Getting A Job In Game or Narrative Design: Pt. 6 – Having Hard Conversations

This Series

Pt. 1 – Preparing Yourself

Pt. 2 – Your Resume, Website, and Application 

Pt. 3 – Networking

Pt. 4 – Interviewing and Completing Design Tests

Pt. 5 – Turn That First Gig Into a Career! 

Pt. 6 – Having Hard Conversations

Note: These guides are provided for free because I don’t believe things like this should be behind a paywall. However, if you’d like to support me continuing to create content which helps people get hired, you can buy me a $3 coffee here.

Some Conversations Are Easy

If you love games and work in game development, often bonding with the people around you comes naturally. After all, you’re all working in an area you’re passionate about — that’s pretty cool!

I met my husband working in games. At our wedding, nearly half of the guests worked in the games industry or were partners with someone who did. With one or two exceptions, my best, closest friends were either coworkers or co-students in games with me at some point. Getting to know them on teams in the past was great. And hanging out with them outside work is just as fun.

Often, it’s more difficult to have hard conversations about your career in game development because you’re so close with the people you work with. Sometimes, that can lead people to ignore, overlook, or brush aside difficult topics because it’s uncomfortable to discuss them with people you consider friends. Especially within an industry known for being small and relatively intimate — after all, if you upset someone while having a hard conversation, what if that ends up hurting your career in the long run? Sadly, far too often, it’s easier to stay silent.

Which leads to the next point.

Some Conversations Are Hard

The hard conversations, however, are the important ones.

For the most part, these are conversations about your own job security, career growth, and personal safety or happiness. While you can choose to avoid conversations about these subjects if you prefer, learning how to discuss them early in your career can help prevent you from tearing your hair out in frustration down the road– or worse, hiding from ever discussing them at all.

Here are some of the common hard conversations game developers have. You’ll find a section for each question below.

  • I’d like to be promoted and/or paid more.
  • I’m a contractor. Will I be converted to full time?
  • A coworker has been abusive, either towards me or another employee.
  • I’d like to transfer to another role or team within this company.
  • My work is unfulfilling and/or I’m under-tasked. What’s going on?
  • There is some content in our game which I believe is offensive or harmful.
  • My manager is asking me to crunch beyond my personal boundaries.

Sometimes, however, no amount of conversational skill will help make a particular situation better, so we’ll also discuss what happens when the conversation doesn’t go well or isn’t progressing.

I’d Like To Be Promoted/Paid More!

Who to have this conversation with: Your manager.

When to have it: Whenever you’ve achieved a significant milestone on the project. Maybe you just shipped a game, a DLC pack, landed a big feature in your vertical slice, or ran a huge stakeholder meeting to wild success. This conversation should follow from a big, obvious “win” you’ve had recently. Even better if it’s a “win” your manager has praised you for.

Why to have it:  Promotions are always leading — you’re promoted based on work you’ve done in your current role which is above your role, rather than future potential to perform well. In other words, look at what people one level above you are doing in their day-to-day, and try to find ways to take on those duties really actively. Maybe you’re a narrative designer and you write great content, but you’ve noticed that your manager understands how the game’s scripting language works really well and often uses that knowledge to plan narrative features with other teams. Can you learn the scripting language, too?

How to have it: This is a topic that’s been often covered outside game development and it’s been done far better than I can do it, so for the fundamentals of how to ask for a promotion or raise, I personally recommend this guide as particularly effective one.

If it goes poorly: Presumably, you’re being turned down. If this happens, make a concrete plan with your manager, in writing. What kinds of skills do you need to develop to get to the next level/pay increase? What timeline do you both expect is realistic for you to develop those skills? What sort of specific tasks can you take on which will demonstrate your mastery of those skills sufficiently? If your manager is unwilling to make a plan with you, that’s a sign that this is not a role you can grow in. That might be an indication that it’s time to clean up your resume and apply elsewhere. If transferring teams is an option within your company, then refer to “I’d like to transfer teams,” below. This is a common solution more senior developers use when they hit a “dead end” in their career growth within a team and are unhappy.

I’m A Contractor. Will I Be Converted to Full Time Employee Status?

Who to have this conversation with: Your manager at the company you’re “on assignment” with. If you’re employed by a shell contracting company, which is standard, don’t bother talking to them– they’re just the middleman.

