In this written Industry Perspectives, I sat down with Lead Game Designer Eiden Alexander to discuss his path to the gaming industry, advice for those who want a career in developing video games, the challenges of crunch, Xbox Game Pass’s impact on the industry, and more. Please enjoy.
Ainsley Bowden : For those who may not know you Eiden, can you please explain your current role and some of the projects you’ve worked on?
Eiden Alexander : Hello! I am currently the Lead Game Designer contracted to Axis Game Factory. Some of the games I’ve done design work for include Drawn to Death for the PlayStation 4 and more recently, Oddworld: Soulstorm. And although I can’t get into specifics, I am currently a designer on a AAA online game for a major publisher. I can’t wait till I can share more information about this current game!
Going back in time, what drew you to video games? And at what point did you decide you wanted to be involved in the industry for a career path?
Hmmm well… while growing up I always swapped between wanting to be a comic book writer, a 3D animator or a filmmaker. When I was in middle school I created a (very ugly) GeoCities website to host some of the comics I made, and it was around that time that I started to get into Newgrounds and other flash based websites. The idea of making a game didn’t occur to me until I started playing flash games and thought to myself “well gee maybe I can make a game to promote my comics” not realizing the steep learning-curve that came with such a naive thought.
After many nights of browsing forums, looking for how-tos, and realizing flash was way too hard to make games in (but great for stick figure fight scenes), I ended up making my first game using one of the original versions of GameMaker. It also aligned with my game development budget at the time ($0). So I drew my comic book character into the pixel art generator (he was a superhero moose named… Super… … Moose…. 😐 ) and made him fly through the sky and dodge obstacles. There was no way to win, only ways to lose. Just like real life.
Skip ahead a few years to high school where I spent a lot of time in the computer lab working on my own personal projects in Maya and After Effects in between assignments. Towards the end of high school I was at a crossroads. I had developed a lot of VFX skills for movies, but I also spent almost as much time brainstorming new game ideas and learning some developer skills. I ended up leaning towards games and sometime after graduation I developed a mobile game and tried to jump on the mobile game craze pre-Angry Birds (shout out to MikaMobile for being an inspiration). I didn’t make any money, but my game got pirated 200,000 times so that’s pretty neat. The real payoff was that it allowed me to land my first big video game job – interning for David Jaffe!
For those that may be interested in pursuing a similar path, do you have any recommendations or advice?
YES. Most definitely, especially as someone who now can hire potential candidates here are some things to know.
Programmers: For a programmer, your degree is only important if you plan on being a programmer. If you’re looking for programmer work, you should have a Computer Science degree or at least a certification at a programming trade school. Also be prepared for programming tests in your interviews that include fixing bugs or something…SPOOKY STUFF (I’m so glad I’m not a programmer).
Designers: If you’re a designer or an artist it’s easy peasy babeh! Just be better than everyone else and you’ll get the job!
Okay but on a serious note, your portfolio is everything if you’re an artist or designer! You need to show what you can do and rely on that instead of just having a clean resume. A strong portfolio is way more important than your degree / college. In fact, I would argue that college is not even necessary for either of those positions (although there are plenty of good degree programs out there to give you the skills you need to be competitive in the industry).
One note about designer positions specifically – being a designer is not just telling people what to do or designing only a paper. You should show your implementation and prototyping chops as well (scripting), and call out which mechanics, weapons, systems you had a hand in developing.
College: With regard to college, you don’t need to get a Game Design degree. And if you want that degree, please don’t put yourself $100K+ in debt for it. There are similar programs and degrees that you can get from public colleges. I personally do not support for profit colleges that charge crazy amounts, but if you must go to one then make the most use out of the hardware / software and networking opportunities they may grant you. Even getting a fancy BS in Game Design won’t guarantee you a job if your portfolio is lackluster or the exact same as every other student leaving that program.
Online Lessons / Tutorials / Free Software / Mentors: I would suggest that anyone who is a complete noob at game development spend some money on lesson plans from websites like udemy or heck even free tutorials on YouTube (my number one resource) just to get a little taste of what you’re in for. There’s a whole frickin ocean of information out there. Start building your skills now before committing a bunch of money.
Speaking of money, two of the most used Game Engines are free. Unreal Engine and Unity are absolutely free to download and make indie projects on. Those are the two I suggest if you want to get into 3D games / AAA games, but there are a ton of other engine choices. Like I mentioned before, YoYo GameMaker is how I got my start, and if 2D sprite graphics are your thing it might be a good place to start. If you want something even simpler I would suggest learning something like CORE, Dreams, or even Mario Maker! While these last three won’t be the best to put on a professional portfolio, it will help you learn the fundamentals of game design and can inspire you to learn the harder stuff.
