Game Dev Journeys: How folks on our team got started in the games industry

Last week we contemplated several myths about working in game development and saw how quickly they start to crumble when you take a closer look at game dev’s experiences. That being said, if you’re about to become a college grad, are looking to make a career pivot, or just curious about how some of the most creative, hard-working, and passionate people get into games, you might be yearning to learn more. 

Today, we asked a few folks at our studio to share how they got started in games. What was their “big break” getting into the industry, or was it more like a slow crawl? Did they have a lifelong dream to make games, or did they happen upon their field by surprise? Our team took many different paths to join the games industry, some straight out of school, others making the jump after decades in successful careers in other industries.  

First off, here’s a rough breakdown of where folks at Ascendant got started on their path into the games industry:

You may have been told by parents or teachers that a career in gaming was not a good option, or perhaps it didn’t occur to you that the skills you had could contribute to the large world of game development and the game industry. While the path into games has become somewhat easier to find where you can earn a degree in your specialty field and then get connected to a company through your school, the path is not always obvious and there might be a lot of well-intentioned deterrents along the way. What happens if you always wanted to work in games, but didn’t realize it was a real option until long after you began working?

For Senior Level Designer, Sky Silcox, working in the games industry first seemed like a distant dream, but after years working labor jobs, he finally made the decision to take the plunge.

“I first encountered video games in arcades as a child on rare mall trips from the rural area where I grew up. That’s where I immediately fell in love with the cabinet designs and all of the varied game designs in them.

Being from a rural area there was no concept of a job that was not manual labor of some type. After high school, I moved out on my own and got a job as a carpenter’s helper, then over the years I did every type of construction job all over the USA, worked in the oil industry, for the Park Service, in a pill factory, and more.

Over the years while working various jobs, I was making mod levels for the Quake games, the Unreal games, and the Half-Life games as a hobby. I managed to put myself through college while working labor jobs, then decided that I needed to just stop procrastinating and get a job in the industry by going to the Guildhall at SMU, which got me my first games industry job immediately after finishing.

I’ve worked at several studios and have shipped many AAA games at this point in my career and I feel lucky because the hardest day in game development is the easiest day carrying shingles up a ladder for 12 hours per day in 100+ degree heat.”

Sky Silcox, Senior Level Designer at Ascendant Studios

Changing Careers Brings Uncertainty

Even though he was leaving grueling, back-breaking work, Sky still felt a fear that anyone making a big life change might feel. That fear is normal and sometimes there is a logic that a risky decision isn’t worth the chance. However, there are times when the fear is the signal that we are about to embark on a daring experiment that could lead to work more aligned with our values and greater overall life satisfaction. Principal UI Artist, David Wright, and Engineer, Sahil Khanna share how they felt making the jump into a gaming career:

“Growing up, I always enjoyed playing video and arcade games. Being a big comic book fan, I loved games that had cool characters. Games like Street Fighter 2, Double Dragon, Operation Wolf, and many others, were heavy in my rotation at the arcade. I was 18/19 when I bought a PS1 and it was at this point that I started thinking about having a career in video games. As an emerging blockbuster industry, it was still a little unclear as to how I could make a stable living. My mother was not on my side with this path. But that’s another story.

I had been establishing myself as a quality corporate graphic designer, focusing on Print, Web, and Presentation design for about 6-7 years. While I was good at this, and making a decent living, I was not happy. I wanted to be working on stuff that was more interesting and appealing to me. After work I would come home and continue drawing and pushing my design skills. 

At this time, I was also training dogs out of the local dog park for fun. As it turns out, there was another dog enthusiast at the park who was an artist. We started talking and bonding over art and games. We often showed each other our latest works. Months later he tells me that he was a producer at Sega Secret Level, and wanted to introduce me to the Art Director. Interview went well and I made the jump to games, for less pay. This was scary, but the way I saw it, it was now or never. And I have never looked back. My start in the game world was partially based on a chance meeting, but I had to have the skills and know-how to keep the job.”

David Wright, Principal UI Artist at Ascendant Studios

“Making games was something I kind of fell into; it was unexpected and wonderful and not something I ever thought would happen. I’ve always loved games… from the start they were both my escape and my passion, they kept me sane throughout the various trials of my life. I used to think that all games were made in Japan (you guessed it, I love Final Fantasy) by creative, brilliant people. In contrast, I thought of myself as analytical, not creative.

