A senior game designer with an eye for detail and a history in mobile gaming. We spoke to Suzanne Schanda about her life as a Game Designer, her life at Purple Lamp and her experiences moving to Vienna during COVID times.
Why and how did you become a Game Designer?
I decided that I wanted to become a game designer quite late in life because I always expected it to be super hard to work on games.
I grew up in a computer family, my parents had a software development company. So, I grew up around computers. My parents developed some small games for me to play when I was little. I told my parents at a young age that I wanted to make games too. But my parents told me that you have to be really, really good to make your own games. So I never assumed I would ever be able to make games.
Until I met some people in university who wanted to become artist and developers. That made me interested in making games again and I started reading biographies about people who were working in the game industry. I read about some game designers and recognised myself in their stories. I was like: that’s me!
They all had a component in their lives that they have done very different things before they became a game designer. I have also done quite a bit, like working at medieval markets, at Lufthansa and I have been a trainer at a sports club. As a game designer you need to be able adapt really quickly and have experience in a lot of different jobs and situation. So I decided to just give it a shot.
What are your favourite 3 games and why?
- Horizon Zero Dawn, Simcity & Sims
I love sandbox and simulation games.
- World of Warcraft
My friends played it and I really enjoyed how the game developed over time. The game was good and polished but I found it very cool to see how it developed.
- Medieval setting games such as The Witcher 3
Because of the setting and the incredible details. I really love the details.
How exactly did you end up in the game industry?
I guess I was just really, really lucky. I know it is insanely hard to get into the games industry, especially as a game designer. Normally you start out as a coder or pa. But I got in right away as a game designer!
I got an internship at a small game development company near Stuttgart. They made build up strategy games, like a wildlife park, sort of a Zoo simulation game. At that time, I was working at Lufthansa and they were starting on an airport simulation game and I had a lot of knowledge about that, so they hired me.
Then I got really lucky again. I was doing my Master’s degree in Germany, and Bavaria had an exchange program with their partners. They picked games as the topic. The exchange was a study for half a year at Ubisoft in Quebec, Canada. I was one of the five lucky ones who got selected.
I got to work with two guys who were working on Assassins Creed. It was a mixed program with going to school to learn about games and being watched/mentored by people in the game industry. You spend like a week in the company and there I got the chance to develop my own feature. I really learned a lot there.
Can you describe a regular day as a game designer
Usually we start our day with a stand up, since we work with Agile. We discuss everything we have done the day before to see if everything is going as it should and if you have run into any problems. That’s where we discuss these problems, and to see if you need help to solve those problems. We also tell each other what we are going to do this day.
I also sync with the other Game designer, she is still a bit junior so I’m trying to mentor her. We discuss if she ran into some problems and if I can help her with that. We also talk about work that we can share and where we can support each other.
Then I work on my features and check with the coders to see if what I’m doing is going in the right direction. I’m not really a coder, so I need to keep in contact with the team to confirm if it’s going in the right direction. Then I plan my features with excel tables, write down lists of things that I need to implement. What I need to script. I actually do a lot of scripting myself.
How do you like working in the gaming industry?
Definitely love it. It was the best decision of my life. Just because the people you work with are usually the people I would like to interact with. But also, because your job is unpredictable. You are also facing new challenges that you need to face somehow.
I also love the international part, because of the different cultures coming together. Working with people from different culture brings an interesting aspect to the work because we might think differently. It sometimes makes things a bit harder. You have some discrepancies about how people communicate. Some cultures are more indirect, while others are really direct.
How long have you been in the game industry now? And at Purple Lamp?
Almost 10 years by this point. I started in March at Purple Lamp, which was weird because I joined for a week and after we went into lockdown because of the corona virus. I haven’t even met everyone half of my team because of the lockdown.
What is it like at Purple Lamp?
I’m coming from the mobile industry and what I noticed right away is that it is way more relaxed, but a lot more professional. People were much calmer. I could feel the moment I stepped through those doors that people have a lot of experience. Also, the appreciation for each team member is much higher than what I’m used to.
Of course the mobile industry tent to hire a lot of younger people and maybe that is the reason. But that was definitely the first thing I noticed. People are more laid back, professional and respectful.
Can you describe the culture (although it might be hard because of corona virus)?
