Sperasoft’s Steven Thornton: ‘The strongest games design portfolio is one with playable content, even if the art is all sticks and spheres’

Lead games designer at Sperasoft Steven Thornton, who worked on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Rainbow Six Siege and over ten Lego games, explains how QA is still a route to games design and what he looks for in applicants.

What is your job role and how would you describe your typical day at work?

I am currently lead games designer at Sperasoft, a Keywords studio located in Saint Petersburg, Russia. People say the ‘ideas person’ role doesn’t exist in triple-A game development, but that is sort of what I do. The lead games designer defines the game’s features at a high level and then delegates the ‘details’ to their games design team. During production, you will be constantly reviewing and approving the ‘in progress’ content, answering questions, resolving conflicts and solving problems; all of which means a lot of time in meeting rooms. This is a full-time management job and you are likely to never actually touch the engine or contribute so much as a single asset or line of code to the game yourself.

A typical day at work begins with the morning stand-up meeting to check on the status of all ongoing tasks and identify any blockers that are preventing a task from moving forward. Although there is already a plan, every day is guaranteed to raise new questions, and every decision has ripple effects that must be chased and communicated. The rest of the time is usually based around content review. A triple-A development team will be producing assets and completing tasks constantly and they all pass through the lead games designer for a seal of approval.

What qualifications or experience do you need to land this job?

I went the university route and got my first design job at Traveller’s Tales thanks to a series of summer internships through my tutors. I got to prove myself on the job, which is unfortunately a rare opportunity.

My advice to aspiring games designers without any formal experience is to find ways to show rather than tell. The strongest games design portfolio is one with playable content, even if the art is all sticks and spheres. There are plenty of accessible tools available now, don’t be afraid to make something. Another common route into design is still via the QA department. It’s a stereotype, but QA tend to work closely with the designers, which gives them an opportunity to demonstrate aptitude for the office environment and the studio’s specific games. They may even get to catch some simple design tasks during schedule overflow.

If you were interviewing someone for your team, what would you look for?

I am looking for enthusiasm and confidence tempered with maturity and diplomacy. Regardless of your seniority within a design team, all designers are managers and morale captains. We set the tone of the project, we generate and explain the tasks, we provide the feedback that can change (or waste) hours of someone else’s work, so even at a junior level I am looking for strong soft skills and self-awareness. Sweeping unconstructive statements about whole franchises or studios being ‘bad’ or similar forum-gutter soundbites are red flags, as is boasting about poor work/life balance, since it suggests they would expect the same from any team you pair them with.

There’s also a risk that junior designers will feel pressure to prove themselves by pitching big ideas, but actually the main things I want to see at first is consistency and reliability. Generally studios don’t hire new blood to ‘fix’ things, they want help finishing what they already started. If you approach the industry excited to contribute and collaborate, you will soon get the chance to leave your mark.

What opportunities are there for career progression?

At a large studio there may be an opportunity for you to become a creative director or the director of the design department, giving you influence or veto power over multiple projects. However, it is true for all departments that the higher you climb the ladder, the more you will drift away from the hands-on work. Finding a balance between influence over the big picture and focus on the details is a personal one, and something you need to feel out once you get there.

Want to talk about your career and inspire people to follow the same path? Contact Marie Dealessandri at marie.dealessandri@futurenet.com

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s former senior staff writer. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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