When to have it: The first part of this conversation should happen shortly after you start at the company — ask about general possibilities around conversion for the role, and demonstrate your interest. If your manager indicates a conversion is possible, continue to bring up this conversation roughly every 6 months. If, on the other hand, they clearly indicate that conversion is not a possibility for this role, don’t be afraid to actively interview elsewhere during your contract. It’s expected.

Why to have it:  If you’re a contractor, you likely have little security, lesser pay, and (in the US) poor or no health benefits. Assuming you’re working hard and are an active contributing member of the team, it may be in the company’s best interest to convert you at the end of your contract — they get a new employee who’s already fully trained, they don’t have to ramp up a new contractor to replace you, and you get better pay, benefits, and career prospects out of it.

How to have it, Part 1: The first conversation you have should be with your manager or your department lead and should be aimed at identifying if it’s even possible for the company to convert you. This should take place after you’ve been on the team roughly a month or so. Sometimes, there truly is no long-term need for a particular contract role on a team — writing is one discipline which is often hard-hit by contracting, as there are many periods of a project where a full-time writer simply isn’t necessary. Other times, it may be the case that this company, like many game companies, hires contractors in a particular role simply because the local market has a surplus of candidates in this discipline and they know they can get away with it. (For example: entry level designers.) Almost always, opening up a contractor role is much easier than convincing the Powers That Be to allow a hiring manager to open up a full-time role. But if you can show your team that you’re critical enough to the mission that you should be there longer term, you can often use this to land a full-time role.

Accomplishing this demonstration of value is different on every team and for every discipline, but I encourage you to start off on the right foot by doing all the things I mentioned in Part 5 of this series. Proactively solve problems. Look for new and better ways to do what you do. And continue checking in with your manager frequently, so they have visibility into your work.

If Part 1 goes poorly: Presumably, your manager said there would be no opportunity to convert. Do not feel remotely bad about starting to actively look for roles elsewhere in this case, even if you enjoy the company you’re contracting with right now. If a company isn’t willing to make you an employee, you owe it no loyalty, as it has shown no loyalty to you.

How to have it, Part 2: A few months from the end of your contract (ideally 2-3), sit down with your manager. It’s now or never, because at most companies it takes at least a couple months to open up a full-time role for a contractor conversion. Ask them if you’ll be converted. Clarify for them that if you’re not going to be converted, it’s now time for you to begin the job hunt elsewhere. You should come out of this final conversation with a clear “fuck yes, we want to keep you” or a “no, sorry.” If it’s not a “fuck yes” — if your manager gives you any kind of run-around, saying they’d like to keep you on and maybe it’s possible and they’ll look into it, but… then it’s a “no.” Get your resume together and start hunting.

If Part 2 goes poorly: See above. There’s no use fighting the “please convert me” fight with a company that isn’t willing to go to bat for you, and if this is the case, you owe it to yourself to start hunting elsewhere for your own stability and health.

Extra caveat: Often, companies that heavily rely on contractors will do a little song and dance I like to call “Evade Labor Laws Using Every Trick In The Book.” You’ll identify this trick when they offer to re-categorize your contracting type to something else so that your contract can be extended, or ask you to take 100 days off and then return, or something strange like that. It’s up to you whether you accept this; if you’re early in your career, it may be to your benefit to do so. But don’t take this as a promise of security from the company; if you receive a better offer elsewhere, walk.

Someone Has Been Abusive.

Who to have this conversation with: You may choose to have this conversation with the person in question, if you believe they will not professionally retaliate against you and would handle the feedback appropriately. If not, then find the most sympathetic person you personally know and trust at this company who is at least equally senior with the abuser, if not more senior.

When to have it: If it was a big, easily-describable incident (e.g. someone screaming at you in front of your teammates), as soon after the incident as possible. If it’s more a collection of small, unhealthy behaviors (e.g. someone making overly sexual remarks about womens’ bodies during character concept review meetings), hang on until you have a few concrete incidents in hand.

Why to have it: Because you think this person is not above being disciplined or terminated. If the abuser is, for example, a company founder or the founder’s best friend or something, the odds of you being able to do anything are slim — update your resume and GTFO.

How to have it: Sit down with the most sympathetic senior person you can find (your “Ally”) who still has context on the abuser’s work situation. For example, if the abuser is an artist, your Ally might be an art director who manages them, or a producer who sits in art meetings with that person.

