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December 3, 2021
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The Self-Guided Career Path

by Chelsea Blasko on 10/19/21 11:47:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This month, I am again handing the keyboard over to Joseph Simons, one of our Technical Directors at Iron Galaxy. He will share more about our Programming Department and what we think is a program that fosters retention. We know that our key strength as a business is the talent of our employees and we look for creative ways to foster interests. Two of our Values: Continuous Improvement and Capabilities lead us to create process and programs that keep employees’ skillsets constantly evolving. We are always growing, learning, and tackling new areas of game development. We believe that offering employees opportunities to try new things and constantly learn is a key component of retaining great employees.

Joseph Simons:

At Iron Galaxy, our business model is based on having many projects and working with multiple partners concurrently. We consider this approach and diverse array of projects to highly contribute to some of our key strengths; giving our programmers new and unique challenges to tackle and providing learning opportunities they are interested in having. All these different genres and titles allow us to provide the possibility of working in diverse areas of game development and gives programmers the chance to try a wide range of tasks in their careers with us. We know that programmers who are enthusiastic about their work make for better developers, which in turn leads to higher quality games. In addition, by letting programmers define which areas are of interest to them personally, we place the reins of their careers in their hands to steer as they wish (with our guidance and support.)

 I always tell my team that “happy developers are more productive developers.” By finding tasks that are exciting (or at least interesting), programmers get to enjoy the day-in day-out programming tasks and the project teams get more features developed or bugs closed out. We know that not everyone that has a passion for artificial intelligence necessarily wants to get deep into rendering code, nor that the resident networking guru wants to develop UI widgets and we recognize and plan for that. We also know that our programmers love learning new things and each has their own set of skills that they wish to utilize or improve upon or new areas they want to explore. Taking all this in mind, we do our best to pair programmers with projects that fit their interests and grow their skills and careers.

Our method of accomplishing this goal is relatively simple but effective. We have a data table that lists a variety of programming areas that we have encountered in our various projects (or might be thinking of expanding into). These run the gamut from video game staples like gameplay and graphics to lesser considered areas like tools and firefighting (where you are focused primarily on game stability). We also have a column where programmers can indicate their enthusiasm towards being a lead or managing people. This distinction is made to recognize that just because someone may have several years under their belt in games and they have honed their technical chops, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to deal with being a mentor or taking on the overhead of delegating tasks and evaluating performance.

This data table is covered as early as part of the onboarding orientation. Most departments utilize a similar system and employees are encouraged to fill it out as part of settling in. There are no wrong answers. It is also something that employees can update at their leisure as their interests evolve and develop. We also encourage programmers to think about any updates they may want to make to their interests as a project is winding down and the next deployment is being solidified. Employee preferences are then considered when deployment decisions are made. Naturally, these interests and preferences are only one piece of the puzzle in deployment, as general performance and discussions with current and prior leads are also taken into account, as well as the realities of business needs. We also don’t guarantee that we’ll find a perfect fit every time, as we need to work with the spots we have available, but we try our best.

All of this is in service of employees having self-directed career paths where they are partners in their growth. By giving employees the ability to specify and communicate their preferences and then having the Department Heads working towards meeting them, employees can control the areas of the game they develop and the skills they will sharpen along the way. Plus, if they get tired of hyper focusing on one subsection, with the variety of projects we assist with, we should be able to find something of a different flavor down the line. This is also true for multiple year engagements on a single project or GaAS engagements. We have recognized that employees like to change up their focus periodically to keep excited and passionate about their work.

My own career trajectory illustrates this. I have assisted with porting work, helped develop UE3 for the launch of the Xbox One, done optimizations and graphical work for a variety of games and studios, helped design and develop patching and content delivery architecture for both client and server, and am now working on something completely different.

This model also allows programmers to try a lead role and then decide that it isn’t a good fit for them. Since we don’t believe that you need to be involved in management to advance your career, they didn’t blunt their trajectory at all. They just went down a different path for a while. In some cases, the person might be a good fit, but decided to really focus on hands-on-keyboard contributions on a future assignment and that is ok to. We really believe that everyone needs to pick up a shovel and that all tasks and roles are important.

We want to mitigate burn-out and find ways to keep employees engaged with their work. We believe offering choices outside of the more traditional ladder career path is a good way to do that. Luckily, this was something we discovered fairly early on and we continue to modify process to allow this approach to expand as we’ve grown.

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