My game development Journey
How I became a level designer


This blog post will be about my journey to become a level designer. It will go a bit personal, how I got interested in game development, what my parents thought of my career choice and the rough start I had during my journey of becoming a designer.

I hope it will be an interesting read and hopefully will help aspiring game developers that feel stuck in life.

HOW I got into game development

As most aspiring game developers, I like playing games. Although unlike most of them, I didn't had a burning passion for game development from a young age. For me, I didn't consider game development until I was 18 years old. I was 18 years old, spend 7 years in high-school and didn't know what to do with my life.

Something that earns a lot of money? Something that could bring prestige? Something that I could see myself doing for the rest of my life? I looked into being a historian or a chemist. But after shadowing a historian and a chemist for a week, I knew it wasn't for me. I couldn't see myself staying at one place, living a "boring life".

18 years old me was lost and pondering about what I wanted to become later in life. I was young, I wanted an exciting life and travel around the world. I had no aspirations, most of the people around me already knew what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. 18 years old me felt a bit late to the party.

My first exposure to game development

A friend of mine showed me Unity, a popular game engine. He told me: "You like games right, why don't you become a game developer?" It sounded like a fine idea, I didn't know how to make a game but I was kind of curious about how games were made. Through the week, I experimented around with the game engine and re-build a small minigame from Minecraft called: Falling Floor. I was very intrigued by how games were made and started to do some additional research. It ended up becoming a school project

My friend and I created a walking simulator, with Myst as the main inspiration. It took us a few months of work, working on it a few hours a week. Balancing our school work with our school project. The prototype was a success and it was at that moment I decided I wanted to become a game developer.

The last 6 months of my 7 years at high-school kickstarted the idea of having a career in the game industry.
No experience, no in-depth knowledge about game development and for some reason I felt like this was the career I wanted.
This was me, I could express myself, see myself creating games for the rest of my life and enjoy it.

Telling my parents I wanted to become a game developer

When I told my parents about that I wanted to become a game developer, they obviously were against it. They weren't supporting my decision. "Do you want to live a poor life? There is no future in game development! You only play games anyways." my parents said.

Studying to become a game developer and graduating at an University doesn't always guarantee you a job. The chances of landing a decent job from the get go or any job at all was very slim. I knew about the statistics, the job is not as glorious as some might imagine. Frequent lay-offs, contracted work, low pay, crunch, unpaid over time and the stories of employees being mistreated. It doesn't sound like a good start in life. But regardless of all of this, I rather took the chance of living this life than working in a factory or behind a desk counting numbers.

From my parents point of view, they only want the best for their children and I totally understood their intentions. They wanted me to have a higher chance at a stable life with a high pay. Choosing a career path that naturally pays well sets you up for a somewhat "worry free life". My family is borderline lower class / middle class, we are not rich but we have a big house & nice stuff because my parents managed their money well, not spending it on unnecessary things. They say money cannot buy happiness which to a certain point is true if someone has too much money, but with money comes a better quality of life. Money is still important.

After multiple discussions, I told them this is the life I wanted to live and that I wanted to give it a shot. After two years into University they stopped bothering me about telling me to reconsider my career choice. They were still skeptical but if this was the life I wanted to live, they were fine with it.

In my final and 4th year at University, graduating cum-laude after a 6 months traineeship at Ubisoft Annecy as a trainee world designer and continuing as a junior level designer, I proved that it is possible to have a career in game development, they were proud that I managed to find my way into this harsh industry. It wasn't all smooth sailing but I proved that even someone like me was capable to find success through hard work, perseverance and a bit of luck.

A rough start at University

Yep, I wasn't born a perfect game developer. In fact, I was an underperforming student. I went to Breda University of Applied Science, one of the few schools in 2015 that focused on teaching you through PBL (Project Based Learning). Learning through working on game projects from start to finish, with a group of students, simulating a game development environment. At first I wanted to become a programmer or artists but during the intake interview I ended up in the design class after recommendation from the design teacher. 