Eventually I gave up gaming for the sake of my studies. I graduated with a degree in biochemistry and went further into medicine, all the while feeling like I was missing something. When that career fell apart, I was listless and aimless, so I taught myself how to code and moved to CA to work for a startup. Serendipitously, my roommate was in game development and uprooted all my assumptions about game dev. I saw that there could be a place for me in the field, but I worried about stability… game dev life seemed fraught! But honestly, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realized that no matter how scary it was, I just had to try or I’d always be left wondering.

I quit my startup job and started applying for work in the field. And here I am, two years later, working on this amazing game. It was terrifying to change up my career (twice!), but I am so, so glad I did. I found wonderful work that fulfills me.”

Sahil Khanna – Engineer at Ascendant Studios

Fostering Skills in Adjacent Fields

The transition from vastly different industries to games is definitely daunting, but even crossing over from adjacent industries, like tech, film, or graphics is still quite an undertaking. Some may assume that you simply need to follow a deep passion for games and game playing to undergo such a metamorphosis. However, you actually don’t need to be a hardcore gamer to work in games and find fulfilling projects. Our team has found many different ways into gaming, like the paths followed by Cinematic Animator, Gloria Fish, who started in film, and Producer, Chris Rapp, who made the change after 25 years in the US Army.

“When I tell people I work on a video game, they’re surprised to hear I don’t consider myself a gamer. I grew up mostly watching my brother play games while I’d draw or write. The gameplay wasn’t what inspired me. It was the stories.

I graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design in 2021 with a BFA in Computer Animation and an award winning thesis film about faith, “Chasing Light.” I joined indie projects such as a video game inspired animated series by Team Sea3on, for which I storyboarded the pilot, which led to an interview with IGN.

Amidst my search for a full time position in the animation industry, I was contacted by Ascendant Studios with an opportunity to be a Cinematic Animator. Upon reading the script for the new game, I felt a flood of emotion. This was brilliant. This was huge. This was going to inspire so many people. I couldn’t be more grateful to be part of this incredible team and I am beyond ecstatic to help tell this new story.”

Gloria Fish, Cinematic Animator at Ascendant Studios

“Some of my earliest and happiest memories are the hours I spent teaching myself to program my own games on the Commodore VIC-20 I received when I turned six. Though the computers and languages changed over the years, games were a constant part of my life and I started running a BBS when I was 12. As I grew older, I began to focus more on computational analysis and modeling on my way to becoming an electrical engineer at West Point; with my degree and career choice, I thought I had relegated games to merely a childhood hobby.

After a career as an armor officer and a strategist in the US Army I began looking for a new job for the first time in 25 years. Through a serendipitous turn of events I learned about a chance to apply both my technical background and the leadership / planning expertise I gained in the service while helping to make a new video game. I have since thrived at Ascendant; while I have learned that fun and games isn’t always all fun and games, I have truly enjoyed the challenge as I am now living my childhood dream.”

Chris Rapp, Producer at Ascendant Studios

Unexpected Beginnings

“But these are all people in programming / art! What if I don’t have those skills?” While we touched on this in our last blog post, one of the most important threads we are seeing in all these stories is to develop your skills to a level of quality that can’t be ignored. By doing so, your expertise can lead you to roles that perhaps weren’t on your radar. Community Content Manager Tess, and Senior Level Designer, Clemence Maurer relate how their hobbies and side projects helped propel the skills they needed to get into gaming.

“I found myself in the video game industry in a very roundabout way. I didn’t start playing games as a child because I came from another country and just didn’t have access there, or funds once we moved to the USA. An amazing friend in college introduced me to video games by letting me borrow her PS2 and Kingdom Hearts 1. I was in love. I did think about pursuing a career in games back then, but life had other plans. My grandmother became very ill with cancer, and all of the incredible people that helped me care for her inspired me to pursue a career in the medical field as a pediatric echocardiographer. 

I kept playing games for fun, primarily EVE Online, and when I eventually moved cities and was looking for ways to make new friends, my EVE friends recommended streaming on Twitch. I was taking a break from echocardiography at the time due to stress, and already working from home doing translation, so Twitch was a great fit as a hobby. 

