My self-confidence has never been great. Most of it came from not wanting to bother or annoy anyone. Consequently, I’ve always had trouble asking for help with things; not wanting to put anyone out or waste people’s time. As a young child I barely spoke. I have a distinct memory of my junior school head teacher giving me the nickname “The Ventriloquist” due to my tendency to mumble when put on the spot. In a roundabout way, game development has somehow ended up helping me a huge amount with this stupid problem.
My first games programming job
Having laughable social skills has mostly been a drag. However, a useful side-affect is that I’ve had to teach myself a lot of things (guitar & code in particular) and learn to fix problems on my own. I’ve already written about how I got my first games job mostly through luck. To summarise, a year was spent teaching myself to code and make games after which I managed to wangle some work experience and eventually a job at a small family-run game developer in Plymouth. I’d had no idea what to expect from a games job, and the following year certainly turned out to be… interesting.
While I generally enjoyed my first games job (for 8 months or so at least), it still kind of felt like being paid to do a hobby. Don’t get me wrong, that was a pretty great feeling but it didn’t real feel like a proper job. I bungled my way through the first project then actually brought my own game to the company with a friend. At this point game development just felt like a thing I was sort of doing all the time as a hobby that happened to be paid-for most of the time. After all I’d ended up working on a game I’d made as a hobby at work.
For the majority of my time there I was left to my own devices to figure stuff out and get on with things. That suited me fine, having been my life for the past year and during my failed PhD attempt (and conveniently didn’t require many social skills). A hangover from my unemployment, there was still no certainty that any of my code was being written correctly as I’d had basically zero feedback on my performance other than the occasional throw away comment. Everyone was busy and nobody had told me I was shit so it’d been assumed things were going OK.
The company being a family-run thing, it was often a whirlwind of petty drama, fallings-out and awkward silences. For the first 8 months or so this was largely offset by a generally relaxed vibe and welcome workplace silliness. Towards the end of the year things became more fraught. It became clear the company was in a bad spot. Still, I kept ploughing away at whatever needed doing for my game. We’d launched a demo that’d gone a bit mad in the press but everything had kind of fallen apart after that. Those last three months mostly consisted of crippling uncertainty and complete silence. Miraculously, throughout this I’d remained optimistic everything would work out.
Redundancy and realising I was an OK coder
Abruptly, we were all called into a meeting and told we were being laid off. It would be just before Christmas (a month away) and I’d just moved to a new flat. Not great timing. There was still a chance the company would pull through, something I’d clung to for far too long before seriously looking for a new job. At this point there was a real sense of dread that I wasn’t a “real” programmer and wouldn’t get a job anywhere decent because all I’d done was make one game that hadn’t sold any copies (7, I think) and a demo of my own game. Still very much feeling like a glorified hobbyist at this point.
Fortunately, it turned out I’d actually done quite a lot of stuff. My portfolio was looking fairly legit. It got to the last week at the company before I’d got around to sending out applications to anyone. They were all fairly speculative and a lukewarm response had been expected. To my pleasant surprise, two different interviews were offered to me within three days, one offer coming in literally on our penultimate work day. Whilst this was a far better outcome than expected, it made for a fairly nerve-wracking Christmas.
After both of these interviews and separate rounds of testing it had become apparent that I was actually pretty OK at programming. It may sound stupid but I genuinely had no idea whether I’d be considered any good at this point, even with a years experience. Somehow I was given offers for both jobs. I chose the one in Guildford as the company seemed cool and they all seemed to know what they were doing. All up I think I was out of work for all of three weeks and had somehow nabbed a job in the middle of the UK game development scene. Couldn’t have asked for a better result really!
Moving to Guildford
A move to a bigger studio in a new town was a little daunting. I knew precisely zero people in Guildford. Fortunately the new company was great. Everyone was very chilled out, people seemed to know what they were doing, and were working on a huge franchise too.
Digesting a new codebase is always a challenge, but this was a bigger task than I’d had to deal with before. Three games worth of code is quite a lot to get your head around. I’d been put to work on a PC port, which was actually pretty helpful in this regard because it allowed me to see how things had been set up and how they should work in a finished product. Debugging and fixing stuff for a few months was a little tiring but ultimately super useful. Plus working on a game that huge numbers of people (more than 7, I’ve checked) would pay actual money for and say nice things about was cool!
It took a little while to find my groove in a larger team. For the first month or so I’d been getting on with stuff well enough, but made a few stupid mistakes because I didn’t want to bother anyone. This had always been my MO and, importantly, there had never been any reason to change that. A few of the guys were a bit worried about this. It seems stupid now, but I was kinda terrified I wouldn’t be able to get over this and would mess up this job before really getting started.
Turned out a small dose of fear was all the motivation required to force me out of my shell. Over the following weeks I made an effort to discuss everything I did with pretty much everyone I could (probably went a bit OTT) and made a concerted effort to check every bit of work was OK. It sounds dumb, but this was actually super difficult for me. But it worked! My confidence increased, I made less mistakes, managed to calm down a bit and actually got to know my new colleagues a bit.
My social skills could still use some work but they’re a hell of a lot better than they were. I talk to people about stuff and everything!