Entry-Level Video Game Designers

By Jill Duffy [04.15.08]

 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."

 The Job Hunt
I asked him to explain his process of applying for jobs. "Unfortunately," he said, "I wasn't being very intelligent. I was focusing too much on my thesis that I didn't start job hunting until two weeks before graduation."

He looked for job openings online mostly at sites such as Gamasutra.com and Creativeheads.net. "I was really searching the job posts, doing that a lot, but also looking at companies that I respect and admire and sending my resume directly to them."

The hunt finally rewarded him with a few phone interviews, one with a company in California and a few others with developers in Canada. Beginning in autumn, about five months after he started applying for jobs, Kilgore finally received a few invitations for on-site interviews.

Kilgore was lucky to have interviews lined up in September and October because "everything kind of shuts down in December," he said. Two of the companies wanting to interview him were within driving distance, while two others required getting on a plane, which the companies paid for.

Seeing as the interview at High Voltage was the one that ultimately resulted in his first job, I asked Kilgore to explain in some detail how the interview process went.

First, he had one full phone interview and one "half" phone interview with designers at the company. They emailed him questions, such as "What games do you play?" and "What are you looking for in a company?" Kilgore said of his answers, "Apparently, I matched their profile."

When asked what he focused on in his English studies, he responded, "Unfortunately, technical writing." Luckily, one of the interviewers snapped back with, "Hey! That's what my focus was." Overall, the interview went well enough.

Then High Voltage suddenly went silent. "They never got back to me for four weeks, and I just started calling like every other day," Kilgore told me. Eventually, he got a hold of the creative director and had a "half" interview. He was told to email the creative director every month or two to keep in touch, which he did. But the company still never made an offer.

January rolled around, and High Voltage suddenly called Kilgore "out of the blue," saying they'd like to fly him to Chicago and have a face-to-face interview.

"I interviewed with a producer, a lead designer, and the creative director, and was offered a job on site."

During the interview, Kilgore said he was asked, "How do you work?" High Voltage deals a lot with publishers, he explained, so the company wanted to gauge how well he would get along with those kinds of authoritative figure. They also asked, "How would you manage to get your ideas through without fighting the publisher?"

In Kilgore's answer, he said, "If people have a reason why ... my question is always ‘Why?' ... If people have a good enough reason, then that's fine, and [I'm willing to] work from there. If you give me a good reason, I'll believe you and I'll try to convince you of my ideas. Everything is a compromise."

In the Office
Right now, as a relatively new designer on the team, Kilgore isn't having sit-downs with the publisher just yet. He works more with producers and lead designers. "It's definitely interesting because some of the other designers I'm working with come out of ‘trade schools,' so we definitely have a different flavor of how a game should or should not work," he said.

Although he's been on the job a few months, Kilgore is still learning the ropes. "I still feel like I'm a student," he said. He also doesn't have a strong handle yet on the big picture of how production works. "All the leads are in one room... which makes sense, but at the same time, I'm a designer. I'm in a [different] room somewhere, and I would like to know the process with the artists [and other departments] ... learning the flow of how it's ‘correctly' done."

I asked him to tell me something he found surprising about working in a professional game development studio, something he hadn't expected about it. "There's actually females here!" he said. "Not a whole lot, but more than I expected."

 Advice for Aspiring Game Designers
Seeing as Kilgore is not even a year out of university, he has clear insight into what it means to be an aspiring game designer fresh out of school. His advice is, "Keep working on your own stuff. Don't let your skills fall away. Definitely definitely be persevering."

Though artists and programmer generally know what it means to "persevere" (keep drawing, keep learning programming languages), aspiring designers don't always know exactly what they should be persevering at. Kilgore's advice is twofold: "Designers should be reading and designing puzzles." By puzzles, he means adventure game puzzles and level designs, as long as it relates to "what you want to be doing." Kilgore believes this is the way to effectively build up a design portfolio, but the work must be constantly outpouring. "Designers should also research games as a whole: card games, board games, video games, etcetera. Just because a game is not a video game, doesn't mean its principals can't work in video games," he said. "The industry is constantly moving forward, and if you're being stagnant, you're going to be left behind."

It's just as important to recognize what you can and cannot do as a designer. "My skill set only allows me to do so much," said Kilgore. Designers need other people to make projects happen, and that's just as true at the college level of game development as it is as the professional level.

I asked Kilgore how he had gotten his game projects going in college. Kilgore said he relied somewhat on the people he knew. He suggests connecting with people who are writers, attending club meetings related to games, and taking an active recruitment approach.

"Outside of college it was very different. I relied on .... Well, I'd ask my friends, really. As soon as you find one [person], you've already kind of started something. The hardest part is finding that first one."

If you have the opportunity to make to a game developers conference, go! The experience not only provides you with networking options but gives you an invaluable insight into the inner workings of the industry.

When an aspiring entry-level game designer finally does get an interview, Kilgore says it's crucial to keep in touch with the company and the interviewers. Keep talking to them, he says, and ask what you can do now that would make you be someone they'd want to hire in the future. Kilgore used this tactic when he was interviewing, and it resulted in that company flying him to its offices for an on-site interview.

Most importantly, and regardless of whatever position you are applying for, be passionate. If you're uncomfortable with a company's games or people, don't work there. Games are fun, and making games should be fun too.

Chad Kilgore's Recommended Resources
Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, by Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams.
Game Design Theory and Practice, by Richard Rouse III.
A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster (recommended for parents of aspiring game designers, too).

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