Then I was discovered by a Twitch staff member who encouraged me to take it more seriously, and I ended up becoming a full time streamer for 8+ years, working more and more closely with games industry publishers and developers to showcase and market their games and connect with their communities. Eventually, the content I developed and relationships I built through streaming led to an opportunity to create content full time at Ascendant, which is an absolute dream opportunity.”

Tess, Community Content Manager at Ascendant Studios

“I remember the first time I saw a video game: my mom took me to her then boyfriend’s house, who had a PC running Warcraft I and I had never seen something so awesome in my life! I was just glued to the screen. It was the beginning of the 90’s and it was still really new and strange and very niche, especially in France where we barely got games imported. My mom got me a GameBoy with Super Mario World when I was about 10 and I was hooked. I played Warcraft II on my Pentium II while listening to Aerosmith’s “Hole in my Soul” over and over.

I wasn’t thinking about working in games at that point, it seemed too much like magic made in another world to me. I also thought that you had to be a math genius to make any kind of game and I was better at writing. So I forgot about it for a while.

One day I was driving with my best friend and we stopped at a gas station. In the shop I browsed the magazines section and found a magazine called ‘Gameplay RPG’ and started reading it. The tone was unapologetically provocative, pretty vulgar, but awesome and it was super fun to read. Since I didn’t know what to do with my life, I went to journalism school. I hated most of it, but it did give me the opportunity to start my internship at Gameplay RPG and work in games journalism. A couple years later, I met a QA tester from Ubisoft at the Nintendo DS’s launch party in Paris, who said they were always looking for testers with a background in games already. I gave it a shot, went to an interview, and I got the job! It wasn’t exactly a huge career change, but it really demystified what it’s like working in an actual video game studio. My time in QA gave me the confidence I needed to begin building levels in an editor at home. 

I finally got a full time QA job at Don’t Nod in Paris when they were still in the very early stages of making Remember Me. I was testing the editor a lot (Unreal) and I tried to fix things myself when I saw bugs. Since we were completely changing the editor’s scripting language, I proposed to build a level showcasing its features. I took a bunch of art assets and scripted a bunch of events to make the new language look sexy! I don’t know if the designers were convinced by it, but at least it allowed me to get my first game / level design job on that game. I was 26 at the time. Now I have 14 years of level design under my belt and so happy for it!”

Clemence Maurer, Senior Level Designer at Ascendant Studios

These are just a few of the incredible stories we’ve heard from Ascendant teammates on how they made their way into the gaming industry. If you’re looking to make a career pivot or are thinking of someone who is, here are a few things we hope you take to heart:

  • Keep building your skill mastery
  • Be curious and open to learning new things
  • Use your passions and side hobbies as a way to meet people and build connections
  • Sit with the feelings of fear and imagine different interpretations of those signals

Opportunities can open up that your childhood self might never have imagined, so keep your resume up to date and whether it’s modding levels, blogging, creating art, or something else, make yourself the best you can be!

PART 2 – More Surprising Journeys into Gaming

We’ve gathered more inspiring accounts from our team. Read on to find out how Alec went from running game communities of 100,000+ members to a becoming a Level Producer at Ascendant; how Kaleb was so inspired by Mario on the SNES that he was drawing imagined levels for it as a kid; and how Peter realized that the coolness of fighter jets at work wasn’t enough to keep him from his number one passion: making incredible video games.

Games have been part of my life since I was old enough to hold a controller. When I received a Super Nintendo for my 4th birthday, I saw games as other worlds that I was able to interact with and wanted to explore every possible inch of every game I played. My favorite games early on were RPGs, and those characters taught me a lot about kindness, friendship, sacrifice, and doing the right thing, which helped round me out to what I’d consider an all-around alright person today, haha.

Growing up I was really interested in games and Legos, but didn’t know a way to work in either. In college, I wasn’t really enjoying my Network Engineering major, and one night, a friend I met playing games online talked to me about his job as a UI/UX designer. That night I saw my college had a game development degree and I made the switch that week.

