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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.


By Bob Colayco
Design by Randall Montanari

dmit it. The thought has crossed your mind while playing a game at some point. Maybe it was a terrible game you rented at the video store, and you thought to yourself, "I could do this a lot better." Or perhaps it was a fantastic game that enthralled you for hours, and you imagined how great it would be to have your name associated with such great work. Almost everyone who has played a game has thought about what it might be like to be a designer--for some of you, it might actually be a lifelong dream to work as a designer in the game industry.

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.

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.

How does the reality of being a game designer match up with what your expectations of the job were in the past? Was it about what you expected?

Chris Avellone: It's pretty much the same as doing pen-and-paper design, except you have to think more visually and you have to be much, much, much more detailed in your designs. Oh, and it's a lot more fun than I thought it was.

Cliff Bleszinski:You go from being a 16-year old kid sitting in your mother's house doodling and making what you think is cool at the time. Then you wind up getting a sense of the big picture and what gamers want, and what's considered hip. I turned 30 this year, and I talk to 18, 19, 20 year olds and I already realize there's a very significant gap there between what they like, and what I like and grew up with. Ultimately you have to make the games that you want to play, but you have to be also aware of the big picture and adjust for that. That's the biggest difference between being young and wanting to be a game designer, and being older and getting a perspective. You have to find a balance between those two.

Ken Levine: I remember being really surprised to learn about how technical game design was. A lot of people tell me: "I've got a great idea for a game." Frankly, who gives a crap? 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.

Akira Yamaoka: There was not much of a difference between my expectations and the real world of game designing...although it was surprising that you have to communicate with a lot of staffs outside development, like sales and marketing department, etc., in the course of game production. I realized that many people in different fields are involved, from when a game concept is born until the fans get the finished products in their hands. The scale of a game project is enormous.

Question: How does the designer's contribution to a project evolve as the game comes together? Do you write the design document and then let the rest of the team figure it out? How do you involve yourself in the process?

Avellone: We're working on Neverwinter Nights 2 right now (most everyone at Obsidian is, although we have 10-15 people working on our next project, which is not a sequel). The way design usually works is that we blue-sky a vision document for the game's key features and fun factor. Then we make it more realistic, turning it into a "creative design doc" that the programmers break down into a schedule.

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.

Bleszinski: Going from the original creative vision to what the game is eventually going to be…it isn't always about making the best game possible. It's about the tradeoffs you decide on as a designer. 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.

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.

Levine: Game development is an extremely iterative, collaborative process. A designer who sits off in a corner by himself writing a game design doc is going to be pretty shocked at the reaction he gets when he gives it to the team to "figure out." Great games are great because they leverage all the tools at hand: people, technology, design, art, etc.

Yamaoka: We, the development team, hold meetings and spend a lot of time until we reach a consensus of opinion. We talk about everything from the promotional side of the game to very philosophical "crime and punishment," for instance, in Silent Hill 2. [We] discussed pain and anguish of a human being until everybody fully understood their part in the game development. My job is to make sure everything is shared within the team, from the theme of the game to individual opinions, so that the team can work efficiently. And this responsibility will continue until the game is complete.

Question: What do you like best about your job? What are the more unpleasant aspects of your job?

"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

Avellone: I love the fact it's not static. 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. In fact, there's plenty of times where you don't want to go home because you want to get a quest or dialogue just right, or you can see a way to make a part of the game that much better. Plus, the people generally are your age and have the same interests, so you can game with them and talk about nerdly stuff that would be out of place at, say, the patent office or a local accounting firm. Also, free soda is good. And movie days.

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.

Bleszinski: The unpleasant aspects include the lag in having an idea and finally seeing it realized. Let's say you want to have a giant pterodactyl in your game. You're not going to see that pterodactyl attacking people for a month and a half. For that whole time you're waiting, it's easy to sit there and second guess yourself. "Are pterodactyls cool? I dunno, maybe it should be a bunny." Then when the pterodactyl is finally made, you realize "yea this is cool," and people see it and believe in the vision you have. Maintaining that faith while you're waiting for ideas to be implemented is difficult. It requires a good amount of patience, which I often don't have.

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.

Levine: The best part of my job is nerdy dream fulfillment. When I was a kid, reruns of the original Star Trek used come on at 6:00pm on channel 11. The thing I loved about that show was the feeling of how cool it would be to work with a group of people who were absolutely experts at what they do, who could constantly surprise you with their creativity and resourcefulness. Also, I wanted to have sex with that green chick.

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.