I joined the class of 2015-2019, we started with 200 students spread over the 3 disciplines, art programming and design. The design class consisted out of roughly 50 students. I felt honored to be part of this group of 50 selected design students. This emotion quickly turned into shame, shame for my own performance, making me wonder if design was something for me. People had expectations of me and I disappointed them with my poor performance.

The early years were harsh, I sucked at game design and almost had to drop out of school in the first academic year, second semester, due to my poor performance. In short, I sucked at game & level design and my team wasn't happy with me. It got to the point where I almost got kicked from the team. Going to be honest with you, I have been emotional over this situation. I didn't wanted to become a liability for the team but the reality was, I lacked knowledge.

When I was ready to give up my goal of becoming a game developer, I had people around me who were ready to spend their precious time to help me back up, pulling me up from this deep well I landed into. They might not remember this kind gesture that they gave me, but I still remember it till this day (2021) 6 years later. If you read this Roelof Elsman, Stan Pepels, I want you thank you for all what you did during that second semester. Without your help I high-likely would not had continued my journey to become a game developer and dropped out of school. For most of my time at University, I know I wouldn't have made it to where I am today without the support of others. The support of all the great people I have met, affected my life and shaped me to be the person I am today.

It is crazy, I feel my life is met with misfortune but behind every misfortune, hides an opportunity. A golden opportunity that makes me think I am the lucky to be unlucky.
My Journey through University

[Y1, 1st Semester]
Individual work

The first semester, I was hoping for a great fresh start. We had to create a custom board game, the module was to show us that game design reached further than just digital media. Within the first few weeks, I quickly realized that my game design knowledge was non-existent. I felt like I cheated my way into school, like I didn't belong among my peers. I wasn't even 2 months into school and I already experienced imposter syndrome.

With a barely passing grade of a 6/10. I passed my first semester.

[Y1, 2nd Semester]
Group project

The next semester started and this was my first group project where designers, artists and programmers worked together to create a game prototype. The theme of this semester was "Retro". We had to take a retro game and modernize it. I was tasked with the game design and level design.

Oh how chaotic this project went. The start went great, we had a lot of fun and everything was going smooth until I got called out for my design decisions. I almost got kicked from the team, did the exact opposite of what was considered good level design, almost had to drop out of school. Without the help of my peers I would had dropped out of school.

I passed the semester with a 7/10.

During this semester I lost my self-confidence and motivation for game and level design. I started to doubt myself about my career choice.

[Y1, 3rd Semester]
Individual work

To be honest, I can't remember a lot about this (3rd) semester. We were tasked with creating a project and to pitch the concept to business clients. Creating an interactive prototype for an industry that was outside of games, like the tourism and aviation industry. As example: making a game or interactive media that connects all passengers on the plane and allow them to interact with each other.

At the time I was insecure and didn't know how to present in front of a big audience. My public speaking skills weren't that well developed yet. It would become an issue if I wanted to become a leader of some sort in the future.

The incident in the 2nd semester didn't help me out as I lost my confidence during that period. The next semester would determine if I could continue my studies or had to drop out of school. I was scared.

[Y1, 4th Semester]
Group project

It was the end of the first academic year. I was the sole game designer, level designer and producer/scrum-master for a team of 7. This was the challenge that the teachers setup for me, it was time for me to proof that I belonged here, would I fail, I would be kicked from school. Things were still difficult, I didn't know how to lead a team, I sucked at presenting but I had the full support of my team. I count myself lucky to have been in a group with such supportive people that helped me with being more confident in presenting in front of an audience. I would present in from of my teammate and receive helpful supportive feedback from them. The teacher praised me for my presenting skills on the project.

