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Alumni Spotlight: Rodney Thompson

Headshot photo of Rodney Thompson

For multi-award-winning video game designer Rodney Thompson (’04), computer science was the obvious answer for his degree path at UT. Obvious, but not very satisfying.

“After three years, I got to the point where I was like, I don’t think I can spend the rest of my career sitting and staring at code on a computer screen,” he said. “I couldn’t handle the lack of human interaction.”

He had enough credits for a computer science minor, and he left it at that. For a major, he chose English, concentrating in creative writing, even though doing so meant having to add two more years of coursework. It was worth it.

“When I switched to English, it was very much like, I’m doing this to fulfill myself,” he said.

Thompson is currently senior design lead at video game company Bungie and owner of Scratchpad Publishing, where he produces his own tabletop role-playing games. In addition to being the creator of Spectaculars, Dusk City Outlaws, and Lords of Waterdeep, he was one of the creative minds behind Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, Scoundrels of Skullport, and Star Wars Saga Edition.

Across the wide variety of games Thompson has worked on, there’s one particularly noteworthy feature: a focus on storytelling.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved stories and storytelling,” he said. “To me that’s been the most fulfilling thing. When I create a tabletop game, I use tools that are very different from the ones I use when working on video games. But it all amounts to the same thing: I’m putting the pieces in place so that when a player comes to the game, whether they’re picking up a controller or rolling dice, they get to experience and direct a story.”

He honed his storytelling skills in fiction and screenwriting classes at UT. Screenwriting taught him concision, how to “distill a narrative down to its most essential elements.”

One of the most valuable things he took from his fiction-writing class was the art of peer review. In workshop-based classes like fiction writing, students produce their own work, share it with their classmates, and then get together as a group to offer constructive critique and feedback. In a collaborative industry like the one he is in now, being able to give and receive feedback is essential.

“I use those skills literally every day in my in my video-game design job,” he said.

One of the biggest factors in Thompson’s decision to work for Bungie was that the company would allow him the freedom to work on his own projects on the side. During the day he makes video games, staring at code all day, just as he once feared. 

“But at night it’s just me making the games I want to make and telling the stories I want to tell,” he said.

A lot of his coworkers wonder how he leaves work and goes home to work some more.

“I think I just have more creative energy than an eight-hour-a-day job can contain,” said Thompson.