Listen and Engage

Listen and Engage

By Karin Weekes.

Greetings! My name is Karin Weekes, and I’m Lead Editor for BioWare EA’s Edmonton and Montreal studios. I am so honored to be part of WIDGET’s launch! I’m just beginning my eighth year of work here, and am delighted to get the chance to share a few things I’ve learned that I wish I’d known a dozen years ago.

To that end, I’m going to kick things off with a little tough-but-friendly love.

For me, working in the games industry has been rewarding in ways I never could have imagined. It has also involved an incredible amount of work. A lot of work. Like, all-encompassing, sometimes exhausting work. For anything else that can be said about game devs, they are not lazy. Devs bust their butts till all hours to get that feature right, that rig working perfectly, that dialog clever AND functional, and the timing on that character’s gesture perfectly.

“But that sounds awesome,” you may say. “3D modeling/cinematic design/programming/writing/level is what I’ve always wanted to do—it is my passion! I’d do it for no pay!”

Well, sure, anyone would volunteer for the awesome stuff. But to be successful at doing it for a living, use the artistic elements that you’re passionate about as a base for building your professional skills. The games my team makes have schedules (huge, terrifying schedules), and the deadlines don’t really care if my muse hasn’t been singing to me this week. I’m being paid to do things well and do them on time. Delivering creative content under time constraints is hard and it takes practice.

I was going to attempt to quote something really profound here about the difference between “art” and “craft”, but my Google search got me way down a rabbit hole of lexicon, so forget that. My point is that there are a lot of amazingly artistic people in this world, but having artistic talent doesn’t automatically translate to your passion being a great day job for you.

In fact, you might take some time to truly consider whether you’re OK with someone telling you how to make your art happen. And when to make it happen. And what tools to use to make it happen. That might sound so awful that you don’t want to do it as a career. And that is fine and a good thing to know about yourself. (I sing. I’ve studied it for years, and I’m pretty good. People have asked me why I don’t do it professionally; I could, maybe, if I worked more at it. But I realized a while back that I don’t want to go down that road. It’s my thing, I like doing it on my terms, and I want to protect that.)

If you come out of this self-reflection resolved to pursue your artistic career in game design, then LET’S DO THIS THING. I humbly suggest you direct your attention to two ideas: honing your craft and learning to deal with feedback.

Honing your craft is basically teaching your artistic talents how to play well with others. If you work on a small development team, you’ll be responsible for a broader range of tasks and deliverables. On a larger team, you’ll probably be focused on one facet of the game and be expected to do that really well. To pull this off, you’ll need to learn how to understand what your bosses are asking from you, and practice delivering that to them—on time, and infused with the passion that will make the game shine.

How does this happen? A gazillion different ways, in my experience. Enroll in an educational program. Use any of the many game design programs out there to practice making a game of your own. Play games with a critical eye: Did you hate that part? Why? What are three suggestions you’d have to improve that element? Find game development groups online, and participate. (You’re here at WIDGET, so well done on that!) Ask questions…and listen to the answers you get.

That last one is big. LISTEN TO FEEDBACK. If you’re in class, or a critique group, or even a group of friends who share similar interests, give them a project you’ve worked on and ask them to (nicely) suggest ways to improve parts of it. Then do that. Practice implementing that feedback. Even pick one on purpose that you think is incredibly stupid, and change what you worked on to incorporate it. It’s even better for the whole group to practice giving good feedback. “That part sucked” is not helpful. “I found these dialog lines unclear and this section seemed really out of character” is something you can act on. Giving respectful, specific feedback makes addressing problems much easier for everyone.

Because here’s the thing: you might actually have the golden idea for “the best game ever”, but unless you’re running your own studio and you’re the only employee, that game just as you conceive it is never going happen. You are working with likely dozens of other talented people who also have great ideas. Your brainstorms will be shot down. Your work will get reviewed and critiqued and you’ll be asked to redo a whole bunch of it. Levels and plots will move forward, then get cut before ship. It’s just how development works, and being professional means you learn how to deal with it.

Again. THIS IS REALLY HARD. My husband is also a dev, and we have a concept called “15 Minutes of Being a Special Snowflake”: when something you worked on gets blown up, you get 15 minutes to gripe and moan about how nobody understands your deep metaphors and why did I even bother wasting all that time and ARGH! Then, you suck it up and get to fixing it the way your bosses and peers suggested. (True confession: I, in fact, indulged in a half-hour Special Snowflake rant just this very evening.) Sure, this is a concept, not a rule, but you get the idea: yes, you’ve worked long and hard to hone your skills, and you can pick a few hills to die on, but getting good at accepting and implementing feedback will serve you well.

Reviewing this now, I worry that I’m being a little too “Scared Straight,” but I think I’d be doing a disservice to not discuss some of the realities of working in industry: There are parts of any job that won’t be fun, but you owe it to the people paying you to do as good a job on those parts as you do on the fun stuff. But here’s the amazing part: in the end, all of the hard work and compromise and sucking it up, and consciously creating positively-framed helpful feedback pay off like you wouldn’t believe.

I’m guessing a lot of you followed the #1reasonwhy Twitter event a while back. Some pretty awful things came to light when that rock got turned over. But it also inspired Rhianna Pratchett to create the #1reasontobe response, which highlighted why women are and should be active in the gaming industry. It made me stop and think about what my favorite parts of being a dev are – and one of the best things is the people I work with: those same folks who are telling me my work needs to be improved this way, and who I’m compromising and negotiating with. Because no matter how great an idea I might have, someone I work with has a way to make it better. And when we all focus towards the same goal, and an amazing part of a cool game unfolds, having had a tiny part in that is one of the best things in the world.

I’m writing this on launch day for Mass Effect 3: Citadel, the final DLC for BioWare’s Mass Effect series, and I’ve spent the better part of the day online, tweeting and reading the experiences of people who are playing.  Players around the world are sharing their feelings on this series of experiences that my colleagues created – together. The positive fan reaction is rewarding and humbling. People are laughing and crying. And I’m thanking my lucky stars to be a part of the hard-working team that pulled together to make it all happen.

Karin Weekes is the Lead Editor at BioWare Edmonton/Montreal. She holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of New Mexico and an M.A. in Journalism from Stanford University. She has worked at BioWare/EA in Edmonton AB since 2006, where she edited Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II, Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3 and various DLC for both franchises.  Mass Effects 2 and 3. She is currently managing the editing team while working primarily on Dragon Age III: Inquisition.  She lives in Edmonton, AB, Canada with her husband, Patrick, their two sons (who at ages 8 and 5 regularly hand their mother her ass in various platformer and DS games), and a host of rescued dogs and cats (the total currently stands at 9, but this is apt to change at any moment).