Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 2
Tools of the Trade
Game design is an increasingly technical field. Here is a list of programs that will get you started. You should know at least one from each of these categories.
Commercially Available Game Engines
The commercially available game engine tools are the most important piece of software you can know as a game designer. Learn one of these suites inside and out. Even if a studio you will be applying to does not use a commercial game engine, it will be a solid foundation for whatever proprietary engine they do use. The great advantage these engines have are that they are shipped with games that are on the market and there is plentiful documentation and even tutorial videos to help you learn them. Here is one of the sites that helped me out when I was a new designer learning Unreal: http://www.3dbuzz.com/.
I will be covering this more in depth in the portfolio section of this article, but you should be trying to make a playable level with the engine that demonstrates your knowledge of the engine tools as well as shows off your design sensibilities and skills.
Examples of commercial engines: Unreal, Source, Radiant and CryEngine 2.
Top-down Level Layout Software
Using specialized software to create level layouts is very efficient, quickly conveys your level ideas and shows off your design sensibilities. While I much prefer using Adobe Illustrator, I have seen other designers work magic with Microsoft Visio. Visio is also great for creating flowcharts for events or AI behaviors.
Learning to script and think in pseudocode is a very valuable skill for game designers. The syntax of the language is not as important as the thought process involved. Nonetheless, each of these following programming languages are popular and actively used in the game industry and it would benefit you to learn one of them. Examples of programming/scripting languages: LUA, Python, Unreal Script/Kismet, DoomScript and C++.
Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Outlook are all indispensable to a designer.
3D Modeling Programs
With so many commercial engines now shipping with built-in BSP editors more and more development studios are moving their designers away from dedicated 3D modeling programs. While this is a trend in the industry, quite a few development houses still require you to know one of these programs. So it will depend on the particular developer you are applying to. Examples of 3D modeling programs: Maya, 3D Studio Max, and Sketchup.
As a designer who has poured through numerous portfolios and resumes and conducted countless interviews, I can tell you that the portfolio and the interview are the two most important aspects in being hired. The first step is building the portfolio, as a strong portfolio inevitably leads to the interview. A portfolio is used to demonstrate your skills and design sense. While a portfolio can consist of any number of different things, I would recommend samples that demonstrate your knowledge of the above listed programs. I would also recommend creating a sample tailored towards specific companies that you are applying to. An example might be creating and including a level design document for a game that a studio had previously released. A level design document should include a write up of your level idea, the events that will happen during the level and any puzzles that the players must overcome. This should also include top-down maps outlining how the map will look, where the enemies are introduced, where weapons and powerups will be placed. This document will show that you are capable of good design as well as possess the ability to communicate effectively through documentation.
More important than the level design document is the playable level or game. Pick one of the commercially available game engines above and create a playable level or game. If you choose to build out a level, if applicable, place down cover for the player to hide behind to create a front, place weapons, place powerups, place enemies and script their behavior. Think about pacing, encounters, what the player is feeling while playing and what choices are available to them. Remember that Sid Meier defined gameplay as “a series of interesting choices.”
Creating a thorough and polished portfolio is difficult and time consuming. When trying to get my first design job in the game industry, I would work a full time job and then immediately head home to work on my portfolio until 2AM everyday. Weekends were huge and I dedicated my entire weekends to improving my portfolio. With the singular focus of completing my portfolio with every free moment I had, it still took me over six months of constant work to get it to a spot where I thought I could show it to others. This may seem like a lot of time, but this is one of those sacrifice things I was talking about earlier.
Unless specified on the job application website, a portfolio is best presented in website format. This will save you the time and money creating DVDs or whatnot and the mailing postage.
Resume and Cover Letter
I will not be spending time covering the process of making a professional looking resume because there are so many sites that cover this already. The cover letter in many ways is more important than the resume. The cover letter is your opportunity to sell yourself to the company. Introduce yourself and your skills and emphasize how you can help fill the company’s needs and realize their goals.
Here are some interviewing tips I have picked up over the years.
If you have followed the advice written above, at this point you should be very knowledgeable about the company you are applying to. I am reminding you again to learn about the company you are applying to because I cannot count the number of times a candidate has come into an interview with no clue what the studio has worked on in the past or what announced game we are currently working on.
Do not neglect the interview portion. Acing the interview not only means getting the job, but also gives you greater room to negotiate your salary.
One of the most important qualities I am looking for in a candidate during an interview is how well they communicate their ideas to others. Use cue cards to practice answering questions. Practice will make you more comfortable and will lower your anxiety levels and improve performance.
When asked about your previous employment, do not attack your previous company or co-workers during the interview. I am looking for loyalty from the candidate.
The gaming industry is one of the few places where it does not benefit you to come dressed in a three-piece suit. In fact it may harm your chances. We are looking for people that will fit in well and as there is no dress code for developers, wearing a 3-piece suit into this environment is a mistake.
My recommendation is to dress in a collared shirt or sweater, trousers and some comfortable shoes (no flip-flops) for men and a suitable top (not too revealing) and trousers or skirt for women.
What to bring to the interview
Bring several copies of your resume, some examples of your work, something to write with, a notepad, water and energy bars. I like to bring energy bars because interviews at a lot of game companies are structured with multiple interviewers over an entire day. If you need to, snacking in between interviewers will keep you energy level up.
Lastly there is Quality Assurance. QA is the “mail room” of the gaming industry. This is usually where most people get their first taste of the industry. A position in QA has a lot to offer to an aspiring game designer. Being in Quality Assurance will put you in an environment with others who are also trying to advance their game careers. Team up with them and work together to polish your respective portfolios.
Some of the other things you will learn are what bugs are and how to communicate them effectively to other developers. If you are working on console games, be sure to etch into memory Sony’s Technical Requirements Checklist (TRC) and Microsoft’s Technical Certification Requirements (TCR). These are industry requirements that a game must pass in order to ship on these respective platforms and you can learn to avoid these violations while designing your future games. You will also witness and be a part of how a game changes through the development cycle.
If at all possible, try to get hired in the QA lab of a game developer instead of a QA outsourcing company. This way you can hound and possibly show off your portfolio to developers and get feedback.
Lastly, work harder than everybody else around you. Volunteer feedback and stay late on your own. If you can get a QA position testing the game engine tools, be sure to learn them and start creating levels with them.
Most importantly do not give up. If faced with a setback, learn from it and redouble your efforts. Hang on to the “why” you want to be a game designer and let that drive you. So now that you’ve heard what I have had to say on the topic, it is time for you to get to work. Good luck! If you leave any questions in the comments section, I will try to answer them to the best of my ability.
See my other related articles also:
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 2
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 2
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay
My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character
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