So You Wanna Be a Game Designer
GameSpot talks with four prominent game designers about what it takes to do their jobs, and how to get involved in game design.
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Design by Randall Montanari
It's no wonder so many gamers who want to work in the industry aspire to be designers, as opposed to, say, networking engineers. Despite the fact that creating a game today is a collaborative effort, involving the work of dozens, if not hundreds, of different people, being a designer is still the most glamorous job in the industry. Designers are the closest thing our industry has to rock stars or movie stars, because their names are the most visible. A select few have even become household names, at least among hardcore game players. Will Wright and Sim City. Sid Meier and Civilization. Peter Molyneux and Populous. Shigeru Miyamoto and, well, countless games. If you read this site regularly, you almost certainly know those names.
But how many of you actually know what being a game designer means? What does a game designer do on a day-to-day basis? Some of us might imagine that all it takes is vision or having great ideas. But it's much more than that. The days of just scribbling something on the back of a napkin are long gone, if they ever even existed. Today's game designers need to be multidimensional. Their job is to make great ideas become reality, and that involves working with many different people and understanding the different specialists who need to work together to create games. Coordination, cooperation, and compromise are the name of the game.
"A great idea is meaningless. A great idea that leverages your existing technology, gets the team excited, is feasible to do on time and budget, is commericially competitive, and, last but not least, floats the boat of a major publisher... Now you have something."
-- Ken Levine
Even if you know (or think you know) what it takes to be a game designer, what is the path to becoming one? Yes, a number of interactive-entertainment programs are popping up at accredited universities, but there are no standardized tests and no schools of game design that offer you a clear path to employment. Today's game designers learned their trade and rose up through the ranks via the school of hard knocks.
Rather than read about what we at GameSpot think it means to be a game designer, you'd probably be more interested in hearing from people who actually do it for a living, and do it well. We got in contact with four of the industry's most accomplished and well-regarded game designers and asked them about their jobs, their career paths, and what advice they have for those who might follow in their footsteps. Read on to find out what being a game designer really means.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
This creative design doc is revised, cut up into smaller pieces, each piece is detailed, and then it is passed off to another designer to fully flesh out. And this process is repeated until every aspect of design is covered and handled. The story and area design works much the same way as it did on KOTOR2. We take the overall story, chop up the planets and systems design, pass it off to individual designers, then they flesh out their planets and quests and make them game-ready.
"I love the atmosphere, I like the creativity, and I like implementing the ideas once the creativity has done its job. The hours can be long, but it's all worthwhile."
-- Chris Avellone
For Neverwinter Nights 2, I'm responsible for all the companion dialogues for the game, writing major non-player characters (and lesser ones), doing the vision quests, balancing and implementing influence mechanics, critiquing area designs, helping out with writing other parts of the game, and trying to juggle other manager and cofounder stuff, like prepping vision docs, providing input on game pitches, and helping out with designer hiring, looking over design tests, and [handling] interviews.
I'm also looking over stuff for our third coming project, which is being headed up by Kevin Saunders (KOTOR2). But he's handling it just fine without me, so he mostly just humors me and gives me reassuring pats on the head.
You have to pick, what are the things you're going to do well in this game? There are three to five things we're going to do that no one has ever seen, that we're going to do better than anyone else, and commit to it. You start off with your grandiose design of what your first game in a new franchise is gonna be. And you have 800 million ideas. Ultimately you wind up with a fraction of them. If you have enough ideas, you've got plenty of material for the sequel. If you do a good enough job on the first game and establish the franchise, you'll have plenty of ideas for the rest of the games.
"You're making the best game possible with x people, y months, and with z dollars. It's like playing an RPG where you have 20 points to allocate to strength, dexterity and intelligence. You can't have it all."
-- Cliff Bleszinski
Unpleasant aspects? I don't know. It can be a little hard to sell publishers on riskier titles. It's hard not having room for all the applicants you think show promise. Tight deadlines are a reality, but sometimes it would be nice to do enough iterations until you feel it's perfect. But there's no real unpleasant aspects to it, in my opinion.
The best part is seeing something that started as a random idea in the back of your head come to life. Seeing customers pick it up and appreciate it, having people interested in the universe you created. You feel like a proud poppa when it's all done.
