Getting back into the Game

(Note: This is a repost from 2011)

As some of you know, I recently changed jobs from WMS Gaming to Playfish UK and as I wrote about my reasons for leaving the games industry, I thought it be interesting to write about why and how I came back.

So what happened?

Due to documents that I have signed, I can’t give any specifics but I can say I was made redundant and it wasn’t because I sucked at my job. You should be able to fill the gaps.

Admittedly, I was already starting to think about moving on by this point although I was pretty surprised considering one of the reasons I joined was for job stability.

However, I decided to stay for at least one more project as I was making very good headway on a Continuous Integration server which would allow us to have automated daily builds deployed both locally and to the head office in Chicago.

I also wanted to properly run Agile pending on the size of team as I had the flexibility and seniority to do so at the studio and it would be great to get the project management experience.

What is it like to be made redundant?

One word: scary. And this is coming from someone who had already gone through two redundancy processes with next to no debt, no dependencies and no mortgage to worry about.

Thankfully, WMS were generous with the redundancy package which allowed some breathing room even for those that started recently. However, you first thoughts will always be ‘How long can I go without a job?’ and more importantly ‘Are there jobs out there for me?’

In my particular case, I knew there would a fair amount of work for programmers but for the others artists and producers, there isn’t a great deal out there. Art is generally being outsourced overseas and as there is generally only one producer per team, there really isn’t a lot of demand.

Still, why go back to games? Did you try looking elsewhere?

When I was looking for work previously, I was quite heavily focused on choosing between industries which I now realise was a mistake. The industry won’t define or shape how a company would be run. I was getting so hung up on the industry stereotype that games would always be crunch heavy that I should only be looking outside games.

This time round, I focused on companies and the work that they do rather then the industry that they were in. My criteria was still the same though, I still wanted a good work/life balance, decent pay and part of a smaller team where I wasn’t a cog in a machine.

A really good site that I came across was Best Companies Guide which maintains a list of companies that have surveyed well by the employees for being a great place to work at. 

From there, I did apply to Softwire who write bespoke software solutions to clients. Unfortunately, they never got back to me with an interview offer which counted as a rejection. I did catch them during a recruitment drive so I guess my application never stood out.

This was a shame as from the website and perks, it sounded like an awesome place to work where the staff were well looked after and in positions of responsibility of work.

With my recent research in shared office workspaces, I kept tabs on jobs at technology startups in TechCityUK from their Twitter Feed and also jobs boards such as Tech Startup Jobs, 37 Signals Job board and Stack Overflow Careers. Unfortunately, due my narrow skill set, I found it difficult to find a job that I had the right skills for especially during the Cloud computing/storage boom we are in. For example, some places asked for Ruby on Rails experience.

I also looked at the finance industry on The IT Job Board just to see what it would be like working there and if I would actually be interested as the money is really good in that sector.  Unfortunately, I never got even close to applying due to poor recruiters  that actually put me off digging any deeper. I kept getting promised of being called back or emailed and neither happened. (Selby Jennings, I am looking at you). 

(Tip: When dealing with agencies, it is handy to have a burner phone such as a PAYG on a cheap or old handset. Agencies tend to have a habit of continuously calling you about potential job opportunities even when you have found a job. As I learned the hard, giving them your personal number is a bad idea.)

Next, I looked at games companies that I wanted to join which appealed to me in some way. Usually these were smaller companies and/or had a company culture that tickled my more creative side. From memory, these were Playfish (where I am at now), Honey Slug, Mind Candy and Hello Games.

Finally I had a list of specialised agencies help out with roles or companies I may missed or were completely unaware of and I was surprised on the roles that they had. Holly from Advark Swift got me my original job at WMS Gaming. Peter from Amiqus was awesome to work with since he was a heavy gamer himself and really knew the companies that he was representing especially Splash Damage. It was actually a bit of shame that I didn’t get a job through him. Finally we have Fran from Recruit3D who I still owe a pint to and he also recently set up the site GigsInGames which is a games industry jobs board free of agents.

As to why I went back to games, it just turns out the company that liked the culture and scratched that creative itch of mine happened to be in games and part of EA. 

What about being a startup? That seems to be the rage these days.

I did heavily consider that option but couldn’t make the numbers work. I honestly didn’t think I had enough original or compelling ideas to get a startup going and sustain  for a period of time.

Also, I couldn’t find a place cheap enough to rent or willing to move to in order to minimise running costs. If  a friend had a spare room to rent out, then I would have had a punt at it for 3-6 months to see if I could really do it.

Regardless, while I was attending interviews and going through the motions with the redundancy process, I was (and still am) working on a small tile puzzle based game for the iOS platform as something to keep me busy and get back in the mind set of game development. If I did manage to finish it, then I would also have something to sell and share as portfolio piece.

Since you went from games to gaming and back again, did you find it difficult to get interviews?

This was a concern of mine and a scary one at that. Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad. The year gap didn’t hamper my skills or knowledge too much, the fact that I still kept tabs on the games industry and related articles (such as the ones from AltDevBlogADay) meant I was still relatively clued in. 

While the work at WMS wasn’t cutting edge, it did teach me a lot about working with really old legacy code bases. Additionally, the work I did on Continuous Integration and tools to aid workflow which I did in my spare time was good talking point with my interviewers.

I did do a fair bit of preparation to make sure I could talk about the work listed on my CV and covered the high points of each project. ‘What Colour is your Parachute?‘ also really helped with the generic interview questions such as ‘What will you bring to the company?’ and also reminded me about salary negotiations and it really is an issue of ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’. A few of my friends who were more experience in this also really helped a lot by sharing their own experiences.

I also make it a habit to update my CV and portfolio after every project just in case something happens like this redundancy and I don’t have to panic about getting something together while trying to deal with the shock as well.

If the gap was a larger, I really would wonder if my skills and knowledge would become dated thereby making it difficult to come back into a such a cutting edge industry. It really drives the point home that I need to be working on projects in my spare to keep skills sharp and up to date. 

Only a couple of days ago, I was shown that you can run Git and Hg on top of SVN which is incredibly useful and something I wish I knew at WMS which would have made my life a little easier. It will be something I be looking over the weekend on a VM just to see how easy it is to do. 

All in all, was it worth leaving EA Bright Light in the first place?

Yes it was. I left for the right reasons but perhaps wished I thought more about where I wanted to be instead. It did really help to get myself financially back on my feet and therefore am in a much healthier position then a year ago.

Due to the small team sizes on each project at WMS, it meant that I got a lot more exposure to the management layer that I would be shielded from so that level of senior experience was enlightening and useful. I also wanted to stay for another project to try and drive modern software development practises into the company or at least the studio as I doubted I will ever get as good as chance as that again anytime soon without starting up my own company and/or team.

Such a shame that it never happened as that could have been my mark at the company if it went well.

I have some more questions, where can I get in touch with you?

Feel free to contact me via Twitter @yaustar or by using Tumblr’s Ask Me Anything form.

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