#WeMakeGames interview series:
- Name: Penelope Dovichi
- Age: 40
- From: “Born and raised in America, specifically California and even more specifically the Central Valley and San Francisco Bay Area, I moved to Malmö, Sweden, in 2017”
- Enjoying: “My interests include a lot of the standard geek things prevalent in games like video games (rhythm and JRPGs being my favorites), anime (I’ll watch any slice of life romance anime out there) and movies (I love the 1986 Hal Needham classic ‘Rad’). I’m also quite active and enjoy playing sports like hockey, beach volleyball and skateboarding. In recent years I’ve been getting super into gender and sexuality topics and what they mean for me.”
- Profession: Lead & Senior Level Designer at IO Interactive
What is your background?
“Growing up in sunny California in the ‘80s and ‘90s meant I spent a lot of time outside skating and generally getting into mischief. Thankfully, since we didn’t have camera phones, there was no fear of evidence! I went to one of the first schools for videogame design in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it was an art school first so my education was quite heavy on the art and light on the design. This gave me the opportunity to fully and completely realize that I don’t like making art and that I’m quite bad at it, so yeah, that was a fun four years! I managed to graduate, perks of a pay-to-win college I guess, and was able to convince a small studio called Totally Games (so very California and so very ‘90s all at the same time) to hire me as a Level Designer. Fifteen or so years later and I’ve worked as a professional level designer at a number of different studios on a wildly varied selection of games! The last five years, I’ve been working as a Lead Level Designer and having a lot of fun helping and enabling my teams to do their best work. Some of my work that I’m most proud of can be found in Tomb Raider (2013), South Park: The Fractured But Whole, and Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora.”
Why did you start working in the game industry?
“The why is pretty simple, I always loved video games and I enjoyed the creative problem solving involved in making mods (Unreal Tournament and Starcraft). As soon as I saw there was a school that would teach me how to do it professionally, I knew that it was a career for me. The how is much more complicated. Freshly graduated from school, with a shipped mobile game thanks to my internship under my belt, I began the arduous process of applying for any and every game/level design job I could find. After some months, and a few interviews, I wasn’t really getting anywhere so I desperately contacted a recruitment firm asking for help. The thing about recruitment firms is that they only make money if you get hired so it really isn’t in their best interests to represent someone trying to break into the industry. The recruiter who replied to my inquiry, Christine Cicchi, kindly told me as much and also gave me a wealth of resources to help in my job search. I wasn’t expecting much from this long shot of course so I politely thanked her for the response and threw myself back into the job hunt. A few days later, in probably the most profound moment of serendipity I’ve ever experienced, Christine contacted me again saying that her husband works at a game studio who is looking for a Junior Level Designer and would I be interested in talking with them. That same day I was on the phone with the project lead at Totally Games, a studio I had never heard of before (though fans of PC flight sims definitely know of them), talking about their project. After an onsite interview where I met the team, I had an offer by the end of the interview! The kindness Christine showed me changed the course of my life and set the tone for how I wanted to engage with colleagues and folks wanting to get into games.
This story has actually been indicative of how I’ve gotten almost all of my jobs over the course of my entire career. I’m at my 7th studio in nearly 20 years and my current role is the first one I got that I actually applied for. Every other position has been presented to me because of my network and connections; I never actually applied for any of them. This just highlights to me the importance of fostering a healthy career network, it really will open all sorts of doors for you!”
“It’s been a wild roller coaster ride and I’d absolutely be lying if I said I loved every minute of it, because it can be very difficult at times, but I can honestly say that I can’t really see myself doing anything else. “
How has working in the industry been for you?
“It’s been a wild roller coaster ride and I’d absolutely be lying if I said I loved every minute of it, because it can be very difficult at times, but I can honestly say that I can’t really see myself doing anything else.
The biggest challenge in any creative industry is finding a good work/life balance and videogames are no different. It can be too easy to get lost in the work for you are never truly done, there are always improvements to be made or things to tweak, and far too many people in management prioritize work and the project over everything else in their life which trickles down to the rest of the team. I missed far too many family memories and personal growth in my life due to this so now I’m determined to push my teams towards healthy and sustainable work/life balance. My advice to anyone looking to enter the games industry would be to prioritize yourself as much as you can. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the game project is the most important thing in the world, and there will be people who try to convince you as such, but at the end of the day your health and happiness is what is truly important.
