Meet Léa Heitz, Game, Tools & Systems Developer

Léa Heitz

Name: Léa Heitz
Title: Game, Tools & Systems Developer
Education: HEAJ / Computer graphics / Video games programming

Movie(s): Persepolis
Tv show(s): Tales from the loop, The legend of Korra
Game(s): The Last of Us, Fallout 3, Astroneer, Factorio, Deep Rock Galactic

Personal fun fact: I love watching roller coaster’s POV on Youtube.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I’m Léa, 29 years old, currently living in Brussels with my partner and my cat. I have a French Baccalauréat in mathematics, and I did 1 year of art studies at uni and 1 year of biology, before arriving in Belgium. I moved 10 years ago from France, to start computer graphics studies at HEAJ (Namur).

What is your job and what does a typical workday look like for you?

gearbox logo

I recently got a new job, so the following will be true for only a few more weeks. I knew that my next step in my career would be to move to Canada, so I started applying at studios in Montreal and Quebec. And that’s when I got hired as a gameplay developer at Gearbox in Montreal (the creators of Borderlands).

I’m overwhelmingly excited because this is a big dream coming true! I’ll continue my work as a more systems oriented developer, and I will reinforce my tools knowledge in my free time :)

So up until now, I've been a game developer at Appeal Studios for about 2 year. There’s a lot of variety between jobs in the game industry. Engine, animation, UI, tools, gameplay, AI, … Most of my job is implementing gameplay, which is focused on the player's interactivity with the game. I’ll work with a game designer to implement behaviours; how that creature is going to move and respond to the player, how a gun fires and how long it will be on cooldown, etc...

But what makes me really excited to work on are tools for my coworkers. I have more autonomy when implementing tools, the freedom to decide my own priorities, and to add new features when I think they’re needed. The best part is that I can get direct feedback from the users (artists, game designers), as they're usually working right next to me.

When I receive a message like “Thanks, it saved me so much time, could you do that next?”, my day just brightens, and I can’t wait to do it again.

A typical workday for me is waking up around 8:00. I start my computer, make coffee, and feed my cat. By then it's around 8:30 and I start to work. At 18:00 my workday is over.

I’m often working on large tasks that are going to take me more than one day, so I usually just jump in. Ideally I have a game design document that I can follow, or have a list of bugs or new features that I have to implement that was previously discussed with my lead.

When a feature is done or a bug is fixed, I test it locally, and then run some other tests on the build version, before letting the quality assurance team know through our tasks/bugs tracker.

I tend to be on call all day with my coworkers on Discord, so I can be reached whenever I'm needed.
I might also have meetings, where we are informed about the new features we have to develop, and to brainstorm on how to implement them.

What kind of tools do you work on?

Mostly tools to improve the production pipeline, and to fulfil the needs of my peers. I’ve developed one tool as a complement to a system that I implemented in the game. The goal was to prevent the game designer (who’s integrating the content) to go through a lot of parameters, and to reduce the error gap, by making a user friendly interface. There is a lot of back and forth to cover all of his needs.

How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?

A custom made blouse

I have too many hobbies :’(. It shifts quite often. These days I’m more into sewing; I'm currently making a Kimono. My love for sewing started back in 2020, during the lockdown. I asked my parents for a sewing machine for my birthday, to kill the time, and also because I’m quite picky with my clothes. Since then I’ve created around 10 pieces. Most of them aren’t wearable, but I can’t throw them away or give them away. I hope that one day I’ll find a way to fix them! I’m quite proud of my last piece, it’s a top with an 80’s vibe :).

I’m also a gamer, and just got a PS4, to finally replay TLOU 2 (quite excited). The games I played a LOT are Astroneer, Factorio, Fallout 3 and Deep Rock Galactic. A range of different games, but mostly sci-fi because I LOVE space.

Léa's bullet journal

I’ve also been keeping a bullet journal since december. It calms me, and I use it to track my habits, like going outside, drinking enough water and my mood of the day. It helps me improve on day to day stuff, and to build a healthy routine. Writing it and imagining how to improve the next month is very satisfying.

When the weather is better, I like to take pictures. I have had an analog camera since 2015, a Canon AE-1, which works great for me. I just found an Olympus Trip 35 to use during bike trips, or holidays. I can’t wait to do a film test and see how it goes.

Have you ever thought of going indie and creating your own game?

