Industry Insights – Advice for job applications: level designer edition [Mike Bithell, 2018]


This is going to be a very short and sweet entry to my Industry Insights series in which Mike Bithell of Thomas Was Alone and Quarantine/Subsurface Circular fame goes over his own advice on creating a good level design portfolio, inspired by his recent search for a freelancer on an unannounced project. This is a rare chance for direct and soberingly honest advice that many aspiring developers will benefit greatly from.

Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


  1. Communication skills are number one priority, especially in junior hires. You can learn almost anything if you’re willing to listen, and you can’t be a designer without being able to explain a position and fight your corner (professionally)
    1. So make sure to spell check. Arrange your CV/portfolio clearly. Show that you can get an idea across (in this case, the idea that you’re fantastic). Show that you pay attention by following the instructions (despite asking for email, he still got a fair few DMs, twitter applications etc.)
  2. Show what you did on games, don’t just offer a softography. It is of course impressive if you worked on a game that is known and even liked, but game dev is a team effort, so you need to highlight what you actually did, and the limits of that responsibility.
    1. The strongest candidates take you through their work history by naming projects and then actually bullet pointing “I was responsible for these specific areas of design in these specific parts of the game, or its systems”. That helps the recruiter.
  3. If they haven’t heard of your game, that presents an opportunity. If you’re just starting out and all your work is student or indie projects, then you have an amazing opportunity to walk them through your process. Some great students presented playthrough vids of their levels.
    1. One idea that wasn’t seen but might be worth a day’s work for any students about to start job hunting – make a GMTK style break down video of a level that was designed. Similar to the dungeon mapping ones – show the recruiter. SHOW NOT TELL.
  4. Be incredibly careful about oversharing personal info before work info. They shouldn’t have to get to know you personally before seeing your portfolio, so keep it fresh and professional. This is in your best interest: they might be a jerk who doesn’t like you immediately…
    1. It’s 2018 so if they’re into your work, they will google you and check out twitter to see if you’re an arsehole before getting back to you, but it’s a risky play to put your personality too far ahead of the work you’re hoping to wow a prospective employer with.
  5. One great tip for students is to share analysis of other people’s levels – one of the best portfolios ever seen included, among other things, a 5 page analysis of why and how rocket launchers were placed in Quake maps. Brilliant.
  6. They’re not going to download an executable. They’re not going to download a mod, a map or anything else at the first round of review. a) It’s slow b) I’m doing this on a Mac that doesn’t support your game c) I’m not logging into steam on this work machine. It sucks, but it’s true.
    1. Time is limited, so make it profoundly easy with PDFs (opens on anything these days) and YouTube/embedded videos. Flash intros are, thankfully, much less popular these days, but bear in mind that you have 5 minutes to earn their attention for another 5 before moving on.
  7. Show debug rendered overviews of maps that were made. In a very big pile of applicant, the ones that did it could be counted on one hand. It’s exciting to see level maps and layouts. A sexy gameplay shot is fine, but it’s more a showcase of the environment artist(s) you worked with. Show the unsexy debug view with spawner gizmos and grey boxed layouts. Show that you’re able to build and pace a space. It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly, for a level designer, it’s the meat of what they’re hiring you to do.
  8. The final one – if you don’t get hired for a job it’s almost certainly not because you were shit.
    1. No single application this time around managed all 7 of the above
    2. He was hiring for a genre you have no experience of
    3. You were second best, but there is only one job



Industry Insights – Let’s Be Realistic: A Deep Dive Into How Games Are Selling On Steam [GDC 2018]


This will be a more bite-sized entry to my Industry Insights series in which Mike Rose from More Robots goes over his own research into sales numbers and trends on Steam. The market of Steam has dramatically changed over the past years, going from a once highly-selective curate market to the current “everything goes” open market that even recently approved it’s first hardcore porn game. In this climate, it is more important than ever to get as much insight into trends as possible if you want to have any chances of succeeding as a small developer. Mike Rose does his best to do the research so you don’t have to – giving ballpark figures that should help with estimating development return on launch.

Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


It must be pointed out that Steam sales are notoriously obfuscated and with Valve’s new API (part of their Steam store redesign) this has further become the case (for more information, refer to the excellent NoClip interview with the creator of SteamSpy) requiring additional effort to squeeze out any hopeful bit of data that you can. Hopefully, going forward this will shift as a mentality, given that for most industries relevant numbers are widely available – from books, through records and to movies. For now, we have Mr. Roses’s estimations – as follows:

These estimates are for the “average” Steam game – eliminating outliers like the increasingly prevalent shovelware and asset flips that are drowning the platform.

In February 2018 the “average” game

  • Sells 2,000 copies
  • Has an average price of $12
  • Makes $12,500 in revenue during its first month

So as a rough revenue estimate (keep in mind this is for a successful Steam game) it’s:

  • 1st Year = (1st Month x 2.5) = (1st Week x5)
  • Or, on average, around $30,000 in first year

Now, that’s not a bad sum but considering the quality and caliber of game that must be released on Steam to have any hope of standing out, it quickly becomes a very worrying picture. For comparison, the average US salary is just under $45k. Not great.

An interesting additional insight is that, somewhat counter-intuitively, people are eager to pay more for games. Most likely, this is due to the flood of cheap, low quality games and the subconscious association with the dreaded mobile market. As a result of this, increasing the price of your game to $10 or more might actually help it sell more, due to user perception of quality.

“If they are asking this much, surely it must be better, otherwise they’d be mad?”

“Why do they think they can charge more?” etc.

In conclusion, I’d definitely recommend giving the full talk at least a quick skim, though most of the insights can be gathered from just the numbers. It is an estimate, a rough one at that, but could prove invaluable for any amateur developers out there subsisting on nothing but rationed ramen and stubbornness.



GDC Vault

Industry Insights – Classic Game Postmortem: Deus Ex [GDC 2017]


In this article of my Industry Insights series I will be looking at a very exciting 2017 talk from Warren Spector who is going to go over some key development insights from the development of one of gaming’s biggest classics – the original Deus Ex (2000), which incidentally is one of my all time favourite games. He goes over how the whole inspiration behind the game was to have a cohesive thread of meaning interwoven throughout the development. This, while primarily a narrative conceit, is what helped drive the choices in the game and ultimately creating one of the best immersive sims of all time. Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


This talk focuses goes over a lot of key aspects of the development of Deus Ex and its hour long runtime is far too loaded with development gems for me to truly summarize it.

As such, I will focus on the advice given by Warren that could be applied to most developer’s projects. It is broken down loosely into 9 “guiding design questions” (with example answers) as follows:

  1. What’s the core idea?
    1. Elevator pitch
    2. Example from Deus Ex – “The real world role playing game where players tell their own stories”
    3. Doesn’t need to be too descriptive or unique but should contain the core & soul of the game
  2. Why do this game?
    1. Why? – a simple but incredibly difficult question to answer – think of all angles from creative to business ones
    2. Is it gonna be a hit? – artistic expression is great but so is being able to survive
    3. Is it something you burn to make? – game development is hard, really hard so if you’re going to make something you best be sure your heart and soul are really into it otherwise you will easily burn out and creativity will be stifled (for reference, most of the mobile market)
  3. What are the development challenges?
    1. Hard is good, impossible isn’t
    2. It’s good to push to break new ground and do something unique or challenging but it should also be at least remotely feasible. Don’t try and make an MMO with 10 people or tackle a huge technical challenge if you are a fledgling development studio/team
  4. How well-suited to a game is it?
    1. “Doing” is better than “Being”
    2. Think of the verbs and exploration of spaces
    3. What might be an awesome concept in your head might end up better as a book, movie or another kind of more static media format
    4. Games are interactive – use that to its advantage, make games in which it is fun to do things and have spaces that are enjoyable to traverse, explore and interact with
  5. What’s the fantasy?
    1. Is it being a badass? Very charming? Unique situation?
    2. What is going to captivate player’s imaginations
    3. Example from Deus Ex: “You’re a James Bond figure who is equally good at sneaking, fighting and charming”
  6. What are the verbs?
    1. Sneaking, doing, talking, fighting etc.
    2. As popular as walking sims and narrative games are, try and utilize the interactivity of games as a medium to its fullest
  7. Has anyone done this before?
    1. If so – what can you learn from them? Do your research.
    2. If not – What does that tell us? Is it just a bad idea, or was it simply not feasible before due to other factors (technological etc.)
  8. What’s the one thing?
    1. What is the one thing that hasn’t been done before
    2. You need this unique defining feature that will surprise players (personal addendum – it could also be doing something others have done before but doing it better than ever – though this is a bold approach – not every game can be Spiderman [2018])
    3. Example from Deus Ex: unique combination of genres and player freedom
  9. Do you have something to say?
    1. Is there a meaning behind the game, a message?
    2. Deus Ex was heavily loaded with messages about technology, the future of mankind and the power of governments and corporations
    3. (personal addendum) Not every game needs to have a profound message, but having something to say is always important

