Thursday, April 18, 2013

How to: Interview with a Game Designer

World Map for my Sunday D&D Group
A close friend of mine is about to shape his life into the mold of one who seeks employment at a video game company. He wants to become a game designer or artist, but has very little first-hand knowledge on the topic. As I don't know much either I interviewed an anonymous friend who works at a large game design/publishing company as a programmer to find out what sort of things are needed these days to be a game designer!

Interview by Careless

What does one need to learn to get started in a game design/development position?
Hmm, well that depends on what you want to do. There are lots of roles in game development: programming (within that, AI, gameplay, systems, optimization, UI, physics, online [the trickiest and best-paying]), 2d art, 3d art, concept art, texture art, 3d modeling, 3d lighting, 2d animation, 3d animation, rigging, facial animation, sound engineering, sound production, music production, audio engineering (in the programming sense), interface design (that's what I do), gameplay design, general design, project management, press relations and marketing, quality assurance, and many others.

If you're talking about being a straight up auter game designer then in my experience what you chiefly need, unfortunately, is a lot of luck. Design is what everybody wants to do, so there are a lot of applicants. The trend at My company (intentionally not named) has been to look more to graduates of the game-design master's programs from specific colleges I can't list here... These guys (As opposed to some of the two year colleges) know their stuff!

So, if you want to be a designer you can get a degree in Game Design and you will have a better chance at getting a job than if you didn't have the degree, sure. But anyone's chances at getting a (paying, anyway) job as a Game Designer are pretty slim because there are so many applicants and it's often not really about how smart or clever or creative you are, it's more about leading a team around one vision, which is both much easier and much harder than writing code.

I got into the industry by getting a degree in Comp Sci and becoming an Actionscript developer. I spent a year making very little money, doing Flash web sites, and sending out internet applications. Luckily, it turns out, most video game UI is built in Flash, usually running on top of Scaleform. So knowing how to build stuff got me in the door.

By the way, about Arts Colleges--there are several folks working at my company who are graduates from arts colleges. They all work as artists (A VERY hard gig to get unless you're utterly amazing) or interface designers. If you know how to make a badass Flash website, then you are qualified to do UI on a 3D game, or make 2D games in Flash. I guess I'm recommending that you learn Flash! No matter what Apple thinks about it, it's here to stay in game development for at least the next console generation and with the web trending away from it, less people are going to be competing for it.

What should someone include in a portfolio (concept art, project experience, demo reels, etc)?
As much as possible, honestly. When we hire, we're looking for experience. The more stuff you have in your reel, the greater the perception is of you being experienced, and therefore ready to work and contribute from day one.

Use images or other multimedia wherever possible, instead of a bulleted list of projects. Feature screenshots or concept art! You want to dazzle. Even if the image represents a collaboration you definitely want to pique interest first and foremost.

That being said, if I'm looking at a reel of three awesome things, and another of ten mediocre things, I'll pick the first one. So be proud of whatever you're showing. "Whatever is in your portfolio is going to be someone's assumption of the level of quality you'll be able to deliver the second you sit down at your desk." The specific type of stuff in your portfolio, of course, will depend on the position you want. Whatever it is find some way to be visual and exciting.

Should one attempt to make their own games for their portfolio?
If you follow a game design track in school you'll come out the end with several school projects under your belt. Show these, but don't be deterred from applying without games in your reel.
If you decide to become a programmer, you'll be hireable in games even if you've never worked on a single game.  Just find a way to present your past work visually and dynamically. If you want to be a designer, then you absolutely will need to show games you've either built, or worked on.

Is there a way to shadow someone to see what it's like within the field of game development?
My company has historically offered unpaid internships but they're difficult to get and I'm not sure if we still do them. I'd be happy to answer any other questions you might have about what it's like, but generally it's just about what you'd imagine. Lots of hard work, lots of meetings. Lots of sitting in a cubicle. Lots of frustrations, lots of heartbreak. But if you love games, it's worth it.

Pixel Soldier by Adam Cartwright

Is animation good to learn as well?
Only if you want to be a full-time animator. Roles on big projects are very specialized. If you're more of a jack-of-all-trades, you'd be better off working at a small company where role-switching happens a lot because there aren't as many people. The drawback to this, of course, is that small teams just can't keep up with the EAs and Activisions with their hundreds of artists, so they don't generally bother with 3D art. Instead (smartly) they do 2D facebook/mobile games.

I'd definitely recommend you ignore 3D art of any kind unless you want to market yourself as an expert in that field, because there really isn't much demand for someone who only dabbles--it takes a loooong time and teams of artists to do that stuff. Being a 3D artist doesn't mean you can't eventually make the jump to design either, by the way. I find that once you're in the organization, if you work hard and meet the right people, you can transition to new roles.

My last question: Is it advisable to learn programming? If so what languages?
My personal recommendation--keeping in mind I'm biased--is to start with actionscript. You can acquire a copy of flash, or use Flex, the open-source actionscript compiler. Tons of great online tutorials are available available. You can build a game or any kind of application you want from scratch and you will be hireable as an interface designer. Google "scaleform games" for an idea of how many games' menus were built using Flash. Scaleform is specifically a sort of in-game Flash player. That's not even the whole story: Companies I've worked with use proprietary software that does the same thing as Scaleform and this seems to be a common practice.

If you want to be a software engineer--and make big bucks and have bulletproof job security--then C++ is the way to go. Get Visual Studio and a couple of books and get started. Even at an intermediate level, if you have a head for logic (NOTE: You don't need to be a math or science whiz. Programming is just LOGIC!), you will be hireable in games. Even better, you'll be hireable in about 40 other industries, all of which will pay you enough to start your own small game company if the mood ever strikes you.

But even if you are destined to become a Game Designer who never codes as part of his job the answer is still absolutely 'YES, you must learn at least a little programming.'

If you love music but can't sing or play any instruments, can you write a song? If you love movies but don't know lenses or lighting or cinematography, can you direct a film? If you're the best race car driver in the world but don't know any mechanical engineering or physics, can you design a car?
A computer game is a piece of software. Therefore a computer game designer is a SOFTWARE designer. If you don't know how software works you can't design it. You can come up with ideas, but so can everyone on the Internet.

I'm not saying you have to be an expert coder, but you do need to know the basics--variables, loops, conditionals. You will be working with engineers who will tell you your idea is impossible, every day. People resist ideas that aren't their own. This is human nature. If they can steamroll you by giving you a bunch of technical jargon and you can't understand it, they will always win the argument. This is something I see happen all the time. Whenever I want to innovate and I need engineers to build something for me, the fact that I know conceptually how it can work and can speak their language goes a long way in seeing that the thing actually gets done.

Don't be scared of programming! It's really not that hard. Like I said, it's just logic. You do not need to be a genius to program. The computer does all the work for you. Programming is just how you tell the computer what you want it to do. Best of luck to your friend and anyone else who reads this!

1 comment:

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