On (not) making it


Image result for failure super smash bros

This is a break from form, and I've decided to leave up a partially-redacted version for posterity.  I think it's good to acknowledge your frustrations, even if you don't think they're ultimately valid, or should be attached to your portfolio or whatever.  So, if you want to keep reading, know that I said a lot of this in anger immediately after I was unceremoniously fired (invisi-banned) from a volunteer modding project.  It lead to a lot of soul-searching, as a big part of my impetus for joining that project was impressing a certain potential employer.

I still think my alma mater (and a few professors in particular) need to do a lot better at preparing students for jobs.  What follows wasn't the way to voice that - it was a petty way of calling out a prof, on a blog that no one reads.  But hey, we're all human right?

This might be deleted later, and runs the risk of being a lot of things (whiny? entitled?), but at the moment I don't have a therapist and feel like my work is stagnating, so here goes an attempt to blow off steam.

Like many other indie-ish people, I start more projects than I finish, can't stay in my lane, and have a tendency to over-commit.  This is a fault, one that I'm slowly getting better at.  At my age though, it's hard to keep believing in self-improvement. 

I recently took a blow to the ego by getting kicked out of a modding group. I joined it back in August, when I had some time to learn the Bethesda Creation Kit, get some content made, and had hopes to get into level design streaming, and really make a go out of that.  The school year came around, and I found that I was devoting time to a new freelance gig, my relationships, and generally trying to stay on top of the commitments that were actually paying me.  After some communication issues with the modding team, I decided to take a break from it.

Last week I was going to check in with the team and let them know I was going to resume work, only to find that I was kicked off the Discord, Trello, Github, all of it.  Amidst all of this I was thinking more about how lost I feel in this level design business, and how I really can't depend on anyone to help me with it (even the people whose salary I paid in exchange for mentorship).

It seems like there are two directions you can go when trying to break into level design -- you can either make really strange stuff that is conceptually interesting but doesn't work in a AAA context, or you can try to polish well-trod level design tropes to a sheen, learning the tools of the trade and pandering to the kinds of studios that will hire you. 

This sounds cynical, and maybe it is a bit, but I absolutely believe in the merits of the latter.  High-concept professors will lie and say that they're interested in games that challenge conventions, but when their students present them with a blueprint of exactly the kind of game they suggest, they don't know how to deal with it.  For me, NYU's problem was emphasizing ingenuity over competency; profs hypocritically wanted "interesting" games, but didn't acknowledge that truly interesting, innovative designs usually only arise when a game already "works" in a conventional sense.

Take my level design final, for instance.  Our requirement was that we couldn't use any external assets; therefore, making a level with shooting enemies would be prohibitively time consuming (I would need to create AI, tune gun physics, etc - all on top of building out a level).  So I ended up trying to tune an action game mechanic around rope swinging, which I thought was more "conventional" than my classmates, who mostly did variations on walking sims (some of which were really, really good).  My result was... underwhelming.  But still informative.  But my professor said that I should do levels that are "less weird" if I wanted to get a job.

I think he just meant that it was just bad/low quality, but didn't want to say it.

So... back to what ails me - lack of a professional portfolio; lack of direction and focus; lack of mentorship; not knowing what my job title is or should be (am I level designer?  audio designer?  game designer?  educator?); feeling like I'm half-assing all of those things at once; not knowing if I'll have work in a few weeks; not knowing if I should try to over-intellectualize game spaces or just grit my teeth and get my fucking foot in the door, crunch and creative stagnation be damned; wondering if misery is just my M.O. and defense mechanism and I have no one else to blame (that part is probably true).

Unlike some academics, I think it's completely irresponsible to be a games professor without being able to direct your students towards some avenue of steady employment.  Colleges cost way too much and advertise themselves way too aggressively for profs to emphasize "games as inquiry" over a path to employment.  This doesn't need to mean "push all students into AAA-Studio-style production;" here's a good 8 different ways the Game Center could do better at getting their students into employment:

- First, admit that you have a problem with job placement, rather than just saying you "worry about it." 
- Run more classes that connect game center students with games-adjacent emerging tech (VR, AR, creative agencies, architecture vis, startups, etc), and schedule meetings/show&tells/portfolio reviews with people at those companies (fine, there aren't many AAA studios in New York, but there is a Verizon, a Google, a Viacom, a bunch of startups, and the Game Center has under-utilized connections at those places)
- Have game center students make things with ITP and Tandon (engineering) students.  Encourage cross-collaboration, especially with schools that have better job placement.
- With every specialization course (narrative design, level design, etc), schedule meetings/show&tells/portfolio reviews with practicing professionals.
- Have a class on UX design as it relates to games; every student should know UX terms, how to make wireframes, etc
- Have a course in mobile/casual game design.  Maybe it won't be around in 2 years, but most of the NYU grads, in the NY area, that are making games for a living, are doing it on a mobile platform or at a mobile games company.  They didn't learn those skills at NYU.
- If a student goes to GDC, and expresses interest in the workshop that you're running, fucking introduce them to people.  Even if you don't know them that well.  Sorry if it's awkward for you, but if you don't want to be a mentor, don't be a fucking professor.
- If the majority of your grads are teaching in some capacity after graduation (spoiler, NYU - THEY ARE) you should PREPARE THEM IN EFFECTIVE TEACHING PRACTICES.  teaching is a SKILL! you LEARN it! it's not just something that you just absorb through osmosis from being in a classroom for 25 years.  TEACH PEDAGOGY.  Teach them how to do CV's, where/how to get adjunct gigs, how to effectively manage classrooms, how much to prepare before lectures; teach them how to teach.
- Look at how other schools do job placement.  Have you talked about this to profs at Guild Hall?  Or USC?  Or CMU?  If not, then it doesn't matter that you "worry about it"  I worry about tons of shit, but it doesn't get better if I don't take actionable measures to make it better, and re-evaluate it when it doesn't.

It's clear from speaking to my profs that they neither know nor care how other schools (CMU, USC, Guild Hall) get their students into jobs.  Apart from running studios like, well, actual studios, they get people from the industry to review student work.  They connect students with people in the industry.  When I asked my (supposed) level design mentor to make an introduction, he was completely baffled - had no idea why I would want to talk with a professional game designer.

Regarding that Fallout mod - I'm still going to finish the areas that I had worked on and document them, but it's definitely a blow to the ego, and it's something I'll have to explain if I ever do get that coveted level design interview.  But that goal of being a "real level designer" feels like a mountain that gets higher every month, and I don't feel like I've moved from base camp, and the person I thought was going to be a guide in this respect is hanging out with cooler mountaineers up on a completely different peak.

I guess I need to kill my idols, then.  If someone doesn't like my work, or doesn't think I'm worth time or guidance, then fuck them.  But I'm still working with game designers that I love and admire and care about.  And we're making some stuff that's pretty rad.  And there is a professor at NYU that has significantly helped me out, career-wise, with audio-related opportunities on multiple occasions (and is the reason that I'm able to pay rent right now).  And I have enough money to get by, and just signed up for health insurance (yay therapy! maybe).  A lot of my former classmates aren't in a good place, though, and it's disheartening to see that my former professors don't think they're obliged to do anything about it.  It was foolish to buy into the dream of becoming a level designer, but despite everything I'm still glad I did it; even if I never work in the games industry, it will have been worth it.

My next post will be happier and sooner and it will be about level design or sound design or something (I swear).

<3 Corey

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