In conclusion, this is an excellent talk that I HIGHLY recommend watching in full but if you don’t – keep in mind the above list is, as always, one approach to looking at Game Design and is naturally not suited to all development scales and aims. Nevertheless, it is always important to keep asking yourself questions as you design something and when someone with such a pedigree speaks – you listen.

I also recommend the excellent and thought-provoking Deck of Lenses by Jesse Schell – the companion to the equally useful The Art of Game Design book. It is essentially a deck of cards containing various guiding questions that aim to break your design down to bits. If it survives, you have a solid idea 😛



GDC Vault

Congruence – Jamchester 2017 Creativity & Innovation Award winner!


Now that I’ve finally recovered a bit from a crazy sleepless weekend…

So proud to announce that our team Next_Level won the Innovation & Creativity Award at Jamchester 2017 – UK’s biggest professional game jam for our game Congruence(Yes, most people couldn’t remember/pronounce it either)!


Next_level team photo

The Next_Level team


Super honoured & humbled – cannot believe how far we got in just 48hrs! Huge, huge thanks to my amazing teammates Jeffrey Robbins, Greg Wray and Adam Westbrook for making the magic happen both visuals & code wise! It was an absolute pleasure working with you guys! Designing the world & puzzles for such a unique game was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had as a designer yet and we’re excited to keep working on it – so keep an eye out, might get a much-improved version in the future 😛

Here’s a link to our WIP quick run through the game showing off our unique game – phone interaction that got us the award 🙂

You can also check out more info on our Jamchester devpost page:


Global Game Jam 2017 – SubEscape

The Jam

The first dev entry of my revived 2017 website will be nothing less than our team submission for Global Game Jam 2017. It’s supposed to be the world’s biggest game jam event with over 36,000 jammers in 702 sites this year, so a pretty suitable choice for a first-ever game jam experience. The location I picked was Dundee Makerspace which overall provided a fairly convenient place with plenty of space for our VIVE setup, though the internet left something to be desired. Next year I’m probably going to stick with the Abertay University location. The jam itself lasted from Friday 18 till Sunday 18:00, with games revolving around a single word – in 2017’s case “Waves”. There are also some “optional modifiers” that people can aim for that are supposed to make it harder and more interesting for veteran jammers but we (thankfully) chose to avoid them.

The Team


My team consisted of Michael Greenard, who handled pretty much all the code and had to work two sleepless nights. His heroic efforts will be remembered. Matthew Aitchison who was responsible for the vast majority of the 3D assets in our not-so-intelligently chosen realistic VR art style. Paul Drauz-Brown, who did all of the game’s audio and also had a sleepless streak fighting against UE4 and wwise integration. George Rankin who helped a lot with the design of the game and levels, along with me, Michael and the rest of us (no space for a dedicated designer in these small teams) and also spent the better part of a day obsessing over making a nice door. It did end up a pretty nice door, though. And, lastly, me helping out wherever I could, mainly with design and 3D assets, with some particle work.

The Concept

We took the word waves and… well, to be perfectly honest, I feel like we lost our way a bit with regards to integrating it into our game. We had a lot of ideas about how it could fit in. The concept was simple – a VR Escape The Room style game in a submarine. We had ideas of going deeper into the submarine leading to madness, with waves of distortion. We had ideas of mysterious entities zip[ping by outside the sub. We had ideas of having a “pulse” mechanic – similar to scanning waves in sci-fi games. Sonar. Brain waves. Etc. etc.

