11/13/2013

Jobs in gamedev: Game Designer

The problem with not writing for so long is that when you return, you should get back with something that will justify the long lag between posts. This way you can say "hey, I know I was away for a while, but here, I've been doing research for this baby!". Sad truth is I've been so occupied with work lately that I barely managed to finish one game in the last month. Still, I wanna deliver something nice to all the people that waited. Here goes another one of the "Jobs in gamedev" series and definitely the sexiest one - Game Designer. And speaking of sex...

What does Game Design have in common with prostitution?
There's at least two things that these two jobs have in common: they are the oldest jobs in the world and they both can start at surprisingly young age. Remember when you played hide and seek when you were kids and then, when everyone started to run too far, someone came up with a rule limiting the hiding area? Remember when there were only two of you to play soccer so each of you stood at the different side of the field as a goalkeeper, kicking the ball from one side to another? And then, when it was too hard to score, one of you said "ok, but we can't use our hands from now on". That was applying new rules to the game. That was, in a way, designing a new game.


People always needed some kind of games. Something fun to do. Ancient Greeks had their olympics - someone had to come up with the rules. When our apelike ancestors were hunting and the prey was too easy to catch, I am pretty sure they were coming up with ways to make the hunt more entertaining for them. Like competing which hunter will catch most of umm... I dunno, mammoth snails or something. 

Yup, a little mindfuck for people who only read the bold text and stare at pictures :D
Game design is everywhere nowadays. Teachers design new ways to teach their students. Sure the game isn't too engaging to any of the participants, but there are clear rules, goals and quite a lot of competition. Politicians are designing our surroundings, applying new rules, shaping the reality around us. Too bad they are rarely similarly skilled or logical as game designers and, unlike the latter, they get paid in spite of the outcome. 

I think you get the idea. Game design was present in our world millenias before Super Mario Bros and will continue to be a discipline that will never limit itself to electronic entertainment. And that's what I find extremely cool.

Everybody wants to be a game designer
As soon as I thought of getting into gamedev, I decided that being a designer is the ideal job for me. You can utilize your creativity, make up your own games and man - I had so many cool ideas for games! A vast majority of people who want to get into game development has this one job in mind. Programming sounds boring, to create assets you need some artistic skill, but here you just need a head full of ideas! Of course, this perception of the role of a game designer is distorted by a terrifying lack of knowledge, which is quite common among the wannabe designers. It still doesn't mean the job itself isn't cool. Scott Rogers in his book Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design says that "designers have more fun [than people doing any other job in gamedev]" and he has some pretty damn good arguments for that, but I won't quote them here. If you wanna know - buy his book. It's a really good read and will let you get some nice knowledge on the game design topic.


If you can figure out what this picture is doing here, well... congrats.
The common desire to be the designer comes from the basic oversimplification that a game designer designs games. Sounds logical, doesn't it? A car salesman sells cars. A portrait painter paints portraits. It is only fair that the game designer designs games! Well, in AAA industry, that logic leads to a bitter disappointment.

What is it that the game designer actually does in gamedev?
A game designer creates a set of rules for a game. In the "good old days" it pretty much meant that he's creating a game. Games didn't have much story, they were made by small teams... Setting the rules of Tetris equals creating Tetris. Nowadays however, in biggest productions, roles are extremely divided and designers get their own pieces of the pie. Take a look at the credits of a few big games and you might find out that apart from the "game design" section there can be things like "combat system design", "quest design" and many others. Sometimes, the "game design" section can even be completely gone, replaced by all the smaller design teams. That's because making and designing a game is a team effort and - in the AAA industry - hardly anyone can say "I've designed this game" without either oversimplifying or being a swaggerer.

There's a common misconception that a game designer more than anything needs to be an extremely creative and innovative person. These elements are of course very important, but from what I have seen so far, the best designers didn't really come up with many ideas. They group the ideas, they review them, they design systems based on them. And if you think about it - it is getting harder and harder to come up with an original idea that will work. There's millions of ready ideas out there to mix and match. At the end of the day, a designer that can cleverly combine the existing ideas is way more valuable than a guy who just comes up with ideas, reinventing the wheel for the nineteenth time.

Systems over ideas
What are these systems I am babbling about? They are the very core of game designer's work. The ideas alone are neat, but they can't work without a proper system built around them. Let me explain on a simple example - jump.

Let's say we are designing an action game where a big pile of goo fights with oversized fruits. At some point (probably very early on) there comes an idea: "it would be cool if the goo could jump!". That was an idea. An idea that could have come from anywhere, not necessarily from the game design. To implement this idea, we need a jumping system that will have an answer to every question we can come up with:
- how high will the goo jump?
- will it bounce off a ceiling if it touches it or will it stick to it? Is the type of ceiling a factor?
- what will happen to the goo when it lands?
- how far will the goo jump?
- if the goo doesn't make it to the other side of a cliff, will it bounce off the wall it or stick to it? Is the type of the wall a factor?
- will the goo be able to crawl up the cliff if it sticks to it after jumping?
- what will happen if the goo jumps onto an enemy fruit? Is the size of the fruit a factor?


