The Long Road to Riot

It has been four months since I last posted on my blog and almost as long since I started working at Riot Games.  Now, as I resume my blog, it seems only fitting that I pick up where I left off and tell the story of how I arrived at Riot…

Picking exactly where to start my long and (hopefully) interesting story is difficult, but in the interest of leaving nothing out, I suppose I should start with my first memory related to game design.  When I was in the 6th grade, my teacher made us read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe for English class. After we finished, each student was given a choice of three or four different book-related projects to do, one of which was to design a game based on the book.  By 6th grade I was already a well-seasoned gaming nerd and eagerly chose to make a game along the lines of HeroQuest.  I distinctly remember naming it “Pevensie Quest” and creating the board by gluing my own map over the board for Dragon Strike, which I’m proud to say I knew was a pretty atrocious game even at such a young age (for fun times, here’s the VHS that came with the game).  Unfortunately for me, I was a horrible game designer at age eleven and the “rules” for Pevensie Quest were mostly incoherent ramblings interspersed with rampant plagiarism of HeroQuest.  I believe I received a C+ on my project, with a note from the teacher claiming the rules were hard to understand from the perspective of someone who didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons.  I also remember thinking this was absurd and that she was lucky that I didn’t go for true D&D style rules as they would’ve shattered her mind… but I digress.

Undeterred by my first failure with game design, I continued to secretly design games on the side as I made my way through Middle School.  However, the embarrassment of failing humbled me to the point that I never shared these little games with anyone.  I honestly think that if I were truly satisfied with one of them I would have, but my adolescent mind was fickle and loved to wander, so I tended to abandon each attempt well before they got anywhere close to polished.  The only other game I remember vividly was my attempt at making an RPG based on Gundam Wing. I spent a great deal of time figuring out how combat and statistics would work only to hit a brick wall when it actually came to designing antagonists and plot progression.  The weirdest thing for me about messing around with games at such a young age was that I never really considered it as a career.  People would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I’d always respond with “mathematician” despite the fact that my parents had made it quite clear to me that “game designer” was a real job and that it might be right for me.  This didn’t change until my senior year of High School when two things happened.  The first was that, as I started applying to colleges, I needed to consider the directions my life could possibly take out in the real world.  As I contemplated my options, I came to realize that math in and of itself isn’t all that marketable.  This somewhat sobering epiphany forced me to face the fact that while I was very talented at mathematics, I was probably going to have to figure out a way to apply this talent to a narrower field.  The second thing that made me reevaluate game design as a career was signing up for my first Computer Science class.

To most people in my generation, the existence of a Computer Science class in High School is a given. But interestingly enough, my senior year of High School was the first year Computer Science was offered at my private Quaker boarding school; while they gave me a fantastic classical education, they were always a bit behind the curve in terms of technology.  Luckily for me, during my Senior year the new physics teacher had a small background in Computer Science and offered to start up a class.   I found myself immediately drawn to coding and within the first month it became apparent that I was breezing through the material. At this point my teacher let me work on a completely open ended project of my choosing and I decided to try animating and controlling the Zero sprite from Mega Man X4.  Because I had very little experience in how to actually construct a project like this, my program ended up being an if-statement loaded mess that animated Zero by moving a VB.NET Image object around a blank form while continually changing the image file tied to the object.  Yet, after a month or so of hacking away, I actually had a not-so terrible looking sandbox where you could jump around and combo Zero’s various saber slashes into one another.  Thinking back on it now, knowing what I know about programming, it’s remarkable that this monstrosity was what actually inspired me back into pursuing game design.  But back then, I didn’t know any better and was extremely self-satisfied with my ability to make anything that even resembled a video game. At that point, I knew I wanted to go to school for computer science and to eventually channel that knowledge into making video games.

Thanks mostly to fantastic recommendations from my Math and Computer Science teachers (and a bit of luck), I managed to get accepted to the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science.  There, I quickly learned that I was nothing special when it came to programming and that my strength as a Comp Sci major was really all in theory and abstract math.  This wouldn’t have been such a big hit on it’s own, but I also found that when I tried to get into projects for the Game Creation Society at CMU, I couldn’t motivate myself to get up to speed on a game that I wasn’t already interested in.  Over the course of my first couple years, I reached the conclusion that the extent to which I could work on making video games was limited by my pre-existing interest in the game.  This realization also came at a time when I was striving my hardest to be competitive at the games that interested me.  College was the time when I took Magic: the Gathering and Smash Brothers Melee very seriously and traveled far and wide for tournaments in the hopes of becoming a professional gamer.  This drive to compete, coupled with the realization that I  had little to no creative passion for games that I didn’t already find fascinating, made me immediately give up my dream of designing games.  Design now represented an unsolvable conflict of interest to me and, because of that, I simply accepted that I would just get a generic software engineering job out of college and play games competitively on the side.

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened.  I graduated from school, got an engineering gig at FactSet, moved to Connecticut and lived my life.  I worked 9-5 and spent my free time pursuing various games competitively, though I never really broke out at any of them.  And that very well might’ve been the end of my story had a few things worked out a bit differently.  Instead, 15 months ago, I broke up with my girlfriend of 6 years and was suddenly confronted with the prospect of reevaluating the direction of my life.  I’m not going to go into the details of the break up, as any further discussion is well outside the bounds of this post, but I think it’s important to mention in passing because it took a change of that magnitude in my personal life for me to really confront my dissatisfying career.  Now I don’t mean to take any shots at FactSet here; the reason for my lack of satisfaction at work was due to the fact that I’m a gamer and should’ve pursued gaming professionally all along.  FactSet treated me very well and I wish nothing but the best to everyone I worked with there, but my lack of passion for financial analytics was, in retrospect, a huge problem.