From what I have seen so far, it’s a really honest culture. People are very honest and are trying to look to talk to you and give you feedback.
What is the best thing about your work?
The best thing is when you first see your feature in the game. When the coders for the first time tell me there is a preview now and you see how it comes together. That’s definitely an amazing moment, when you say wow I did that. It’s working! Oh my god, all of this is not working!
Is it hard to let go of features because you have to make deadlines?
Yeah, you never bring a feature into the world and think it is perfect. You always find things that you have missed and wanted to do better. But I think overtime you just learn to go from the big things to the details in steps. You do the things that are most painful and go on to the things that are less painful. Maybe you have some time for some of the details. I want to do that, I think everyone wants to do the details. The details are very important. But I’m trying to force myself not to get stuck into the details too much. Because I know it’s more important to fix the things that are felt strongly by the players vs the details that only 1-2% are ever going to notice.
You have the heart of a perfectionist, but you have to train yourself to let go of that. Because you have to keeping thinking about the player and the bigger picture.
Is that something you have learned over time?
Yes, definitely. You get into these kind situations as a game designer eventually, where you spend so much time on some details and you are really proud of yourself. But you kind of neglected some of the other things along the way. When you see it in the game you’re almost underwhelmed. Because the details that you’ve put so much time, love and effort in turn out to be so small. You maybe even have to go through so many steps to even see them.
Then you ask yourself… was it worth it? You then have to admit to yourself… No, it wasn’t. It was maybe good for your heart but not the endproduct. You have to keep thinking about the player and how they will see it. Maybe it looks ugly and it’s working, rather than having something look pretty and it is not working.
How was the switch from mobile to console/pc games?
I learn a lot of new things every single day. Because the challenge level is so much higher to what I have experienced working on mobile games. In mobile games there is a lot of repetition in what you are doing. Eventually you have seen and done everything. It gets a bit boring after a while.
It’s definitely a big challenge for me because I have so much I still have to learn. Also, the focus is different. I worked on a lot of live games, some the biggest IP’s at the studios I worked before. When you are working on live games that make millions a month, every minute that something is not online is thousands of euro’s worth that you don’t get. So the focus is completely different.
Now at Purple Lamp, for the first time I have experienced that the focus is on the player, the idea of the game and what the game should be. How the game should make people enjoy things. Yeah, that’s completely new to me.
It’s more focused on the player instead of revenue?
Yeah, working in mobile I always tried to get that in. But it was always a fight and now it isn’t a fight anymore. It is now the norm. That’s great and amazing, but it’s also a bit strange because I’m not used to that. There is a lot more time to developing and making sure that things are developed properly.
Are you happy that you have made the switch?
Yes of course, but at the same time it was also a bit scary. Because you only in theory know how it works. But I had never done it before. All my experience was in the mobile games industry and I’m very confident there. But here everything is new for me and I have to make all these new experiences. It’s not a bad thing but very scary because I don’t have any experiences and confidence to draw from. I have to completely build that new.
But that was also the reason why I did this switch. Initially, I was very insecure if I really wanted to do it. But I was talking to Andrew and Julian and they told me I could do it. They really gave me the courage and encouraged me to join them. It really was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I’m now working on the game of my dreams in the city where all of my friends from university are living. And I haven’t regretted it at all. I wanted a challenge and I got the challenge.
Now I fight with the challenge. Obviously, It’s not a walk in the park. I run into problems where I have to read up to get new knowledge that I haven’t had before and need to acquire to do my job. But that is fine for me.
What personal/work achievements are you most proud of?
There was one moment, actually a technical thing that I’m definitely proud of at the first studio I worked at. We had a game that had an insane amount of technical depth. But the management didn’t want to see that at all. They did not care for that. I went there and I met them at a technical level and I proofed… I actually set up a couple of tests for the game.
Because they were planning to add a new feature that had a very strong multiplayer component and it needed to work. And I knew because of talking to developers that we would probably run into problems with the capacity the server could take. And I found out that we had never ever tested that before. I convinced my manager there to set up a test to know if it would be working. And we did that test and it did exactly what I expected it would do, it crashed the servers.
But it was the point. I wanted to proof that we needed to invest into the technical substructure of the game in order to deliver more interesting new features for the player. I managed to do that and had the data to show for that. I convinced the management we needed to put work in there.
