Lexa Francis on Making Games


Introduce yourself! Who are you? Where do you work?

I'm Lexa, and I work at Mighty Games in Melbourne. I've been full-time in the games industry for three and a half years, and prior to that, worked as a programmer at a university on various research projects. In my spare time, on top of personal projects, I help run a Discord community for Aussie game devs. I'm noisily queer and do my best to encourage a culture of openness and supportiveness in the local industry.

Who or what got you into game programming?

Programming (at first in Hypercard, on the family Mac) was one of my earliest childhood hobbies, and I spent my childhood dreaming of being a game developer, long before understanding what that entailed. All I knew is I loved games and programming, and was full of ideas. I made a few simple point-and-click adventures as a kid and moved onto modding Escape Velocity and Marathon in my teen years. By the time I finished high school, I'd moved over to other creative interests and sworn off technical pursuits due to stress. I didn't see game development as a realistic path at that point, since university courses along those lines didn't exist, and it felt like a childhood dream I grew out of.

Towards my late 20s, I was looking for a new career and feeling more comfortable with the idea of technical occupations, when I happened to meet some people in a bar who were finishing up their game design degrees. We became friends and over the next couple of months my childhood dream became something plausible again. At the last minute I changed my university application preference to games programming, and waited for the "I've made a terrible decision" realisation to kick in. It never happened!

After high school, I majored in linguistics, a passion that lingers still. It involved a kind of thinking involving logical problem-solving of organic problems. Game programming tickles the same parts of my mind - I get to figure out how to make a creative dream come to life using elegant technical solutions, and can exercise my own creativity in building it. It's a fun and varied occupation that involves touching many adjacent creative fields - art, sound and design.

What do you enjoy about working at a small studio? Do you ever see yourself at a large studio? Is there much of a difference for people looking at careers in gaming?

I haven't worked at a large studio myself, so my answer here will be based on hearing about others' experiences. So far one of the things I've enjoyed most is that I have a lot of independence to design and build systems in the way I feel is best. Often I'll be the only, or primary, programmer on the project I'm working on. It gives me a lot of scope to be creative in my code, learn new ways of doing things, and work with many different systems, while also coming with more responsibility. I also appreciate being in direct contact with people from other disciplines and working together to put their work into the game, which I don't think would be as frequent at a larger studio.

It's possible I'll end up at a large studio one day. There are not many of them in Australia, so if that happens it'll be either overseas, or in a local industry that has changed a lot over time. My willingness to do that would depend a lot on the studio culture and size of the project I'm working on - I'd definitely prefer not to be a cog in a giant machine.

People coming into games locally won't have much of a choice as there aren't usually a ton of positions available in either size studio, but smaller studios (I'm thinking smaller than thirty or so people) probably do the bulk of hiring here. I'd say the biggest difference for newcomers to the field would be in specialisation - in a large studio, at lower levels, you'll tend to have much more rigidly-defined roles with lower individual responsibility. The smaller the studio, the more you'll encounter opportunities for generalisation, design input and skill diversity, which will suit different sorts of people. Larger studios will often offer nicer pay and potentially more stability, depending on the company.

Whats the gaming scene like in Australia (and NZ by extension) – do you feel it competes well on the world stage?

Our games industry at the moment is skewed towards independent studios, after many of the larger AAA studios, funded by overseas publishers, closed their doors when the global financial crisis made them unprofitable. What we have now are homegrown and self-sufficient indies with a strong anti-crunch culture and a desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past - it's a good environment to be in, but there are still fewer roles available than there used to be.

We've shifted from a focus on console and PC games towards mobile gaming as that scene has exploded in popularity, and it's arguably easier for indies to be competitive in that space with original IP and different expectations of production values. While we don't output AAA games on the same scale as before, I'd say the industry does compete well when considered in light of economic changes, having found niches that work well.

How do you think the games industry will change over the coming years, and how might that affect your role?

That's really hard to say! Markets are changing all the time, but unpredictably, and I'm far from an expert on it. In Australia, we seem to have a healthy, smallish but steadily-growing industry focused on indie titles, and I don't think things are likely to drastically shift there. Worldwide it seems there's a merging of markets happening, with the popularity of the Switch and AAA games routinely appearing on mobile platforms. Mobile-only market share is increasingly dominated by analytics-driven free-to-play games, leaving smaller studios and solo devs to focus on differentiating themselves with unique experiences. I feel our studio, and others of similar size, are in a good position to shift towards more reliable markets if needed, but I think things will be stable for the time being.