If you know anyone who makes games ask them questions! While they may not be willing or have the time to teach you everything you want to know, they may be able to point you in the right direction!
Resume: Make it good. Make it clean and easy on the eyes. If you can’t make a strong resume then pay someone who can do it for you. Even though I just went on and on about portfolio, the resume is still important, especially for automated hiring systems that scan resumes for keywords to filter the applications. If you are applying to be a combat designer, make sure you include the words “combat design” into your resume. Also, I’m unsure which school is telling students to add non-relevant personal hobbies on their resume but uhhhhhh, I’d rather see work or classwork experience (even if not entirely relevant) than how much you can bench (props to you though that is a pretty impressive number! You could probably curl a 64 oz GFuel bottle too I bet!).
Where to look for work: When people say they want to make games, they usually apply to the big studios like Naughty Dog, Blizzard, Bethesda, etc. And I always hear things like “Why does this entry level job require three years of experience and a shipped game? How is this possible?“. The answer is those studios are the top in the industry and can demand all their new hires already have experience because their budgets are high, and everyone wants to work there. It’s like they are on another tier. In order to qualify for an associate/entry level job at Blizzard, you’ll need the experience of a mid level developer at a much smaller/mobile game company.
So what I suggest is applying to intern/entry associate positions at small studios you’ve never heard of before. Get your foot in the door at a small indie or mobile game studio and after a few years of that, try applying to larger and more popular studios. But you’re not likely to land a job at Blizzard right out of college.
Last point, your dream job won’t land in your lap. You’ll need to search hard and work hard for it. Make sure your LinkedIn, resume, and portfolio are ready and then start adding recruiters from studios you want to apply for through linkedin. Write a brief but personalized intro message / cover letter for each company. Keep track of every company you apply to and the current status of the interview in a spreadsheet. For every company in the spreadsheet make sure you list contact information for their recruiters and potentially even the lead developers! Send out your messages, but I must emphasize that they should be custom written for each company. You’re a lot more likely to get a response from the recruiter if it *doesn’t* feel like a copy/paste message. Also don’t spam! Just send your message to *one* person on the team (not everyone! Don’t creep them all out!) and wait for their response, and maybe one follow up if the recruiter doesn’t get back to you in a week or so.
I’ve gotten an interview at almost every company I’ve applied to using these techniques. The first job I got was through a cold email to the studio’s producer!
What do you enjoy most about working on games or within the industry?
Free comic-con tickets!
Also video games are kind of the ultimate art form if you really think about it. Video games can include all the other art forms, music, cinematography, writing, acting, art, etc., and put them into a medium that often requires thousands of hours, from hundreds of people, to create. Plus it incorporates a dimension that no other art form can use, true interaction! Choice is such a powerful tool and can really immerse someone into the piece. Games can be an experience or story that the player gets to help write.
Do you have a favorite moment in time, or something that you are particularly proud of in your career to date?
I had like five examples but decided to just boil it down to this instead. I’m incredibly proud and thankful for the opportunities given to me and the immense trust that Nick Kononelos and David Jaffe put it in me throughout the first five years of my career. From giving me a shot by hiring me as an intern, all the way to being trusted to take point on one of the major prototypes we built after making Drawn to Death (knowing that these prototypes would be brought in front of major publishers), my time with that company is special and will always stay with me.
You recently contributed to Oddworld Soulstorm and expressed some concerns with the recognition for your work (along with your peers). Expounding upon that thought, what are some of the challenges you and your peers face? What are some of the negative aspects that you’ve faced in your career?
Well when it comes to the Oddworld thing. I’d like to keep it specific to the credit issue. Also before I comment any further I’d like to say that I’m speaking for myself and these are my own thoughts on the matter. I don’t intend to speak for anyone else or any company in any official capacity so I won’t be name dropping for this part of the article. Again this is my perspective.
Myself and others were brought on in order to design levels. While not everyone made it to the end of our contract, it is my belief that if one does the work, one deserves the credit. The issue I have with the current release of Oddworld Soulstorm is the exclusion of myself and others from the credits screen. Also, the credits make no mention of the team / company I came from. It’s pretty common to see outsourced companies be listed in the credits with their own little section of names and titles. In fact, you can see this happening with other outsource companies within the Soulstorm credits, just not the one I came from.
