Alumni Spotlight: Mo Alavi (’98)
No two ways about it: Mo Alavi (’98), the Narrative Design Lead at Respawn Entertainment, has a cool job. “My job is awesome,” he says. “It’s really hard to narrow down what the best part is.” He has worked on several high-profile games there, the latest-released being Titanfall 2. As much as it suits him, he didn’t always see himself working in the video game industry. In fact, as a high schooler, he planned to become a surgeon, and he was pre-med at Virginia Tech. He graduated in 2002 with a B.S. in biology, with minors in chemistry and physics. So how did he get where he is today?
“I actually started making board games and card games in middle school,” Mo explains. “I would play with my friends and iterate on making those games better based on feedback and play-tests. Obviously the terms I used at the time were not ‘feedback,’ ‘play-test,’ and, ‘iteration.’ They were ‘fun, hobby,’ and, ‘cool.’ Unknowingly I was using my hobby to teach myself the basics of game design at a very young age.”
He ventured into video game art and level design once he got a computer, but he didn’t take it seriously as a future profession. “When I graduated high school in 1998, there wasn’t a clear path to getting into the industry,” he says. However, in 2002, when the magazine PC Gamer prominently featured some of his work, his thinking changed. “My work was already all over the internet, but at that time the internet wasn’t what it is today. So for me print, was the turning point. That’s when I realized maybe my hobby could be more than just that.”
Mo decided not to go to medical school after college but thought he needed specialized education to get into the career field of his choice. He got an A.S. in computer programming from FullSail in 2003, though he says he would strongly encourage anyone considering doing the same to go to DigiPen. “The crash course I got in basic programming using C++. combined with my art skills and years of self-taught game design mechanics landed me my first job as a junior designer on a small project nobody had ever heard of: Call of Duty,” he says. “The rest, as they say, is history.”
Mo has now been in the industry for fourteen years, and his role has evolved immensely over that timespan. “It’s probably a common story I share with many in my field,” he explains. “We enter the industry with no experience and a broad but general knowledge of how to make games. As the years progress and the individual skills focus further and further on one’s specific talents, the role becomes more and more specific as well. For example, I know a guy who does nothing but create foliage for video games. That might seem way too narrow, but in an industry that’s always pushing the boundaries of computer-generated art, having the best foliage artist in the world on your team is a pretty big deal.”
What’s the best part of his job? “The fact that I get to create and tell stories in a medium like no other. In the same way that a book author, a script writer, and a movie director might be similar in the broad sense, but also drastically different in practice, I, too, am similar but drastically different in the method which I craft stories. I don’t write as well as a writer, and I couldn’t direct a scene as well as a director, but what I can do well is use the power of my medium (gameplay and player agency) to craft stories. What I do is put the player in the middle of the action. He’s an active participant, not a passive viewer.”
What’s the hardest part of the job? “As awesome as my job seems, it is still a job,” Mo answers. “It’s incredibly difficult work to make video games. We’re always pushing the boundaries of technology and the competition is fierce. When you have hundreds of millions of dollars on the line and only the top 20% of games turn a profit, there is little room for error and a lot of stress that comes with making difficult decisions. It’s not uncommon for my coworkers and I to work an 80-hour week for several months in order to finish the project by a deadline. The average tenure of a video game developer is only 10 years. That’s how intense it is.”
Add to the intensity the fact that the market is constantly changing, which means projects often shift focus drastically multiple times during development. “We have historically thrown years of work away and started over in response to changes both internally in development and externally in the market. It’s not easy to constantly be flexible and willing to adapt. To use an analogy, it’s like laying the railroad tracks while the train is already full steam ahead. The destination is unclear, the resources are finite, and the train isn’t slowing down.”
There’s no such thing as a typical day for Mo, as his day-to-day work changes according to the many different phases of video game development. “I’m often in meetings with various departments on how their current and future work impacts the narrative design of the game and vise versa. Other times I’m “putting out fires” on parts of the game that are headed for failure for various reasons. Some days I’m working on specific story or dialogue elements, and other days I’m working with other developers to bring that story to life. Some days I work with actors and help direct cinematic moments, other days I don the motion capture suit and do a bit of acting/stunt-work myself. Later in the project I help create and edit world wide marketing elements, and also give interviews to help promote the release of our product.” Phew! “The one common thread is that every day I work with very talented people,” he says. “I’m just one small part of a very complex machine.”
What would he tell someone who is interested in having a career like his? “Be brutally honest with yourself about how hard you’re willing to work. If you want to make games because you think it’s cool…don’t even try. If you want to make games because you think you’d be good at it…give up. If you want to make games because you have a great idea…go home. And if everything I just said lit a fire under your ass to prove me wrong…then you might just have a chance. Because it is going to take an incredible amount of hard work and perseverance. You will be met with great adversity every step of the way, and if you don’t absolutely LOVE making games, you won’t succeed.”
“On a more specific note,” he adds, “start now. More specifically start on your portfolio. It doesn’t matter if you want to do art, animation, programming, design, audio, writing… whatever. Start now. You need to have something to show other than grades. Those who are serious about making games don’t wait for a teacher to give them an assignment. They do it every free moment they have because it’s their passion. The reality is when you apply for a job, you’re competing with someone who started making games in middle school… and even that kid is barely qualified for an entry level job.”
Mo is currently looking forward to the release of Respawn’s next project (though he can’t tell us what it is yet). “It’s already looking like the best work we’ve ever done and I’m really excited for the public to see it.” We can’t wait!