My first paying job in the game industry came two years before I started working at Fantasy Flight Games. I was just out of college and living in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when a friend of mine came by the local game store we hung out at and told me FFG was looking for painters. A few months later, I finished painting twelve master models for the company’s Mutant Chronicles Miniatures Game.
The job was strictly freelance. FFG wanted to make a prepainted minis game and needed someone to paint their prototypes to show the factory painters which colors to use. After I finished my batch of models, I took my check and didn’t cross paths with Fantasy Flight again for almost two years.
In 2008 I had settled into a job as reporter and editor for a local weekly paper in the Saint Paul suburbs. I was a big fan of FFG’s Midnight roleplaying game and owned a copy of Twilight Imperium, but wasn’t looking to get into the industry.
However, around that time FFG started looking for full-time editors. It sounded like an interesting job, and to top it off, it paid better than reporting. I sent in my resume and was fortunate enough to get hired.
I spent more than a year working as an editor, mostly on board and card games. I might still be an editor now, except that just before I was hired, FFG also got the license for Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy from Games Workshop.
I was, and still am, a huge fan of both settings, and I have a huge collection of Games Workshop miniatures (remember, my first work for FFG was painting models). The company hired two new developers—Jay Little and Ross Watson—to work on Warhammer 40,000 and Fantasy Roleplay. However, with my interest in both settings—especially 40,000—I volunteered to do some writing in my spare time.
The first work I ever did was a few entries in Creatures Anathema, Dark Heresy’s monster sourcebook. I wrote up Phyrr—the idillic world where every living thing is poisonous to human life—and the stealthy and murderous Phyrr Cat that lives on it, as well as some other creatures such as the Xothian Blood Locust. In doing so, I found out something: not only was I good at writing for RPGs, it was also fun!
I worked on several more Dark Heresy books during my off hours, but my big break was a chance to work on the second game in the 40,000 Roleplay line, Rogue Trader. In the end, I got the chance to work with Ross and even write the entirety of the starships chapter in the Core Rulebook. It meant a lot of late nights, but it was some of the most challenging and interesting work I had done to date.
My managers knew I was doing this additional work, of course. With two 40,000 Roleplay game lines already, and Ross starting work on the third (Deathwatch), they expected to be expanding FFG’s RPG department. After Rogue Trader went to print, they offered me a transfer from editing into RPG producing. Of course, there was no way I’d say no to that.
In the three years since then I’ve worked in FFG’s RPG department as a producer. As head of the Rogue Trader line, my duties were equal parts designer and developer. I would come up with the concepts and initial design for a supplement, hire and manage the freelance writers who worked on it, then take their work and the art and graphic design and turn it into a book.
Later, FFG decided to develop a new game line, Black Crusade, and tapped me to be the project lead.
Black Crusade was the first time I had headed up a core book, and the whole process was extremely fascinating. We got a chance to make some changes to some of the core game mechanics. But the really challenging part was writing an RPG where you played bad guys. Everything up until then had the minions of the Chaos Gods as slavering and depraved evil beings who worked in concert with hordes of vile daemons.
Well, now we were making a game where you were those depraved evil beings. We certainly didn’t want to tone down that aspect of Chaos, but at the same time, we had to make the player characters interesting and compelling, not simply faceless evil. We spent a lot of time developing the motivations of the players’ characters, why they fell to darkness and what they hoped to gain by serving Chaos. Working on that project took a lot of creative thinking, and in the end, I think we succeeded rather well.
These days I’m a senior RPG producer here in FFG’s RPG department. Our department’s expanded to six (and sometimes more) people managing six game lines. I get to work with a bunch of fantastic people on really fun games. In the last four years, I’ve been at a job where I’m always excited to get up and go to work each day.
If I were to offer any insights on starting out in the game industry (or at least in my corner of it), a few things come to mind. First and foremost, I think one of the best things you can do is be active, engaged, and passionate in the gaming community (whatever your games of choice are).
The game industry is not a place where someone can strike it rich and get out, but it is an industry where your enthusiasm and passion for the games you make can directly correlate with how good the game is. My most talented colleagues are the ones who game just as much after work as during work hours. Related to that, I recommend never being afraid to try something new. Playing a wide variety of games and seeing the many different ways of making successful games is a great way to keep your creative juices flowing and avoid being stuck in a rut.
Also, I’d recommend being realistic about your strengths and weaknesses when applying for a job. If you’ve never designed a game before, don’t assume you can successfully apply for a job in game design. However, game companies are just like any other company—they have a wide variety of positions they need to fill. Chances are, whatever your education and vocational background, there’s a position you’re qualified for.
The one thing I don’t recommend is trying to get a job at a game company with the intention of transferring into a design or producer role as soon as possible. After all, the company that hired you had a job they needed done. It won’t be impressed with an employee who shirks their duties because they want to be doing something else. However, if you’re willing to volunteer some time and effort, there are plenty of ways to become involved in the design process on your spare time. For example, internal playtesting is a great way to help your coworkers and get some practice at game design.
Or, in the case of roleplaying games, you could volunteer your evenings to help generate content for the next book. It may take some effort, but I bet you’ll find it’s both satisfying and a lot of fun.