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  • The Pitfall Of Game Design As An Entry-Level Career Choice

    [02.09.12]
    - Jacob Stevens

  • Don't Worry, You Can Still Learn Design!

    One concern that one of my aspiring designer friends has is that mastering another skill, like programming, will detract from learning design. All the time you spend learning to write code is time you aren't spending learning how to design games, right?

    Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth! First of all, any time you are making art or programming, you are also designing. This is true whether or not design is your official role on a team. A game design document, no matter how thorough, leaves oceans of room for interpretation, and therefore large amounts of design are left up to the individual performing the implementation.

    Additionally, it is imperative that you supplement your formal training with outside game development activities. As soon as you are at least somewhat competent in your chosen skill, you should be working toward forming a small team to produce projects with. The team should be small enough that everyone will act as a designer in some way. These kinds of projects are an essential way to gain design experience, even if design isn't the focus of your education.


    You Don't Have to Take My Word for it

    I challenge you to ask anyone you know who has focused their education on game design whether or not they were actually able to make a career out of game design straight out of college. I have a good friend who has a degree in design from a major technical school, and he says that he doesn't know anybody with his degree that was hired as a designer. Additionally, ask anyone you know who works in the industry whether their team is looking for entry-level, "pure" designers with no other skills. I have a feeling that their answers, frustratingly, will align with what I'm telling you.

    I am not claiming that entry-level jobs for designers don't exist at all, but I'm confident that your odds of getting in the door are an order of magnitude higher as an artist or programmer. Additionally, your prospects of rising to the top as a designer are much better if you have a production skill that you can leverage to show off your talent.

    What if I'm No Good at Art or Programming?

    Another argument I commonly hear is that someone isn't a good artist, or isn't interested in programming, but still has a lot of great game ideas. I'm sorry, but that's a poor excuse. That is like an architect saying they don't want to learn about building materials, or a chef not wanting to learn to chop onions. Art and programming (along with a few other disciplines that I'll mention later) are the core elements of games, and if you aren't interested in them, you really can't say you're interested in making games at all.

    But take heart: Nobody is good at something until they practice. You might not be a great artist or programmer now but there is nothing stopping you from acquiring these skills. Mastery will take time-a lot of time-but that's the reality in any competitive industry.

    What About Music, Writing, Sound Design, etc?

    So far I've emphasized art and programming as the two most reliable ways to break into the industry and eventually become a designer. There are of course other disciplines vital to game development, including music composition, sound design, writing, producing, etc.

    These are certainly viable ways to get into games if they are where your strengths lie. However, as with game designers, there are many fewer musician and writers and sound effects designers on a team compared to visual artists and programmers. Consequently, while I do see these skills as somewhat more hire-able, expect lots of competition for few openings if you go this route. (As an aside, I should mention that I get more unsolicited resumes for music composers than all other disciplines combined. That leads me to believe that the supply of composers far exceeds demand in the industry.)

    The Good News

    My intention with this article is not to dishearten or frustrate anyone. I am especially conscious that many readers might be enrolled in an educational program that emphasizes design. What I'm telling you probably does not sound especially encouraging. It's true; I believe that a game design degree, on its own, is likely to leave you frustrated.

    My point, however, is an optimistic one: If you learn game design, along with a tangible production skill, you can increase your odds of success by an order of magnitude. Not only will you be substantially more hire-able (both inside and outside the game industry), but your design skills will improve tremendously, you'll contribute more, and you'll be able to back up your designs with production experience.

    Most importantly, you will have earned the ability to act on your designs by bringing them into reality, rather than limiting them to the realm of ideas, which is infinitely more fulfilling.

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