A common saying goes that all roads lead to Rome. That may be true. But some roads are certainly more difficult than others.
That’s why Arnar Gylfason, who currently works for Riot Games as Director of Production at Valorant, has some simple advice for anyone who dreams of joining the game industry:
“My first recommendation would be to go to school. That would make it easier. Learning all these skills that are a solid foundation. Knowing how things work, whether it’s art, management or programming.”
As for Arnar’s second recommendation, we’ll get there soon, but first let’s look at how he got started in the industry.
From books to distant galaxies
In late 2005, Arnar Gylfason read an advertisement from game developer CCP Games. Two years earlier, the Icelandic studio had released the MMO Eve Online, and their successful space adventure had since expanded at near light speed, putting them on something of a hiring spree. This eventually landed Arnar in a position as a QA tester.
It wasn’t exactly in the cards that Arnar would end up in the game industry. At the age of 18, he dropped out of school to work in an IT company run by his friends.
The company distributed and maintained the Linux operating system in Iceland, but it was not the technical side that Arnar was responsible for. Instead, he helped with marketing, administration and the business side of things. When the IT bubble burst in the early 2000s, the company closed and he got a job at a publishing company where he performed many of the same tasks.
I had a huge inferiority complex. I worked with all these people who had a background in engineering or had worked in video games for a long time.
While some of these skills were useful later, none of them were tailored to working in the game industry. Fortunately, there were opportunities to catch up at CCP Games, Arnar explains:
“I joined at a time of explosive growth. Eve Online was growing fast, CCP as a company was growing very fast. As a result, there were a lot of opportunities to just help wherever you needed to help. We couldn’t hire people fast enough to do all the things that needed to be done.”
In the captain’s chair
The inability to hire quickly enough proved to be a blessing in disguise. Arnar was allowed to try out different tasks and quickly climbed the ranks at CCP Games until he became Senior Producer, responsible for the overall vision for Eve Online.
Although he was now in the captain’s chair, doubts about his own ability still regularly arose.
“I had a huge inferiority complex. I was working with all these people who had a background in engineering or had worked in video games for a long time. And I felt like I was always behind in knowing what to do. This kind of imposter syndrome definitely started with me. ‘Do I even belong here? Do I know what I’m doing.’ And honestly, some of that may never go away.”
This brings us to Arnar’s second piece of advice for those looking to enter the game industry. As he puts it, whether you have the right education or not, there’s one thing you can’t live without – a passion for games.
“I do think it’s important to be passionate about games or about serving players. Whether it’s playing them, diving deep into what the player community cares about, working on indie projects with your friends or reading about indie projects and how they work. If you know a lot about player motivation and the player experience, I think it’s an incredibly strong place to start,” he advises.
The importance of player reaction
After eight years at CCP Games, Arnor Gylfason packed his bags and left for Los Angeles in 2013. Here he served as Product Manager on Riot Games’ ultra-popular MOBA League of Legends, before taking on a similar role on Project A – the secret game that would later become Valorant.
We have a few things behind it that we haven’t announced that I hope will surprise and delight players in the coming months and the rest of the year.
The competitive shooter was released in 2020 and received rave reviews for its intense tactical gameplay and variety of different agents, each with their own unique play style and abilities. The player base has continually expanded since its release, but this also means that managing the game’s production is a complex task.
“On Valorant, everything is big. The team is big, which means a big overhead of communication, complexity of work systems and managing distributed teams. The overhead of just the sheer scale of production is huge. And then you have a very large player base. So starting from what our players need and want – which is not an easy question – and turning that product that you want to make into something that we can make, operationalizing that, is very complex. It’s trying to map a neural network in your brain, but with your eyes closed,” explains Arnar Gylfason.
In recent years, it has made headlines when passionate gamers get carried away and lash out at developers or other fans on social media. Needless to say, this poses a serious problem in the industry.
Yet the focus on the negative reaction sometimes overshadows the fact that the vast majority of gamers use social media and other channels to share their excitement about their favorite games. According to Arnar Gylfason, that excitement and joy is exactly what makes working in the sometimes intense game industry worthwhile.
“Happy players are the reason I work in video games. Seeing players engaged in something we make for them and seeing that it works. Or even if it doesn’t work, learning from that and being able to fix it and bring back something they love, that’s the reward.”
And there are plenty of reasons for Valorant fans to be in excided in 2023, concludes the Executive Producer when asked what lies ahead:
“We have a few things behind us that we haven’t announced that I hope will surprise and delight players in the coming months and the rest of the year. I wish I could be more specific about it, but I think this is one where you have to trust me and check in with me in a few months to see if we’ve delivered on that promise. But overall, I think this is going to be the most exciting year we’ve had since launch.”