I was really proud because I took all the knowledge from talking to everyone and took all the things a game designer does. Brought it together and put it into a framework that management could understand and I got what I wanted. On the long run it set the basis for developing really cool features that you could use these new structures.
What is it like to live in Vienna?
I really like Vienna, it’s a beautiful city. It has all the things that I hope for in a city. Because I think a city really should have a body of water. In this case we have a river, which is great. And it has this interesting mix of old empire city charm but without being super overcrowded, like cities like London for example.
Vienna is not that big, so you drive half an hour and your outside of Vienna. A lot of people know Austria for beer culture, but Vienna is actually in a wine area of Austria. So, you have the best of both worlds. If you love those things it’s great. For food and drinks, Vienna is definitely a great place to be.
It’s also located in a very interesting place. Being so close to three different countries. You can easily go to the surround countries and get even more culture. In a non-COVID situation that’s definitely a plus. You can go to so many places in a relative short time.
And you can go skiing, which is also great. I love skiing and snowboarding, but I’m better at skiing.
Was it easy to adjust to life and culture in Vienna?
Yes, and no. So, here’s the thing. Any foreigner knowing some German, the language is a problem. Because they don’t really speak the German you learn in school. They speak a dialect, so it can take a while to adjust to that. But overall the people react really cool if you are trying to, even if you sound like a foreigner trying. But.
It’s different if you are a German. With my dialect I really have to concentrate to not sound too German. Because Austrians don’t really like Germans that much I think.
What was the biggest challenge moving to Vienna?
I came from Spain, so obviously moving over so many countries it was a logistical issue for me. I was also moving with two cats, which I have adopted in Spain. Flights don’t allow you to take two cats with you at the same time. I was moving alone so that was quite the logistical challenge.
So, in the end I decided to drive myself. I rented a transporter and planned two stops at pet friendly hotels. That worked out for me
What advice would you give someone who is considering moving to Vienna?
My best advice would be to consider a roommate situation, because it is an easier entry into meeting people. Your roommate can tell you where to go and help you with the shopping. I’ve done it in three cities now and it always worked out in my favour. Because you are not as new and alone when you are with people who have done it before who can help and assist you with things.
If you are older or you have a family, I suggest connecting with people through Facebook groups. There is an expat community in Vienna as well who can help you with everything. Looking for these kinds of things can really help you get connected in a new city with people who have a similar background.
Is there something that stood out for you while moving to Vienna?
The good part about Austria is they are quite organised and things are fairly clear as to what you have to do, and where. And from what I have seen, just with like the official business to get you settled. They are a bit more open to international people here. Compared to Germany, where the official forms are only in German. Here they are also in English. Yeah, they are definitely more open than I have seen in other countries.
Do already have some hot spots in Vienna?
Sadly, I don’t. I have been really careful with COVID and really self-isolated because my mom had cancer. I didn’t want to take any risks if my parents would come to visit or when I would go to visit them. So most of my interactions with people so far have been online. It’s sad in a way. But I’ve recently been to the Donau strand. They have this beach area near the river. That was definitely a really great place to be and it was really easy to access.
I’ve also been to the Wienerwald, which is basically like a national park. It is really nice for hiking. I found a group of people who really enjoy hiking, because that’s a thing here. I can recommend that area because there were quite a few easy hikes, where you don’t need high mountain experience. Usually it ends up at a place where you have a wine, so it’s definitely a very rewarding experience.
So yeah, if you are into nature it is definitely a really nice place to be. And it has a lot of culture. I’ve been to some museums. They are really empty right now, so that was great. It has this great tradition. We are heading towards the end of the year again. And they organise these balls and dancing. I’m not sure if it will happen this year though.
Is there anything you would like add or say to anyone that is considering moving here?
Austria has a very strong citizen protection program, that’s not something you have in other countries. In Spain it’s non-existent basically. In Austria as a worker you have a lot of rights, a lot of security and things are regulated quite clearly. They very accessible as well.
And also Purple Lamp takes a lot of care in communicating that to you. That is not something every company does. They took extra care and had a leaflet prepared with all the regulations. I think that was a very nice touch to make sure I know what I’m getting into.
I also like the honest culture here, I really appreciate that. And the health system is very good here.
Thank you for your time, Suzanne!