Characteristics of Successful Game Designers [12.23.08]
- Lewis Pulsipher
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."
-- Mark Twain
"Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
-- Calvin Coolidge
Game designers must have a productive orientation in life. Game design is not something you turn on and turn off daily -- it's something that must be with you all the time, that you must make an effort to pursue. Persistence is more important than "creativity."
Many novelists write all their adult lives, even from childhood. Most game designers design games from an early age, just as most artists draw from an early age. But some come to it late and are still good at it. Most of the people who write novels or design published board and card games have another full-time job. For example, the once-prolific science-fiction and fantasy novelist Glen Cook never gave up his General Motors assembly line job. He wrote during his commute.
Moonlighting is much less common in the video game industry, which is where most full-time designers work for a particular game development studio.
But many people involved in publishing non-electronic games work part-time, relying on a "day job" for their living. Most game publishers, even in video games, originated as self-publishers, distributing the "dream game" of the people who founded the company.
"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't." Anatole France
If you read good advice about breaking into the game industry, that advice will include "read as much as you can" and "educate yourself as much as possible," even as the advisors suggest that a bachelor's degree is a good idea. For example, everyone interested in "breaking in" should read the wealth of advice on Tom Sloper's web site and his monthly IGDA column. I've used a book by Ernest Adams, Break into the Game Industry, now a bit long in the tooth (2002), but still available. His advice is well worth reading -- especially about getting a job and how to keep a job -- and amounts to the same as Sloper's.
In general, game designers must have an "educated" attitude, even if they have no more formal learning than a high school diploma. I'm not talking about the classic idea of the "well-educated" person, which relates to particular things like knowledge of the Classics. Let me hasten to say that "educated" refers to an attitude, not a degree earned.
Fortunately, the game industry does not yet have the "degree-itis" that is invading all walks of American life, as though the only way you can learn something is to get a degree in it. The video game industry is still a meritocracy, where you are valued and hired for what you can do and what you can create.
There are people with legitimate PhDs who could be called uneducated (though this is unlikely). There are certainly many people holding bachelor degrees who are essentially uneducated. And there are 17 and 18 and 19 year-olds who clearly are educated people, though they haven't had the time to accumulate a wealth of experience and knowledge that is associated with being educated.
So "educated" doesn't necessarily imply a specific academic degree. It implies a certain attitude toward life. It's this educated attitude that game companies want and need to succeed.
What makes someone "educated?" An educated person wants to know and will make an effort to find out things. An uneducated person tends not to bother. Here's a simple example. An educated person, confronted with a word he doesn't know, is likely to look it up. He wants to improve his understanding (of language, of the world). An uneducated person isn't going to bother.
Further, an educated person teaches himself or herself when necessary, from books or otherwise, rather than wait for a class. The uneducated ones will frequently whine, "I haven't been to training for that." Not surprisingly, educated people tend to read a lot, and uneducated ones don't.
In my classes I assign students the "task" of maintaining a notebook or other "data store" in which they record game-related ideas as they get them. It's a habit they should get into on their own, and I try to teach attitudes more than "facts." The "uneducated" attitudes surface quickly, with students asking, "How much do I have to include in this?" The student wants to know the minimum, rather than take the educated attitude that this is something he should do anyway, that is worth doing, and he should put some time into it.
Educated people like to use their brains in top gear; uneducated people prefer to run in idle or first gear. The old-fashioned "thirst for knowledge" is what I'm talking about. This is part of a productive orientation. Designers can't be people who "kill time," who do "just enough to get by." They must be people who want to be productive whenever they can, not whenever they are forced to be.