Explain the incident or incidents to your Ally in as clear and simple a way as you can manage. Try to keep anger and inflection out of your voice. Especially if you’re a woman or person of color, even if you’re talking to someone who is sympathetic, a lack of cool-headedness can often be dismissed as “they were being dramatic.” It can be weaponized against you. It isn’t right, and it isn’t fair, and you shouldn’t have to behave this way to get change to happen, but this is the world we live in. Be clear that your goal is to get this specific behavior to stop.

Ask your Ally if there’s someone who can talk to this person about their behavior. Press your Ally to come up with an action item for a next step in following up on this. If your Ally suggests going to HR (many people who’ve never actually been to HR just think it’s the “thing to do”), don’t fight it, but also propose that it’s usually good for people to hear about their bad behavior from teammates who can hold them accountable, not just from HR. The win state here looks like your Ally saying, “Yeah, Jim can be really inappropriate in those character meetings. I’ll speak to him.”

If it goes poorly: This can usually be for a couple reasons.

  • Your Ally doesn’t believe you, or doesn’t agree. Unless they’re able to present some eloquent other side to the abusive behavior which you had never considered before, there’s no use in arguing. Politely thank them for their time and go find a new Ally. Repeat the above process.
  • Your Ally wants to let HR handle it. This is the “head in the sand” approach. Again, thank them for their time, find a new Ally. HR will probably soon reach out to you, and in some rare situations maybe they’ll be interested in having the hard conversation your Ally wasn’t willing to have. Don’t hold your breath.
  • Your Ally says they’ll get the behavior to stop, but doesn’t act on it or their attempt doesn’t work. In this case, try following up with the Ally again once a recurrence of the abuse has taken place. If the Ally fully agrees with you that it’s still a problem, see if you can collectively seek out other Allies to get them on board. Play the numbers game.

I’d Like To Transfer Teams/Roles.

Who to have this conversation with: First, a manager on the team you’d like to transfer to. Ideally, a manager for the discipline you’re in. If it goes well, then speak to your own manager second.

When to have it: Whenever your team & the team you’d like to join are not in an immediate moment of acute crisis. If your (or their) content lock date’s in a week and everyone’s crunching, maybe hold off a bit. Otherwise, any time is good.

Why to have it: Because you think you can offer that team something they don’t have. Because you care about their mission more than that of the team you’re on. Because your current team is toxic and you need to bail yesterday.

How to have it: You’ll need to start off by locating a manager for the team you want to transfer to and grabbing time with them to chat. (Usually, this looks like coffee or lunch.) Maybe the swap is a small one: you’re on the Weapons team and you’d rather be on Sandbox. Or maybe it’s a large one: you’re working at the Austin studio but you’d rather be at the same studio’s Edmonton location. If you’re in the same office as the team you want to be on, grab face time with the manager whose team you’d like to transfer to. If you’re not, ask if you can have a video call or even just chat over internal messenger.

Either way, the key here is to stress that you’re being discreet and to not let your own manager know unless there’s an opportunity to move. If the other manager says “it’s cool that you’re interested, but we don’t need anyone right now,” that’s a signal to back off for now. If this happens, clarify with them about the reason for the rejection. Is it that they need someone at a more senior level? Is it simply that you’re in a role they have no need for (e.g. a writer on a team that has 6 already?) Is it that the project’s in the wrong phase to be hiring? Then, once you have a reason, assess your feelings. Are you OK waiting for this team to have a spot open, knowing that it might never happen? If so, keep trucking, and check in politely every few months. Continue to develop relationships with people on that team wherever possible. If you’re really unhappy, on the other hand, it may be time to start talking to other companies.

If it goes well, and the new team is interested: That’s the time to figure out what your company’s internal policy on transfers is and then raise the conversation with your own manager. Sometimes, your manager will be on board. They want to keep you happy at work and not have you go to a different company. In this case, great! Work closely with your manager and create a timeline to complete the transfer. Odds are good that HR will be involved here, but this is the kind of low-drama thing they’re good at facilitating. If for some reason your manager is very opposed to you leaving, that’s the time to sit down with them and figure out what’s going on. Maybe they need to find a back-fill for you (in which case, you should both agree on a timeline for them to do that.) Maybe you’re “too good to lose,” in which case you can simply point out that you’re unhappy on your current team and are at risk of leaving the company. No manager wants to lose a good employee entirely.

My Work Is Unfulfilling.

Who to have this conversation with: Your manager.

When to have it: If you’ve consistently felt this way for two months or longer.

Why to have it: There are lots of reasons someone might want to have this conversation, but it often happens for two reasons. Number one, you just joined a new role that seemed like a good fit, but turned out to be menial or slow. And number two, you were doing work that was fulfilling, but now you feel like you’ve been quietly put in a corner.