When looking closer at the credits, I noticed there were a couple people mentioned from my team, but they were listed without titles and under the special thanks. It would be one thing if they just forgot about our team as a whole (although even that would seem unlikely) but the fact that there were some people that were basically hidden within the Special Thanks, with no mention that they were level designers (and other roles), makes it feel like a slight against myself and the team. At the very least, it makes me believe that Oddworld intentionally left people out. Why would they do this? Honestly I’m not sure, but it definitely feels like an ego or power move.
So I’m going to take a step back and give you the main beats of what happened. On launch day, I purchased and downloaded Soulstorm from the Epic store. I went to the credits immediately after the download finished. I started OBS to screen capture the credits so that I could post a clip of the part with my name on it. I watched the entire credits and didn’t see my name, or the company name I was contracted through. I re-watched the screen capture video to confirm that I was not in the credits and at that time I also discovered some of my peers were listed in the Special Thanks without their titles mentioned. I refunded Soulstorm.
I eventually went to Twitter to vent my frustrations and the tweet started to get some attention. I was happy to see even die hard Oddworld fans seem to be supportive. Sometime the next morning, I was contacted by Oddworld via email and which they said they were just notified that I was missing in the credits. They said they had a patch coming out soon, and they would ask that I be added ASAP.
Okay… so then I thought: What about the others? What about the peers in the special thanks? What about the company I came from? It feels like a disservice to that company to also leave it out. Was I to be added in as a Level Designer or put in the Special Thanks with the others?
Well, as of writing this I have been included into the Special Thanks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some wonderful people in that special thanks list. But stripping away the title from myself, my peers, and the contributions of the company I came from, seems gross and wrong. Just to clarify, the other missing peers have not been added, and no one that made the original cut had their titles restored. They are still in the Special Thanks. I mean, our work can be seen in the launch trailers damnit! Myself and others spent just over a year working on this thing and spent many, many, many, late nights trying to pull this game out of development hell just to be shafted. It feels like a low blow. Giving credit should be the bare minimum, it doesn’t make the game any better or worse to give proper credit. It ultimately only has value to the individual developer. But that’s why it seems extra cruel to use it as a form of punishment or control.
There are plenty of other examples in the industry of credit being held over a developers head. If they work on a game for three years but leave before the project wraps, some companies will punish them by removing them from the credits. I even had some fans of Oddworld inform me that Oddworld Inhabitants has a history of doing this. It just doesn’t make sense. Just do right by the people helping craft your game, and paste their name and title into the text document that makes up the credits. It really isn’t that hard.
Just for transparency, I had planned to email Oddworld Inhabitants a full credit list for our team. I typed it all out and was ready to send it, but was asked to instead let the companies involved handle it and deliver the credit list that way. I have been informed that the list was delivered but as of this writing, there has not been any updates to the credits list to restore the removed designers or titles. So I’m a Special Thankee for now. I’m hoping Oddworld makes the right decision and just pastes the list I sent into their credit file for the next update.
In your opinion, how can studios/publishers better support new talent in the industry organically?
I would say we need to start treating QA devs better. They are the unsung heroes of game development and often get the worst working conditions. Many are kept in perpetual contract cycles with a promise of full employment that never arrives. And in order to prevent mis-classification lawsuits, they are laid off until enough time passes that they are deemed “safe” to contract again. I’ve heard horror stories, sleeping over at the offices due to crunch just to get let go once the game launches. I’ve also read stories of QA people being excluded from developer parties, events, and activities, because publishers are worried about the mis-classification thing. I get that it’s not the most important thing in the world, but when you’re already getting some of the worst pay, with the longest hours, and still being expected to perform a very technical and demanding job, getting ostracized from the bonding and fun activities is just an extra kick in the teeth.
As far as new talent goes, I think some improvements can be made in outreach programs for students. More partnerships to have social networking events where people wanting to get into the industry can meet with developers and have their work critiqued or participate in workshops / talks. Oh and publishers need to find some better third-party recruiting firms. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten contacted by recruiters that don’t know enough to understand the high level differences between things like a software engineer and designer. They’ll say they represent “X” large company, and when they send you the job listing it’s the complete opposite of what you do.
I think publishers should always pay their interns, and some companies have notoriously long art tests. If you want to test an artist for a week and ask them to come in, and potentially bring ideas into your studio, you should be paying them for that.