Yamaoka: Being able to meet people all around the world.

Question: How big of a role does the available technology play in the execution of a game design? Can you give us some specific examples?

Chris Avellone: Well, technology facilitates design and storytelling. Just like design, there are only so many programming resources to devote to tackling design issues, so you have to choose your battles and scale back your design so it falls within the technology requirements for your platform (console or PC) and your programming resources (it's great to have a 50-page spec on how radiation will work in a game, but it's much better if you leverage the existing code for poison and save the programmers two weeks of work).

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.).

Ken Levine: It's critically important, and becoming more and more important all the time. We've centered a lot of our development at Irrational around Unreal. That technology is great for first-person and third-person action and RPGs. I imagine it would be ill-advised to use it to build a turn-based strategy game or a flight sim, unless you were willing to make a significant investment in tools.

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.

Akira Yamaoka: More memory allows faster stress-free access to data, which we owe a lot to the advance in technology. Also, a wider range in color for the graphics is one of the key factors of bringing the visuals closer to real life. On the negative side, more capability also means more-time-consuming labor for the developers. In the future, we need to figure out a solution for this negative side of advances in technology.

Question: How has your approach to designing games changed as you've gained more experience in the job?

Avellone: It hasn't really changed. You learn to edit yourselves more. And the more you get exposed to people who play games and other genres, you gain a larger perspective on what's fun for everyone. And interfaces tend to get a lot cleaner. But beyond that, it's just a refinement of what I started doing from day one.

"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

Bleszinski: I've really seen the value in iteration. Fun is the sum of its parts. It's hitting the button and feeling the responsiveness and seeing your character move and jump. It's pulling the trigger and seeing the nice muzzle flash. It's seeing the enemy react when you shoot him. It's seeing the enemy react to the fact that you're trying to shoot him and seeing the AI dynamically adjust. All these things coming together.

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.

Levine: I've grown to trust those around me more. I remember I once heard a designer say that he wished they had a machine that could literally transform thoughts and ideas into game designs. To me that would defeat the purpose of working in games: collaboration.

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.

Yamaoka: My approach has changed from creating a traditional "video game" method to creating content on an interactive media system. 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. You have to go beyond the traditional approach of creating video games [by], for instance, making it into a joint project with other media, like with film and music.

Question: What types of games do you enjoy developing most? Is it easier to work on certain genres than others? What about licensed properties, as opposed to original properties?

Chris Avellone: I enjoy working on RPGs, hands down, mostly because the story and world and characters have a higher importance than many other games (this trend is changing, however). Any genre is generally cool: sci-fi, fantasy, postholocaust. I've worked on them all and enjoyed them. I wouldn't mind doing a modern-day RPG, however.

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.

Ken Levine: If the brand is great, like System Shock, it's a thrill to work on it. If it's something I'm less excited about, it can be limiting. I think strategy games are generally the easiest to design, primarily because you have a mouse, a keyboard, and (most importantly) a cursor, which makes interface challenges a lot easier. Deep first-person shooters, like BioShock, are always going to be challenging to design, because you're trying to cram a lot of expression into very tight input space.

Akira Yamaoka: I enjoy creating complicated and twisted games. :-) Games that are, in a way, not suitable for the general public--[because they're too] surreal and artistic--are very fun to work on. Licensed projects have restrictions in artistic freedom, so it's not really enjoyable as a game creator.

Question: How would someone go about becoming a game designer today? What advice would you give an aspiring designer? What skills or personality traits are ideal for the job?

Avellone: Here's some general advice on getting into design from Obsidian Entertainment. Note that this may have been used in past interviews, but it's our response, because we get this question a lot:

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.

Bleszinski: You need to understand most of the disciplines that are involved. You need to be an avid game player. You need to be a big picture guy, as far as paying attention to pop culture and relationships, and life, in general. Real life experience does make you a better game designer. If you go skydiving or scuba diving that will make you a better game designer.

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.

Levine: I wouldn't count on lucking out like I did. The way into game development is very clear, however: QA. 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. There is no better way to get an understanding of what makes games tick. There's no better place to observe design elements that read brilliantly on paper but turn into crap when they hit the screen (which happens more often than not). And there's no better place to figure out how to fix those design elements when everything goes pear-shaped.

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.

Yamaoka: The skill to communicate with others is very valuable, because you have to cooperate with a lot of people to finish a project. Creators often have egos that they need to control in order to go in the same direction with the team. Also, being aware of content on other media is helpful as a game creator.

GameSpot: Thanks very much for your time.

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