When you're on a good development team, you get that Star Trek feeling. You're surrounded by people who are all dedicated to making something great. I don't know anybody in game development that goes to work for the paycheck. They're here because they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
For me, the only really unpleasant aspects of the job are worrying about money and having to say no to people. There's no part of the game design stuff I don't enjoy. I've been very fortunate. I've gotten to work on remarkably cool products, like Shock 2, Thief, Freedom Force, and BioShock. I'm not sure how I'd feel about my job if I was working on Barbie's Horse Groomer 2.
Also, there's the temptation to throw every fun element you can think of into a game, and this just isn't feasible. You need to use all your programming assets to reinforce the fun factor and the key design elements of your game (preferably combat and gameplay), or focus on tools that allow more people (especially nonprogrammers) to implement content without taking programmers down.
If I had specific examples, I suppose one I would use is the ability of lightsabers in KOTOR2 to emit dynamic light. So if you were in a darkened cave with your green lightsaber, your character and the cave walls would have a faint green light cast on them, which we thought would look cool. Examining it realistically, however, we discovered problems.
One is, you could have three characters in your party all dual-wielding lightsabers (that's six colors that could be cast at any one time). The number of possible lights becomes an issue. To fix that, we would have had to rip out the renderer from the original KOTOR and make one that does multipass rendering, like in Neverwinter Nights 2 (no small task). Also, the lack of per-pixel lighting wouldn't have made the environment look too good, which was the effect we were striving for in the first place (environment wasn't tessellated enough). With a small team of programmers in the time allowed, it would have taken much more resources than the feature warranted, and there were bigger issues to tackle in the meantime.
That said, technology, in my opinion, has never gotten in the way of game design. Infocom games are still fun, even without graphics or a 3D engine or multiplayer. Technology, however, is there to enhance the design and player experience (facial animations, voice acting, animations, fully realized world, scripted reactive elements, physics-based engines, etc.).
System Shock 2 was a good example of a title that well-leveraged its technology. When we started the project, all we knew was that we had to reuse the Thief engine for the game we were working on. We knew that engine wasn't as strong as Quake or Unreal in the visual department, so we decided Shock 2 would focus on character growth and mood.
"In today's world of gaming, the range of age and type of players has broadened, so greater creativity is required from the game designer. One single approach will not be enough."
-- Akira Yamaoka
These days we plan a lot more because it costs a lot more. So if I start out going, "oh we want a character that's a giant pterodactyl," then later I say, "no, let's make it a T-Rex." Then thousands of dollars have just gone out the window. You have to be careful when you change direction in this day and age. Doing more planning is the most significant difference in design methodology between being young, and now having a larger team and more experience.
The market has also changed. Certain genres that were around when I got my start are pretty much gone now, and new ones have evolved. Game designers who don't obsessively play games are not game designers.
I think it's more likely you'll be working on licensed properties in the industry than original intellectual properties. Obsidian's been lucky in the licenses we've been able to work with (Neverwinter and KOTOR2), and licenses carry the advantage of having a tone, world, and parameters established for you from the outset. The advantage of IPs is you have your own sandbox to play in, and the approval process is your own.
First off, if you're interested in story and world creation, I would recommend trying to get established in the pen-and-paper game industry or in books or novels. Game design requires a love of game mechanics, lists, and tons upon tons of rule sets. If you're interested in computer game designing, then here's what we look for/what you should focus on:
1. A love of RPGs.
2. A critical eye for RPGs (and, preferably, other games as well), including feel, interface, pacing, weapon balance, level design, and so on. Play a lot of them, and be able to tell what you like and don't about each game. The more-specific, the better.
3. Good design skills. Not only do you notice the elements mentioned above, but you can also implement them well. Know and recognize game clichés.
4. Good writing skills. When not actually arguing and throwing feces at each other through our cage bars, a large portion of a game designer's job is design documentation or writing 5,000 e-mails. That means you need good technical writing skills and an ability to organize your thoughts. You need to be able to pass a document off to audio, QA, marketing, the programming staff, and an artist, and they should be able to find out whatever information they need just by looking at the document.
If you want to prep for a job in the game design field, I'd suggest the following:
"Persistence and enthusiasm mean a lot in the game industry. So if you get knocked down once, just get back up and try again. You'll get noticed."
-- Chris Avellone
1. Play a lot of games, and analyze what you like and don't like about them. If you interview for a game company, that'll always be part of the interview questions. And having smart answers ready beforehand helps them determine if you'll be a good developer or not.
