Categorized | Job Hunting

Game Designer: Playing Games with Your Career

Posted on 23 November 2008

Landing a gig in the computer games world might at first seem like a dream job. After all, playing games would become part of your vocation. But it’s not “all beer and Skittles,” says Peter Olafson, a game journalist for the past 12 years, currently based in San Francisco. It takes dedication, creativity, and, above all, a love of the game.

More Than Code
Game designers and programmers use the same code as other software programmers. If your interests lie in building games from the foundation up, you’ll need to have serious coding skills. “But your ability to tell a story with code is definitely a unique set of skills for the video game industry,” says Mike Goodman, a gaming industry analyst with the Boston-based research firm The Yankee Group.

“In general, most programmers can write the [code] that [is] necessary. But the really good ones can do that and then conceptualize it into the bigger picture of telling a story and providing entertainment," explains Goodman.

If you're not a programmer, you might be able to find a way to tie your current calling to the game industry.

Tammy Dargan, a project manager at Sierra, a Seattle-area game publisher, says that game designers need a wide variety of talents, from the ability to think algorithmically ("If this, then what?") to an understanding of current and future technologies to solid written and oral communication skills.

Diverse Backgrounds
Game designers can come from any background Dargan once worked with a designer who had been a cross-country test driver for a Japanese auto maker. If you're not a programmer, you might be able to find a way to tie your current calling to the game industry. For example, take David Wehr, a former architect who is now a level designer for San Rafael, CA-based LucasArts Entertainment.

"Level design and architectural design are actually very similar," says Wehr. "You are dealing with many of the same spatial design issues. Working in a game world is way more fun, however. For one thing, the projects are cooler. Rather than working on office buildings and loft remodels, you work on space stations, giant off-world fortresses, and star ships."

If you're interested in working on game or level design, Wehr recommends that you play many different games. Pay attention to what works and what doesn't, and how you could make a not-so-good game a great one.

There are plenty of free level editors and game design tools on the Web that anyone can use to try their hand at the creative process. For starters, try Wild Tangent (http://www.wildtangent.com), OpenFX (http://www.openfx.org), Macromedia (http://www.macromedia.com), and 3D Matrix (http://www.3dmatrix.com ). Interested designers can also check out their favorite games' Web sites for more information. Many games ship with their own editors to encourage level and "mod" (modification) creation. "It's a good way to see what's involved, see if you like it, and get some experience. If you have some killer playable (well-designed) levels in your portfolio, that really helps if you're trying to break in," advises Wehr.

Write All About It
There's another way to be involved with the gaming industry: as a reviewer. We all have opinions about the games we play. If you can get someone to pay you for those gripes and praises, then all of a sudden it's a job.

Getting started is the hardest part, says Olafson, whose most recent articles were "Game Theory" columns for the New York Times. Olafson felt that his journalism background helped him break in. Having an English or journalism degree and experience with publications can be a definite plus, but it is not a prerequisite. "This is still a fan-based industry, and I'd bet there are still many more gamers who write than writers who play games," he says. "You do need to love games and have at least some knowledge of their history and how they work. And you need to be able to express yourself in a cogent, interesting way."

Game Prizes
Gaming industry salaries vary widely. Entry game designer salaries start at as low as $20K a year, and experienced designers get as high as the low six figures, with an average in the $50K to $60K range. Royalties are an additional source of income for some successful game designers. Game journalism salaries also vary, but they average in the $30K to $40K range.

Despite the attitude that working in the gaming industry isn't all playtime and cotton candy, most of the folks who are lucky enough to work there realize their good fortune. "It's an incredibly cool place to work," says Goodman. "Where else can you get paid to play games?"

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Tyler J. Powel says:

    i an only 13 but i want to be a game deigner what are some things I can go ahead and start learning write now thank you who ever you are God Bless

  2. Bill Carlisle says:

    Being a games tester can be a great way to earn extra money, but many people won’t realise that the pay isn’t as high as they might imagine, and it can be long hard work. The best thing is though that it can be a foot in the door of the games industry. I finally got into the games industry through developing Flash games, but if I had known back then what I know now I probably would have gone straight into beta testing after college

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