Breaking into the Industry: an Interview with Riot Games’ Adam Comerford

Aaron Poole gets the scoop on what it takes to become a game developer.[br]WHILE many of us indulge in the form of escapism that video games offer, it’s often easy to forget that behind the scenes, there’s an enormous driving force that has worked to carefully craft these experiences. While most players would be labelled as mere consumers, some of us like to imagine what things would be like to be a part of the process and help create the games that we love to play.However, for Irish students looking to break into this developer territory, it might not seem like there is a clear-cut path. But Adam Comerford of Riot Games, famous for their smash hit League of Legends, was more than willing to share his thoughts for gamer-graduates who might go down such a road.
We only hire gamers, people who understand players”
“You get to play computer games at work, it’s pretty cool right?“ he quips, as we sit overlooking the Liffey from Riot Games’ Dublin office. “But we only hire gamers, people who understand players. Being the most player focused company in the world is actually at the centre of everything [Riot] do”.Comerford, who is Senior Systems Engineer and Hiring Manager at Riot Games, is a Computer Science graduate who grew up playing whatever games he could get his hands on. “I’m quite old at this point, so... it started with a Spectrum which is really old, and then on to the early consoles, and an Amiga as well, a Commodore, and then Super Nintendo, and then I could finally afford a PC!”Prior to finding employment at Riot, Comerford had been floating from career to career, before finally settling into a position he couldn’t be happier with: “I’m just coming up on two years now, it’s the best job I’ve ever had! I’ve done the big corporate, the start-up, I’ve worked in the US, now I’ve worked here”.
It seems bizarre that we didn’t have a single applicant from Trinity, and it’s literally a 5 minute walk away”
Being a local developer, I asked how Riot goes about recruiting, and if the presence of surrounding universities factored into this. “Well we have an internship program”, he explains, “but one of the things we noticed was that all of the applicants had come from England, Germany, Italy, so they weren’t coming from Ireland. It seems bizarre that we didn’t have a single applicant from Trinity, and it’s literally a five minute walk away. UCD’s not that far away either!”This is a surprising revelation, especially given that there has been a 7% rise in the uptake of Computer Science subjects, according to 2016 CAO figures. Perhaps it is a case of there not being a huge overlap between these figures and those who are avid gamers? Comerford thinks otherwise, “I think there is a huge overlap”, he continues, “there’s a much broader audience now as well for games”. So what could be the reason for a lack of uptake?
“Very quickly we realised there were much better programmers than us out there.”
He points out that the issue could be a lack of confidence in people who might want to enter the field, “I think if you walk into a first year CS class and you ask ‘who wants to be a software developer?’ there’s going to be a very high percentage. And I kind of had that same intention myself when I went in. Very quickly we realised there were much better programmers than us out there, and our talents lay elsewhere”.For students aspiring to work in such a role, this comes as a sense of encouragement as Comerford reinforces Riot’s ‘rule’ that you must be a gamer to be eligible to work for them.
"You know the theory, but what can you actually do with it?”
“Imagine if you didn’t know anything about the game…you want people to really understand it, to get it, then you get that level of engagement”. Despite this, he points out that he doesn’t simply hire graduates fresh out of college, and expects applicants to have accrued some degree of experience, “Someone with 20 years experience vs someone coming straight out of college is, like, you know the theory, but what can you actually do with it?”Finally, I asked Comerford if he had any advice for someone who wants to enter games development; “Figure out what you’re passionate about, figure out what you really want to do, see if something fits in here and then apply. There’s two things that I look for, looking at an application. First of all is work experience. Seeing what people have done, seeing what they can point out, and then a cover letter. I want to know why you want to work here. What’s the hook for you? Where does that come from?”He was also keen to point out that once you're in the door, anything is possible. “A guy upstairs, his first job here was as a copy editor, and last year he got to go around North America [as part of the] League of Legends World Series. So he’s after getting to do all that and meet all these players, meet all these professional players and that is his dream job!”