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How The Director of Production on Valorant Went from Book Publishing to Working on a Popular Online Shooter

Arnar Gylfason from Riot Games tells us about his unconventional way into the games industry.

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A common proverb states that all roads lead to Rome. That may be true. But some roads are definitely more difficult than others.

That is why Arnar Gylfason, who currently works for Riot Games as Director of Production on Valorant, has a simple piece of advice for anyone dreaming of joining the games industry:

"My first recommendation would be to go to school. That would make it easier. Learning all of these skills that are solid foundations. Knowing how things work whether art, management or programming."

As for Arnar's second recommendation, we'll get there shortly, but let's first look at how he got started in the industry.

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From books to distant galaxies
In late 2005, Arnar Gylfason read an advert from game developer CCP Games. Two years earlier, the Icelandic studio had released the MMO Eve Online, and their successful space adventure had since expanded at near light speed, putting them on something of a hiring spree. Because of this, Arnar ended up landing a position as a QA tester.

It wasn't exactly in the cards that Arnar would end up in the games industry. At the age of 18, he dropped out of school to work in an IT company run by his friends.

The company distributed and serviced the Linux operating system in Iceland, but it wasn't the technical side that Arnar was responsible for. Instead, he helped with marketing, administration and the business side of things. When the IT bubble burst in the early 2000s, the company closed down, and he got a job at a publishing company where he performed many of the same tasks.

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I had a massive inferiority complex. I was working with all of these people who had a background in engineering or had been working in video games for a long time.

While some of these skills were helpful later on, none of them were tailored towards working in the games industry. Luckily, there were amble opportunity to catch up at CCP Games, Arnar explains:

"I joined at a time of explosive growth. Eve Online was growing rapidly, CCP as a company was growing very rapidly. Because of that there were a lot of opportunities to just help out wherever you needed to help out. We couldn't hire people quickly enough to do all the things that needed to be done."


In the captain's chair
The inability to hire fast enough turned out be a blessing in disguise. Arnar was allowed to try his hand at a variety of different tasks and quickly rose through the ranks at CCP Games, until he became Senior Producer, responsible for the overall vision for Eve Online.

Even though he was now in the captain's chair, doubts about his own abilities still arose regularly.

"I had a massive inferiority complex. I was working with all of these people who had a background in engineering or had been working in video games for a long time. And I felt like I was always behind on knowing what to do. This kind of imposter syndrome definitely set in with me. 'Do I even belong here? Do I know what I'm doing.' And to be fair some of that maybe never goes away."

This brings us to Arnar's second piece of advice for those looking to get into the games industry. As he puts it, whether you have the right education or not, there's one thing you can't do without - a passion for games.

"I do think it's important that you are passionate about games or about serving players. Whether it's having experience playing them, deep diving into what the player community care about, working on indie projects with your friends, or reading about indie projects and how they work. If you know a lot about the player motivation and the player experience, I think it's an incredible strong place to start," he advises.


The importance of player response
After eight years at CCP Games, Arnor Gylfason packed his bags and headed to Los Angeles back in 2013. Here he served as Product Manager on Riot Games' ultra-popular MOBA League of Legends, before taking on a similar role on Project A - the secret game that would later become Valorant.

We have a couple of things up our sleeve that we haven't announced that I am hopeful is going to both surprise and delight players in the coming months and through the rest of the year.

The competitive shooter was released in 2020 and received critical acclaim for its intense tactical gameplay and variety of different agents, each with their own unique play style and abilities. The player base has continuously expanded since the release, but this also means that managing the game's production is a complex task.

"On Valorant everything is big. The team is big which means a large overhead of communication, complexity of work systems and managing distributed teams. The overhead of just the sheer scale of production is massive. And then you have a very large player base. So going from what our players need and want - which is no easy question - and turning that product you want to make into something we can make, operationalizing that, is very complex. It's trying to map a neuro network in your brain, but with your eyes closed," Arnar Gylfason explains.

Over the past few years, it has made headlines when passionate gamers get carried away and lash out at developers or other fans on social media. Of course, this poses a serious problem in the industry.

Yet, the focus on the negative response sometimes overshadows the fact that the vast majority of gamers use social media and other channels to share their excitement about their favourite games. According to Arnar Gylfason, that excitement and joy is exactly what makes working in the sometimes intense gaming industry worthwhile.

"Happy players are the reason I work in video games. Seeing players engage with something we make for them and seeing that it works. Or even when it doesn't work, learning from that and being able to fix it and bring back something that they love, that is the reward."

And there are plenty of reasons for Valorant fans to be in excided in 2023, the Executive Producer concludes when asked about what's in store:

"We have a couple of things up our sleeve that we haven't announced that I am hopeful is going to both surprise and delight players in the coming months and through the rest of the year. I wish I could be more specific about it, but I guess this is one of these, where you have to trust me and check in with me in a few months and see whether we delivered on that promise. But overall, I think this is going to be the most exciting year we had since launch."


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