Kind of yes. Actually in the 4th year of HEAJ, the school pushes you to create your own company, by continuing to develop your game after graduating. We could have done that, since we had some people interested in our game, but for me it was not the right project nor the right time. I feel like I need to build a stronger skill set by working in the industry first; so I can validate my creations, knowing that I have a solid foundation.

Now that I’ve worked on several projects, under different directors and bosses and with different ways of managing projects, the need to go indie is becoming more important. Not necessarily in terms of creation, but more in terms of overview.

I definitely see myself as an indie in some years. I just have to find a cool idea!

What would make the ultimate sci-fi or space game? Or comes closest to it?

Ah! I don’t know, do we need an ultimate sci-fi game? There are so many different genres that feed the sci-fi / spacey universe, every experience is different. But I would say, a mix between Dune, a point’n’click, pixel art, good sound ambiance, and a great story, because I want to CRY.

What or who got you initially interested in coding and / or pursuing a career in tech?

It’s quite a story. Back when I was 16, when I had started looking for my future studies, my teacher pointed me towards 3D. I kind of got obsessed with it, because I really wanted to be in an artistic field. But I’m also a mathematical / scientific woman. That’s why I went to art school, and afterwards switched to biology. When I got into HEAJ, I went into the video games section, but as a 3D artist.

During the first year, we had basic Javascript programming classes, and I had so much fun; I remember pushing the exercises further, just to have the satisfaction of seeing it work. At the end of the year I was told by a friend about the programming section. For me it was the perfect mix between science and arts. I gave it a lot of thought, and decided to give it a try. At first it was hard, because the classes were packed with information. However, I managed to get through them, and being one of the few girls in the section made me ultra proud, because I wanted to show that women can succeed in more traditionally male professions. To this day, I’m still coding. :)

Have you ever considered switching to the VFX industry, seeing you started out as a 3D artist?

Not really haha. I don’t know the VFX industry very well, but it seems like it’s more technical artist oriented. In games, that job entails shaders, optimization, the rendering pipeline, post processing… I do want to learn about shaders and openGL, I actually got a couple of books for that, I just need to find the motivation to read through them. I remember doing some shaders at school and never really feeling it, it’s quite artsy and subjectif work.

cross-stitching ship cross-stitching ship cross-stitching ship
cross-stitching ship cross-stitching ship

If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?

You’re worthy, no matter what you’re thinking. And get rid of that impostor syndrome.

(When I had finished the second year of my game development studies, I asked if I could redo it, because I felt like I didn't belong in the third year yet. I moved on to the third year anyways, and by the end of my studies, our end of year project was chosen as the best project of the year!)

You’re worthy, no matter what you’re thinking.

Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow?

I quite enjoy supporting innovative indie projects on Kickstarter. (Blood Machines, Narita Boy, Canard PC’s rescue, …).

How could the game industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?

For me it’s about how we’re raising our kids and what we’re telling them, to both boys and girls. Girls can be doctors, boys can be nurses. Let everybody play with all toys, regardless of whether they are “masculine” or “feminine”. We should also encourage them to do whatever they like. I can’t thank my parents enough for supporting me, giving me Legos, Meccano sets, science lab sets, and letting me draw and paint.

What made you join the women.code(be) community?

To meet women in tech and to be able to share both good and bad experiences, without being judged.

Lastly, if someone wants to transition into game development what would you recommend them to do / to learn?

In other words, what are the requirements they should meet to be successful?

First of all, English. Personally I didn't want to learn it, and I had no other choices when I started to read Unity’s documentation. It was painful, so start soon, it's worth it.

Gamedev is a team job. You have to discuss, argue and learn from your colleagues. For me it requires a lot of precision. Because there are so many people involved in a project, that some strong structural foundation, in the code architecture or the pipelines, is essential.

Imagination and curiosity are also very important. Finding new ways of creating stuff, or educating yourself / experimenting with new ways of creating. I find that going to game jams is a nice way of feeding your mind with new ideas. To get out of your current job, and to force yourself on a new fresh project, by prototyping without any constraints.

Btw, if you ever have something you want to share, I invite you to participate in a BROTARU (a monthly Meet-up for Game Devs in Brussels), to get feedback and to get good advice from industry veterans. It’s all about sharing!

We hope you enjoyed Léa Heitz's story, feel free to share this article with your network. ❤️

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