Ever since he first played The Lost Vikings by Blizzard Entertainment (the company was called Silicon & Synapse back then), it had always been one of Ryan Chew’s dreams to work at the legendary game studio. Now, the 30-year-old DigiPen graduate is on the frontlines of Blizzard’s development team behind their latest smash-hit title, Overwatch.
Ryan, who graduated from DigiPen in 2012 with a degree from the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation program, got his foot in the door at Blizzard when he applied for a position on the team managing the company’s legendary Battle.net platform.
“I was on the Battle.net team for about a year and a half. I learned a lot. … It was an eye-opener, getting to learn all the different systems we use,” Ryan says. While he enjoyed learning how Blizzard distributed its games and software updates to a global audience, by 2014 he realized he wanted to step away from the company’s distribution platform and get back into working directly on games. “That’s when I started looking at joining one of the game teams at Blizzard,” he says.
Even with his foot already in the door, Ryan discovered that the process to join one of Blizzard’s game teams was no simple matter.
For starters, the team he had set his sights on — code-named Team 4 — was working on a theretofore-unannounced title called Titan. “And [the team’s leaders] said, ‘We want to hire you, but can you hang on for a bit?’” Ryan recalls. “And two weeks later, they came back to me and said, ‘Well, the project’s been canceled now. We can’t hire you anymore.’”
Ryan was not dissuaded, of course. He pivoted and set his sights on an open position for Team 5 — the Blizzard team behind what would eventually be known as the online collectible card game Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Even though he had already proven himself a good fit for Blizzard as a whole, to work on Team 5 he would need to show the group that he could bring the specific skills they needed — specifically, user-interface and user-interaction (UX/UI) chops.
“I think I went through like seven or eight interviews, with all the different team members. On Hearthstone, the team is really small, so they generally try to interview you with as many people on the team as possible,” Ryan says.
Eight interviews might sound like a lot to most people, but Ryan fully expected the challenge. “Whenever you apply for a different game team at Blizzard, you have to go through that,” Ryan says. “It’s like doing an interview at any other company with the exception that they will definitely interview you, and you don’t really have to worry about the culture fit. It’s more of if you can actually fit for the game team itself.”
It turned out that Ryan’s skills were exactly what Team 5 needed. They hired him on in April 2014, shortly after Hearthstone was first released on PC and iOS. He worked primarily on the game’s interface elements, creating assets and interface interactions to ensure the game was a fluid, enjoyable experience.
Ryan worked on Team 5 for nearly two years before making another shift in the company. “I’ve always been an FPS [first-person shooter] guy, which is why Titan appealed to me in the first place,” he says. When Titan was canceled, Ryan considered his prospects of working on an FPS at Blizzard all but done. But when members of the defunct Titan started working on a new project called Overwatch — a team-based shooter that encourages players to work together to accomplish objectives — Ryan saw a window of opportunity.
“While I was on Hearthstone, [Blizzard] was opening up the internal alpha for Overwatch. We were playing it a lot internally — and I just kept playing it,” Ryan laughs. “I found that I was playing it all the time, and I just really loved this game.”
Eventually, Blizzard opened a new position to work on Overwatch. After going through the same lengthy interview process he went through to get on Hearthstone’s team, Ryan joined the Overwatch team in January 2016 as a software engineer focusing on UI and UX.
The first thing Ryan noticed about the Overwatch team was the “sheer amount of work they’ve done.”
“Everybody is very high-capacity,” he says. “They work a lot. They do a lot. The amount of tech they’ve developed is really impressive.” Ryan, who says he enjoys working on game engines and other forms of low-level development, enjoyed working with Overwatch’s custom-built engine (Hearthstone is built on the well-established Unity engine). “The tools that I get to work with on Overwatch are pretty amazing. They’re all in-house built,” he says. From the game’s visual scripting language to its debugger, Ryan expresses admiration for the team that has essentially built Overwatch from the ground up.
“One of the things I really appreciate about the Overwatch team is that the gameplay engineers get a lot of say into the design process as well,” Ryan says. Even though his responsibilities primarily include designing user interface systems (including assets for the game’s “Weekly Brawl” mode), Ryan says he’s also been able to influence other aspects of the game thanks to the team’s collaborative approach to development. “The culture here is fantastic,” Ryan says. “Before I joined [Blizzard], I said I would take the job and just see how it goes, because it may not be what I expect it to be. But it was one of my lifelong goals to work at Blizzard, so even if I didn’t like it I could check it off my list. And I’m glad I made the choice because it’s a lot more than what I expected it to be.”
For students interested in pursuing a role at a company like Blizzard, Ryan says the best advice he can offer is “spend more time working on your game project.”
“Make sure you actually ship it,” he says. “It’s one thing to come up with a tech demo, and it’s also another thing to create a game and say it’s done for school.” But, Ryan says, it’s important that students see a game through the entire production process, including creating trailers and development blogs, putting the game up for download on a website, and collecting feedback from players.
Ryan’s come a long way from DigiPen to where he is now. For his final DigiPen game project, Deity, Ryan was one of eight student team members; now, he is working alongside about 80 other professionals on the Overwatch team. “Compared to other large studios, the Overwatch team is super-small,” Ryan notes. “Compared to school, of course, it’s a huge leap.”
“Everyone on the team and at Blizzard loves the game and has poured an incredible amount of time and energy into it,” Ryan says. “We hoped that the response would be positive, but we had no idea what to expect for the game’s reception. When we hit the switch, we saw the concurrency numbers climbing at a mind-boggling rate — it was quite hard to believe. To be a part of the experience of working on and launching Overwatch has been the highlight of my career so far.”