The Execution

In the end, as it usually happens, we had to drastically scope down and ended up with having blinking alert lights, creating waves of red light that briefly illuminate your environment as you try and move from room to room before the water gets to you. The puzzles were mostly authored by George, me and Michael, though it was in general a collaborative effort in terms of design. We kept it fairly simply, eliminating a lot of our more extravagant ideas outright (like mine and George’s wacky torpedo-launching puzzle), mostly due to time constraints, programming complexity and the fact that we stupidly chose to go with a very realistic art style, meaning that asset creation was very slow.

Personally, the most I got out of the project was working within such small time constraints, which relally helped me learn how to optimize my workflow. Unfortunately, I wasn’t familiar enough with using UE4 in a VR environment to meaningfully help with coding and seeing as design was shared between multiple people, I chose to focus on 3D assets and particles. The 3D assets in particular were very interesting to me as our artist was using Quixel Suite 2. One quick glance at its smart material system and I was hooked. Even though I am very far from a 3D artists, I quickly dusted off Maya and went back into it after a 1yr+ hiatus. Though it took me a while to get back to speed and I essentially impulse bought and learned Quixel Suite 2 in several hours, by the end I got into a decent groove and made some pretty decent assets. I’m definitely very eager to use it more and would definitely recommend it to anyone interested, it is an incredible piece of software and simply works within Photoshop.

You can find it here

My biggest struggles were working with a brand new team, comprised of people I didn’t know/barely knew, working within such tight time constraints and with minimal sleep and also making sure I had something to contribute to the team. I definitely felt quite bad at the beginning as, after my design contributions, I was tasked with some assets. They took me an insanely long amount of time, most of which was spent remembering the proper pipeline for importing UE4 assets (curse the damn legacy FBX exporter and Maya 2017 defaulting to some completely incompatible version – as well as the in-built “send to xxx” functionality being broken.) and also how to properly combine, unwrap and generally triangulate. Worse still, my very first asset (which was horrendously broken in its first iterations) was a crucial component of the first puzzle – namely the valve that the player needs to find and attach to the first door, in order to proceed. Inefficient modelling, improper mesh combination, bad UV’s, wonky pivot, scaling and orientation – it had it all. Overcoming the shame of it, fixing it and then getting into it more did help me create some semi-decent stuff by the end.

In my desire to help further I also made the game logo and splash (featured at the top of the page), wrote the game submission and made the game trailer. Will definitely work on my After Effects/Vegas skills more in the future, as it is incredibly useful to have in this day and age. I also spent a decent chunk of time looking into Cascade – UE4’s particle system. It’s an archaic mess at first glance, but works very well within its own dated logic. It was admittedly a bit of a shock the first time I saw it – I felt like I was warped back into UDK. Decent documentation and some excellent tutorials helped me somewhat begin to understand it. In the end I made some pretty nice particle effects that sadly couldn’t make it into the final project as we ran out of time. That was mostly since Git completely failed on us as soon as the file sizes got bloated and for the latter half of the project we essentially had only one PC with an up-to-date game version.

Overall, it was an invaluable learning experience and one that I am eager to repeat, though for my next jam I will look more into my own skill set, so that I am better prepared as remembering and figuring out stuff all over again is simply time wasted. Time that the team doesn’t have.

The Result

It’s not the best game in the world and it won’t win any awards but for my first game jam I am quite proud. A VR game with a realistic art style and bloated scope is far from the easiest thing to pull off in such a short time with an amateur team but we gave it our best shot. In the words of one of our team members – it’s better than a lot of VR stuff actually out there on Steam right now. Though that might speak more about the state of the industry and valve’s standards that it does of our aptitude. A special shout out to Michael, our programmer and Matthew, our 3D artist for doing the majority of the work.

Relevant Files

SubEscape Video Demonstration

Game File Repository

Global Game Jam 2017 – Sub Escape Page

DOOM : Oh, how delightfully wrong I was.

