Be a Game Designer 101
By Jaime Griesemer
August 23, 2002
Putting "I'll work for free" in big red letters at the top of your resume does not make you an appealing candidate for a position in the game industry. Neither does your membership in the "pMpZ Œn' kLLrZ" CTF Clan. As much as it may appeal to our egos, telling us that "Halo is better than sex with a supermodel" does not demonstrate your potential as a game developer. On the other hand, neither does implying that you could "do a better job making a game than any of the incompetent jerks working at Bungie."
We hear from many people who want a job in the game industry in general (and Bungie in particular) but don't have the first clue how to go about it. We have put together this short guide to help you prepare for a job as a game designer. We hope you find it helpful - and if it cuts down on the number of entertaining but misguided letters we receive from kids who want a job designing a Halo/Pokemon crossover RPG, so much the better.
Your artistic abilities are limited to lopsided stickmen. You can't program your VCR, let alone an animation compression system. You are too busy trying not to miss the expiration date on your milk to schedule project milestones. When you try to play Chopsticks on the piano, you get soy sauce on the keys. In fact, you have no marketable skills whatsoever, but you still want to break into game development. You want to be a Designer.
First of all, if you can find any other way, if you have an ounce of artistic talent, if you think you could learn to code, if you have any other skills at all, develop them instead of trying to become a designer. There are so many people competing for so few jobs, all with the same qualifications, that getting your break is going to require luck as much as anything else.
Secondly, understand that all entry-level designer positions are Level Designer jobs. Nobody gets hired as a Game Designer without experience. Game Design is the most fun part, and anybody can do it, so the Team Leads will want to do it themselves. Level Design is the arduous, difficult part that they want other people to do. It doesn't matter if you have a brilliant concept for an entirely new genre of gaming that is going to revolutionize the industry; you are going to have to put in your time slogging through the trenches, cranking out levels, scripting events, placing ammo, and finishing the million other tiny tasks creating a level requires.
If you've read and understood all the above and still want to work as a Level Designer, there are three things you can do to dramatically improve your chances of getting hired. The first should be extremely obvious, but it is astounding how many people overlook it. If you want to be a Level Designer you need to DESIGN LEVELS! Artists have portfolios to demonstrate their skills, and so should you. There are dozens of mod-able games with fully-featured level editors and lots of documentation out there. Take advantage of these resources. Don't even bother applying for a job until you have examples of your work; the person reading your resume won't be able to distinguish you from the other candidates.
Your portfolio should include both single and multiplayer levels, since most designers work on both. It should have entries in the genre of the game you are applying to work on. It should include finished work, to demonstrate that you don't abandon projects half-way through, but it could also include level documents, partial levels or even just fleshed-out ideas. In general, larger portfolios are better, but make sure you don't dilute the quality. Your portfolio has about five minutes to impress the person reviewing it, so make sure your best stuff is easily accessible.
If you lack artistic skill, you may want to work with a real artist who is trying to develop his own portfolio. However, think very carefully before getting involved with a large group of amateurs working on a large-scale, ambitious project. There are endless examples of cool-sounding projects from first-time developers that never got past the pipe-dream stage. Even if it does get finished, it will be a poor portfolio item because a prospective employer can't necessarily tell which parts were yours. Worst of all, working on a large project will occupy most of your time with Game Design when you should be focusing on Level Design.
The second thing you can do to improve your chances is to learn to communicate. Designers have to communicate with other designers in charge of the game systems, they have to communicate with programmers to get the features they need, they have to communicate with artists to get usable environments, and most importantly, they have to communicate with "the Player," a schizophrenic multi-headed hydra that demands achievement without effort, constant reward and total entertainment. Don't bother taking so-called "Game Design" courses. Get a smattering of Psychology, Philosophy, Literature, Logic, History and Public Speaking instead. They will teach you how to have a rational discussion about what you think and why, the most valuable skill you can take to any position. The best designer resumes we receive are from Philosophy Majors with good portfolios.
Finally, the key to getting a job as a Level Designer is to pursue it seriously. We often give potential candidates a Design Test which asks them to answer a series of design-related questions. While this is useful for evaluating the quality of an applicant, it is even more useful for weeding out the 4 out of 5 candidates who aren't willing to invest a few hours of work in achieving their "dream" of developing games. Everyone who has ever touched a joystick thinks he would be a great Game Designer, but only a few of them are willing to put in the time and effort necessary to learn the craft. There are people out there who spend every spare moment working on their portfolio, analyzing games, getting involved in game communities, sharpening their skills and doing everything they can to improve their chances. If you aren't willing to work as hard as they do, you are wasting your time; they are the ones getting the jobs.