Hey guys! I've been working at Stardock for a bit over a year now as a designer on Ashes of the Singulairty: Escalation. It's been an incredible journey, so I wanted to share my experience of how I got here and what it's been like.
How did I get started working at Stardock?
I've practically dedicated my entire adult career to the comprehension, articulation, and broadcasting of RTS games. In November 2016 I was 4 years into creating frequent shoutcasts, reviews, and video essays on my YouTube channel. At the time, I was pumping out a video every day as I was creating YouTube content full-time, after the Australian Electronics Retailer chain that I was working at for years to support myself closed down. YouTube advertising revenue is small and my channel is far from large, but I was hoping that if I was prolific enough I'd be able to attract enough of my audience to back me on Patreon for the funding to be sustainable.
Despite the generous backing of much of my audience, it wasn't enough, and after 6 months I had burned through a significant chunk of my savings. I accepted defeat and applied for jobs at some local retail stores. I had an interview at a second-hand retail store which went well, but I was pretty bummed that I was a 23 year old dude now about to start another soul crushing retail job. I dropped out of University in first semester a few years earlier, and the only work experience I had was retail; it was rather all-in for my YouTube channel to take off or to get picked up as a shoutcaster for a company like ESL or Riot Games. But the way I saw it, I'd rather try to pursue my passion of RTS games while I was young and didn't have the responsibilities and stresses that I would later in life, instead of doing something safe and standard and then waking up one day in my 40's miserable that I wasted my life and living with regret that I didn't give it a go.
The day after my retail job interview, I woke up to an email from the President and CEO of Stardock, Brad Wardell. He said he was a subscriber who liked my Company of Heroes content and that he made some of his team watch my "What Makes RTS Games Fun" series, then gave me some info and Steam keys about this new game they were about to release called Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation. I asked him if he'd like to sponsor my channel, and to my surprise he said yes. I worked my way up from running ads on my videos and doing sponsored content, to then giving feedback as a design consultant, and ultimately where I am now full-time at the helm of Ashes of the Singularity and future RTSes.
What's it been like working on Ashes?
Working on Ashes has been amazing and I'm very proud of how the game has progressed over the past year. To use the terminology that Professor Jordan Peterson recently popularized, I've found working on Ashes strikes the balance between Order and Chaos, and the sense of meaning and purpose is profound. Order, because RTS is my speciality and my jam, so I'm confident in my decisions and articulations; I feel like I'm the right guy for the job. Chaos, for two reasons: firstly because my work encompasses so many things, from new scenarios and designing units, to making videos and balance changes, and secondly because I have so much to learn about the industry, the game development process, and disciplines such as programming and art.
Most weeks I am working on something different which prevents it from becoming repetitive and boring, unlike when I was making YouTube videos full time. That had the Order, but not the Chaos, which made me feel stagnant. Working on Ashes is not always fun - such as when I'm updating wikis and testing a Scenario during its development for the 7th time -but it is always compelling.
What's it been like working for Stardock?
Like many members of the Stardock team, I operate from home which works with Stardock's unconventional structure. There's an emphasis on individual team members taking initiative and creating their own value, as opposed to a top-down management approach of being directed what to do. My job is to make Ashes better and more successful, and I have the freedom to pursue that through whatever means I think would best achieve it. Each week I decide what I'm going to do, what changes should be made, or which types of videos would help promote it. Despite having a boss and producers above me, it feels like I'm my own boss.
I have a weekly Skype meeting with the VP of Stardock Entertainment and other team members, where sometimes I am assigned certain tasks - but most of the time it just goes along the lines of: "So what have you been up to the past week? Cool, anything you need from us? Cool."
I get input, help, and perspective from other team members, and sometimes my decisions are questioned, but never challenged or denied. In essence, Stardock's teams trust me and are confident in what I'm doing, which is greatly appreciated. There's a big link between the feeling of being controlled and job dissatisfaction, which Stardock seems to be aware of. Here's a quote from Brad on an old forum post about our work philosophy:
"Every day at Stardock is FUN. Even during crunch-time, it's FUN. And why is it fun? Because every day we do what we want to do. It's why we are able to attract the best and brightest. Because the best and brightest are often motivated to have the freedom to work on the things they want to do work. To do the things they want to do."
Another thing about Stardock that I really appreciate is that the members of upper management are actual gamers themselves. Most game companies are managed by executive corporate suit types who don't understand the culture and passion of the medium and of their communities. Our CEO was the initial founder, and is still hands-on with the coding and presenting the game to an audience. Many founders of games studios sell the company off and get replaced with Mr Burns types that treat video games as if it was any other kind of business. With Stardock, I don't have to worry about management coming down and busting my balls about, "Why did you spend all this time writing a ~4000 word essay about Supreme Commander? How is that going to generate sales?"
