[Jacob Stevens, the owner of Riverman Media, offers home helpful tips for breaking into the industry, noting why a design job might not be the right fit for a fledgling developer.]
When I was a senior in high school, my math teacher, never one to hold back a nugget of wisdom, had a few departing words for us. "Every girl in my class wants to be a marine biologist, and every guy wants to make video games. So you're all going to have to keep learning math!" He was exaggerating of course-I knew several girls who weren't interested in marine biology-but his point was well-taken: behind every glamorous and desirable career choice lies a hard-earned, but slightly less enchanting, technical skill.
Fast forward about a decade, and I find myself compelled to dispense similar advice. As one of just a handful of developers in my hometown, I am frequently asked how to "get into game design." Indeed, it is rare to discuss my career with anyone (including non-gamers) without them proposing a game concept to me.
Thus, it makes sense that many people, especially high school and college students, conceive game design to be an ideal career choice. However, my observations have led me to the conclusion that a premature focus on game design greatly limits one's probability of becoming a designer later in one's career.
Therefore, if your intention is to eventually become a designer, I strongly suggest that you acquire a technical skill such as programming or art production, alongside pursuing independent projects that will give you design experience.
In this article, I will examine several perspectives that support this claim:
- Entry-level positions for designers are rare. Designers earn their positions by first excelling at other work.
- Proportionately, most of the effort that goes into a game is invested in art and programming. You will be able to contribute more if you know one of these skills.
- Good designers must have a deep understanding of art and technology, so it makes sense to develop firsthand understanding of these fields.
- Learning art or programming does not mean you have to forego learning design. In fact, you will learn design faster if you are focusing on a production skill at the same time.
A Few Disclaimers
Before I continue, I should qualify my arguments with a few disclaimers.
First, in case there is any doubt, I consider game design to be the most important job on the development team. It is the designer's job to hook players with a compelling premise, make sure play elements are balanced and intuitive, keep players entertained with depth and variety, and to help solve all the little hiccups that occur during the development cycle. It is because of the designer's unique and pivotal role that I have come to the conclusions drawn throughout this article.
Second, I should also add that my arguments are based purely on my own unique set of observations. My industry experience comes from three work scenarios: 1) Twelve years of creating games independently, seven professionally. 2) Working as a contract artist for Wayforward, a California-based company specializing in Nintendo handhelds, and 3) As a lead user interface designer for IBM (U.I. design being the "serious" equivalent of game design.) One perspective I am admittedly lacking is that of working for a large studio that produces big-budget, triple-A titles.
Boost Your Odds of Getting Hired
My work experience brings me to my first point: in all my time in the industry, working on at least a dozen published titles, I have not once witnessed the hiring of an entry-level designer. Entry-level positions for designers are rare because the job of designer is usually earned through outstanding contribution as a team-member, or created when someone founds their own studio.
At Wayforward, I noticed that directors (who were in charge of design) typically rose up the ranks as animators, since great animation is their company specialty. At IBM, although there were a few "pure" designers with advanced degrees in human factors, most of the designers started as either coders or graphic designers, and the ones that didn't were hired later in their careers. Finally, small indie teams often don't hire at all, and when they do, they are rarely looking for designers, as this job is generally performed as a group or covered by one of the team's founders.
Additionally, I should point out that it is very difficult to prove, straight out of school, that you are a good designer. Artists have portfolios, and programmers have working code, but I have never been sent a resume from a designer with any tangible work to evaluate. This is one of the reasons that designers are typically raised from within a company instead of hired cold.
Another consideration is that of having a fallback plan. I hate to break the bad news, but not everyone who wants to make games for a living lands a job right away. Programmers and graphic designers will have a much, much, much easier time finding good jobs outside the game industry than someone trained in game design.
A Little Design Goes a Long Way
The second reason not to choose game design as an early career path is one of simple proportions: the total number of person-hours spent designing a game is miniscule compared to the number of hours that it will take to execute the design and turn it into a sell-able product.
A day of designing can easily create a month of work for the rest of the team. I've been on both the giving and receiving ends of this equation! A game as simple as my studio's Cash Cow, which was essentially just a matching game, was designed in a very short amount of time, but took years to implement in its current incarnation. You will be much more able to contribute, and much more valued as a team member, if you are productive in other ways.
Good Game Designers Must Understand Art and Technology
Let's face it: games are driven by art and technology. The merging of visuals, audio, and computers is the essence of games, and is what differentiates them from other art forms. It is hard to think of a critical or commercial success that isn't both artistically and technically competent, and in many cases even groundbreaking.
Solid technology and stunning visuals are not elements that are injected after a game has been designed. These cornerstone elements must be deeply integrated into the design from the beginning.
Therefore, it is absolutely essential that designers have a fundamental understanding of art, programming, audio, storytelling, and all the other components that comprise games. Experience in these fields can either be gained by working with people who fill these roles, or as someone who fills these roles. Indeed, firsthand knowledge of all these disciplines is unlikely. Nonetheless, experiential understanding beats cursory theoretical knowledge by a long shot, and therefore aspiring designers would do well to cultivate a deep understanding of at least one of these fields.
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.