I was happy with the result of the project. I received a passing grade of a 7/10. I was able to continue my studies, but told the teachers I didn't saw myself being a producer, game or level designer. "Maybe UI/UX design suited me more", I told them. Alan, one of the design teachers told me: "Enjoy your summer vacation, play and research some games". I believe it was a subtle hint to not worry too much about what I wanted to specialize in.

[Y2, 1st Semester]
Individual work but in a group

The second year started, we had a level design project, everyone in the design class had to make a level for Unreal Tournament 4. I looked up against it as at the end of previous year I told myself that I didn't saw myself become a level designer because I was bad at it. Not knowing that yet again, this time I had people around me that gave me the motivation and courage to continue. It was so much fun, making an individual level but working together with others to share research about the game you're making a level for. At the end of the semester I had made a level that I could be proud of.

It re-ignited my spark for level design. In my mind I thought: "Maybe... maybe level design could be something I want to do..."

[Y2, 2nd Semester]
Group project

Create 3 games in a semester, 2 week for each. Great teammates, learned a lot from them and working with them was always fun. Time went by so fast.

[Y2, 3rd Semester]
Group project

The level I made in the 1st Semester, I had the opportunity to pitch the level in front of the artists and from many, the artists chose 3 levels. They chose my level as one of 3 that they would create concept art for, character and environment art to beautify the whitebox. I felt so honored, I was able to attend their meetings and presentations, following their progression and talk with the artists about artsy things.

This was also the time I worked with 2 other designers on a vertical slice prototype for a puzzle game.
We had the opportunity from the teacher to present our game at a big beta-event as he himself wasn't able to attend.

[Y2, 4th Semester]
Group project

We worked on a custom engine for the Playstation 4, this experience gave me some insight into how it would be to work on a game while the tech is still in development. There were a lot of challenging aspects but yet again it was up to us to overcome this obstacle, to plan ahead, work with the team and deliver a great prototype.

[Y3, Full Year]
Group project

Year 3 was one of the most interesting years and the year I felt more determined then ever to become a level designer. With a team of 50+ people, we spend an entire year creating a Battle Royale game from start to finish for a client. We released on Steam and at our peak had more than thousands online players a day.

[Y4, First Half]
Graduation Year
Research Thesis

I did a research about level flow in games and learning more about world design and 3d modeling. It was a moment where I was free to strengthen my fundamentals.
At the end of 2020, I participated in the 2021 game jam where we made Tomb Heist. a fun 4 player local multiplayer arena fighter. During this time I was in conversation with Sumo Digitals UK for an internship position. Hoping to get my foot in the industry through an internship.

[Y4, Second Half]
Graduation Year
Internship at Ubisoft

After 3 interviews, I got the news that I wouldn't be able to do my internship at Sumo Digitals, the reason they gave me was that the team I would join didn't had the resources to train me as they were busy to ship a game title.

A week later I got a call if I was interested in joining Ubisoft. I flew to France, Ubisoft Annecy to work on Riders Republic, my first time working in a game studio and in AAA. I didn't really had aspirations to work in AAA, I just liked making games with awesome people. An aspect about AAA that I like a lot is the fact that you get the chance to work on a well-known title that might be enjoyed and played by millions.

I thank the people at Ubisoft for giving me the chance to participate in the development of games enjoyed and played by millions.

The one FORUM post and one call that got me my first joB IN THE GAME INDUSTRY AND AT UBISOFT ANNECY

In the 4th year of University, we are recommended to go on an internship to build up industry experience. Usually students that go on an internship have a high chance of becoming contract or permanent hires for the company they had their internship with. I was unable to find an internship in the first half. I had no response from any other game companies I sent my CV and motivation letter to. Thus I convinced myself that I didn't needed to go on an internship as long as I continued developing my skillset and learn more about level design.

As I was improving my portfolio website, I asked for feedback on my portfolio website on MAPCORE, a website forum for level designers and modders. I thought it would be interesting to see what they thought about my portfolio and if they had some comments and tips for me to improve it. The website wasn't that active anymore but I shot my chance for any small bits of feedback.

