Author Topic: How Do You Become a Game Designer?  (Read 2713 times)

Jon Shafer

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How Do You Become a Game Designer?
« on: April 30, 2013, 10:53:53 AM »

Game design: it's like being a rock star, only... with a computer.

In a recent interview I was asked some questions regarding how and why I became a game designer. I've reposted it here, in hopes that it proves helpful for anyone out there thinking about pursuing a career in this field. Design is an amazing line of work and I wouldn't want to do anything else - but I've been very lucky and it's not all roses and puppy dogs.

What made you want to become a game designer?

I've been designing games for as long as I can remember. I started programming simple games back when I was 8, moved on to more complex ones (that I never finished) by the time I was 12, and in high school I spent much of my free time creating detailed mods for strategy games like Civilization 3 and Paradox's Hearts of Iron. By the time I could really consider what I wanted to do for a living, I'd already been doing this kind of work for a decade!

Another factor in me gravitating towards games, both for entertainment and as a creator, was an early interest in history. My mother was a teacher and we always had a bunch of history books around. I particularly grew fond of historical atlases, and it was a fairly natural transition over from this to light PC wargames like SSI's Panzer General.

Was there anyone who inspired you to pursue this career?

There was no industry giant I looked to and said, "Yes, that's what I have to do!" Honestly, I didn't realize there was even a games "industry" until the late 90s, and my exposure to games up to that point was limited to CompuServe shareware and the small rack of games at the local computer store.

My father was the reason I learned to program at such a young age. He'd always wanted to develop games back in the early 80s when he was younger, but instead ended up coding professional flight training software for United Airlines (for 30 years!). To entertain me he'd create basic programs of things like digging tractors, really more toys than games. He taught me some of the basics and would answer questions or help fix problems when I got stuck.

This got me started down the path, but it took me a very long time to actually learn the craft of design. Up until the past few years I'd say I was more fumbling around than truly understanding what I was doing. It's a field where there's truly no substitute for experience.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

The big one is always getting into the industry. A vast number of people want to get into games - most of them without knowing what such a career involves. You have to stand out from the crowd if you hope to break in, and this is especially true with game design. It's much easier to show that you're a good artist, or that you're capable of programming an engine on your own than it is to demonstrate understanding of mechanics, feel and flow in real-world situations. Because of this, design positions typically go to those with seniority who have shown an interest and aptitude for design. It was not my "skills" as a designer, but my knowledge of programming that served as my gateway into the industry.

The other challenge I hinted at earlier is how hard it is to actually get good at design. Everyone thinks they know how to build a fun game, but reaching the point where you can do so capably and reliably really takes time, making mistakes and learning from them. I've been fortunate to have worked with great people that gave me a long leash to grow into the developer I am today.

Do you enjoy the career you have chosen? How long do you intend to stick with it?

I love making games and can't imagine doing anything else for as long as I have to continue "working." I've had incredible and enviable opportunities though - I own and run my own development studio and have the ability to work on whatever I want every day. Not everyone is quite so lucky!

What do you enjoy most about working as a game designer?

A huge part of this job is solving problems, and that's probably what I like most about it. Many people mistakenly believe that being a designer is about coming up with ideas. That is the privilege granted to a handful of very senior devs (and only occasionally), but the majority of design is being directed towards a chunk of work - and instructed to find a way to make it fun. This involves brainstorming, trial and error and learning new things.

Additionally, because my company is so small I must wear a wide variety of hats. It's not typical, but I'm actually designing our games from the ground up, entirely by myself. This allows me to jump from one task to another as need and mood dictate. What I'm working on week-to-week and often day-to-day is always changing, which is often daunting but always rewarding.

Are there any specific tips you can give to those thinking about game design?

Something I often tell people is that if they aren't completely confident this is the line of work for them then they should steer clear. Making games sounds glamorous and is considered by many to be a dream job, but it's really just that - a job.

You're being (under)paid by someone else to do what they need done. The fun stuff is likely being done either by the people paying the bills or those who were there on day 1. Most devs work at large companies on projects they're not particularly excited about, often work frequent overtime, and live with the risk of being laid off at any time. The average length of a game "career" is only 5 years - an absolutely tiny amount of time compared with other industries. A large percentage of people I know in this business... are not happy.

In other words, if you're not already spending all of your free time making games or mods, this probably isn't the line of work for you.

That having been said, for those who do live, breathe and die games development, this is the best career you could have. It's exhausting, frustrating and not nearly as sexy as it seems from the outside, but if you can find a cozy corner of it to call your own - you'll never be happier.

What would you do if you couldn't be a game designer?

Game design has basically been the path I've walked my entire life, so that's a tough question. I briefly considered joining the military and spent a year of college in ROTC (partially motivated by my long-running interest in military history), but that was only a fleeting flirtation.

If I had to leave games behind, I'd probably switch over to a UX/UI (user experience/user interface) role at a tech company like Apple or Google. A big part of making games is crafting the player experience, and good designers spend a lot of time thinking about what it's actually like to play the game. This might sound obvious, but it's easy to lose the forest for the trees when you're working on a project for years, lack the capacity to play it "just for fun," and can't ever know what it's like to come in completely fresh.

Since I've mainly developed strategy titles up to this point, user interface is particularly near and dear to my heart. There are typically a multitude of buttons and text to stick somewhere, and you want to organize it in such a way that it's not impossible for someone to jump in for the first time. A UI position at a big tech company with the time and resources do to things right seems like it might be fun.

Do you need a degree or education to be a designer?

I have a bachelor's in history. I studied computer science for a couple years as well and at one time had the intention of majoring in both. I ended up leaving school early when I had the opportunity to participate in a programming internship at Firaxis. While still working, I re-enrolled in a Maryland university a year or two later and on the side finished up my history degree.

I'm often asked what the best education is for a designer. There are basically two approaches that can be taken.

The first is to focus on programming and get a comp sci degree, and leverage this skillset to wedge your way first into the business, and then later into design. As I noted above, very few people are hired right out of college as designers, and most have earned that position by only after transitioning over from another role. Programming allows you to create something tangible that you can show off to prospective employers. Additionally, the importance of problem solving is shared with game design, so it's a good primer as to the sorts of high-level thinking you'll need to do. If I didn't know how to program, my path into games would have been much, much harder and very different.

The other non-technical approach is to focus heavy on design and try to diversify your experience as much as possible. With this route, the exact degree you get isn't important, so it's mainly about broadening your horizons. History, psychology and philosophy are all great subjects that can really inspire the out-of-the-box thinking that characterizes successful designers. However, without the ability to program you'll face an uphill battle just getting a job. If you don't have any kind of degree that's a second strike against you, and at that point you'll have to be distinctly spectacular in some other way just to get an interview.

If someone truly wants into this industry, the best way to set oneself apart is to spend as much time as possible doing what game developers actually do. Program simple games or engines, create pen-and-paper or cardboard game prototypes, or - best of all - make mods for existing games using the same tools as professional developers. Companies want to hire individuals who they know can produce useful work right off the bat. If you have "potential" or "ideas" but no hands-on experience, then you have no advantage over the hundreds of other people aiming to be hired for the same job. Think about it... if you were hiring someone and investing a huge amount of your own time and money in them what would you want?

How long have you been working in games?

As of May 2013, I've been in the business for a little over 8 years now.

Where do you work and what is your official title?

I am the president and owner of Conifer Games.
If you have any questions, please send me a private message here on the forums or an email at []. Thanks for your support!