11/28/2014

"What should I study to become a game designer?"

That's a question that popped up a lot recently, on various occasions. It comes in all forms and flavors, really. Every other week on LinkedIn someone asks how and where he/she should start to pursue their career in game development.  We've lately even been asked that on twitch while we were presenting our game. Here's what the answer was:


And frankly... These 5% I mentioned were a big exaggeration. The real answer is "You don't need a degree at all". Let's even put aside the fact that a degree is pretty useless in most of the fields nowadays and that the education systems all over the world are so outdated it hurts. Think for a moment: how many great writers needed a degree in literature? How many rock stars have a solid musical education? A designer is more or less the same type of job. You learn it mostly by doing, not by attending lectures. You have to solve problems specific to your project and there's no universal solutions that could be just taught to a hundred students so that they can just go out and design. If these universal solutions existed, all games would be the same and that's exactly what the good designer is there to avoid.

Game industry is still young. So young that the people who started making the first commercial games are sometimes still in the business. And with the education lag we are facing nowadays, it takes long years until schools even realize they should teach something. That means only one thing - most of the people in the industry don't have the degree in anything game-related. So whenever you're applying for a job, the person interviewing you most likely never had any formal game education and therefore will not care whether you do.

When I met James Portnow on PAX Prime, a guy ran up to us and after a quite embarrassing display of worship, he started a rant about how he wants to be a game designer and how he's always wanted it and how he has been now studying for 4 (!) years at some design school. I did my research on the schools with gaming programs and there is maybe one or two in the whole US that can actually teach something valuable. That leaves the guy from PAX with a very high chance of wasting these 4 years completely, along with the money burnt into getting this "education".


I don't know if you've noticed, but formal education in general is for people who are not sure what they want to do. I myself went to my schools purely because I had no idea what I want to do with my life. Even though they were all among best schools available, I can't help feeling I've wasted a lot of my time. Because if you really want to learn something, you always have to invest your time in learning it. Teachers can accelerate the process, but at least equally often they will slow you down. And nowadays, with all online tutorials, all tools freely available, there really is so many ways to learn whatever you want without leaving your bed... Including game design.

So instead of paying some shady school and wasting 4 years, what do you do? First, check what a game designer really does and decide, if it's really what you are after. If yes:

Option one, for lone wolves: you download any free basic game making tool and start designing. If you get stuck, you check out tutorials. If some mechanics don't work as you wish, seek references. Your games will be simple. Your games will be ugly. Your gained experience will be incredibly helpful. You will learn designing, scripting, balancing, maybe a bit of coding and graphics. If you really put some time and heart into it, within a year you will build a decent portfolio that will get you so much further than any game design degree.

Option two, for online socializers: you find a modding forums or community for your favourite game and start getting to know the people there. Get involved, show that you want to help. Really help by getting your hands dirty, not give ideas. Someone will definitely give you the tools. Someone might help tutor you. Someone might take you in for a tiny project, after which you might help tackle a bigger one. If you have talent and are really active, within a year you'll be helping other noobs and doing crazy stuff like Oblivion Zelda mods, or even remaking Vampire: Bloodlines, who knows. Still, you'll be way more valuable to any company than after 4 years of attending design lectures.


Option three, for explorers: Study something else! Seriously. As a designer, you can always benefit from vast knowledge. Take up various classes - art, history, anything you can get your hands on and that sounds even remotely interesting. It will pay off. And instead of partying every night, try to spend some afternoons every week on including some design learning mentioned in option one and two. Otherwise you are just learing without a goal, which can be fun, but certainly not the point here.

Option four, for those who want in: start in QA! It's really not that hard to get in. It is hard to stay sane there, true, but you will learn a lot, being close to development. And testers get accepted as juniors for all other dev jobs, designers included. And you don't need to show anyone any degree, because they already know what you can do!

Oh, and for option one and two - prepare to get a job while you're learning. I know your parents would rather pay for your college instead of supporting you when you're "wasting your time on games". It might feel like it is slowing you down, but at least gives you some backup option in case you don't succeed as a designer of any kind. Play it smart - that's what designers do.

Of course, the designer is always on top of the list when people think of dream jobs in games. Let's not forget there are other ways to make games than just being a designer. If you'd like to check out the requirements for some of these jobs, just explore the jobs in gamedev label.


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