A person commented on my portfolio, the person gave me feedback on it, I was very grateful for the pointers and improved my portfolio website based on the feedback.

A random call from a French number, telling me they are from Ubisoft

A week later I received a call from the HR team from Ubisoft Annecy. They called me and told me if I wanted to work for Ubisoft. At first I was skeptic, they called me from a random number in France, I never send my CV to Ubisoft. How were they able to find me? A random nobody student from a school in the Netherlands. It sounded like a scam if I would had to be honest.

After the phone call, they send me an email with a brochure about the studio in Annecy and when I would be able to conduct a level design test. I was very surprised, who was this person that found me? You as the reader might have already guessed who it is. It turned out to be Franck Fitrzyk, the person on the MAPCORE forum that gave feedback on my portfolio website. Thanks to the recommendation of him to HR, someone who was a total stranger to me, I got the opportunity to work at Ubisoft.

The design test was tailored around one of their games, STEEP. When I received the test I got a bit excited and wanted to give my 200%. This was my moment. Within a week of having done the test, I had my final interview with the world director & world designer and a separate interview with the HR coordinator. I expected the interview to be about my design test but in actuality we spend the hour talking about life at Ubisoft Annecy, the lake of Annecy and the culture in Annecy. It ended up with them asking if I wanted to become a world designer. I told them that I had zero experience as a world designer and only had basic knowledge about creating terrain for games. They smiled, told me it was fine and they would teach me all of it at work. I accepted but with the promise that I would be able to transfer over as a level designer. Even after all those difficult times, my goal was to become a level designer.

So it started, they booked my ticket and I would fly to France in the next 2-3 weeks. A new adventure, alone in a country where I couldn't speak the native language. Living on my own. Scary, but yet again the great people around me made me feel included and part of the team.

At every start there is an end, but the enD is the beginning of a new adventure. Leaving Ubisoft Annecy.

After two year at Ubisoft Annecy, meeting awesome people, working on the project with my team, the game Riders Republic was in its final development stages. As a level designer I learned a lot but it was time for me to move on and find a new project to strengthen my level design skills on. As I heard that Annecy likely did not have any other new level design projects for me, I made a career choice and decided to leave the studio early spring 2021. It was a difficult decision for me. I hadn't made up my mind about what I wanted to do after my time at Ubisoft Annecy. Going home to my family and getting a master degree? Working for an Indie company in the Netherlands?

I saw an advertisement on LinkedIn about an open level design position for Assassins Creed VR in Ubisoft Reflections, Newcastle upon Tyne. It was open for a few months already so I thought, maybe I should just apply, for the fun of it. I truly believe and still believe VR is the future of gaming and thought it would be cool to be part of the first pioneers to make VR mainstream. Plus I get the opportunity to work on the Assassins Creed franchise, a series that I am a big fan of.

I didn't expect that I would actually join Ubisoft again 3 months later but this time in Newcastle upon Tyne, at Ubisoft Reflections and with support and recommendation of my previous lead in Annecy, I got a promotion from junior to intermediate level designer.

I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to yet again continue my game development career at a studio with such an amazing team and project. People tell me they can't believe I was a bad designer in the past, but I still am and I am always learning new things. I just know a bit more than previously. Perseverance, hard work, being humble, helping out others, meeting + being around the right people and being extremely lucky got me where I am today.

Every human being I have met today, from my family, friends, classmates, peers and colleagues to the people I met on the streets, the plane, in the supermarket. Thank you for being a part of my life. Because of one small seemingly meaningless event,
it dominoes to the life I have today. Where ever I go, I get to meet awesome people. Even when I am far from home, I never feel alone.

I went from not ever wanting to become a level designer because I was bad at it, to actually becoming a level designer on great games. Kind of ironic isn't it? How the small choices and events can change your mind. Life is full of surprises.