How to have it: First, take a look around and make sure some other things aren’t going on. Could it be the case that your project is in a phase of development where your discipline isn’t as needed? (For example, early preproduction is often slow for writers.) Could it be that the studio is going through a tough financial time or big organizational shift and may be preparing to lay people off or drastically change up the structure of your team? (In which case, polish that resume and stay tuned, this is a pretty normal thing in game dev.) If either of these are the case, a conversation is unlikely to change things.

If that’s not the case, then speak to your manager. Don’t tell them you feel “unfulfilled,” but do tell them that you’re looking for opportunities to grow and take on more challenging work. If you have identified any specific things you’d like to take on, now would be the time to propose those. In turn, ask if your manager has any suggestions. Your manager should be your willing collaborator here; after all, an employee who feels this way is usually an employee who’s about to find a new job and bail, leaving that manager with a gap to fill and a big headache. No manager wants that.

Odds are good that your manager will say “sure, let me think about it” and then either make some changes to your workload or will take that time to consider the proposal. If they do the latter, make sure to check back in every couple weeks and keep politely pushing the subject.

If you were doing work you found meaningful and feel you have been “put in a corner,” so to speak, this may be the time to bring up your performance at work in a pointed way– sometimes this can indicate that your manager has some concerns about your performance, but lacks the communication skills to discuss it. Be direct. “I was doing work I found fulfilling, and now I’m not. Has something about the quality of my work changed lately? If so, let’s talk about it.”

If It Goes Poorly: The reaction here depends on how it went poorly. Was your manager noncommittal, dodgy, or outright unwilling to discuss changes? Chat with your manager’s manager about it, or a sympathetic senior teammate who handles workflow direction (senior design or production, usually). Someone, somewhere will start feeding you more meaningful work. If that person isn’t your manager, then it’s safe to say they don’t care, so get that work from wherever you can.

If your manager expressed concerns about the quality of your workload, that’s time to have a different conversation: How can you improve? Make a plan, together, in writing. On what time scale would your manager like to see change? What does “good” look like, to them? Is anyone on your team performing well at these duties whom you could tap for advice?

This Game Content Is Offensive.

Who to have this conversation with: The person who created the content.

When to have it: As early as humanly possible. The earlier you point something out, the cheaper it is to change that content, and the less likely you are to hear “too costly to change, sorry!” as a rebuttal.

Why to have it: Either because you yourself found it offensive, or because you have a reason to believe players will. (You don’t have to be trans to point out transphobic jokes. In fact, it’s usually easier for someone who isn’t part of a marginalized group to point out harmful content which impacts that marginalized group and not be socially penalized by doing so. This is called being an ally, and it’s good!)

How to have it: This is always a tough conversation to have. In my own personal experience, it’s easiest to start by framing this lightly as a question to the person who created the content. “Hey, are you worried that female players will find this VO line a little sexist?” About 25% of the time, this causes the person to go, “Oh, yeah… I didn’t think about that,” and revise the content. You go “Cool, no worries,” you both high five, the line is gone, everyone gets a pony.

I say 25% because there’s the other 75%. The ones who either respond, “Only if you’re oversensitive” or “I don’t really care.” There are a few tactics I use here depending on the personality of this person. Note that the goal here is not to be morally “right” or start an argument about their personal beliefs, just to get them to change the content. Your primary obligation is to the game. You care that your game doesn’t harm your players. Changing your coworker’s entire mindset around social issues is an extreme bonus goal you are not obligated to pursue and it is likely to backfire on you.

Some lines worth trying:

  1. [Call out a valid PR risk] So what will you do if this causes a big stir in the press when the game launches, like that one big scandal last year? That could be pretty harmful to the team. Are you willing to risk it over this one thing?
  2. [Ask for justification] Can you explain to me why you feel this improves the game? Why is it necessary? (Most of the time they’ll flounder here, because it isn’t.)
  3. [Mechanics focused] This seems like an unnecessary distraction to the player from the core mechanics of the game. We don’t want players focusing on the fact that this gargoyle speaks with an offensive accent when we really just need the player to complete the tutorial.

Remember how in Part 5 we discussed building strong social bonds with your teammates and observing how they like to be spoken to? This is the time to cash in on all that knowledge you’ve been gathering. A teammate is vastly more likely to listen to you if they know you and you have some kind of pre-existing friendship with them. This doesn’t mean you have to go be buddy buddy with The Racist Dude on your team, but it does mean that treating this person like a friend during these conversations and not like an adversary makes it more likely that you will achieve the goal you set out to achieve– changing the bad content.

