Jesse Vigil

Creative Partner, Psychic Bunny

Beginner Perspective Jesse_Vigil.jpg

When I wrote the first edition of this book, Jesse Vigil was just beginning in the industry as a QA tester at Vivendi Universal Games. As a former undergraduate student of mine at USC, I asked Jesse to provide a beginner’s perspective on the industry. While working at Vivendi, Jesse contributed to games including Battlestar Galactica (2003), Half Life 2 (2004), and Middle-Earth Online (2007). Now, several years later, Jesse has design, writing, and producing credits on everything from card games to console games to next-gen platforms. He is a partner in an independent media company that has several game titles under its belt and more on the way. He is pictured (leftmost) playtesting a student game with teammates and game designer Richard Lemarchand.

On getting into the game industry: Accidentally. When I was interviewed for the previous edition of this book, I was three months into my first stint in games as quality assurance tester. A college professor advised me that this was a good path into the industry, and I had a really terrific buddy who offered me a job in QA at VU Games the very same day I about passed out from heat stroke as a much-abused production assistant on a TV show. I survived a few holiday crunches and clawed my way up the ladder very slowly, but very surely. When I went back to school to get my MFA in 2005, I had a front row seat for the explosion of independent games. I made friends with some truly remarkable people and discovered a passion and a talent and all of it is probably because a mean man on a film set yelled at me one day.

On working in QA: I know that the general opinion of “staring in QA” has changed since I was in the trenches, but here’s why I still think it’s a good idea: QA is a great way to see the game slowly evolve over time. Every few days you get a new build, and you see the changes that were implemented, and then you as a tester have as one of your jobs the task of seeing if the changes were beneficial to the game. It’s like being able to peek over the designer’s shoulder and watch the designer work.

Being a good tester makes you a better designer. Your designs will not be perfect the first time they leave your head, but if you never learned how to REALLY break a game, you may not find the weak points. I credit my time in QA for teaching me to see all the places something MIGHT break so that I can be proactive in my designs. There is nothing more soul rending than an angry review on an app store when someone finds an unforgivable hole that you and your team missed.

For me, it also helped me discover a passion. In QA, I pulled 22-hour shifts, and during my lunch breaks I memorized the console technical requirements checklists, learned how to take a computer apart and replace graphics cards faster than a NASCAR pit crew, and took any overtime anyone ever offered. It paid off. I was placed on some more permanent teams on some higher-profile games and was eventually promoted. When I realized I wanted a career and not just a job, I went back to school to get a graduate degree in game design.

On designing games as a student: When you’re a student, the first thing you want to make is usually whatever you favorite kind of game is. But you should be open to the possibilities in front of you. I was asked as a student to collaborate on the design of a game for the Army that would teach bilateral negotiation strategies with cultural sensitivity to soldiers about to be deployed. Aside from being a really progressive game that’s all about nonviolent conflict resolution, it was a fascinating design challenge. The people I worked with on that project remain some of the up-and-comers I respect the most, and I’m proud to say it not only won an award from the Pentagon, but was deployed to over a million soldiers with positive results. That experience taught me about the power of games to do more than just entertain. More than half the games I’ve designed and released are intended to make some kind of positive impact on the world. They rank among the ones I’m proudest of and I would never have fallen into it if not for those student projects.

On learning from failures: I’ve learned the most about game design from one of my biggest failures, which was an ambitious student game that had some pretty advanced conversation mechanics that I designed for it. I made a ton of mistakes. I didn’t scope it appropriately. I had a good team, but we were plagued with bad luck, unsupported engines, bizarre disappearances, communication issues, and freak medical emergencies that added up to having a good prototype but one that was too far from what we needed it to be to call it a success.

I also didn’t trust myself enough. Feedback is good, but every time we got a bad note from someone, we redesigned. I feel like game design is still design and that if you have an instinct for what good design is, you should be confident enough in your sensibilities to know its okay to sometimes stick to your guns.

On solving design problems: In a previous edition of this book, I said that solving design problems for me was about playing to strengths. I still believe this is true. If you are not a genius at programming complicated AI but you are a clever writer, maybe there’s a way to make the NPC seem way more sophisticated than it actually is just by writing them to sound like a real human being and not a cardboard stereotype.

That being said, I’m more experienced than I was when the last edition went to print, so I am adding to my old answer. Simplify. One of my heroes is music producer Rick Rubin, who has produced everyone from Metallica to Kanye West. Rick Rubin’s whole thing is minimalism. Strip out all that extra junk you added and let the good idea stand on its own. I just released a very personal little game that had been stuck for more than two years and it took Diana, my producer, giving me that wisdom back for me to realize how useful it was.

On the next five years: Nothing makes me feel better about myself and my career than having to revise this answer for a new edition of this book. In the first edition, my answer was: “Eventually, of course I want to write the actual game. I’m not really a designer, but I look forward to collaborating with designers.” Four years later, I was a full-fledged designer and lead writer and said I wanted a commercial title credit and to be working on my own IP. I have multiple commercial titles and just released my own IP on mobile, so this time I’d like for my next games to reach a much bigger audience than they have. Five years from now? Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.

Advice to designers: A mentor of mine in college always said, “Be excellent at whatever you do, and you won’t do it for long,” and I think that’s great advice no matter where you are. But at the same time, have the sense to know if you’re working at a place that values you.. There are times when being the hardest worker or having good ideas still isn’t going to get you promoted, and you need to have the courage to jump ship and find a new plan to get where you want. But do it respectfully and professionally.

The past few years have really expanded the cult of personality for game designers. You are not a more talented designer because you act like a jerk. Being a talented designer also does not give you the license to treat anyone else in this industry (or the world at large) with anything less than courtesy and respect. Relationships matter (especially in the entertainment industry) and the Internet is forever. Conduct yourself accordingly.