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Xandra van Wijk on Building a Career in Game Design

Xandra van Wijk didn’t set out to be a games designer. That makes her current role at King Games all the more impressive. A senior game designer for the developer, she was lead designer on Farm Heroes Super Saga–the latest Match–3 title from the casual gaming giant–which isn’t bad going at all for someone who didn’t go into making games until she was 28.

“I have always been a gamer but it wasn’t until later on in my twenties that I realized my passion for designing them,” explained van Wijk. “I didn’t know much about the job opportunities in the games industry–I just knew that it was just something I loved doing.”

Having studied Industrial Design Engineering at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, van Wijk found herself drawn into the world of gaming events. She attended them initially as a volunteer, before working in a freelance capacity. “I fell in love with it,” notes van Wijk.

Once she graduated, she landed her first full time job as a community manager for Spil Games–a social games company based in the Netherlands. Within a few months, she’d moved over to the product management team, giving her a first glimpse into the world of game design, leading to a role as game designer. While she doesn’t have direct academic experience in the field, her degree did offer some transferable skills.

“Game Design is very similar to Product Design in terms of the creative process and the challenging elements of science involved,” she explained. As a child, van Wijk loved the sciences as much as more artistic subjects, ensuring she had the academic foundations for a game design role, even if she hadn’t aimed specifically to pursue such paths.

Appropriately, her meteoric rise led her to King–a company that has enjoyed a similarly impressive path to success. The firm has almost single-handedly revitalized the Match–3 genre, providing an appeal that has hooked gamers and non-gamers alike. You’d be hard pushed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of Candy Crush Saga, thanks to a mainstream advertising campaign and plenty of pop culture references in TV and cinema.

Attending GDC in 2013, van Wijk found herself drawn to the King stand, mostly out of a love for Candy Crush Saga. The stand was running a competition–a competition that van Wijk went on to shatter as she beat the overall record at GDC. While enjoying the experience, she also noted just how friendly the people from King were. They were fun, warm, and offered an inclusive environment to be a part of. Not long after her return from GDC, she applied for a role at the firm, and it turned out the woman who had been cheering her on at the competition was the same person to pick up her application.

It wasn’t quite the fairy tale story yet, though. Van Wijk was initially rejected for the role of Junior Product Manager due to lack of experience, but she was invited to give it another shot, and was eventually hired as a Game Designer. Persistence paid off once again.

Since then, she’s reached the position of Lead Designer on Farm Heroes Super Saga. Her main responsibility is to create and champion the design direction for the game. “Designing a game is all about making sure the it fulfills the needs of players as well as the business,” she explains. That starts with coming up with the ideas for the game’s main features. van Wijk also worked on designing tutorials with the artists and developers, creating and optimizing levels, as well as paying attention to player feedback. Finally, she works with Marketing to ensure the game’s launch is successful. It’s a substantial change compared to her early days as a Community Manager.

While van Wijk has enjoyed a very successful path to her role as senior games designer, she believes change is needed to encourage more women into the games industry.

“I think it would help if girls were exposed to the games industry at a younger age. As a child I had [no] knowledge of what a job in the games industry looked like or what opportunities there were and so I didn’t think about pursuing it as a career,” she explained. “It’s a lot easier to imagine what a doctor does, or what a stylist does because as a child you’re exposed more to these types of jobs through playing with toys, watching TV or being around your family.”

More exposure is needed, so we all know what’s expected within the industry. As van Wijk points out, “people might not realize how much fun it is to work in games,” citing King as a perfect example of a company that is ‘fun-loving, fantastically diverse, and [offers] a good work life balance.”

So, what advice does she have to offer other young women keen to follow in her footsteps?

“Something I wish someone had told me beforehand is that you don’t need to know how to program, code or draw in order to become a game designer,” she explains. “You just need to be creative and good at communicating with people so that you can get your ideas across.”

“Fortune favors the bold,” van Wijk notes. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and put yourself forward for a job you feel passionate about.” Van Wijk didn’t start in the field until she was 28, so clearly it’s never too late if you’re assertive enough.

Farm Heroes Super Saga is out now for iOS and Android.

Jennifer Allen
Jennifer is a freelancer for multiple outlets on the web and in print, including Playboy, Paste Magazine, TechRadar, and MyM Magazine. In her spare time, she watches too many TV boxsets and pretends she knows what she’s doing at the gym. Follow her on Twitter.
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Jennifer Allen
Jennifer is a freelancer for multiple outlets on the web and in print, including Playboy, Paste Magazine, TechRadar, and MyM Magazine. In her spare time, she watches too many TV boxsets and pretends she knows what she’s doing at the gym. Follow her on Twitter.

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