To Teach Is To Learn
Over my 7 year career at Relic, I have had fantastic opportunities to work on a large variety of projects, from 3rd person action shooters to intense, top-down real time strategy titles. It has been an inspiring and humbling journey, collaborating with some of Vancouver’s top game industry developers, being supported by Sega as our publisher, and interacting with our community as a whole. The studio has been through a lot over the years, but it has always felt welcoming and warm. The cultural landscape at Relic is entirely defined by its people, a group of richly talented and friendly faces, always willing to lend a hand, never afraid to go the extra mile – the Relicans! It's an environment we are incredibly fortunate to be a part of, and something I only dreamed of while going through Design school in Toronto 10 years ago. Last year, when an opportunity to teach Interface Design with Vancouver Film School as part of their Game Design program came up, I jumped at it. Eager to share my industry experience and lessons-learned from the past decade, my goal was to try and fill all the gaps, talk about all of the things I wish they taught me in school, in a practical way. I had already worked with a number of talented VFS grads over the years at Relic, and the school was certainly in high standing within the Vancouver game development community, so I knew it would be a unique and exhilarating challenge.
As both a User Experience and Interface designer working in the game industry, each day presents a different challenge, and there’s often lot of trial-by-fire amidst development. One day you will be focused on information design and user-flow creation, the next on art direction and pipeline implementation. You wear a lot of hats. It is an extremely competitive industry, and being able to deliver creative and effective work, while collaborating with a multi-disciplined team under tight deadlines, is key, no matter what your role is. That balance between creativity and efficiency is particularly important when it comes to UX and UI design, areas that ultimately deal with the creation of game information, control and feedback within a harmonious interactive environment. Understanding how to balance form and function is something that only really comes from practical experience. A solid foundation in design theory and creative process is the starting point, and I’ve tried to translate that into the structure of my class - understanding the core design methodologies that will see students through their first years of real-world development challenges. It's a teach-a-person-to-fish approach, where instead of focusing on software, I would rather students understand the principles and practices that will be the underpinnings of their work, no matter what environment they're developing in.
The VFS Game Design program is very intense, and Relic has been fortunate enough to hire on a number of students from the program, many of whom began as interns as part of the Brian Wood Memorial Program. During their time at VFS, they are exposed to everything from the leading game engines and tool-pipelines to team-communication and bug-tracking software. Graduates enter the industry with a very comprehensive understanding of development procedures, and the school does well to have them hit the ground running. This helps to substantially reduce the ramp-up time it takes to make someone proficient at their role, something I wish I had the benefit of when I was entering the industry. What has been most amazing to see is how incredibly technically savvy and what quick learners the students are, neither of which I truly expected. Every week the class focus expands and becomes more complex, and each week the students back up what they have learned, demonstrating it in our discussions and their own projects. Seeing the course material embraced and integrated into student work is especially rewarding, it really validates the prep-time and research that goes into building the class.
Standing in front of a group of 25 incredibly talented individuals and trying to teach them something is a very humbling experience, one that I won't ever forget. It's a test of your ability to communicate clearly, and to really engage people. Never mind that it is for hours at a time. Part of what makes Vancouver Film School so successful is their emphasis on a contemporary curriculum, which is constantly evolving alongside industry standards and conventions. Having to distill your real-world experiences, both good and bad, and your own skill-set down into approachable, coherent course material is an unbelievably difficult challenge. Ultimately, it has helped me grow as a creative and knowledge expert in my field, arguably the biggest bonus from the overall teaching experience.
I would encourage anyone working in the creative industry to try their hand at teaching - it will push you just as far as you push your students.
Rob Westwood is a lead User-Experience and Interface designer at Relic, and instructor at Vancouver Film School.