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Breaking In - James Schomer

When you spend your time playing a game, you should get something in return.{{more}} Sure, it’s fun to wipe aliens off the face of the planet – no matter which one it may be – but we think a good game goes beyond that. When you play a Bungie game, aside from the explosive joys of simple recreation, we want you to feel rewarded for the energy you put into the experience. This is known as “Investment,” and it’s a black art wielded by wizards like this guy…

Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?

Heyo! I’m James Schomer and I am an Investment Designer here at Bungie. My job is all about making sure our players feel connected to the world of Destiny and the characters they inhabit there. Functionally speaking, this entails a lot of number crunching, team communication, and good old-fashioned content creation. There is a running joke is that the Social Team is the Light Side of game systems and the Investment Team is the Dark Side - but it’s not true!

Don’t lie to us while you sit in your chair and dream up ways to make unsuspecting gamers surrender their very lives to the controller. Why should we believe that your Investment schemes are not pure evil?

The greatest thing about Bungie’s approach to investment design is that the goal is to ensure that time spent in Destiny is sustainable, exciting, and rewarding at any level of commitment.

So we can play Destiny and still have a life? Give us some investment advice for all the free time we’ll be allowed to spend away from the game?

I devote an amount of time that can only be expressed in the Metric Ton to gaming, but am also involved in creative writing, working on strange Do-It-Yourself projects, and prototyping random game ideas in Unity. Additionally, if it counts, my wizard-familiar is a French bulldog named TRUFF and he takes up a bunch of my time.

Your role in the industry is not an obvious one to the casual gamer. Is it safe to say that you didn’t tell people that you wanted to design investment systems for games when you were growing up?

I didn’t quite put two and two together at the time, but it should have been clear to me that game development was in my future at age thirteen. Back then, I spent all my time playing Ultima Online and creating giant spreadsheets that analyzed profits by time spent across in-game activities. I was pretty popular in Jr. High, as I’m sure you can tell.

Clearly. All the cool kids in middle school were inseparable from their Commodore 64. It sounds like you didn’t take the shortest route into this business. Was college a wrong turn or a collision course?

I originally went to school for Chemistry. As I mentioned, that didn’t really pan out. After the lab debacle, I sucked it up, took out a bajillion more dollars in student loans and attended the Guildhall at Southern Methodist University.

Slow down, now. Lab debacle? Did you blow something up? Mutate a classmate into a superhero?

Before I worked in games, I was a Laboratory Analyst at a circuit board company. That didn’t affect my career trajectory in any significant way, other than indicate I wasn’t going to be happy doing anything other than game development. Without going into the gritty details, I quit that nonsense and went back to school.

Bummer. I was really hoping for one of those stories about green rage monsters created by errant gamma rays. Moving right along then, was your time at Guildhall a more profitable investment?

The second half of my education was actually incredibly useful. I still use everything I learned there. The two most important things the Guildhall taught me were that game development is a process of creation (not ideation) and that the primary job of a designer is to act as a point of confluence for their peers.

For our slower learners (not for me at all – no way), please explain that. Confluence of one’s peers?

Confluence is a rad geographical word that refers to rivers merging, or something. In this context, I’m using it to indicate that design is a discipline that takes work from engineers and artists and puts them together to create games. That metaphor is a pretty gross simplification, but it’s illustrative of the fact that a big part of design is generating excitement and getting people on the same page.

And now we’re on the same page. Thanks! Where else have you been merging the rivers of art and science?

Ever since school, I have worked on the Call of Duty franchise and multiple MMOs. Most recently, I worked on Starhawk for the PS3. I’m pretty lucky in that my haphazard genre-skipping has prepared me to work in almost any genre.

That ought to keep the Internet guessing. With all of those experiences under your belt, was it hard to get Bungie to invest in you as a job applicant?

I feel pretty lucky on this account. I just sent in my resume without knowing anyone at the studio and hoped for the best. After the process got rolling and I knew interviews were in my future, I spent a lot of time reacquainting myself with the Bungie catalogue. I also read the official forums to get a sense for what the team here valued, and where I could add value to the types of games Bungie has become renowned for creating.

Did studying our forum denizens prepare you fully to navigate the dreaded wilderness of the Bungie Interview Loop?

I don’t know what you’re talking about. I had a blast in the interviews. If you put a gun to my head, I’d have to say the toughest part of the whole process was simply not consuming my shoe in front of people for whom I have a lot of respect.

 A disturbing trend for easy interviews is starting to emerge in these profiles. Either we’re turning soft in our older age, or we’re just attracting the very best talent these days. To help us determine the cause, break down for us your workflow over the course of an average day.

I generally try to get into the office early. I start every morning by watching a lovely little machine in the kitchen urinate black liquid into a cup. After proper caffeination levels have been achieved, I tackle email. I schedule stuff while it’s still quiet, and move onto whatever tasks I have planned for the day. Tasks are frequently punctuated by meetings, impromptu discussions with coworkers and generous amounts of bug fixing. The really good days wrap up with a little bit of game time, so that I can review the state of various features I’m helping to create.
 
That sounds fun. It also sounds like hard work. How do we reward your investment of blood, sweat, and tears on the development floor?

If I’m honest, it’s something super cheesy like getting to be on the absolute cutting edge of the industry. The free lunch thing is also very, very legit.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that there is such a thing as a free lunch at Bungie. You earn those with every moment you spend making Destiny as good as it can be. To that point, what has been your finest moment since you joined the team?

The best warm and fuzzy I’ve had so far was getting to discuss the ramifications of different matchmaking and skill-scoring mechanisms with a group of super smart and well informed social and multiplayer designers.

That debate will never end, much like our pursuit of an ever-expanding skill set. What’s your strategy for getting better, faster, and stronger as a developer of games?

Side projects, side projects, side projects. I’m one of those people who believes that you learn the most from failing, so I do my best to fail as frequently and gloriously as possible in the safety of my own little development environment at home. I really enjoy taking random “What-if” ideas and prototyping them to see if they hold water. They mostly don’t, but it saves me from proposing them in a meeting and looking silly. Right?

I don’t know. Bungie does hold silliness in pretty high regard. What would you recommend to up and coming developers who dream of being that silly?

I have a few pieces of advice for aspiring game devs:
1.Working in the industry doesn’t begin when you get your first job. Find a free game engine and start making stuff. Like, now.
 
2.Execution is way more important than idea generation. If you want to be a wizard, you have to practice pulling ideas from the ether and forming them into something tangible and real.

3.Start small. The more proficient you become at execution, the bigger you can make your spells. Errr, ideas.

4.Practice your interpersonal communication and learn how to be flexible with all your ideas.

Assume you have an apprentice among our readers who wants to wield your brand of black magic. Arrange these elements in order of their importance to an effective spell.  Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent?  Rank them in order of importance to your role.

Easy: Work Ethic, Talent, Experience. Experience is easily gained and talent doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the work ethic to make something out of it. I do wish there was a 4th item on this list, though. Something like “squishy people skills,” because I think those go overlooked pretty frequently, and can be absolutely critical.

James has important work to attend to in his evil lair, so we’ll bring this interrogation to a close. Investment is just one of the confluences in the rivers that will flow into Destiny. To learn more about the team that is working on our next first person shooter, check out the Breaking In archive.
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