Insight from Leaders in Engineering and Tech
Written by: Reese Coulter
Edited by: Mary Joaquin
Summertime may be about staying in but it doesn't have to mean being out of the loop. Come learn more about the games industry with our summer events!
Last June 23, we welcomed Mason Remaley, Brandon Zellmer, and Coraly Rosario for our Game Engineering and Tech panel. Before we dive into their thoughts, let’s first get to know our speakers.
Mason Remaley runs the indie studio Anthropic Studios and teaches graduate and undergraduate classes at UC Santa Cruz. He is currently developing Way of Rhea, a puzzle platformer without the platforming.
Brandon Zellmer is a Senior Technical Designer at Player First Games. He has been in the gaming industry for about seven years, with roots in VR and AR.
Our moderator, Sweta Conjeevaram, is our Tech SIG leader!
Sweta: Would you consider college a necessary step? Are there other means of achieving success?
Coraly: In my case I have a bachelor's degree in graphic design and a master’s degree in game development with a focus in game design and UI/UX.
She says her education was very valuable because there were “...no resources or any sort of way to enter the industry, unless I went to a university…” because of the lack of a video game industry in Puerto Rico. In regards to college, she says, “What you get out of it is what you put into it. You have to actively pursue and put in the work and learn—a lot of times on your own”.
Brandon: I have an undergrad in accounting, which is definitely not necessary to get into games. It did help me when I ran my indie studio for a few years, because someone has to prepare taxes and hire employees.
He says, “These days, I think there are enough resources online. If you have solid internet access, you can self-teach—which is what I did”. He continues by saying that while he thinks education is not entirely necessary, you will learn a lot of important skills such as working with people and dealing with deadlines.
Mason: I have an interesting perspective on this from being a student and a teacher. So, I did go to college—I studied computer science. For the position I was in, I probably could have gotten to where I am through a lot of other paths, as well. That’s not true for everyone, though, and it depends on what your goals are.
My advice for people: If you’re deciding whether or not to attend college, I would just try to think concretely about what you want to get out of it, and make sure that you are going to get that.
Brandon: After I finished my undergrad and I was working in finance, I went to a community college because they had a brand new game program. It just wasn’t the right environment for me. I definitely think it is—like Mason says—really on the individual.
Sometimes it’s good to try it out and see if it works, and if it doesn’t, eject as fast as you can. Try a different approach.
Mason: Yeah, that is a good point. I think that people think of it as a failure if you leave. You can decide something is not right for you and stop—that doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
Mason then states that he started out working in tech companies and his education did not provide him with a lot of connections.
Sweta: How did you decide you wanted to be in the game industry? Is it something you think that you’re going to do for the rest of your life?
Brandon: I’ll say, I will do this until the day I die. I do not plan to retire. Ever.
He says that he finds the problem solving aspect very fulfilling and enjoys that there is something new every day, unlike when he worked in accounting.
Coraly: I’ve been playing games since I was super little. It wasn’t until I started playing games like Kingdom Hearts or Dance Dance Revolution, that I started realizing that people can actually make [games]. It wasn’t until I was 25, I think, when I started looking at this program at this other university and it all just came back to me.
Coraly states she had the epiphany she could work in video games now that she was older.
The great part about my background in graphic design is: a lot of foundational knowledge I have there is almost 1:1 to what I do as a UX designer.
She says she wants to stay in the industry, because she loves the work she does. She adds, “As game designers, when we’re working on games, there’s this desire to be understood that we don’t typically see with other tech industries”.
Mason: I started making games probably when I was ten. It wasn’t something I took seriously; I was just messing around on a computer. That was what got me into programming, and that is how I ended up in tech.
I didn’t think a lot about what I was doing when I was applying to colleges—I just did it because I thought I was supposed to, which ultimately is not the right way to make decisions.
While he was in New York City, he realized he should be taking his work seriously like the other people he met, rather than treating it like a hobby. He says, “Ever since I got that idea in my head, my goal has been to spend as much of my working time on my own creative projects that I care about, and as little of it on work for other people”. Mason also wishes to work on games for as long as he can.