Suddenly, you start coming up with a system that derived from a simple "let's jump" and has all these cool possibilities and all these problems that you have to solve. Thanks to this jumping ability, you are building ceilings with spikes, hard floors to splash your goo on and creating mechanics of swallowing strawberries with the goo, but bouncing off the watermelons. Then you realize that this jumping system closely connects to the battle system, movement system, special skills system, scoring system - most probably every system that makes it into the game.

Yes, it all starts with an idea, but the idea itself is worthless without a careful analysis, problem solving and lots of crash testing. If you are a game designer, the coming up with the idea part might happen without you. What won't happen without you is turning this idea into a logical and complete system that the player will have a very hard time breaking and that will work well with all other systems in the game.

One more idea-related myth to bust while we're at it: A game designer rarely comes up with the game idea. In many cases the game idea is thrown at the design team from above. Be it from the company's CEO, the publisher who simply ordered the game at your company, the marketing team that decided that the next title should be a platform shooter with experience system "just like Skyrim" or a movie company that wants a game based on the movie they are releasing next year. In lion's share of cases, none of the designers that work on a game has actually come up with an idea for it. If you have a game idea and think that by becoming a game designer in a big company will let you bring it to life, stop thinking that.

A game designer does not need to code
I am giving this one a separate section as it is a very, very common question. The idea that a designer = coder comes from the times when small teams of people were producing games. The coder had to be a designer, a producer and ideally, a marketing genius. Nowadays it is quite unique for a designer to actually code. They do need to think logically. They do need to know what an algorithm is and even be able to think in algorithms, but they don't really need to get their hands dirty in low level programming. Sooner or later, a designer will have to learn how to script the things in the engine, but scripting is about as complicated as using MS DOS, so no real coder would call scripting programming. Therefore, programming experience is never a requirement for a game design position. If it is, you are looking at a job offer for a designer/programmer in a relatively small gamedev company.


If the designer had to code, there would have been only Two Amigos on this picture :)
Awesome image stolen from http://blog.teamtreehouse.com

What is it that you need to get a job as a Game Designer?
There are generally two ways that lead to becoming a game designer in an AAA industry. First would be to start at a different position like QA or a producer and then join the design team as soon as you prove yourself worthy and there's an opening. Second would be to get the internship or an entry-level job straight away. In both cases there's a number of things you will need to prove.

Simply having ideas is not good enough, as I think I have emphasised a few paragraphs back. You need to show that you can make your ideas work. This is what a portfolio is for. There's a lot of software nowadays that lets you easily create your own games. They come with some generic assets that you can use. There's really a lot of them:
- UDK (Unreal Development Kit)
- Unity 3D
- Construct 2
- RPG Maker
- Engine 001
You can easily google for many, many more. Both free and paid. Both basic and user-friendly and very advanced. Countless small game studios use these kits to create their games. Just choose one that looks best and create! Start with something simple and see how far you can get on your own. The further you will get, the better it will show off what you could accomplish if there was some actual game designer that could guide you. Don't worry that you're using generic assets. What counts is how you connect them. If using all this software baffles or limits you, try the good old pen and paper. Design your own universe, rpg system, board or card game! Anything that will scream out "this guy knows what it is to design a system around his ideas!". So yeah - portfolio. Get it.


If I had to choose a second most important advice it would be "experience as much of various media as you can". Swallow everything - books, movies, TV shows, music, blogs, games. Whatever the modern pop culture spits out, you lick it off the ground happily. Good or bad. I don't mean you shouldn't be critical - be as critical as you wish. The more the better actually. If you know what the second image of this article is doing in it, you are probably on a good track. As a designer, you need thousands of examples of how certain things worked in different media, how they appealed to the audience and how much fun they delivered. This will help you decide things like what topics are worthy of touching and whether it's better to go with an 8-player hot-seat or an online multiplayer. When you are interviewed for the position and a book, movie or game comes up you will get silver points for knowing it, golden points for having something interesting to say about it. And believe me - there will be titles coming up.

Read at least a few books about game design. I cannot stress the importance of this point enough. If I followed this advice two years ago, my early interviews would have gone much, much better. Following this point will let you set your head straight and actually more or less know what the game design is instead of imagining what it is. Some books worth checking out:
- Jesse Schell: The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses
- Scott Rogers: Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design
- Ernest Adams: Fundamentals of Game Design
It also won't hurt to watch the popular Extra Credits series. Their episodes are short, fun, insightful and informative.

Know what's going on in technology. Gamedev is an incredibly dynamic industry. New inventions revolutionise the whole business within few short years. When things like 3D technology, motion control, touch screens or Oculus Rift happen, game designers need to already be able to use these to their advantage instead of hoping people will keep playing their games in the old way, without new possibilities.

These would be the most important things you need in order to get a job in game design. Whether you are "just" migrating from a different role within the same company or you are coming from the outside. Already being in the company obviously lets you show off your talents much more easily. And don't get concerned when all these websites that tell you that a game designer needs drawing, 3D, programming, software, storytelling, communication, presentation, marketing and whatever other skills and knowledge you can come up with. Yes, those can be very helpful, but are not always crucial and since it's an entry position job you are most probably after, they can always be learnt along the way. You have all the time in the world to try to learn everything.




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