Stardock has a culture of transparency and integrity. Our products each have a monthly dev journal which lets our players into our inner thoughts about what we've been up to, what we're working on, and what our plans are moving forward. These aren't fluffy marketing pieces; sometimes we say we're working on stuff, which then ends up being delayed or scrapped for various reasons, and players can feel let down. It's the inevitable price for consistent and transparent communication, but I think most people prefer it since it creates trust and anticipation for what's to come. I always get annoyed by draconian silence and vague responses from devs in other companies who are afraid to say anything for fear of backlash if they don't meet all of their road map deadlines.
We interact with our community in a way that's unusual for most game studios, aka: "Thanks for your feedback, we'll look into it!" Our developers are active on forums and respond candidly, even when it's not what people want to hear; we don't just relegate it to community managers. I'll argue with people about balance or about why I didn't like a certain RTS game, and Brad may deliver a snide response to someone who leaves a really stupid review. Ultimately, we act like normal people and we treat our community members like normal people. This often catches community members off guard as they're not used to devs acting this way. Sometimes, people apologize and get worried that they have offended me, just because I concisely say to someone they're wrong and explain why they're wrong. We always try to be polite, but we don't put on a fluffy marketing guise that would be draining to maintain.
What's been your highlight?
From a personal perspective, my highlight was being flown out to the Stardock office in Michigan, USA and staying there for a week and a half. I got to meet all of my colleagues that I long had correspondence with, and those working on other projects I got to meet for the first time. Stardock is filled with talented and passionate industry veterans and it was great learning from their experience about how the industry and development cycle functions. I loved the culture and the atmosphere there, from the dogs running around the office to the quirky personalities people were displaying on their desks. I'm in the process of trying to immigrate over to the US so I can work from the office. It'll take some time, but I'm really looking forward to it.
Being in the office made me feel like I was a part of something big - Stardock has an exciting trajectory with our world first core-neutral engine, Nitrous, and seeing so many great people work together across many different projects was humbling. Plus, it sure was convenient being able to tilt my head to the side and say, "Hey Rob, can you help me with this?" instead of waiting until 9pm when he'd get online. I wasn't there for long but I felt a sense of family among the team, such as their regular board game nights and all the offers to hang out with them outside of work hours.
From a work perspective, my highlight was the production of the two latest Juggernauts: the Agamemnon and the Eye of Darkness. I designed these two units from scratch and was able to see them develop every step along the way, from the initial tinkering around in Photoshop cannibalizing concept art trying to piece together something which I thought looked cool, to now having the final product brought to life blowing up hundreds of units.
What are the challenges?
The main challenge is wanting to do fifty things but only being able to do three of them. Just like playing an RTS game, I have to manage the resource of programmer time. Adding new features and making fundamental gameplay changes requires a programmer to allocate time to implement, and everything has an opportunity cost. Implementing a quality of life change is a new feature not implemented or a bug not fixed. Many things that ostensibly seem quick and simple can be a significant engineering undertaking, so the answer to, "Why don't you do this?" is generally, "Because it would take a programmer 2 weeks to implement." This means I have to make tough decisions about which features and changes get the attention, while many other things may be neglected.
Ultimately, my vision for Ashes is held back by programming limitations; things would look different if I could wave a magic wand. It's the inevitable plight of any designer, a final product will never match the designer's original vision - the consumer just never gets to see what the initial design was.
How do I get a job at Stardock?
For starters, check the Stardock careers page to see if our current openings are suitable. On a more general note, I'll provide some advice on how to enter the video game industry if you might not be suitable for a traditional entry. Find a specific outlet for your passion, something worthwhile and pursue it. Articulate. Do. Take the initiative, put yourself out there, create something valuable, be consistent. Not just because you think it will lead to something, but because you enjoy and find fulfilment in whatever it is you are doing, it's essential to have the drive to spend countless hours on it. Take pride in your work, do what is meaningful, not what gets you the most clicks. My video essays can take over a week to script, voice, record and edit, compared to the negligible preparation and editing required for a shoutcast which often got more views, but all it took was one CEO to notice. I have a friend who used to tell me off for not making my bed in the background of my videos. "You never know who might be watching."
My YouTube channel started as just a fun hobby with my best friend, but over the years through our content, I've been contacted by Stardock, Relic, Microsoft and EA. If you put yourself out there diligently, people will notice, and if you're lucky, doors may open. If nobody notices, make them notice. One of our newest hires at Stardock, Henry AKA SchismNavigator, spent over a year fostering and growing the Ashes community on Discord, just because he loved the game. He loved fostering a community, loved Discord, and very much hated Skype. Stardock noticed his work and how important Discord was becoming and thought, "Wow this is good, we'd love it if you did that for our other products." He is now one of our community managers. There are a lot of valuable things that game companies don't know they'll invest in until they stumble across or are presented with it.
As you can tell, I'm very grateful for the opportunity Stardock has provided me with. It's been an absolute blast so far, and thanks to all our fans who make it possible! Let me know if you have any other questions or what you'd like me to discuss in future.