity since it made everything transparent between team members. This definitely gave me insight on how game dev teams actually work together.
If you’re more curious about Stand-Up Meetings, feel free to read this: Atlassian Team Playbook. It also gives many tidbits of Agile Project Development, so I recommend using this as a resource!
In the meantime, I did playthroughs of “the project” (I can’t talk about it yet, see the NDA point above) and wrote my observations. At first, I didn’t really understand the intention of this - I wanted to analyze the game right away. Nonetheless, the UX Director I shadowed, Neil Edwards, informed me that it’s important to 4) play the game as a player first and as a UX Designer second. He wanted me to develop my senses as a player first so that I can better investigate issues with a game. It seemed basic, but the basics served as the foundations. There’s no point in being a UX Designer if I can’t identify the right problems to solve.
Nonetheless, identifying issues that I caught helped the UX Designer I shadowed, Frank Lepkowski, since I provided a perspective that he and others may not have observed. It also gave me practice and reassurance that my observations are helpful - as a junior, I can lack confidence in my observations. I can have thoughts like “are they actually valid observations to take into consideration”? By getting feedback at appropriate times, they showed me that I’m on the right track and to believe in myself as a UX Designer.
The Next Two Weeks: My Main Project
For the next two weeks, I was trusted to outline and provide feedback on the overall User Journey. I focused on a specific section of the NDA project by recording gameplay, outlining the screens, and having three stages of commentary. The first stage of commentary are my initial reactions - what happened here? What was my reaction? My second stage was to rewrite these initial reactions into more objective statements from a UX Design perspective - why did I react this way? Why is this a problem? The third stage was to summarize the main issues based on the specific objective statements I made. These main issues are what needs to be addressed in the UX Design.
This exercise is really important for me to go over since I mostly taught myself UX Design through online courses - I needed feedback from someone more senior than me. Through this exercise, I learned that I still struggle to make objective feedback from the user’s perspective. I need to practice making them more. It’s important since these types of statements hold UX Designers accountable to provide actionable feedback to clients. 5) Without objective feedback, the feedback can easily turn into an opinionated debate; it’s more productive to focus on the user.
The Last Week
In the last week, I was able to see how UX is Fine! Interacts with their clients. These meetings were shockingly fast-paced. It showed me that you really needed to be attentive and respectful. It was completely different compared to talking to coworkers. I reflected on this with the UX Designer I shadowed and he also shared similar feelings when he was first onboarded. For each person involved, they have their own kind of lingo for the same concept - it took awhile for everyone to understand when they first started their careers. I also saw disagreements between the parties involved. By observing my seniors, I learned that the best way to tackle these is to 6) aim for the long-term when it comes to business relationships.
Nonetheless, based on what I observed in the stakeholder meeting, 7) most game development teams are interdependently collaborative. It’s difficult to work on a project alone especially when you wish to monetize the game, so you need to rely on individuals who are able to talk through their process and work on their own section without being micromanaged.
On my last day, we reviewed the overall internship experience. I felt like I did as best as I could, but both sides agreed on one thing: the internship should be longer. It taught us the importance of internships in the long-run. It also really helped to 8) be transparent about your goals early on. It’s easier to measure whether or not a work experience was successful for both parties involved.
For me, I felt like I needed to learn more - if anything, it taught me that I should take up a UX Designer job in any industry, improve my craft, and try next time. For many of the people at UX is Fine!, they transitioned from other industries into game development; it’s ok to not be in game development right away. If anything, I can be a hobbyist game developer. Nonetheless, the next step for me is to find a job where I can continue to grow and contribute to a company.
Find a network and don’t be afraid to use it!
I deserve to be respected and well-compensated even as a junior.
NDAs not just protect the clients - it protects you too.
Be a player first then a UX Designer.
Without objective feedback, the feedback can easily turn into an opinionated debate.
Aim for the Long-Term when it comes to Business Relationships.
Most Game Development Teams are Interdependently Collaborative.
Be transparent about your goals.