It is easy to get swept up in the hype surrounding game’s announcement. In fact, seeing as how E3 is right around the corner, it seems quite apt to talk a bit about it. Often times people are left stunned by pre-rendered trailers and proof of concept demo’s running on NASA hardware and scripted to the millimeter. Then, inevitably, the actual release comes around and the end product is severely underwhelming. Whether it is a minor visual downgrade (something almost entirely unavoidable when you’re presenting your game in front of the whole world at E3 and the release is a whole year away) or, even worse, cut content or entirely different gameplay. We’ve seen it time and time again with recent broken releases. From Watch Dogs, through Unity and even games like Far Cry: Primal, a lot of things were missing, not as advertised or simply did not work. Let’s not even mention the larger fiasco’s like Colonial Marines or the latest Batman game…

That, however, isn’t the topic of today’s post. Instead, it is the complete opposite. Once in a blue moon, when the stars align and god smiles upon the just we do get a miracle. A game that had looked so bad, so utterly devoid of what made the previous titles in the series tick, so generic and bland – turns out to be amazing. That’s right, we’re talking about the new DOOM.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I was very skeptical towards DOOM ever since the initial trailer. As the first trailer finished, I could see how hyped everyone was, meanwhile all that was in my head were a myriad of different concerns – why are there so many QTE’s, why is the character so slow, why is it all so clunky, why is it so colourless. Then more and more gameplay videos popped up and that further cemented ym stance – this was not a true DOOM game. It was neither fast nor fun enough and seemed to be completely missing the point of the series. I was disappointed beyond belief. After the different but serviceable DOOM 3, id had killed the series. With the sour taste of RAGE still in my mouth, I just decided to accept the worst and carry on with my life. Then came the open beta and I hated it. At this point there was little to no doubt in my mind that DOOM would be terrible. Silly taunts? Ugly skins? QTE’s? What is this game? What have you done to one of the grandfather’s of the genre?! Once again, I held my opinion that Shadow Warrior 2 would be more of a DOOM game than the new DOOM. After all, it was fast, silly, violent and undeniably fun – everything that old shooters stood for.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Then, the release date came. And the reviews. At the time of this rambling rant DOOM has a very respectable Metacritic of 85 on PC with a user score of 8.2 (!). Naturally, I was highly skeptical. However, as time passed more and more respected reviewers and critics that I followed were heaping praise after praise upon the game. Everyone who played it, loved it. Sure, the multiplayer was lackluster and not everyone’s cup of tea but apparently the campaign was stellar. I couldn’t believe it. So I played the game. Oh my god. What. Have. They. Done.

Everything was so perfect. The game skipped boring tutorials and exposition and thrust you straight into the action. The lore and story were there if you cared for it, but doomguy certainly didn’t and neither did most people. The game was brutal, fast and visceral. The gunplay was sublime. The movement speed had been nearly doubled since initial demonstrations. The QTE’s were faster and (almost) entirely bearable. The health system actually made sense. Weapons didn’t have to reload. The levels were sprawling, multi-level mazes that brought back memories of a time when a level wasn’t just a straight line with several side paths for collectables.

I don’t know if it was the negative press, the bad consumer reactions or what but id turned around the game. Everything that was criticized int he original showing had been removed, revamped or improved. The game was a joy to play. I hadn’t felt such unbridled joy at the realization that a game is actually good since the last Wolfenstein (which is actually frighteningly similar in terms of expected quality vs end result). In fact, I might go as far as to say that this game is better than the last Wolfenstein. The gameplay surely is. And this is coming from someone who hated the game down to its core. I think every developer should take note, since this game is one of the best examples in recent times of altering a product in accordance to palter feedback and delivering an amazing end result. Well done, id software, you proved me wrong.

As it stands, 2016’s DOOM went from one of my least anticipated and almost hated titles to one of my favourite shooters of the last 5 years. To anyone who has doubts about this game, don’t. Id have done it and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next. DOOM is back, baby.

PS: Now with Wolfenstein, Shadow Warrior and DOOM back in full force, what’s next. Hexen? A proper Duke Nukem game? Please, please, please may this bring back a revival of old-school shooters.