As for highlights, getting to work with other talented and wonderful people towards a shared vision is a biggie, it’s one of those things that motivates me to work hard. Seeing my work on the big stage at E3 and the positive public reception is a pretty satisfying experience too.“
What is a day in your work life like?
“I’m currently working at IO Interactive as a Lead & Senior Level Designer on Project 007. It is my responsibility, as a lead, to enable my team to do their job to the best of their ability. My day to day tasks all feed into delivering upon that core responsibility; whether its ironing out specific dev processes, chasing people down to make a decision on something, reviewing some layout work in a level or helping prioritize tasks. As the direction of the game solidifies and the team hits their stride in making content, I will also start to help out by developing content of my own because I won’t need to focus so much on unblocking my team and will be able to help on creating the mountain of content needed for the game.“
What’s best with your job?
“The confluence of technology, creativity and collaboration that culminates into an interactive experience for people, is probably one of the best things about my job. I love solving creative problems and I get bored with routine, so the games industry is perfect for me since every game project is unique and there are always interesting problems to solve.
My motivations have changed over the years as my experience and priorities have grown. Early in my career, I was motivated by a desire to make the best videogame content I could. Which is kind of a strange motivation to have I realize now looking back; I mean, in the early years of your career, you are very unlikely to have much real control over the output of your work so there are a lot of external factors that could end up severely hampering your motivation. My first major project, I only had ownership over a handful of levels and very little input in any other aspect of the game. Regardless of how hard I worked on my levels, I had nothing to do with the core gameplay loops or the art or the story or a million other things, all things that have major implications towards the perceived quality of the game. Pinning your motivation or goals onto something you actually have little control over, and requires external validation, is just asking for trouble. It took awhile for my motivation to shift from that to something that I feel is a bit healthier; now I find my motivation from the people I work with. I want to work with cool and talented people and I want to do everything I can to enable them to do their best work in a healthy and respectable environment. Being a lead, I feel very responsible for the people in my team so that keeps me highly motivated cause I know that my work will directly impact how much another person is motivated and enjoying their work.“
“Collaboration is at the heart of working in games at any size development studio and as a Level Designer you need to be a strong communicator who is capable of working well with all sorts of different people and disciplines.”
How would you advise others that want a job like yours to pursue it?
“There are a ton of game development schools out there now that act as a pipeline directly into jobs in games now, that’s probably one of the more straightforward and reliable methods to get nowadays. Though I acknowledge that it isn’t very accessible since your socioeconomic situation, as well as your geographic location, greatly impacts your possibilities here. There is a wealth of information and tools freely available online now that you could leverage into the knowledge and experience needed to work in games, but it requires a lot of hard work and resilience.
If you want to get into Level Design specifically, learn how to use a 3D game editor of your choice (Unreal, Unity, Godot, or anything else really) because that will be the bulk of what you do in a day job as a Level Designer at most game studios. It doesn’t really matter which engine you use because the core skills (things that directly affect your work in your craft) you learn using it can be applied regardless of which game engine you use. There’s also a lot of Level Design specific resources and communities available where you can learn about the theory side of things as well as exercises for practical application. I personally see more value in focusing on application over theory, primarily because there are so few “rules” of level design that will apply to all games, so you’ll have to adjust your thoughts and learnings to best fit the game you are currently working on every time. I’m not saying level design theory isn’t important, please learn as much of that as you can, all I’m saying is that seeing the practical application of the theory is more important than just talking about the theory itself. Nothing matters until its in game and I can play it!
I cannot stress enough how important it is to not neglect your soft skills. Collaboration is at the heart of working in games at any size development studio and as a Level Designer you need to be a strong communicator who is capable of working well with all sorts of different people and disciplines. So put yourself out there, prove to others that you are someone dependable, kind and who they can trust and you’ll do well in this industry. Do all you can to network; talk to everyone during your internship, go to that mixer, join that specialist online community, ask people with experience doing what you want to do if they’ll talk to you about their craft!“
The #WeMakeGames interview series allow individuals in the game industry to tell their story, about their current work, how they got to where they are and why they believe the games industry is such an enjoyable industry to work in. We move beyond programmers and level designers, to showcase the wide range of roles making up the studios creating some of the world’s best games – right here in south Sweden!
The #WeMakeGames interview series is part of the EU funded project Game Accelerate South Sweden (GASS). Read more about the GASS project here.