Sweta: People are pushing this idea that you have to constantly work to achieve success. Would you say that applies in your life?
Brandon: There’s always going to be someone else who puts in more hours than you, and I think hours are more important than talent. When I ran my indie studio I worked hundred-hour weeks for two and a half years. It was hell, but I loved it and I hated it. I packed five years of experience into that time which got me to where I am now.
Although he admits working that hard is not necessarily the best way to do it, putting in hours is important, and he suggests working until you are confident. However, he emphasizes that those extra hours were worth it because he was putting those hours in for himself.
Coraly: I wish I could have done a few things differently when I was joining the industry.
One of them was this notion of hustling until you burn out. I kinda just wanna go back and smack myself and say, ‘No, that was a terrible idea’. At the end of the day, it depends what your goal is. If your goal is to create your own indie studio or create your own studio—create something out of nothing—then yes, I do believe you have to hustle a bit more compared to others.
She encourages others to constantly learn new skills, but not to the point of exhaustion. She encourages finding a healthy balance. She adds that community is really important to her, and that is where a lot of her free time is spent. She tries to help people in Puerto Rico who want to work in the gaming industry and takes time out of her day to introduce people or work on events.
She says, “Make sure you are always investing in yourself, because at the end of the day, that’s what you are left with”.
Mason: I think this is a complicated question, because it is really context-dependent. Let’s say you’re working for a AAA studio and the CEO comes in and tells you to work 100 hours this week, and also they’re not going to pay you for the extra hours… That’s messed up. And the reason it’s messed up is because that person is asking you to do something for them that they benefit from, and you don’t see any results…
However, when it comes to school he says, “You are the one paying, and the hope is that because you are paying money, you will get something out of this experience. There isn’t a set number of hours to do, and putting in more hours up to a limit will let you to learn more. When it comes to learning a skill, hours are more important than almost anything else. I think this applies to any skill”.
That being said, you also have to decide what is important to you. While putting in more hours will get you better results, it does not necessarily mean you should do that, because your career isn’t the only important thing in your life. You probably have hobbies and people you care about. You have to decide how you want to balance those things.
Sweta: Would you say it is more important for students to solely focus on industry-related skills or would getting into other things like job hunting and internships be okay?
Brandon: I’ll speak from when I ran an indie studio. We were small—we just had six full time employees—and it was just about the work that you had done directly related to games, and what’s on your portfolio. And the studio where I am now, there are about thirty people—big publishers and big IPs.
He adds that, when it comes to hiring, they want to see your talent and what you can do. He says, “If you’ve got a good portfolio, you’re getting an interview”. When he screens a candidate, he makes sure they do good work, are personable, and fit in well.
Coraly: It kinda depends on what kind of company you’d be applying for.
I know with Niantic, from what I’ve seen so far, you don’t have to have worked in games to apply for a position there. If you’ve worked on some other digital product, that’s fine. If you’ve worked in AR generally speaking, that’s fine. What they look for is a diversity of talent and a diversity of experiences.
In my case when I was interviewing, one of the things that was really important for me was making sure the company understood that I’m not just a UX designer. There are other things that I do in the industry that are important to me like public speaking, DNI initiatives—that kind of stuff. If that is an issue with any company I’d be interviewing with, then for me that was an automatic ‘This isn’t going to be a thing’.
And it could work the other way around. Maybe a company is looking for someone who does their job, plus what other types of value they can bring to the company in addition to their day-to-day job.
Mason: It definitely depends a lot on the company. Mason then mentions that his students often ask him whether their GPA matters or not, and he answers, “...unless you’re going into academia, no. I mean I can’t say for sure; I can’t promise you that no one is ever going to feel differently, but the standard is no”.
GPA is measuring how good you are at taking tests and getting projects done for school, and that’s just a very different thing from whatever your job is going to be, unless you’re going to be a professional test taker.
If you’re going into tech, every tech company has decided the ultimate way to screen tech candidates is to ask them algorithm problems. What you want to do is learn your stacks and queues, your tree traversals, etc. If you have an algorithms and data structure class, take that class or review notes from that class.
