Student Illusions About Being a Game Designer

By Lewis Pulsipher [05.07.09]

 Here is a list of illusions and delusions of beginning game development (especially game design) students, with a brief description of why it isn't so.

Briefly, what this list amounts to is, "Grow up and recognize what life is like, kid."

Wildly unrealistic expectations are usually a characteristic of immature people. Yes, you can dream, but dreams require a lot of work to fulfill.

They'll design a game and someone else will do all the work.
It's all creativity instead of work.

Game design can be fun, it can be creative, but it's also work. Thinking is work. Writing clear descriptions of what you've thought is work, figuring out the results of testing and how to improve the game is work. The great inventor Thomas Edison is supposed to have said that success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, a statement that certainly applies here.

Ideas will just come to them, floating in out of the ether -- and that one idea is all they need

Quality of ideas -- of the best ones -- tends to be proportional to quantity. You need lots of ideas to get some decent ones. And in the end, it's the execution of an idea that is most important.

AAA list games can be produced easily

These games are the results of many man-years of work, and of budgets running to $20 million and beyond. A student group of any size, even if they have as much talent as successful professional game developers, would take thousands of semesters to produce a AAA list game.

They'll play games all day in the job.
It matters that they're expert game players.

Even game magazine editors cannot play all day. Playing games is important, but that's not something you'll do much on the job. Game playing expertise is virtually irrelevant.

They'll be able to design what they want.

This is not the way it works in the industry, where design is very collaborative, even on smaller "casual" games. Even the most successful designers, such as Sid Meier, sometimes must satisfy publishers who are funding their efforts. Typically, you'll be told to work on a particular design problem, and won't be able to do your own thing.

They're going to have a big effect on a AAA game soon after getting a job.

One industry veteran who works on small games said he isn't excited at the thought of working on a huge game, such as Madden football, and then being able to say he had something to do with how the football flies! The bigger the game, the smaller your part in it. When the game involves more than a hundred man-years of effort, your work for even a year amounts to less than one percent of the whole.

Getting a degree is going to get them a job.

They can do just what's in the curriculum, and without any additional effort, they will have 100% of what it takes to succeed.

A degree differentiates you from the thousands who want to work in the industry but haven't taken the time to do much about it. Still, students have to show what they can do, the degree alone doesn't count for much yet. That means students need to be as fanatical about preparing themselves for a game industry job as they're fanatical about playing video games. There are dozens of times as many industry wannabes as there are jobs available. Only those who prepare themselves fully will get the jobs.

If they just make a game that includes all the currently-popular elements (a market-driven game), theirs will be instantly popular.

No, this usually leads to a soul-less, unsuccessful game.

They're going to be able to assemble a development team without salaries and get things done on schedule with the promise of royalties once the game goes commercial. (Though at least this happens every once in a while.)

Even where developers are well-paid full-time employees, games usually fall behind schedule. Start-up companies with good funding often fail. These folks are as dedicated and fanatical as you. What makes you different? You may succeed if you do the right things, but this is rarely an avenue into the game industry.

 They'll start their career working in the position they want to achieve in the long run.

As with most industries, you have to "pay your dues" to get where you want to go. There's also a "pyramid effect" here, the most desirable jobs are near the top of the pyramid where there are fewer jobs, the less desirable ones are near the bottom where there are many more jobs.

Think the college curriculum is an extension of high school and act as such.

A good college is nothing like a typical high school. Most high schools are now training institutions, and not even good at that. You memorize what you need to regurgitate on the End of Class test, and that's about it. College is (or should be) an educational institution, you need to understand why things work as they do so that you can cope with something you haven't encountered or solved before.

Moreover, you are responsible for your education in college-you are an adult. No one will hold your hand constantly. You have an opportunity to learn a lot, but YOU must do it.

They will only work on hard core games,

The hard core is a relatively small part of the market, and the most demanding part. It's easy to underestimate the number of casual game players. Any very successful game must appeal to the casual players. Most video games are not designed for the hard core.

Work will always be fun and they will always enjoy playing the game they create at the end.

Work will often be fun. If they play the game enough, they'll get sick of it. In fact, by the end of the production process, they're quite likely to be sick and tired of "screwing around with that game". But they'll enjoy seeing it for sale.

They will never make a game that gets canceled.

The preponderance of games that are started are canceled before they're finished. An important quality of success in the industry is recognizing when a game "isn't clicking". But games are often canceled for reasons other than quality, such as funding, loss of employees, corporate takeovers or other business failures, and changes in the market.

Testing is only about playing games.

Testing is serious work; you have to write up results, contribute to bug databases, etc. If you test one game long enough, you'll come to dislike the game no matter how good it is.

They can sneer at and ignore non-AAA titles as though there was something wrong with them and they'd never need to work on such a thing

Given the increasing budgets for AAA titles, the majority of people working on games are not working on AAA games. The studios working on AAA games have few entry-level positions-why risk a lot of money on inexperienced people? Do the math.

It will be easy. There's always an Easy Button, isn't there?

No. If you want an easy job, look for something else. If you want a fun job, look here.

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, was described in a recent "Armchair General" online review as "one of the great titles in the world of games."

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