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April 1, 2021

by Ken Balough

Director of Strategy and Product Development at ProbablyMonsters

Why mentoring mid-level designers can help the gaming industry’s lack of diversity

GDC speaker and Principal Gameplay Designer at Firewalk Studios™, “Professor” Lisa Brown, shares what drives them to mentor mid-career designers from under-represented groups

Mentorship has been part of the connective tissue of ProbablyMonsters™ since day one. We believe every developer deserves the opportunity to unlock their potential—both in our games and in our careers. At some point, someone took a chance on each of us. Now we should give back to help establish paths for new developers to enter the industry and to encourage existing developers to thrive. As confident experts in their fields, our Monster Mentors are dedicated to sharing their knowledge, and we encourage this. Here at ProbablyMonsters, we are currently running multiple mentorship programs, both from teams and by individuals on their own time, in areas including art, engineering, and game design.

To shine a light on a seasoned designer who inspires us, I spoke to “Professor” Lisa Brown, Principal Gameplay Designer at Firewalk Studios and a longtime game mentor and GDC speaker. Lisa takes their impressive experience at Insomniac, Bungie, and Firewalk Studios and shares it with designers of all levels—with a special focus on guiding mid-career designers, who they believe otherwise often fall through the cracks when it comes to mentoring opportunities.

ProbablyMonsters Blog: Can you talk about your own path in game design?

Brown: Before I started in games, I worked in theatre for a bit, and as a web developer. When I went to grad school at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, I figured out that game design was the thing for me. From there, I interned at Insomniac and came back as a Designer on Resistance 3 and Sunset Overdrive, then went indie for a while. I was a Hyper Light Drifter level designer, did lots of personal projects, also started doing dev streaming where I would design and talk to viewers, answer questions, and share learning about the design process.

I next took an academic residency at Harrisburg University as Game Designer in Residence, and mentored lots of students, project advising while also working my own projects. I participated in an IGDA program called Game Mentors Online that paired professionals with folks looking for mentors and I also did lots of informal mentoring with people and indies, which I still do.

ProbablyMonsters Blog: What drives you to mentor mid-career designers?

Brown: When you’re getting started there are tons of resources available to you. There’s also specific advanced stuff available, but there isn’t much for the middle. It’s harder when you’ve been around for a few years and have the basics down and can complete projects. But how do you hone your craft?

I look at mid-career folks as having been around for three to five years, having shipped a few titles and gotten past the “getting into games” hurdle. Helping people get past that five-year mid-career hump can make careers more sustainable, which is important to me. We’ve lost a lot of people at around five years, and I’m looking for resources to help get people past that. I’m especially interested in mid-career designers from under-represented groups. It’s especially hard for people in that position to get resources.

 

 

ProbablyMonsters Blog: How does ProbablyMonsters empower you to mentor those mid-career designers from under-represented groups?

Brown: I’ve done this on my own time during my career, but at ProbablyMonsters, it can be a part of working here. Part of being an employee at ProbablyMonsters is having access to this mentorship. That was something that really attracted me. It’s not just maximum efficiency with no wiggle room to learn. Here, part of the job is learning more so you can excel in your craft.

At Firewalk Studios, mentorship is seen as a valuable thing, especially alongside the goal of diverse hiring. One of the challenges of traditional hiring from people in the industry is that you’re limiting your pipeline. I’m interested in reaching out and hiring from non-traditional sources. To get people who haven’t worked in AAA but have great skills up to speed, you can mentor to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. You can also hire more junior people and help them master more skills over time.

 

“At Firewalk Studios, part of the job is learning more so you can excel in your craft. Mentorship is seen as a valuable thing, especially alongside the goal of diverse hiring.”

 

ProbablyMonsters Blog: What’s your biggest goal in mentoring others?

Brown: While there are lots of resources for learning new tools and skills, it’s not straightforward how to “be better at game design.” After a designer has made some games it’s not clear how to get to the next step. My goal is just to make people better designers, to help people get better at their craft. There’s also a rewarding side effect in that mentoring helps you discover how much you know. When you’re asked about something you take for granted, you realize it’s something people must learn—and realize you had to learn it yourself at one point.

ProbablyMonsters Blog: Do you have any advice for experienced designers who want to become mentors?

Brown: Every now and then I’ll try to help someone looking for a mentor by putting a call out on Twitter. I’m mentoring another designer on our design team. We meet every other week, talk about what she is working on, where she wants to improve, anything in her mind I can help talk through.

I also like to keep in touch with indie groups, and they have things like a get together every week to talk about challenges they’re facing.

With mid-career designers who wanted to level-up their game design, we would focus on what they want to get better at, with everything driven by the mentee. Some people just want to talk about a challenge they’re having.

Indies tend to group up locally, so look around. I encourage people to find a community—not just reddit but find a community of peers with whom you can talk about your struggles.

 

My deep thanks to Lisa for believing in potential, investing their time and effort with those talented mid-career designers and for encouraging others to pass along their knowledge, specially to marginalized groups who struggle to get resources. We’re proud to have you in our family, Professor!

You can find out more about them, including links to GDC Vault talks they’ve given, at their website, www.wertle.com. I’ll be back next month with another game development topic. Until then, stay safe, productive, and creative!

 

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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