Soon after graduating from the Game Design program at Vancouver Film School (VFS), Melissa Ramsden secured a spot as a level designer at BioWare — one of the biggest game studios operating today. Now, she’s living in Montreal and working on huge properties like Mass Effect Andromeda, learning from the best in the biz and having a total blast.
How did she get there, you ask? Let’s rewind.
Melissa came to VFS knowing two things: she loved games and she wanted a creative career. For the first time, Melissa had the opportunity to blend her passion with a set of newly acquired skills, and she quickly found that her appetite for gaming only intensified. Over the course of twelve months, Melissa positioned herself for success by working hard and embracing a collaborative spirit – a point of view that continues to pay off.
For more on Melissa’s time at VFS and what it’s like working at BioWare, read on!
Where are you from originally? What made you decide to come to VFS?
Melissa: I’ve always lived in BC, switching between a few smaller cities surrounding Vancouver. I’ve loved games since I could hold a controller, and have always worked towards a career in a creative field. I didn’t know what exactly until I started reading about game design careers. That’s when the light bulb went on! My searches led me straight to VFS’s diploma program. I got so excited after I read the front page that I called and applied the same day I saw it.
What was your time like in the Game Design program?
Melissa: The year I was in the Game Design program was the busiest and happiest year of my life. Every time I walked into the school I was excited, and felt like I had really found my niche. There were a lot of challenges, but the passion I found for the medium of game design (specifically level design and level art) motivated me to put in the extra hours and effort to do the best job I could.
What was the biggest takeaway from your time at VFS?
Melissa: There were a lot of life lessons learned during my year. I’d say some of the key things I remember include the importance of communication between disciplines and team members. A breakdown there can really throw a monkey wrench in production, so don’t forget to be kind and respectful to your project family. Also, this job can run at breakneck speeds, and sometimes taking a break and having some fun won’t come naturally when there’s so much to do. Mandatory fun time should always be part of you and your team’s week!
BioWare hired you immediately after you graduated from the program. What was it like to be employed by one of the most influential video game development studios?
Melissa: It was pretty exciting to hear back from them, especially after going through a dry spell of not hearing anything from the places I’d applied. I started the next workday after the interview and it’s been non-stop learning and building since then! There’s a lot to take in just from the sheer size of the games made here. Fortunately, the team I am on is incredibly supportive and has helped me adjust and do the best work I can by providing all the resources and coffee I could need!
What’s your role at BioWare? Can you take us through a typical day?
Melissa: I’m part of the Level Design team, and it’s a lot of work and fun! My day would be different at various points in the development cycle, but where I’m at right now is mostly working in my levels, building out more and more parts of its design and logic, preparing for reviews for feedback from leads, and then iterating on that feedback.
I work with many other disciplines as well, and a good part of my day is spent syncing up and communicating with them so our work doesn’t block anyone off. Many many Skype calls (and the occasional ice cream run) keep things running smoothly!
How do you apply what you learned at VFS to your current job?
Melissa: Almost every day (especially in the first few weeks of working on content) I find myself checking my notes from various courses at school. It’s helped me keep my sense of design sharp. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the new information and responsibilities. It’s nice to have a solid foundation built by the teachers at VFS that I can draw from, so I don’t get lost in the sea of tasks and bugs.
Can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve been working on since being hired at BioWare?
Melissa: I’ve been working with the incredibly talented Mass Effect Andromeda team. This is an amazing project to be a part of and I can’t wait for everyone to play it! It’s a big project to be involved in and it keeps me very, very busy!
What is it like being a female game designer in a male dominated industry? What would you say to women interested in pursuing a similar path to yours?
Melissa: I would say Bioware is one of the most progressive places to be a female game designer in the sense that I’ve never felt “different” or that my opinion is taken any differently than the guys I sit next to. There are also a lot of lovely ladies I work with here. I feel like this industry as a whole is moving forward and evolving, and it’s becoming more and more equal every year.
As for any woman who loves to make games, my advice is to work hard and be yourself! If you apply and don’t hear back always ask for feedback! It’s still a win because you can get feedback to improve and you’ll have a better idea of what to watch out for next time.
Who/what are some of your influences?
Melissa: I come from a family of hard working gals, so they’ve always been my biggest fans and motivators, as well as my peers and teachers who’ve always provided me with different outlooks and ways to express my passions.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Melissa: When looking for work, never give the recruiters a reason to say “no”. Keep your cover letters and resumes clean and relevant! Have a few ready for each position you feel qualified for and don’t try to cram it all into a big three page doc.
Lastly, don’t get discouraged if it takes a long time to hear back from places. It’s not as easy as pie to land your first position. Sometimes, you have to move across the continent, so take every chance to leave your comfort zone you get!