Thinking of starting a career in video games? Leo Yaik, one of the first employees in Unity’s Singapore office and manager of Unity’s 2D team, shares some valuable career advice after 20 years in the industry. Surprisingly, a life in game and tools development was not in his initial career plan. Let Leo’s story inspire you on your own journey as a creator.
Interviewers: Jo Hartanto and Daeun Lee
Hi, I’m Leo Yaik from Unity’s 2D team. I joined about eight years ago when Unity was just opening its Singapore office and I was lucky enough to be part of that team. Prior to that, I was at Ubisoft and EA.
My team is responsible for the core worldbuilding features in 2D. “Core” means we work on all the 2D workflows, from the Editor to runtime. “Worldbuilding” is where we create tools for users to easily create new levels.
As a manager on the 2D team, my day-to-day involves building features, managing the releases, and talking to users on the Unity Forum to learn about issues, identify areas for improvement, and plan for future releases. I am definitely a hands-on manager, as I’m still actively involved in building features and empowering others to keep creating.
To be honest, it was an uninformed decision that largely stemmed from being young and proud. The course I decided on specialized in games and was actually one of the hardest in the program. Out of 300 students per cohort, there were only about 12 students in the course as it was supposed to be an elite class. It was the right decision and I never looked back.
While my career started from an uninformed decision, what kept me going was that I discovered what motivates me: challenges.
My first piece of advice is to find what motivates you the most. Some people are motivated by learning new skills, while others by mentoring and coaching peers. Some people like developing creative solutions to problems, while others like to build something entirely new. If you’re motivated enough, you will learn and grow your skills.
My second piece of advice is that you need to be content with yourself. I feel lucky that back then we didn’t have social media; there was no Instagram or Facebook to distract us with comparisons of “how well” other people were living their lives. You need to be at ease with yourself and not be distracted by others and their accomplishments.
My third piece of advice is about personality. Be someone who people like being around – be kind, be empathetic, and be positive. If you’re someone who people enjoy hanging around with you will find better support, and that will open up opportunities for you.
I want to come back to the theme of taking on challenges. In every industry, there’s always a level of difficulty. In the game industry, I believe the hardest part is the core technology, as you’re writing the engine and the tools for the entire studio to use.
Eight years ago, Ubisoft was way bigger than Unity – it was a AAA game studio, whereas Unity catered more to indies. At Ubisoft, we were creating games and using the game engine and tools that another team had created. Since challenges are what motivates me most, when the opportunity came to challenge myself by working on something completely new (the core part of the Unity platform), it was a no-brainer.
At the time, Unity’s 2D team had a goal to offer best-in-class tools for everyone who wanted to make 2D games, yet Unity wasn’t close to achieving that goal then. Leaving a fairly complete in-house engine to start working towards that new goal was a big challenge and a big motivator for me.
I’m actually quite jealous of the current generation of game developers. They’ve got all these amazing tools, and a two-person studio can have a solid chance of making a really good game. When I started out, there were only a few AAA studios and we didn’t have those kinds of opportunities. Today, the industry comprises everything from single developers to AAA studios, which means there’s a huge variety of roles and opportunities in game development.
For example, there are AAA studios that create great games and nurture equally great talent but operate on long project cycles, which could span from three to seven years. At the other end of the spectrum, there are indie studios with very short iterative periods of two weeks to three months, where you’ll have to crunch a lot, get feedback fast, and work quickly.
As well as the type of company, you should think about whether you want to be a specialist or a generalist. If you’re in a AAA studio, you’ll mostly work in a specific area and that’s all that you’re going to do for an extended period of time. On the other hand, at an indie studio you will typically get to wear different hats, so there are many more opportunities for people who like that.
I encourage you to consider these points to help find the best career direction that aligns with your strengths. Nowadays, you have more opportunities than ever, so try and figure out what you really want and be prepared to work very hard to achieve it.
Before I go into the skill set or requirements, I think personality plays a very important part. If I’m hiring someone, I look for their motivation. So, as a candidate for a position, you should always find out what the company culture is (does it align with your values?) and what kind of person they want to hire, and then determine if you can see yourself fitting in there.
Most importantly, it’s essential to distinguish yourself from other candidates. Your degree or transcript only tells a potential employer where you placed within your cohort based on what your school has taught you. But there are hundreds or even thousands of other graduates from other schools, taught differently with various grades. The question is: how do you distinguish yourself among all these other people?
There are many different ways to do that: by building your own portfolio, doing your own passion projects, working on internships, or with your final year project or thesis. Work on something that showcases what is unique about you; this is how you show your potential employers that you are different from the rest.
For example, I had a student who was not exceptional when it came to grades, but was highly motivated. Back in school, he would put in the extra effort to build his own portfolio and post his art on websites like Deviant Art to get feedback. By building on his interests and setting himself apart, he found new opportunities and kept growing. Today, he’s the CEO of a live-streaming company.
My other tip for new graduates is to start networking. Consider joining the local International Game Developers Association (IGDA) or student chapters. You should also consider getting active in the community, for example on the Unity Forum. There are lots of networking opportunities that can help you get noticed and enter the industry.
I don’t think the industry moves that fast. Ten to fifteen years ago the industry moved towards mobile, and five years ago we saw AR/VR emerging. The industry will continue developing over the next five to ten years. Due to the recent work-from-home situation, we’re starting to see something else emerging: new norms on how media is being consumed as well as how we work with one another in more disconnected and decentralized environments. We now need to answer questions like: “How do we formulate games like those that suddenly blow out because everyone is working from home?”, or “How do I pull people away from the medium they’re already familiar with?”
I feel quite proud that we empower users to do something that we didn’t even know was possible. Also, I’m glad to know that we didn’t let our users down. They really give us this inspiration and validation that we’re on the right path. Through games like Hollow Knight, I feel like anything that a user can imagine can be built.
So far, I’m very happy at Unity. My colleagues are like family now and we have a great community. When I create something for users and have constant interactions with them, whether they’re happy or unhappy users, those interactions validate our work and help us to improve what we do.
On the technology side, I’m still being challenged every day. I remain highly motivated because there are so many challenges to solve at Unity and there are plenty more for me to explore. We’ve got a strong culture – we’re all empowered, and there’s so much willingness to improve everything we do. This is what will keep me moving forward in my career.
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