It’s July 2021, and 17 months since we closed the studio doors during the start of the pandemic. There’s a new energy as we celebrate togetherness and prepare to reopen and return to office after the holiday break. Wishing everyone a safe and happy Independence Day Weekend!
At 31st Union, the concepts of independence, empowerment and the ability to engage autonomously are at the heart of who we are and what we value. It’s the reason we chose TRUST as the foundation of one of our five studio values: THRIVE ON TRUST. We are inspired to do our best work because we are safe to take risks in an environment built on sincerity and respect.
To support our team in taking a collective deep breath, and celebrate charting a bright path forward, we are closing down our San Mateo headquarters to give all employees an extra paid week off to recharge, relax and find joy. This month, may we all be inspired to do our best at home and work because we are safe and thrive on trust.
DEVELOPER PROFILE – LEAD DESIGNER, RILEY PIETSCH
It’s amazing to work with talented people who create a studio culture where everyone can authentically represent and feel respected for their unique gifts. Riley Pietsch, Lead Gameplay Designer, is also a co-facilitator for our affinity group: 31U Allies. 31U Allies aims to elevate and amplify underrepresented groups, facilitate learning and foster collaboration opportunities with our other affinity groups to ensure we are living up to our studio value of Welcome All. Riley has been a design vision holder at 31st Union since our humble beginning in early 2019.
What inspired you to go into video game development?
I was raised in a family embedded in an entertainment industry (television specifically), which intrigued me with the idea that one person - or a comparatively small group of people - could create something that could impact millions of people. Games themselves were a part of my life since I can remember - we got our first game console in the house when I was four. I remember telling my parents (who have been and continue to be unerringly supportive) at a young age that there was a subset of games that were educational, and I spent much of my time forming arguments for why games that were clearly not educational should be re-categorized as such so that I could play them for larger amounts of time, “for my well-being.” It turns out, all of those games ended up being educational to what I do now. Showed them!
It wasn’t until high school that I began to marry the idea of large-scale entertainment with my passion for playing, appreciating, and understanding games, and started to research ways I could get into the industry. Through a mixture of hobbies at the time - photography, programming, creative writing, and statistics - I fell in love with the idea of game design, specifically, and that hasn’t changed.
What surprised you about video game development?
I had this view that because the product - to a consumer - seems really well put together, the process and developers must be a well-oiled machine. You learn pretty quickly that making any game (no matter how small or familiar) is a monumental task full of hidden costs and challenges, and the process often resembles anything but a well-oiled machine. It’s more like a set of corroded stone cogs, and everyone is scrambling to replace or rearrange all the cogs in less time than is possible. But if making games was like running a well-oiled machine, it’d be a lot less fun to do.
How have video games influenced your life?
Before games became my professional focus, they were my entertainment. Games are a foundation for social life, building relationships, learning how to solve complex problems, and processing failure in a space that can foster it safely. At times they’re an escape, and that can be therapeutic, if not liberating. Once I started making games, playing them didn’t lose luster, but my perspective on the ways in which they engender these emotions became a bit more scientific. I began to understand why games make for phenomenal (if not the best) social engagement platforms, why they are so good at teaching, and why they are great at helping people explore failure and problem solving. I think the perspective that games offer on these basic elements - regarding how people behave - has put other things into a new light for me, even if they are unrelated to games.
Are there any current trends in gaming that you find exciting or inspiring?
Don’t get me wrong - I love big, cinematic, broad-featured titles, and these are the kinds of games I like to work on. But I’m a sucker for fun, lighthearted, and simple multiplayer experiences. The accessibility to make and share these kinds of titles is at an all-time high. From Gang Beasts (Boneloaf, Double Fine Productions) to ROUNDS (Landfall Games), I love every entry into the “make you yell at your friends and the screen in some combination of anger and joy” genre of multiplayer games. There’s an unbounded fun to games of this nature, but there is a tendency to design these features out as games get bigger. Some of it by necessity, but I hope to see more of these qualities in bigger games as time goes on.
What is unique about 31st Union compared to the broader industry?
31st is a frontrunner in a singular expectation of how we create both our culture and our product: we can do it better than we do today. Often times, as companies grow and establish an identity, they become rooted in conversations of status quo and make assumptions that can hinder growth, inclusion, and efficiency. At the core of how 31st approaches anything is an undercurrent of evaluating whether or not the way we do something today is the best way to do it going forward, and everyone here is encouraged to open that dialogue.
Which of our Studio Values most resonates with you?
“Live your Dreams” is our value for personal growth. I appreciate an environment where people who want to learn more than the on-paper bounds of their role are encouraged to do so. The more I can understand the ins and outs of how my peers do their jobs, the more I can empathize and imbue their considerations into my own work.
How could the video game industry create a more inclusive environment for developers?
There are phenomenal resources out there to get a broad understanding of the role inclusivity can play from a personal, team, and product perspective (here’s one from Mitu Khandaker from a couple years ago), so I’ll offer just two examples that have been impactful in my own experience. First, and maybe the most accessible step: the average AAA game developer needs to increase their awareness and familiarity with (often independent) games and developers that champion advocacy, social change, and accessibility. Go to IndieCade or Games for Change, play and discuss the experiences shared by different voices, and intuit some of the challenges many face in either joining or feeling welcome within the industry at large (or just being in their own skin.) Second, work relentlessly with your recruiters and talent acquisition teams to establish and uphold practices that eliminate bias and reject preconceived notions of evaluation that favor some more than others. I think a team that is cognizant of the oftentimes nuanced ways in which bias can be present in a hiring process is a team that is, on average, better at recognizing and eliminating it within their own work environment.
What is your favorite video game?
I’m incapable of answering this question so I’ll offer a variety pack of very different answers --- Divinity: Original Sin 2, Stardew Valley, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, World of Warcraft.
What do you love about them?
Divinity: Original Sin 2 offers the most compelling version of what I feel when I play D&D with others, but in a digital format that obfuscates a lot of what wouldn’t translate well (and the content itself is just really good.)
Stardew Valley blends a charming farm town with a wide array of deep game mechanics in a way that is welcoming to both casual players and obsessed game designers with no self-control.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was the first title to truly introduce me to competitive online gaming and sparked my interest in making multiplayer games, specifically.
World of Warcraft is a dark tunnel I’ve not been able to crawl out of in 17 years, and I’ve made my peace with that. It was the first game that truly awed me with its scale, ambition, and fantasy.
Tell us something about yourself that many people do not know about you.
I grew up in a very musical family and spent a lot of my childhood / young adulthood playing instruments and singing. In particular I love playing piano and singing, and most family Thanksgivings were a collection of 10-30 people cooking, drinking, and participating in a big sing-along to a wide range of musical numbers, pop hits, and songs people only remember the chorus for. I believe that hearing 30 people drunkenly sing "We Didn’t Start the Fire" in a few different keys simultaneously builds character. Maybe not a stable character, but character nonetheless.
We are HIRING!
We are seeking passionate and talented collaborators to join our team! If you’d like to hear more about our studio, the team, and the opportunity to help shape our culture and creative vision, please connect with us at https://www.linkedin.com/company/31st-union-official