Interview

How to get a job as a director of story with Pocket Gems' Cass Phillipps

"This industry has a reputation - sometimes correctly - of crunch culture..."

How to get a job as a director of story with Pocket Gems' Cass Phillipps

The games industry plays host to a colourful cast of diverse individuals, from artists and coders to narrative designers and studio heads.

The skills to pull off these roles, however, are complex and differing, with each position requiring mastery in its field.

To highlight some of the brilliant work that goes on behind the screen, and help others who may be keen to dive in, PocketGamer.biz is reaching out to the individuals who make up the games industry with our Jobs in Games series.

This week we spoke with Pocket Gems director of story Cass Phillipps.

PocketGamer.biz: Can you tell us about your current role and what it entails?

Cass Phillipps: I’m the director of story at Pocket Gems, working in our storytelling studio (in which Episode was the first release). Right now, I’m predominantly focused on our new project development, working closely with artists, engineers and designers to develop a number of exciting new prototypes that keep female-centric storytelling front and centre.

This means I’ve often got my fingers in a lot of pies: watching user interviews to better understand our audience, making design flow docs to better communicate a game’s fantasy or player journey, joining playtests and working with other game leads to continue to improve their leadership craft.

I had a few friends in the industry from my event work who helped me get a foot in the door.
Cass Phillipps

I personally love the insight I get into our players and the impact I get to have over product - it’s a lot of fun!

How did you first get into games and how did you progress into this role?

Before this, I ran an event production business and was the producer of FailCon, a conference on business failures and how to prepare for them - quite a different hat! While I loved the act of creating an experience for an audience - designing the flow of a day in a way that was engaging and educational - I desired more creative collaboration, quicker iteration speeds and to create tactile products I could be proud of.

So I did a little soul searching and realised I’d always loved games. I played with my Dad as a kid and eagerly awaited the newest games each holiday. Apple had just opened its platform a year earlier, so the industry was new and exploding. More than anything, companies needed people ready to dive in and get their hands dirty with the product.

I had a few friends in the industry from my event work who helped me get a foot in the door. I’d been working in the free-to-play market for a couple of years when Episode was first kicked off as a prototype with a small team in a little office corner. My blend of product, project management and writing experience made it a natural choice for me to join the team.

I wrote stories for our launch, trained outside writers and worked to build up our community. As the product found success, we hired strong specialists in all of those areas and I took on more management and leadership responsibilities. At least, until our next little office corner prototypes started to come together.

Is it something you ever imagined yourself doing?

Yes and no. I’m a pragmatist - especially when it comes to my career. Story and narrative have been a part of my life since childhood. My parents both worked in the theatre industry for years, with my first job roles being in there too, so I’m naturally enthralled by immersive interactive experiences. It’s definitely been a running narrative of my life so far.

Phillipps speaking at a GamesBeat event - Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell.

What did you study (if anything) to get your role? What courses would you advise for aspiring professionals in the area?

On paper, I studied Human Development, which taught me how to build understanding and empathy with people of different backgrounds - a great skill for anyone, really! In practice, I immersed myself in theatre. I learned how to work on a tight budget, get the job done on a strict deadline and collaborate with people of different expertise.

I believe what you do has more power than what you study. Go finish a game, a story, an app. Be able to talk through different phases of development and how you made decisions, what assumptions you made and how you validated them. Oh, and go take some courses in Unity or Unreal. It certainly won’t hurt.

What part of your role do you find most fulfilling?

There is nothing more fulfilling (and terrifying) than playing something I had a hand in making. Whether it succeeds or fails, I can say: "I did this!".

Tell us what your typical day looks like in a nutshell?

Meetings can get out of hand for me, so I really try to “meeting block” my calendars. This usually means I’m spending anywhere from one to four hours in meetings each day. These range from discussion overall sub-studio strategy to breaking down milestones in our prototype’s next feature to one-to-ones with my teammates.

This industry has a reputation - sometimes correctly - of crunch culture: long hours and unreasonable expectations of work-life balance.
Cass Phillipps

I usually spend the rest of the day doing a mix of player research, creating session and flow design docs, implementing content in Unity and doing anything I can to help the teams work and the products ship.

What do you think are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of your role?

As a senior member of the team, I love the level of insight I get into what we’ve learned across multiple projects and disciplines. I get an incredible amount of context from the experienced leaders around me, who help me make strong decisions. Additionally, since Pocket Gems highly values craft and having a direct impact on the product, I get to do the above while still working directly on something: getting my hands dirty writing dialogue or working in Unity. It’s like the best of both worlds!

However, it often means I feel like I can’t personally give A-plus work. If I want to keep all the balls in the air, I must build and rely on an excellent team who can make sure that things continue to that high-standard.

Do you think there are any misconceptions, public or professional, surrounding your area of expertise?

Free-to-play games as an industry started in the West with a bit of a bad reputation, so I understand where that originated from. Saying that, when free-to-play to play titles are done right they can be inviting, approachable and inclusive.

What advice do you have for someone looking for a job in this profession?

Be curious. Over the years, I’ve seen people who come in with a fresh new MBA knowing they’re going to make a million-dollar hit and they just need the creatives to get in line with the data. Equally with that, I often see creatives come into the industry thinking their ideas are gold and if the business would just give them some money, they won’t do wrong.

Have a speciality and a point of view, but also hold onto curiosity for the perspectives of those around you, as it's only together that we can build the best product.

How has remote working impacted the role (if at all)?

Screen fatigue! It’s real. And it can be tough to replicate the creative process virtually without burning out twice as fast. A counterpoint to this is that it’s also made it easier to reach out to more people. Something about the lack of real walls and distance between desks has made reaching out to people in other colleagues easier. There’s a perceived distance that’s lessened.

Is there anything about the job/industry you wish you would have known when first joining?

Work smart for eight hours, not dumb for 12. This industry has a reputation - sometimes correctly - of crunch culture: long hours and unreasonable expectations of work-life balance. We all need to put our foot down on this.

When I first started at Pocket Gems, I said yes to every project because I wanted to prove myself. As a result: I burned out hard. Thankfully as I matured, I learned how to set boundaries. It's up to senior members to model this behaviour and allocate the correct time allotment.

Finally, what other advice do you have for someone looking for a job in this profession?

I’m just going to repeat two things; be curious about your players, team, and the industry as a whole; and build things - it’s the best way to learn.

Deputy Editor

Matthew Forde is the deputy editor at PocketGamer.biz and also a member of the Pocket Gamer Podcast. You can find him on Twitter @MattForde64 talking about stats, data and everything pop culture related - particularly superheroes.

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