If things get heated, remain calm. Stay focused on the content, not on having a debate about social issues. You are not here to discuss politics. Your focus is on your players and on doing right by them. Don’t be afraid to say, “I think this discussion has run its course for now. We should stop things here.”

If It Goes Poorly: In my experience there’s like a 1 in 4 chance that someone will stubbornly dig in their heels and absolutely refuse to compromise here, provided we have a decent relationship and I’ve previously done the work to try and get to know them. If that happens, that’s the time to go chat with their lead (or yours, depending on who you think will be more sympathetic.) If you’re a designer or narrative person, discussing things with a manager/lead can be very effective since leads often have strong sway over these kinds of decisions. You tried to be nice to the person in question and they insisted on doing the shitty thing anyway. It’s time to call in backup.

We’re Crunching Too Much.

Who to have this conversation with: Your manager.

When to have it: When this list of symptoms sounds eerily familiar to you. Burnout manifests differently for everyone.

Why to have it: On behalf of yourself and everyone else on your team. The more workers complain about crunch, the more likely it is that exec will do something.

How to have it: There’s not a great “set time” to have this particular conversation because if you’re having it, it probably means you’re working round the clock without a clear immediate end in sight. If you are on a team undergoing a crunch like this, it likely means your team is generally younger and less experienced (senior studios don’t crunch as much.) It also likely means there is sort of a warrior “tribe” mentality around crunch– people wearing it as a badge of honor, seeing it as a necessary sacrifice in order to make something “truly great,” etc, etc. It’s all garbage, but those are things you should expect to be used against you if you bring up this conversation with your manager.

That your manager has allowed this crunch to continue without bringing up this conversation with you themselves means they are complicit in it, so you should enter this conversation not expecting them to change anything about the project or your role to accommodate your burnout. Rather, your ideal outcome here is to walk away with an immediate quality of life improvement for you and for the other workers around you.

Before having this conversation, understand whether the crunch is a directly mandated one (your manager or other leads explicitly asked everyone to work X hours) or an implied one. If it’s implied, you can do what I and other developers have done successfully: simply walk out the door at the end of a normal-length work day. You’ll get some weird looks, you might be distanced from the studio “in crowd” for a little while, maybe you’ll get some jabs over lunch about how early you’ve been going home. Just remember that the people making these jabs are the ones who have been conned most thoroughly of all. They may not realize it now, but someday they will.

If the crunch is mandated, then it’s time to have a frank conversation with your manager about it. Start by asking them to be a collaborator with you. “I cannot continue to work hours like this without doing serious damage to my mental and/or physical health. I have to imagine others on the team feel similarly. This is untenable long term. How can we improve this situation?”

Odds are good that your manager will agree with you, and then say something like, “It’s just until [deadline.] Not much longer.” Even if that’s true, game deadlines have a way of shifting at the last second, causing a sustained crunch to last longer than anticipated. Your best move here is to politely push back: “Although the deadline is near, I’ve reached my personal limit and I don’t feel like I can go on like this any longer. How can we improve this situation in the near term?”

If It Goes Poorly: You will quickly know whether you work for a good or shit company depending on how your manager proceeds here. If they express sympathy and try to make some changes to your schedule to allow you some relief, that’s a good company. If not, then you have a difficult choice to make: how and when (not if) will you exit? If this conversation doesn’t go well, that’s also a time to rally any coworkers who feel similarly to you and ask them to go have the same conversation you did. With sufficient numbers, something may shift. But it also may not. Regardless, you deserve a workplace that does not ask you to work beyond a reasonable number of hours. Those workplaces exist, they are out there, and by walking out the door of this one, you may end up walking into someplace much better.


If you’ve stuck through reading this entire guide, thanks for coming along for the ride. I hope this was helpful. If you need more assistance or advice, don’t hesitate to reach out over twitter (@kchironis) and tell me about yourself. I’m always down to answer questions whenever I have a bit of free time.

I hope you land the role you’ve dreamed about some day. I hope you have a long, healthy, and balanced career in game development. Good luck out there, friend.


Note: These guides are provided for free because I don’t believe things like this should be behind a paywall. However, if you’d like to support me continuing to create content which helps people get hired, you can buy me a $3 coffee here.