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March 5, 2021

Ken Balough

Director of Strategy and Product Development at ProbablyMonsters

How self-discovery and empowerment can lead to mindful leadership – Claude Jerome, Firewalk Studios

I am honored to dedicate this month’s blog to our own Claude Jerome, Principal Gameplay Designer at Firewalk Studios, the multiplayer studio at ProbablyMonsters. Claude is a quiet leader whose brilliance emerges through thoughtfully constructed gameplay experiences and a deep commitment to mentoring freely. Millions of players have experienced his craft in games like Destiny 2 and he recently spoke at the Game Devs of Color Expo.

Claude talked to us about how his self-discovery got started, how the values of trust and family are what he looks for in a studio, and how he wants to inspire a new generation of gameplay designers using his mentorship platform at ProbablyMonsters.

ProbablyMonsters Blog: Claude, can you share how your personal game development journey started?

Claude Jerome: My journey is one of self-discovery. I was a little lost in high school and it was hard to feel engaged in what I was learning without context. I became interested in programming when I saw how what I was learning could be used to create something interesting, and I imagined learning enough to program video games someday. The next step was in college when I volunteered to help program games for a multidisciplinary project to collaborate on making a custom handheld gaming device for a 9-year-old child with visual impairment. That whole loop of hardware and game design iteration to understand and meet the specific needs of a customer was fascinating, and it gave me an interest in the social impact and educational potential of games that still resonates with me.

That project helped me get an internship at 1st Playable Productions, making educational games. I got lots of experience, wearing a lot of hats. I felt I’d found something I could do forever. Making games for social impact and having a family environment in the studio meant a lot to me. We made games quickly, but it was a blast for the team, all working together. The studio created a culture of trust, which was important for me. This was something I look for anywhere I go; where you can be yourself, grow and learn from others.

ProbablyMonsters Blog: Is that feeling of trust something you saw at ProbablyMonsters?

Claude Jerome: When I was looking at ProbablyMonsters, I could see that it’s about creating a place that feels like another home. You can come to work and be yourself. There are so many experts in their craft here who are willing to share and teach their expertise, and we talk about common goals and collaborate while trusting each other.

The thing that stands out most is the widespread sense of humility at ProbablyMonsters. If you look at pedigree and titles, it’s intimidating—everyone is an expert. But it’s not about flexing your experience. It’s encouraged to be vulnerable about what you don’t know because the same vulnerability is expressed in the leadership philosophy. We talk about the most valuable thing being the mistakes we made and what we learned from it. People from established places coming here and being humble is inspiring to see.

ProbablyMonsters Blog: Every Monster has their own mentorship story, what’s yours?

Claude Jerome: It wasn’t always a formal relationship, but I’ve had a mentor to some degree in almost every job and even in college through a STEM organization called MentorNet. Having a mentor is critical for growth; it helps keep you from getting lost in the weeds, thinking of the problem in front of you rather than your craft overall. For example, one concept a mentor gave me that’s stayed with me is to think of hard design problems and lessons you’ve encountered as different books that go on a bookshelf. Those problems may have been frustrating in the moment, but it can be encouraging to remind yourself that you have those lessons for life now and can always pull down that book to help later if you need it.

The validation to a person being mentored is great, but from a mentor’s perspective, it can also be empowering to see your experience become a valuable insight for someone else. A good example was helping someone understand how to communicate differently to different types of minds. They were having difficulty getting through to someone no matter how they explained things, and I shared the way I had approached a similar circumstance. Explaining this helped me see a skill that I didn’t know I had – it essentially crystalized a communication technique that I had in my head, which was great.

ProbablyMonsters Blog: Let’s talk about how you’re giving back through the Game Devs of Color Expo – can you tell us more about how the contribution from you and ProbablyMonsters unfolded?

Claude Jerome: Each year I would come back from Game Devs of Color surging with energy. I told Tony Hsu, Firewalk Studio’s studio head, about it and he wanted to see if we could get involved—that conversation was encouraging and showed me what ProbablyMonsters is all about. I could talk to our studio head, and then have something happen immediately. We talked about our studio’s long-term ambitions for outreach mentorship and, eventually, we signed Firewalk up to sponsor the expo the following year.

As for getting involved myself, I’d gone to the expo a few times already with Lisa Brown, my friend and fellow Principal Gameplay Designer at Firewalk, and she’d been encouraging me to get up and do a talk. I finally decided to give it a shot and even got her advice and feedback on the presentation itself. So, in a way, she mentored me on mentoring! I started thinking about how I could share the knowledge that I’d gained from working in AAA to bring more people in the fold. I kept asking myself: ‘What could I share that I’ve learned from my colleagues? As I dug through my notes and processes, I started seeing patterns and pulling out higher-level principles and suddenly I could clearly explain the last few years of growth to an audience in my expo presentation.

ProbablyMonsters Blog: In the spirit of inspiring your industry colleagues to follow your lead, can you tell us how that mentoring experience changed or helped you?

Claude Jerome: The biggest benefit to mentoring is the confidence you get back. It lessens the imposter syndrome you can feel when we’re working with other incredible talent. There’s a positive synergy of confidence building. With Game Devs of Color, I was crystalizing what I’ve learned with my co-workers. It was a very unifying moment; it wasn’t mine—it was OURS. It was an uplifting moment that symbolized what we’re doing here.

I want to thank Claude for taking the time to share his deep passion and insightful perspective on the benefits of mentoring others. Our mission to empower our people is what drives us to invest in our dev’s personal growth and development as inspiring leaders. Claude is a true testament of mindful leadership, by not only balancing self-discovery and empowerment successfully, but also by influencing others to believe in their strengths, and to never give up achieving mastery. You can watch his presentation on Advanced Game Feel at the Game Devs of Color Expo here—and I encourage you to do so!

 

Ken Balough, Director of Strategy and Product Development at ProbablyMonsters, has a proven record of success with AAA entertainment franchises and first party consoles. Previously at Microsoft Xbox, he has also held roles at Wargaming America, PlayStation, and SEGA of America. A critical thinker and creative marketer, he brings deep experience working with product development teams as well as a lifelong passion for gaming to his role managing internal and external relationships for ProbablyMonsters and its family of studios.

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