So, I found myself single and unhappy at work and focused on figuring out what I should be doing next.  The first thing that came into my mind was applying to work at Riot, as I had been doing some volunteer work for them in the Private Test Realm around that time.  It had been pretty awesome contributing there and I figured if there was any way I could leverage that foot in the door, that would be a great job.  “But wait!” said a little voice in the back of my head, “don’t you wanna be a pro gamer? You’re pretty good at LoL; a little more time and effort and you could easily make a pro team!”  It was surprising how quickly I shot myself down when I had these doubts.  For years I had discounted any inkling of trying to get into the games industry as it would disqualify me from being a professional gamer on said games.  Yet when I stepped back and took a long hard look on how the real world had changed me, I realized that I wasn’t interested in the idea of being a professional gamer anymore.  The pressure of having your livelihood tied to your performance at a competitive game suddenly struck me as the least appealing thing in the world.  I love competition and I love improving at games, but as a 26 year old dude who still had never been a pro in any game, I suddenly saw that looking for a more reliable career still rooted around the games I love made infinitely more sense than letting the progamer pipe-dream live on.

And so I had decided that my dream job was one at Riot.  Oddly enough, I wasn’t even sure what specific job I wanted; I just knew I wanted to be at Riot.  With that in mind, I decided to put together a plan for getting there.  I worked harder to get in on PTR playtests and give the most insightful feedback I could muster.  I strove to build up a new resume centered around contributing to gaming communities, which included putting out high quality posts on this blog (shoutouts to my friends and fellow smashers Virgilijus and Pakman for all their help editing and refining my posts).  Once I saw Marc Merrill retweet “In Defense of LoL,” I knew I was on the right track, but it took me a solid 2-3 more months to feel confident enough in my resume to send it in with fingers crossed.  I had decided to apply for two positions, Game Balance Designer and Associate Gameplay Analyst, and I heard back from the Designer post first.  All told I think I did pretty well early in that application process, but I definitely managed to out think myself and blow it spectacularly later on.  After hearing that I did not make it in the Design position, I was extremely disappointed and depressed for a few days until I heard back on the Gameplay Analyst position, at which point I pulled myself back together and prepared for that process.  Needless to say, I managed myself much better this time around and a few weeks after my final interview, during an otherwise uneventful Friday in late August, I received an official offer to work at Riot.

It took me a few nights of hard sleeping to make sure this was what I truly wanted, but all hesitation gradually gave way to excitement the more I considered the prospect of working at Riot.  I called back the following Monday and accepted the offer with a start date two months later to give myself time to tie up loose ends at FactSet.  Those two months flew by and the next thing I knew I was on the Live Design team at Riot, balancing the game I love so dearly.  At Riot, I found myself surrounded by my kind; like-minded nerd-bros who would stay late at the office to draft Magic, play 3rd Strike, or gather around a board game.  Almost immediately, I knew this was my dream job.

I get a very odd sensation when I take a step back and realize that it has been almost four months since I started here.  Has it really been that long?  The excitement of moving out here and getting settled still feels fresh in my mind, but the reality is I’ve been living the dream for months now.  I know it’s horribly cliche, but time flies when you’re having fun.  It all seems obvious in retrospect… we spend more waking hours working than doing anything else in our adult lives, so of course the best thing for your happiness is finding a job you love.  It took me a long time to really understand this simple fact of life and act on it by really going after my dream job, but hey, better late than never.

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6 Responses to The Long Road to Riot

  1. Armoric says:

    Hey, it’s certainly a bit late at this date, and been told to you often enough that it probably doesn’t mean much now, but as a jobless dude somewhat wondering how he should approach things after an unsatisfactory job congratulations both for getting in, and finding what it is that’ll make you happier.

  2. Paul Rogoza (CorT) says:

    This is inspirational. ❤ you Mogwai.

  3. Tom Bly says:

    It’s so odd to see a story like yours. I myself am majoring in computer science (programming) and am seeking the very same positions you did at Riot. Perhaps I’ll land that analyst position myself with a bit more work to my resume. The advice I really appreciated was what you did to improve your resume, I will really take that into consideration, thank you very much.

    P.S. Keep up the good work over there or else!

  4. Charles Z says:

    Great short piece on your journey to Riot! I myself am switching path from pursuing professional flying (unable to own a dog, away very often, very difficult to have local friends vs jet setting pilot friends) to returning to college to finish my Associate and then pursue a Computer Science bachelor. I’ve always been in love with games, both story telling RPG’s that suck you into a fantastic storyling, as well as multiplayer online games such as League. I just never knew how to get into the business for the longest time. I meandered between different paths such as marketing, IT, and pursuing the pro player pipedream. While it’s definitely possible to go pro… I’m already 26 and need to start building a solid life foundation. So pro gaming will be a hobby pursuit and Comp Sci will be my focus.

    I’m glad it clicked for you as well! Without anyone in-the-know it’s so easy to meander to jobs that are convenient or comfortable. As opposed to pursuing something that one can be passionate about and really love, combining passion with professionalism. I found your blog through reddit and this is the first post that I’ve read, but I will definitely be following your writings. Congratulations!

  5. Darwin R. says:

    Nice read, both in an inspirational and informational sense.

    I sometimes get a little worried that, at 23, all out gunning to make myself the irresistible for a job at Riot is a foolish idea. While I’ve been making games (pen&paper style, much like yourself) for over a decade, my parents are less thrilled about me making a career out of it. When push comes to shove, they’ve got my back, but hearing about other people that fought for it and made it is a great boon.

  6. ClosingFrantica says:

    Good post man, been waiting for this since you said on LoL’s forums that you were going to resume your blog. Very inspiring. Cheers from a fellow ex-Melee Player!

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