How did you become a designer? Can you tell us about the career path you took?
Chris Avellone: At age 9, I was playing an exciting game of boomerang baseball (catch-return-catch) with one of the kids in the neighborhood when he told me about some bizarre game of pretend with rules, called D&D. This was shortly followed by seeing another friend playing Bard's Tale 2 on his Commodore 64, which solved the problem of wanting to play D&D without having anyone to play with. So I designed dungeon after dungeon [and] sent a lot of crappy submissions to Dragon magazine, Palladium, and GURPS that were sent back with dismissive form letters. Eventually, I wore down the patience of some Hero Games guys and wrote some pen-and-paper Champions supplements for them. The pay was pretty lousy (when it happened at all) and didn't do much for a feeling of security in the grand scheme of things, so I asked the editors if they heard of any "real" jobs in gaming, to let me know.
One of the editors was in touch with Mark O'Green, who was head of Interplay's Dragonplay division, so I went out to interview with him. Mark asked me some hard questions (the answers for which ended up becoming the basis for Torment), but in the end, he figured I was worth a junior designer salary. So I took the job at Interplay and drove cross-country to begin my computer game designer career at Interplay Productions. From there, I worked on most of the Black Isle titles until leaving to help form Obsidian Entertainment.
So the short of it was, I was doing freelance game design for a while, did some pen-and-paper supplements, then used that to get a job in computer game design. It wasn't a bad way to go, but it's not the easiest.
Cliff Bleszinski: No one just falls into the position. You claw, kick and scream and push your way into it. Most designers start off as programmers or artists. They understand gameplay systems; they live and breathe games. From my perspective, I was making my own games, programming them, doing all the artwork, the production, level design, and everything because I didn't have anybody else to do it for me. That background helped give me the perspective it takes to pull a product together and have a creative vision for it. Being a designer is about having a creative vision and adhering to it.
Ken Levine: I had always been a gamer. But I became a game designer pretty much by accident. I started my career as a screenwriter, rewriting a really terrible script for Paramount when I was just out of college. That career didn't last very long... If you want to get a good idea of how the industry works, observe Jeremy Piven's agent character on Entourage. It makes the games industry look like a church picnic.
I bummed around during most of my 20s doing a wide range of things. I was a computer consultant, a graphic designer, a magazine writer, a playwright. You name it. And then I got hit by the "I'm almost 30!" panic and decided I needed to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.
"I was making my own games, programming them, doing all the artwork, the production, level design, and everything because I didn't have anybody else to do it for me."-- Cliff Bleszinski
I noticed an ad for game designers in an issue of Next Gen magazine at Looking Glass, the company that had made two of my favorite games of all time: Ultima Underworld and System Shock. I answered the ad, and around a week or two later, got invited to fly up to Boston to interview. I got hired around a week later. My guess is they were unduly impressed by my brief flirtation with Hollywood, as this was back in '95, during the whole Hollywood/video game/full-motion-video fiasco.
Akira Yamaoka: I joined this industry as a sound designer. Before video games, I worked on other sound-/music-related projects. I thought that working as an employee for a corporation would be good experience, because even if you were to work as an independent sound designer, your clients would be corporations. So that's why I joined Konami. Now that I have gained experience, it may be time for me to move on. :-)
A lot of people think they want to be game designers but don't have much of an idea about what the work entails. What exactly does a game designer do? Tell us about the job, both in a general sense and on a day-to-day level.
Avellone: The duties of a designer vary from project to project and from game genre to genre. I can tell you what Obsidian designers do on a day-to-day basis, but even that varies depending on the month and milestone. Keep in mind there are a lot of different types of designers (systems, level builders, technical designers, writers, area designers, lead designers, etc.).
As designers on Neverwinter Nights 2, the job is to take the chunks given out by the lead designer (Ferret Baudoin) and flesh them out. This generally involves doing a lot of area overview work, drawing maps on paper or in Photoshop, writing all the dialogues and quests, making creature lists for the areas, placing objects and critters, building levels in the editor, and proofreading/play-testing each other's work. You also do a lot of jumping up and down on implemented designs to see what breaks. If you've ever done a NWN module of your own, then you'll understand what we do on a day-to-day basis firsthand.
As lead designer on Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, I was responsible for keeping the vision for the game, the game mechanics and the "fun" of the game [and] the overall story (and any specific elements about the game designed to propel the overall story, such as companions, key locations, etc.), and then breaking down the remaining elements into digestible chunks for the other designers--in terms of area briefs and area overviews ("this planet is X, the following things need to happen on it, etc., etc.")--breaking up the mechanics and play-balancing ("I need you to oversee the feat and class advancement systems, as long as they accomplish the following goals," etc.), and then managing all the parts so programmers, artists, and the producer are getting everything they need to keep moving.
As chief creative officer, I do all the design tasks assigned for NWN2 (see below), plus oversee all the design at Obsidian, provide feedback on documentation, help out with vision docs and product pitches, talk with publishers, and try to make sure the design team is well-fed and their litter box is changed.
There's a lot more than that, but all of it stems from the points above.
"Game designers have a weird job. At root, it is their responsibility to ensure that a game is fun to play. The problem with being a game designer is "fun" is an extremely relative term."-- Ken Levine
Bleszinski: Here in 2005, as the industry grows, we can't just think of our games as games. We have to think of them as, the term being lobbied around is, "transmedia franchises." You can't just think "how are we going to make the best video game possible?" You have to think, "how is this going to appeal to a large, mass market audience? How are we going to turn this into a phenomenon?" Halo is a phenomenon. Grand Theft Auto is a phenomenon.
On a day to day basis, it's a combination of writing, playing, and working with the talent you have available. You're trying to come up with a general idea of what a game system is going to be. You're creating game systems that interact in an interesting manner but you're also creating a universe. So it's technical as well as creative. "Who's this dude? This is the flamethrower guy, and he smokes a lot." Or, "this is the bioweapons guy, and he has cancer and that's his shtick." So you take your angles and you figure out how they can create a compelling universe. How are these gameplay systems going to interact? Is the chemical guy going to be able to shoot out something that the flamethrower guy can leverage? Is that going to get hooks in people's brains? It's not enough to create cool characters or systems. It's about seeing how it all merges in the end.
You're constantly under pressure to deliver something that's not only compelling, but also relevant, something that matches gamers' expectations on what they think a game should be about. You also have to be aware of the competition. I know designers that don't play other people's games or pay attention to the gaming press or even real world news and what's hip and cool in pop culture. But it's part of your job as a game designer to stay up-to-date on all those things. You can't just lock yourself in a room and create some random thing. You have to be big picture.
Levine: Game designers have a weird job. At root, it is their responsibility to ensure that a game is fun to play. The problem with being a game designer is "fun" is an extremely relative term. I remember playing Midnight Club 2 recently on the Xbox and thinking, "I could never design this game in a million years." I have no idea what makes sports games fun. But for some reason, I have some insight into what makes strategy games, shooters, and RPGs fun...probably because they're the kind of games I enjoy playing.
The challenge for a designer is that until very late in the development process, you can never be positive you're on the right track. And sometimes you never know. For instance, I'm the last person in the world who could tell you if System Shock 2 was scary. When you design a game, you know what's around every corner, which completely disqualifies you from judging a critical component of any game design: defying the player's expectations.
Yamaoka: There are a lot of professions in game designing, like planning, character design, background design, programming, etc. And each field has its unique requirements. To be generic, a game designer has to think of how to "entertain." Utilizing the hardware, a game designer has to create a way of entertaining the fans, and also keep his/her style unique from other competitors every day. You have to think about entertainment, using your imagination every moment in the vast world of video game contents.