Achievement Unlocked: High-Quality Careers for 100 New Game Devs
After 90 days of training, members of the inaugural class of Level Up U began their new careers last month. Here's where it went right and where it's headed.
The idea for Level Up U was relatively straightforward: Transform 100 diverse programmers with experience spanning different industries into Activision Blizzard game devs.
The timeline we gave ourselves was audacious: three months.
But I couldn’t be more thrilled with what we (and more importantly, what they) accomplished. In all my years at Lucasfilm, Blizzard, Riot Games, and multiple universities, I’d never seen such an ambitious, democratized, and open-minded recruitment and workforce training campaign. From the start, we knew that the benefits – to each of them, and to our entire community – would be significant. Indeed, so significant that we’re excited to announce plans to expand the program across more of our company (more about that later).
Last month, roughly 100 of our inaugural Level Up U graduates in engineering settled into their new roles across North America. In just 90 days, they became game developers at one of the biggest publishers in the world — and now, we have the honor of learning from and working alongside them as colleagues.
In the beginning, the Level Up U team turned over every stone to find programmers with a burning desire to make world-class games. We found them in aerospace, banking, lab research, medicine, insurance, the military, and more. We found them in Palm Desert, CA, Manchester, CT, and in every time zone in between.
While some, like Michelle Wong and Gary Machlis, already worked at Activision Blizzard and were looking for a springboard into game engineering, most of our students told us that they’d never felt comfortable applying to a game studio — or that they’d applied to multiple studios and had all but given up — until they discovered Level Up U.
And that’s what this project was all about – breaking down barriers to entry, giving people the confidence and the tools to take a chance on themselves, and experimenting with new ways to grow our diverse and representative workforce.
I saw a lot of myself in these students. As a kid, I’d dreamed about making spaceships at George Lucas’s visual effects studio, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). After all but giving up on working in film, I did land a job there — as a Macintosh system administrator. I didn’t get to make any spaceships in IT, but I soaked up everything I could about film, cameras, lighting, computer graphics, storytelling, and concept art. (And I did eventually get to make spaceships.)
Decades later, as Director of Training at Lucasfilm, I created The Jedi Masters Program. Much like Level Up U, this program was designed to give people their first jobs in the industry — which, even George (Lucas) knew, is a special experience.
“When you give someone their first shot and support them with mentorship and on-the-job training, they remember that,” George said. “Even when they leave to work at other studios, they often come back—and they bring what they learned at those other studios back with them.” (To which I replied, “That’s me! That’s my story!”)
Like the younger me, our Level Up U engineers wanted to break into careers that inspire and fulfill them but didn’t know how to do it. Talented programmers, like Loryn Martini, loved video games for years but pursued careers in other industries (in their case, aerospace defense). Now, Loryn is a technical animator at High Moon Studios. How cool is that?
Artists will tell you that diversity fuels creativity. In the end, 85 percent of our cohort came from outside of the games industry. We worked with developers at all levels and across all of our studios to build a bridge between people’s existing skills and the ones we knew they’d need to thrive in the games industry. And we delivered the bulk of this programming remotely to engineers across all U.S. time zones, not just to folks living in Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach, removing a critical and expensive barrier to entry for many.
At the beginning and end of the program, we also brought everyone to our global headquarters. It was important, we felt, that engineers had the chance to collaborate in person with their mentors and future teammates but also get outside and have fun together. Of course, we even did yoga. Well, they did yoga. It’s been about eight years since I was able to hold a Warrior pose.
Our students uprooted their careers and in some cases their lives to join Level Up U. I believe every person at Activision Blizzard who touched this program—from our executives to our event planners—felt personally responsible for our students’ success.
Twice a week, we brought the whole group together for Zoom sessions. Early on, we could actually see and hear everyone’s anxiety and excitement. Over the three months, we saw those feelings transform into a sense of confidence and teamwork. In week one, no one knew each other. By week twelve, folks were playing each other’s capstone Call of Duty game modes and helping their peers troubleshoot problems. I have so much pride in knowing that this group will continue to watch out for and support each other as they each grow in their own careers, too.
Before we were even halfway through Level Up U, I remember students asking if they could come back and mentor future cohorts. That’s when I knew we were on the right track — and that this program not only could work but would work, immediately and in the long-term.
Since announcing Level Up U’s engineering cohort earlier this year, people from all our studios have been asking when we’ll broaden Level Up U into disciplines outside of engineering. In 2023, we’ll be doing exactly that! My team is so excited to partner with even more Activision, Blizzard and King teams and studios, to expand into tracks for art disciplines, specific engineering areas, and eventually game design and even production.
An important part of our curriculum is introducing the iterative process, which is the core of the game development process: trying new things, playtesting, collecting feedback, implementing that feedback, and playtesting again.
Well, we’re using that same process to refine our own program and hone every single class and project for a targeted experience. Our goal is to make sure candidates are even better prepared for the careers they take on after those 90 incredible days. In other words, we’re taking everything we’ve learned in the first cohort and improving on the experience. Leveling it up, you might say. 🚀
Learn more about applying to Activision Blizzard’s in house bootcamp, Level Up U.
📢 Stay connected for news about our games!
🙂 Get to know members of the first LUU cohort, which focused on programming. LUU plans to train future cohorts in concentrations like art and design.
About the Author
Tad Leckman is the dean of Level Up University (LUU). After a decorated career as a digital artist at Industrial Light and Magic, founded by George Lucas, he's spent the past 20 years focused on training the next-generation of artists, designers, writers and engineers — spanning Lucasfilm, Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games, Escape Studios, Savannah College of Art and Design, Academy of Art University, and NYU.