While in school and after I graduated, I created and ran multiple gaming communities that grew up to 100,000+ members.My first job out of school was in IT, but because of my degree and hobby, I was soon recruited for a Community Manager role at Trendy Entertainment, where I got to work with a really awesome and talented group of developers.

Joining a game studio felt like I was a professional that was able to do work and have fun with like-minded people. I expanded from community management to production, marketing, and design. Working at an indie studio requires you to wear a lot of different hats, and over time I learned that external hobbies, additional work I’d picked up, and my education made me a great fit in production. Since then it’s been a wild ride that led me to joining the great team here at Ascendant, and while there’s a lot to do, it’s never boring and I enjoy the people I work with and the work we do.

Alec Saare, Level Producer at Ascendant Studios

Growing up, I always enjoyed playing games and started with my dad’s NES. I loved coming up with wacky game ideas and I couldn’t help drawing ideas and levels for Mario while in school. When Halo 3 came out with their level editor, Forge, it was revolutionary for me to build my own levels and worlds within a game that I loved. I eventually learned tools like Game Maker, Unity, and Unreal and submitted games for high school projects. After studying game design in college for a few years, I had to drop out and take whatever job I could get due to financial hardship. I nearly gave up trying to get a job in the industry; I thought I needed a degree. Luckily I had my portfolio online and a recruiter reached out to me saying they loved it. While I didn’t receive the job, the experience inspired me to continue my journey to work in games.

While working my full time job, I spent my afternoons/night going to networking events, reaching out to developers to discuss games and the industry, and building my portfolio. One challenge was trying to get my portfolio projects done on time, which I overcame by giving myself a deadline and adjusting my project scope accordingly. Another challenge was thinking that my work wasn’t good enough to show, but every time I did, I was always rewarded with excellent feedback from my peers, who encouraged me to try different approaches in the future and always show my work. Eventually, I used my portfolio to get an interview and job offer in the industry.

I believe that everyone deserves a shot at getting a job in the industry if that is what they desire. It is intimidating to look from the outside, without experience, and see the massive hill in front of you. Outside of work and personal projects, I try to make myself available to aspiring game developers to help them find their path into the game industry, or be a connection point to others who are much more knowledgeable than me. It helped me get started in the industry and I believe it is important to have some transparency in that process. I am excited for what will happen in our industry as it becomes more open and accepting to everyone.

Kaleb Neukamesh, Senior Level Artist at Ascendant Studios

It’s always been a dream of mine to work in games and entertainment. Back in college I really wanted to work in animation: helping to build those big-budget pre rendered cutscenes that I’d watch wide-eyed as a kid. I graduated in 2009 and was fortunate to get a full time job as a technical animator at Lockheed Martin. It was neat to work onsite and walk past fighter jets every day on the way into work.

In the meantime, I became intensely interested in the psychology of games. Like, what makes something fun to play? What makes it frustrating? Toxic? It was a really difficult decision to go back to grad school. The turning point was when I realized I was walking past those cool fighter jets with my nose in my phone because I was reading up on news from that year’s GDC. It was a wake up call to me that, as cool as the job I had was, it wasn’t my passion. I took the leap of faith and left my job to go back to graduate school.

In my graduate program at the ETC, I came as an animator with an interest in design. I knew I wanted to find a way to incorporate my interest in player psychology. I had a taste of being both in game design and animation positions – and determined that I preferred being a Game Designer with an animation background, than an Animator with a game design background. I eventually became a designer at Schell Games.

The types of projects I worked on were all over the place: action RPGs, VR sword-fighting, puzzle games, amusement park rides, even a prototype for a horror tactics game at one point. While working on Jedi Challenges and eventually pitching Until You Fall, I really fell in love with combat design. It was the crossover between the things I liked about animation (clear posing, timing, read of silhouettes) and designing player experiences.

Now with the combat team at Ascendant I’m happy to say get to go deep on that type of design every day.

Patrick Jalbert, Principal Combat Designer at Ascendant Studios

Stay in touch

Learn more from our team as well as some of the industry’s leading developers as we share insights into game development.  Check out YouTube for more content about devs sharing their experiences creating some of the best games ever made. Our original podcast series, Rise Above, delves into the world of video game development through candid conversations with some of the industry’s leading devs. Our pilot and a special bonus episode are available now, and Season 1 arrives later this year!

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