I was contacted a while ago about hosting a guest post about a career in game design. I know I was interested in reading it, so I said sure. I am not affiliated with NYFA nor am I an actor, director, cinematographer, game designer … I can’t sing either. So here it is … I’m out of here … Ironsally’s on the move again.
The article is written by Chris Swain
Chris Swain is a leader in the game industry having co-founded the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at USC and leading over 50 products in industry including games for Disney, Microsoft, Sony, MTV, and Activision, among others. His USC thesis student, Jenova Chen’s masters project was the game Flow. Serious games that Chris has created include Ecotopia, Play the Game Save the Planet, a cinematic, story-driven game focused on environmental protection, and The Redistricting Game, which educates citizens on how the U.S. congressional redistricting process leads to polarization in government. He is the creative director in the Game Design program at the New York Film Academy
It’s a question that has, at some point or another, lingered on the minds of most people who have a deep love of gaming. And that demographic is rapidly increasing: the ESA put out a fantastic industry report last year and if the numbers are to be believed, mainstream gaming is playing a big part in an increasing number of people’s lives.
Looking at it one way, this popularity boom can be disconcerting to someone looking for a break into the industry – surely the competition is growing, too?
Yes and no. Because if you look at it the other way, the amount of real vacancies are also increasing with consumer demand, and it’s not the Johnny-come-latelies who’ll be able to fulfill them…
… it’s the gamers like us, who were practically born with controllers in our hands, who are better equipped to design the games of tomorrow.
Because gamers make the best game designers, hands down.
Why The Geek Will Inherit the Earth
Well, maybe not the entire Earth, but at least the bit of it that forms the game design industry.
Heavy gamers possess an in-built advantage over light (or non) gamers when it comes to designing a great player experience, simply because they can identify one in the first place. Regardless of whether they can outwardly express it or not, heavy gamers have an inherent understanding of the key aspects that underpin a fantastic game, including:
- Challenge level. The balancing point between a game being too easy (resulting in boredom) and too challenging (giving rise to frustration) is a fine one, and not easy to identify unless you’ve got a lot of experience from the player’s side.
- Narrative storytelling. A discipline unto itself, the intricacies of a good story well told can be instrumental to a game’s success (depending on genre).
- Understanding reward. A non-gamer can make the mistake of thinking it’s all about handing out arbitrary points to players to drive them forward; a heavy gamer knows that it’s way more nuanced than this.
- Breaking the rules. It’s a cliché, but for a reason: if you’re not intimately familiar with the conventions of game design, you’ll never be able to bend and break them effectively.
A non-gamer can be the best programmer in the world and have decades of academic understanding behind them, but without being a gamer first and foremost, much of what they create is likely to come across as paint-by-numbers.
Since you’re reading this, there’s a fair to even chance you’re a pretty passionate gamer yourself, so take heart. You’re already way ahead of the game.
All Well and Good, But Where To Go From Here?
As with anything in life, you need to formulate a plan of action if you want to achieve your goals. The first step is deciding what it is you actually want in the first place.
There’s a strange notion among some gamers that somewhere on the planet there is a well-paid vacancy for ‘sitting around and playing CoD all day’, and it’s just a case of finding the hidden application form. The job is precisely imaginary as it sounds; the closest real-world equivalent would be running a massive gaming channel on YouTube, and even that is more nuanced – and laborious – than most people realize (not least the massive amount of work people like PewDiePie have to put in to hit profit-turning subscriber numbers in the first place).
So while we have to unfortunately put such fantasies to one side, it brings us back to the all-important question: what do you want to do in the industry?
There are more sides to game creation than a Coke can, so start by determining where your passions and key strengths lie. The great thing about this industry is that there’s a role for just about everyone; it’s a misconception that anyone in game design has to be an expert programmer fluent in six different coding languages! If you’re a skilled artist, sound editor or even an architect, most skillsets are transferable to the video game industry.
Naturally, there are numerous paths to career success depending on your chosen field, but for the most part some universal advice applies which can get you there.
Choosing a Route
It’d be fallacious to say that you can’t teach yourself game design. You can, and many successful game creators have, but it’s an extraordinarily long and difficult road. In addition, learning in isolation can deprive you of useful feedback from fellow developers, as well as fun collaboration opportunities. Even when an industry-level knowledge of game design is acquired, it will invariably take a lot of funding (and luck) in order to take your private projects to a mainstream audience.
Getting your foot in the door via an internship vacancy (usually at a small to mid-sized studio) has proven to be a successful route for many people trying to break into the industry. Scouring the job boards for a position can be laborious given how rare such opportunities are, and when you find one you’ll probably be grafting hard for very little (if any) money, but it’s a good way to make connections and, ultimately, a name for yourself.
If you’re in a position to study, enrolling onto a game design degree program can really put you on the fast track. The New York Film Academy run a variety of workshop-based degrees at their game designer school, which not only accelerates the learning process but also sets students up for real working positions within the industry. Best of all, graduates leave the NYFA with a polished portfolio comprised of games which they created during the program.
Ultimately, with a bit of elbow grease and determination it’s entirely possible to turn a passion for gaming into a well-paid career. Exactly how you shape it is up to you, but as the adage goes, every journey begins with just a single step.
Make sure you take it.