2. You should play a lot of games, but just as importantly, watch a lot of other people play games. Pay attention to how the game is played, especially the interface and menus and the means by which the player interacts with the game. When you do, you'll quickly start seeing what irritates players and what they enjoy. Keep a running log in your head of successful ideas used in games, and what made them work.
3. If a game comes with level or map editors, play around with them. Try out levels or scenarios with your friends, and use that as an acid test for your work. There are tons of editors out there, like the level editors for Warcraft, Arcanum, Neverwinter Nights, or any others you can get your hands on. Put your levels or mods up on the net, get critiques, and try to make a name for yourself as a good level or map designer before you even go to a game company. It helps when the interviewer's already seen your work on the Internet and has perhaps even played one of your levels.
4. Persistence and enthusiasm mean a lot in the game industry. So if you get knocked down once, just get back up and try again. You'll get noticed.
5. If you're looking for college classes to take, I'd suggest some programming courses and creative writing courses, maybe a little bit of art, and any classes that deal with interface design or layout for computer programs. Learn how to write critically and technically, and become familiar with Microsoft Word. Programming classes are a bonus, because they help designers understand how computers "think," and they give them better avenues of communication with programmers in general.
6. Game development is a very team-oriented process, so we'd also recommend taking as many college classes as possible that reinforce teamwork and communication (or, if not in college, finding the opportunity to work with teams). If you have difficulty with working in teams or with communication, your job in game development will end up being more difficult for both you and the people you work with.
7. A lot of designers did not start out as designers. If you want a door into the game industry, try manual writing, Web design, quality assurance, or any of a bunch of other jobs in the game industry. Make your interest in becoming a designer known, and if you have the skills, somebody should give you a chance.
Then there's the application process. A lot of this information you can find on the Web. But it can't hurt to stress it a little more:
1. Always include a cover letter with your résumé.
"Get a job in quality assurance. Unlike most industries, the gaming equivalent of "starting in the mailroom" actually puts you in the thick of the action."
-- Ken Levine
2. Spellcheck and proofread anything you submit. Ask your friends to look over your cover letter and résumé, too. Obsidian has rejected numerous applicants because they don't proof their work. In the game industry, that kind of attitude creates bugs and makes people mad.
3. Research the company to which you are applying. If possible, address your cover letter to the specific person who will be reading it. Customize your resume and cover letter to suit that company and the position to which you are applying. You don't have to know everything about the company, but know enough so you speak intelligently about what they do and why you're interested.
4. Carefully read and follow the company's submission criteria. For example, if they ask for a writing sample, be sure to include one. Again, we have rejected numerous applicants because they can't follow directions, which, again, is a bad thing in game development, since it causes bugs and makes people mad.
5. Touch base with your references before you give their contact information out. Sometimes relationships sour or dim with perspective. Or, in some cases, [references] aren't even there anymore.
But you also need to put yourself in the right position to get a design job. If you're working as a programmer on a project and your lead designer is expecting you to work with him on coding systems, then talk with him about the design. Show others that you have a thirst to get into design. If that lead designer quits, then you'll be in a good position.
"The skill to communicate with others is very valuable, because you have to cooperate with a lot of people to finish a project."
-- Akira Yamaoka
Understand that it's also your job to sell your creative vision. It's not just enough to come up with it. You're the one who's going to be on the press tour. You're the one standing on stage with an executive at E3 trying to sell what you made. It's a multifaceted job.
The ideal traits include a good balance between logic and creativity. Be artistic and open minded. Be focused. Charisma doesn't hurt either, because you're selling the game to your team members. If they buy into your vision, they'll work hard and try to help you make that vision a reality.
In terms of skills and personality, I'd suggest the following:
Learn how to write a document. I generally structure all my docs in a reverse-pyramid style. I start at the top, with a single sentence: "Freedom Force is a real-time heroic tactical RPG which allows players to grow and manage their own team of superpowered heroes." Then I expand that thought out to a paragraph. Then a page. Then two pages. And so on. Write a document assuming that no one cares what you have to say. The reader is not in your head. They will not come to you. You have to bring it to them. How? Be clear. Be concise. Be entertaining. Keep your concepts based on things they understand and relate to. And, for God's sake, watch those proper nouns. Nobody ever liked a game design document because the designer had worked out the family tree of the villain back 27 generations.
And play a lot of games. Even bad ones. In fact, especially the bad ones. If you can't find one useful idea from every game you play, you're not looking hard enough.
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