Oh and let’s try to manage this crunch thing. I know there are a ton of different opinions and tolerances for crunch, but I think having a genuine stance of reducing crunch where possible is a place to start. Sadly, many of the old guard will defend crunch rather than try to take even the most basic steps to reduce it across their company.
As you look to not only the future of your career, but the gaming industry itself, what do you foresee? What would you like to see?
Well there are a few things that we will see soon. One is subscription based gaming. Game Pass is making waves and it’s honestly super consumer friendly. Another thing that I think unfortunately we’ll start seeing is more brand sponsored content within games. Games are so expensive so getting funding is critical, but we end up with situations like in Final Fantasy 15 and Death Stranding where there’s weird, immersion breaking, product placement (though both those games are great by the way). Fortnite is basically an advertisement / partnering platform at this point, with some of the most unexpected DLC packs and events. Not to say Fortnite is wrong for doing that, they deserve all the success they have, but it’s going to feel weird when Sony first party games suddenly have Nathan Drake going on and on about how much he loves the new iPhone 13 S.
I would like to see A.I. driven narrative beats in games. It would be wonderful to be able to play a game where core story points can be procedurally generated based on the player’s actions in a more convincing and personalized way. We have things like “ambient events” that try to simulate this by spawning NPCs in the wild that you need to save and that’s awesome and fun, but it would be wonderful if that whole experience can take you on a ten hour story arc where the character’s personality traits, backstory, and goals within the game, are created by A.I. in a convincing way. A very basic version of this is the arch enemy system in Lord of the Rings Shadow of Mordor, but I want something deeper. An NPC should be able to become a key part of the story, where the more you interact with it, the more the A.I. develops their personality, goals, and how they respond to your actions. And eventually, it would impact how the game’s overall narrative gets molded. That would be amazing.
A real life example would be Dungeons & Dragons! If you have a good DM, they can keep evolving the story based on players actions and a simple one-off enemy that you spare ends up being a campaign long companion that the party ends up developing a strong bond with.
Are there any major companies, publishers, or developers that you’d like to comment on?
Not specifically, but I think there’s a culture of glorifying the “sacrifice” developers have to make to release great products. And I don’t think that’s great. When it comes down to it, even if video games are your absolute passion, I don’t think any game is worth ruining relations over or missing a bunch of time with your family/social life. Whenever there is crunching and delays or budget changes, it always comes down on the hands-on developers to pick up the slack and make up for it. I know a ton of very experienced and celebrated developers may say something like “well it comes with the job, that’s what it takes!” but I feel like I mainly only hear that from people at the top. And yes, I would absolutely work round the clock to make sure my own game / vision is the best it can possibly be. But if I were in that position, it would feel wrong to ask the rest of the team to shake up their whole life for the game.
Even if we can’t change how things are overnight, the least we can do is not glorify that sort of life-altering time suck as some sort of noble sacrifice. Let’s start recognizing crunch as a problem in the industry and not defend it. Then we can start taking small steps to minimize it where we can. The God of War documentary from a couple years ago made me feel uneasy. Yes everyone in it is awesome, and talented, and the game is wonderful, but the way the documentary framed the development felt like some weird attempt to normalize “suffering for art” in order to make a dramatic film. I don’t think that is a good idea to push onto aspiring game developers.
What are your thoughts on Xbox Game Pass as a service from a developmental standpoint?
Fucking awesome. Let’s go! I have never owned an Xbox, but if I didn’t already have a kick-ass PC I’d be all up on the new Xbox just to enjoy Game Pass. I think it’s going to start a wonderful opportunity for indie and mid-level budget developers. There will be many opportunities for “riskier” game ideas to get funded because Game Pass and other services will be hungry for more content. We’ll still get our big AAA budget games through them, but in between those releases we’ll get an insane amount of groundbreaking, smaller scope gems. Just think of all the great shows Netflix, HBO, Disney are funding right now. Do you think the Queen’s Gambit would be an easy sell in a traditional business model? Probably not. But it got the funding and audience it needed because of a subscription service model. Hell, if Xbox was willing to give me enough funding for a modest team I’d drop everything and make them a mid-level budget exclusive right now!
Will there be unforeseen issues or weird side effects? Probably, but game developers already have to adapt to new technologies, business models, and genre trends every year or two. This is just another exciting opportunity for more talented designers to get their work out to the gamers.
Anything else you would like to add Eiden?
No this is already way too long lmao. Thank you for asking me to do this!