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Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

I have been asked the question of “how do you become a video game designer” countless times. Instead of answering each and every time (like I had been doing), I decided to write this article. I hope this is helpful to you.

What is a game designer?
More so than any other discipline in the video game industry, the game designer is the most outwardly glamorous position. You are the linchpin that holds animation, art, and programming together. There are a great number of rewards for being a game designer, you get to see your ideas and creations take shape and come to life on the screen, your work gets seen by a lot of people, there is no dress code and work hours are usually very flexible. Since I love games and presumably you do too, you get to work in an industry that creates things that you love and is your favorite hobby.

Being a successful game designer is not without sacrifices. Despite the EA spouse letter, the industry as a whole is still terrible at work-life balance. You can expect to put in a staggering number of hours. Also, since most full-time workers are on salary, you will not be paid for overtime. I am not complaining about this, only that this is information that you should have before you commit to a career in game design. As a game designer I usually put in 50-hour weeks and this ramps up dramatically before monthly milestone deadlines and the inevitable crunch period that occurs before a game ships. The crunch period starts up to six months out from a game shipping. During this time you can expect to be putting in 12+ hour days 6 or 7 days a week up until the game ships. I have been in some really bad crunches where I was averaging over a hundred hours every week for months at a time without a break.

If the above warnings have not deterred you and you have decided you still want to be a game designer, your next question is probably “how do you become a game designer”.

Work ethic
You will need drive and determination. Game design positions are extremely competitive. Getting in requires an unquenchable desire, dedication and the ability to keep going despite setbacks. Only those of you willing to claw, kick and scream will make it. In order to get the drive necessary to succeed you should first answer for yourself the question of “why you want to become a game designer”. Your answer to this question should be something so strong that you can cling on to it in your bleakest hours and it will keep you hungry to succeed. Once you have the answer to this question, you will have the reason for all the hard work you are about to put in to be able to overcome any obstacles in your way.

Now that you have the proper mindset and work ethic required, we can start talking about how to best direct your work with the goal of obtaining a job as a video game designer.

Find a company to apply to
The next question you should ask yourself is what genre of game would you like to make? Select a genre or genres of games that you are drawn to, are knowledgeable about and enjoy playing and then find out and list all the companies that make these types of games.

The gaming industry as a whole is heavily situated in a few areas in the United States. If you are not currently residing in one of these areas, you must be willing to relocate to get the jobs. Some of the places in the United States with the most densely populated game studios are Southern California, Seattle Washington, Austin Texas and San Francisco California. Again, you will want to focus on the companies that specialize in the genre of game that you want to work in. Do not apply to a studio that makes first-person shooters hoping to work on a real-time-strategy game.

Once you have a list of studios, learn about their previous titles, the history of their company, the names of the founders, how their stock is doing, etc…

Although you do not technically need a degree, I have found a rounded education to be very valuable. To be a successful game designer you will need a broad education. In fact, I became a game designer because it is one of the few professions that allowed me to apply my diverse interests in writing, history, movies and games in one job. If you are self-motivated to constantly learn about a broad range of topics and expose yourself to new things, you will be able to get by without a degree.

Needless to say you will need to play games. A lot of games. As a video game designer you should have an encyclopedic knowledge of games from all genres. Do not only play games that recently came out that received high marks, but go back and play older and lower reviewed games. As you play these games, write about why they are fun, what they did to promote replayability, what was not fun, what would you do differently to make a better game, what mechanics influenced the level design, how did the enemy and weapon placement affect the way you played the game, study the weapon balance, controls, interface, pacing, audio, etc.

Learn how to communicate effectively both written and orally. A major part of a game designer’s job is to communicate the design vision to their team. To do this effectively you will need to have good social and communication skills. These are skills that you will want to place an emphasis on to practice and develop if you do not already possess them.

Read books
Read everything that you can get your hands on about storytelling, game design and the process of game development. In subsequent articles I will be covering specific books in my book review section, but here is a list to get you started.

Read part 2 of Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know

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Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 2

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

<-Go back to Part 1 of Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know

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:

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.

Programming/Scripting Language
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++.

Microsoft Office
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.

Quality Assurance
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.

<-Go back to Part 1 of Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know

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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