Interview: Amber Alexander, producer of RIFT

"Start doing what you want to do now, don’t wait to get hired to do it"

RIFT is a free-to-play massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) developed by Trion Worlds which has been going since 2011. Upon its release RIFT won awards like Best New Online Game and Best Online Technology, garnering positive review scores which it’s managed to maintain to this day on Steam, rated 9/10 with over 7500 reviews. MMORPGs are massive gaming projects, constantly evolving and developing, relying a lot on player feedback and original team ideas to keep the game world fresh and interesting. Keeping everything moving smoothly in a live game world whilst making sure it’s evolving can’t be easy but we got to talk to a woman who does just that: Amber Alexander, producer of RIFT.

Hi Amber, tell us a bit about yourself

I’m Amber Alexander, or “Gingers” on the forums. I’m the producer on RIFT handling the game’s scheduling and task management.

Before you started your career in the games industry, you were in the US Army. What made you decide you wanted to start a career in gaming?

My journey to a career in gaming has been a rather unique one. It started back in 2000, when I was in the US Army and stationed in South Korea at Camp Red Cloud. Some of the guys from my platoon would go off base in Uijeongbu to play computer games at a local internet café. At that point I wasn’t into gaming, only occasionally playing D&D. At the internet café, I’d watch them play this game killing mummies and giants in the desert. Eventually they got me to try it. That game was Everquest. I absolutely loved playing that game so much that it convinced me that working in the games industry was what I wanted to do for a career when I got out of the Army.

What are some skills you developed serving in the army that you think have been useful to carry over into your gaming career?

My work ethic and empathy for my team members comes mostly from my time in the army. While I was in, I worked under many different types of leaders, some good and some not so good. I learned a lot from all of them about what to do and what not to do, such as leading by example. There were some leaders in the army that would stand around and watch you work and there were others who would get their hands dirty and join in. There were some leaders that seemed to put the needs of their superiors first and others who put their soldiers first and really stood up for you. You knew they had your back, and those are the ones that I try to emulate.

What was your first position in the games industry and how have you progressed since then?

My first real job out of the army was working as a Game Master (customer service) for an MMORPG. I really wanted to start as a concept artist but my portfolio wasn’t good enough to get hired in that role. A few months into that job I was promoted and given a team of my own to manage. Time progressed and I was given more game teams to manage. I really loved the work but I knew that I didn’t want to stay in customer service. So when a position opened up on the creative team I transferred over going from a senior manager back down to an intern. Again I worked my way up, doing visual design such as banners, emails, and some UI. That led to getting hired at Trion as a UI artist. When RIFT transitioned to free-to-play, on top of making the UI design for the game I also handled the project management of that transition. I continued to help out with task management and eventually when the producer role opened up it was offered to me and I’m loving it.

So, right now you’re a producer on MMORPG Rift, what does your role involve?

Keeping communication flowing between people and departments so that everyone is in the loop on changes. I help the game director and leads develop realistic schedules and ensure they are maintained. I make sure that features are completed on time and to quality. Basically I try to bring order to chaos.

What are some challenges of working on a game of that scope?

The main challenges have to do with not only the scope but the age of the game because many features have been added since launch. Each of those systems tend to interact with other systems so when one is changed it might impact (or break) another part of the game that was unforeseen. Anticipating those potential “conflicts” is both an art and a science.

What have been the best moments of working on Rift?

Interacting with the players when working on additions to the game. Their feedback is invaluable; they come up with fantastic suggestions and there’s no question they’ve been invaluable in making the game better.

What are your favourite games to play in your free time?

Besides RIFT, I also play Fallout 4. I recently started playing World of Tanks (there is a sizable group of devs here that play together during lunch). I really enjoy survival games with my favourite being This War of Mine, I’m desperately hoping they release The Little Ones DLC for PC. On top of all that I play a wide range of board games, my favourite being Battlestar Galactica. A small group of us devs are currently playing through Pandemic Legacy.

What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

Getting boxed copies of RIFT: Storm Legion. Although I had a few published titles under my belt by then, that was the first where I got a physical book that had my name in it that I could give to my parents, and that was really exciting.

What have your experiences as a woman in the industry been like?

At the companies where I’ve worked, there tend to be far more men than women developers however the women that are there have been more likely to be in leadership positions.

Do you have any advice you’d give to other women looking to enter the industry?

I think my advice to entering the games industry is no different for men or women, if you want to work here continue to work on your skills and be persistent. Start doing what you want to do now, don’t wait to get hired to do it. For example, if you’re an aspiring engineer, start coding a game. It doesn’t have to be an amazing game but it’s something to show and talk about during interviews when you don’t yet have experience. If you’re an artist, make art as if it was for a game, even a made up game. Only show the best art in your portfolio; 10 great images is better than 10 great and 20 mediocre. You will be judged on your worst work so only show that you are consistently good. Get feedback from people who aren’t your friends and family, they will never give you the real harsh feedback that you will need to improve.

One trick I used to find job openings early on was to keep track of all the game companies in my area. I’d use gamedevmap. Going down the list I’d bookmark a link to every company’s job page and check them regularly for entry level openings.

If you could give any advice to your younger self what would it be?

If something is bothering you at work always speak up. When I was just starting out I’d stress over problems and I didn’t speak up because I was worried that I would be judged as weak or unable to handle things (probably a bad habit I picked up from the army). But over time I’ve learned that I’ll always feel better after talking problems over with my manager. If you’re worried about your workload, how you’re doing, relationships with co-workers, anything at all will usually be improved by speaking up.

What are you most excited about right now?

The favourite part of my job right now is all the prep work I get to do once I get the list of features for the next major update, such as coordinating kickoff meetings, making tasks, and really getting the ball rolling for the next update. It’s like I’m part of a relay race; I have my hand outstretched waiting for the feature list and once I get it then the fun part begins.

In terms of RIFT, I’m super excited about all the cool in-game celebrating that we and our players will be doing over the next couple months. Between March 9th and April 6th, we are celebrating our 5th Anniversary with four weeks of activities and prizes. On top of that, in April we have our 3.6 update releasing which includes five new souls and the Carnival of the Ascended event – as well as some big technical improvements. After that we have a new Instant Adventure and a raid coming. So much is going on; it’s an exciting time for RIFT!

If you’d like to find out more about RIFT and its 5 year anniversary celebrations, you can visit the site here. Thanks Amber!