If you’re going into games, it’s a little fuzzier for me since I didn’t work in any game studios prior to having my own indie studio. Ultimately, if I’m hiring you to build XYZ whether it’s art or level design or programming, I want to know—have you done that and are you good at it? But that’s just me and the people I know. I can’t say every company is like that.
When you go to an interview, they are interviewing you, but you are also interviewing them. Just because they offer you the job doesn’t mean you should necessarily accept it. You want to figure out if you want to work at this company.
He advises that it is important to ask questions about what it is like to work there, and to see if they can introduce you to the team.
Sweta: All three of you have varying careers in the industry, what is your typical day like?
Brandon: The way we structure things is we have a fifteen minute stand-up in the morning with our pod; we’re split into two groups. We have our milestone goals for the six or eight week milestone.
Brandon explains that they discuss what they got done the day before, what they will be working on that day, and what they expect to get done that week. He also mentions he works with many people in different roles such as UX designers and engineers.
I work at Player First Games. We are a new studio founded by some former staff from Riot—some people who worked on God of War, Call of Duty, and Valorant. I can’t really say much about it, but if you want to apply, I would highly recommend it. We’ll look, and if it’s not a good fit I will personally tell you what you could do better to get the job.
Brandon then mentions that his studio has a game that they will be announcing soon that he is very excited for.
Mason: My typical day varies a lot for me. It always has varied a lot for me in every job I’ve had, but especially since I’m doing indie stuff now, because we only have five people working on the game, and I’m the only full-time person.
He says that he fills many roles because there are so few people. He is currently working on rebindable controls, the narrative, building the last few levels, and marketing the game.
He adds, “There are all of these disparate tasks. One of them is a UI task to make the rebindable key menu look good, another one is a programming task to support the Xbox controller, and then there’s narrative and design stuff.
“And I’m just flip-flopping between all of these tasks day to day. It’s dictated by both what I’m interested in and what other people are doing. If my artist finishes designing a new character, I switch over to narrative stuff. If I’m waiting on them then I’ll switch over to something else. If a Steam event happens then I’ll switch over to marketing”.
He mentions the game he is currently working on, Way of Rhea. He describes it as a puzzle platformer—without the platforming. He says, “If you like puzzle games, but you’re frustrated with puzzle games that have too much action in them, then you should check this game out”. He says that while there is not a demo out right now, the game has demos up very often.
Coraly: As a UX designer and the only UX designer on my team, I am split across multiple pods. At any given time I can be consulting or working on wireframes for features or actually helping create the documentation for features as well. But honestly, every single day is just a bunch of meetings. At this point, Coraly shares a TikTok she greatly relates to.
At the beginning of the day I don’t have any meetings, and two hours into the day I’m fully booked in meetings, just syncing on different features and providing perspective on the UX side. As a UX designer I’m doing flow charts, wireframes, sometimes doing prototypes, syncing directly with UI all the time, because UI and UX are two faces of the same coin.
Coraly discusses what she does outside of her job as a UX designer, “I am also the co-lead of our Latin American ERG, and we have our nonprofits that we work with, and the members, and the ERG itself which is an Employee Resource Group”.
It’s like an infinity group for folks that have some form of commonality, and in our case it’s our Latin American/Hispanic employees at Niantic. I’m also syncing with our leadership team on what’s coming up for the year.
I’m also the vice-president of the Puerto Rico Game Developers Association and it’s kinda the same thing: I’m reaching out to different sponsors and different sponsorships for events that we’re working on for the community back in Puerto Rico. We work with folks like Latinx in Gaming as well as other ERGs in other companies.
This panel has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Beat the heat with some of EGD's refreshing events happening all summer long. Join us for video game industry events regarding Art and Animation, League of Legends, Marginalized Genders, MMOs, Overwatch, Smash Bros, Tabletop RPGs, Tech, and Valorant.
Follow the EGD Collective on social media to get updates on our upcoming events and workshops (Twitter / Instagram / Facebook). We encourage you the community on the EGD Discord server to meet some new friends and gain access to our wide array of services and resources!
Finally, consider joining our membership program! Benefits of registering for our membership tiers include access to student support services, fellowship programs, and more. You can find more information on our website here.