Jim Vessella

Lead Producer/Designer, Zynga

Beginner Perspective Jim Vessella.jpg

When I wrote the first edition of this book, Jim Vessella was just starting his career at Electronic Arts. As a former student of mine at USC, I asked Jim to provide a beginner’s perspective on the industry. At the time, Jim was an accomplished associate producer with credits including Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II (2006) and Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars (2007). I asked him to base his responses on his experiences on these projects. He has moved on to other projects and is a lead producer/designer at Zynga.

On getting into the game industry: I always wanted to get into the industry, but like most people had trouble finding an open door. I thus spent my time reading articles and becoming versed in the business practices of the industry so that when an interview did come along I would be prepared. I would also take every opportunity to talk to industry personnel; you’d be surprised how eager some people are to simply share their experiences or give some inspirational words of wisdom. The research paid off, and my first gig came in the form of a summer internship at Vivendi Universal Games while I was a student at USC.

On experiences learned on the job: One of the greatest development philosophies at EALA is the concept of pods and cells. A pod or cell is a group of individuals from each discipline who work together on a specific feature of the game. For example, on Command & Conquer 3, I was producing the User Interface pod, which included a designer, several engineers and artists, and a development director.

One strength of this pod structure is that it allows members from all different crafts to brainstorm and collaborate on design ideas. You’ll find that engineers and artists have radically different ideas to offer, and on several occasions they were able to solve design issues that were stumping our design team. Learning to take suggestions from everyone on the team has been one the most valuable design lessons I’ve learned.

On the design process: As noted above, design ideas can come from anyone, anywhere, and at anytime. We take great pride in leveraging not only ideas from our team, but also from our community and fans. We often start with a high level vision of what the game should be, and more importantly, how it should play. For example, if we decide that the game should be “fast and fluid,” then everyone on the team can integrate that philosophy into their work. When getting into specific designs, we utilize the pod structure I previously described, which includes rapid brainstorming and prototyping to generate the most successful ideas.

On the next five years: I’ve had the good fortune of working with a fantastic team and creating some amazingly fun strategy games. I hope to continue having the opportunity to work with talented teams and collaborate on innovative design, and perhaps even someday get the chance to lead my own team to success.

Advice to designers: Be passionate and be persistent. Play games from all genres and platforms, read about the industry on a daily basis, and constantly search for internships or entry-level positions. Use these positions as a chance to network with employees and prove that you can handle greater responsibility.