One interesting thing that's come out of the Game Developers' Conference this year is the push for unionisation, which has sent ripples worldwide. There's a lot of desire amongst games developers for having the same protections and guarantees in place that works in other industries have, and it'll take a lot of work to make it happen in an industry that is more cross-discipline and changes more rapidly than most. But unionisation could make a lot of potential game developers feel more secure about pursuing it as a career.

What has been your toughest lesson to learn in your software career so far?

Hmmm. It's not a huge thing, but perhaps for me it's been "you gotta be okay with other peoples' ways of doing things". There's so many ways to achieve the same goal with software, and my code is never as clear to others as I think it is, and we all conceptualise code and development pipelines a little differently. I like doing things my way on my personal projects, but maybe I haven't learnt the best way of doing things - and even if I have, it helps everyone on a team get things done if you're on the same page in terms of code structure, procedures and communication, regardless of what page that may be.

This isn't a lesson that I learnt in one event, but just an observation and something I've changed in myself over the last several years. I'm always discovering more ways that teamwork comes into play in almost everything I do as a developer.

What would be your number one piece of advice for a successful software career?

I cannot necessarily speak for software development in general, as I feel game development is its own peculiar beast. But regarding my own industry - I'd say the biggest things are cultivating a passion for learning new things, and building up a portfolio. Software is changing all the time. Tools, paradigms, game engines, languages and platforms all come and go. C++ has always been a safe bet for engine programming in larger studios, but outside of that, it's going to look good to prospective employers if you can show that you are adaptable, and can solve problems and make a vision come to life in whatever environment you have available to you. Putting together a portfolio of different kinds of work will show that off, and demonstrate a willingness to learn and stay competitive beyond a structured environment such as a university course.

Have you got any hobbies outside of your job? Do you think they help your tech career in any way?

My primary hobby is building game-like toys, like sandboxes and visual experiments. That has a direct impact on skills I can use in my day job, as I often have to seek out or create new algorithms to solve problems, and I've learnt a lot about optimisation and complexity with these creations. Besides coding, I have dabbled in songwriting and music production for many years, which while not having a huge relation to programming, has helped with working on sound systems in the games I've worked on, and understanding how sound works mathematically and perceptually.

In indie games, in particular, having experience with digital art can be hugely beneficial as it allows a programmer to fill out assets - placeholder or final - that would otherwise have to be done by a dedicated artist. Even at my day job, I've found my Photoshop experience, from a past life as a photographer, helpful in being able to fix technical issues with art assets and whipping up missing UI elements as needed without having to wait on an artist.

What books/resources would you recommend for others wanting to follow a path similar to yours?

For general information and a feel for the state of game development, Gamasutra is a popular news website aimed at game developers, which is always worth keeping up-to-date with for industry happenings and articles on cutting-edge development techniques. There is also a ton of free content (alongside a lot more paid content) at the GDC Vault, which stores presentations on a huge variety of game dev topics from the annual Game Developers' Conference. I don't have particular recommendations for books, but there are a lot of them out there (as well as online tutorials) for beginning game devs wanting to dip their toes into the field and see what it's like, depending on what game they're interested in or what skills they may already have. The Humble Bundle has done some software and ebook bundles focused on game development packages in the past, so that's always worth keeping an eye on!

Finally, make your shoutout! What would you like the readers to go have a look at?

I have two shoutouts - one is the GDAU Discord server that I help run for Aussie game devs. It's a new, active and welcoming community with members of a wide range of skill levels, some working remotely and many newcomers, looking to make connections.
A link from our Twitter account is here.

And secondly... my excellent friend Fae, a lecturer in game and web development at a local university, wrote a small web game earlier this year called “Reflections”, about the joyful and painful experience of being transgender. It's aimed at people curious about what trans people go through, and at creating empathy, and it’s quite personally relevant and special to me. It's raw and confronting, but beautiful, and doesn't take long to play. I want to see more of these kinds of experiences related through games as a unique medium.