A few weeks ago, I received an email from Chad Kilgore. He introduced himself as a game designer and said he was upset at the fact that aspiring game designers are often told they can't get into the profession at entry-level. He said he got his game design job straight out of college, and that there are indeed many others just like him.
It's only in the past year or two that I've heard of more and more designers getting into the field without prior work experience in the game industry. However, even just three years ago, I really did hear over and over again that anyone who wanted to become a game designer ought to start out somewhere else, perhaps in the quality assurance department or even as a programmer.
I can't really put my finger on what's changed. I suppose partly, it's that more people have a better understanding of what "game designer" actually means (it means quite a lot of things; see "Types of Game Designers"). Back in the days when my industry contacts would say one can't being one's career as a game designer, I think they what they meant was: One can't (or shouldn't expect) to start a career as a lead game designer at a well-known company, getting paid to envision and dictate to the team one's dream idea for a video game. That job doesn't really exist anyway.
In a reply email that I sent to Chad Kilgore, I asked if we could have a little chat. I wanted to know in more detail what it really means to get an entry-level job as a game designer, as Chad said he had done.
We set a date for a phone call.
In Conversation With an Entry-Level Game Designer
Kilgore works at High Voltage Software in Illinois as a game designer. It's his first job in the game industry. On the phone, he sounded slightly nervous, backtracking several times over his own words -- very unlike the confident and fervent tone of his email, where he nearly pleaded that I clarify to the community that you can indeed start a game development career as a designer. I mention this about Kilgore to illustrate that he's a typical person, nervous and all, not some suave superstar looking for a little free publicity.
He went to school at Iowa State University and spent six years there, completing both his undergraduate and graduate studies. He had a double major in computer science and English as an undergrad, with a minor in philosophy. The following two years he spent in the human computer interactions master's program.
While in the human computer interaction department, Kilgore helped build, and was a teaching assistance for, the game design and development course that the department then offered. Already, his academic pedigree made it sound like he was the kind of person the game industry might one day hire. Between studying English, computer science, philosophy, and human computer interactions, Kilgore had developed a unique perspective and skill set: He has a strong technological background, but also has advanced analytical thinking and writing skills.
When I asked him what he thought stood out on his resume, he immediately pointed to his diverse education. "I think it's because I was between disciplines and worlds."