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Game Designer As A Dream Job?
by Anthony Hart-Jones on 11/27/09 11:59:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

If you read this blog, you can probably guess what I do for a living.  For the last three years, I have been working on computer games, working my way up from a level designer to a mighty designer and then even specialising somewhat into Narrative Design.

I make games, I live that dream.  I even do some writing, so I must be doubly-blessed.  I have had the chance to pass on my knowledge of games and writing to students and even to other industry professionals as an expert in my field apparently.  What have I to complain about?  I even draw a wage, so I have a constant income and a secure future; my manager even mentioned that my job was more secure than his, since a games company can live without middle-management more easily than without designers. 

The benefits are great too, with company sponsored paint-balling and karting, activity adventures and even paid sick leave if you happen to do something stupid like break your coccyx falling down the stairs.

What can I possibly complain about?  Perhaps it is the myth of the designer that gets to me...

Designers are creative souls with the freedom to make worlds: Er...  Nope.  The average designer ends up getting to follow a lot of very badly-worded 'ideas' by email, which are presented as suggestions and must be considered deal-breakers if they don't go in.  With a week to go, you might for instance have to suddenly include a disabled character because the marketing team think the target demographic are big on equal opportunities.  Tough luck if that was not part of the plan and said character was supposed to be dancing with the player at the prom, that's just the way it is.

Designers get to see their ideas made into games: Yeah, kind of.  Maybe one in ten of your valuable ideas will ever get approved for a game proposal, let alone made into a game.  When you feel creative the company will often not want to even think of extra projects (though I admit that my employer is quite open to new ideas) and when you feel drained and suspect a case of the 'flu, they will suddenly want three 8-page concepts based on the theme of root vegetables by the end of the day.  If the publishers want games for tweens, you might as well give up on your epic RPG concepts and pitch a dating sim or two.

There's big money in games: Somewhere, yeah.  I think the shareholders and the publishers get most of it; I am far from minimum wage, but I am so 'rolling in it' that I qualify for at least two types of benefits.  I doubt anyone in the company is on a salary over £50k, even the management.

You get to rub shoulders with big names: Huh?  The producer used to meet a few big names and I think I heard that the CEO might have been at Peter Molyneux's wedding, but the most famous person I ever met as a designer was the actor who played a paramedic in The Dark Knight for a few seconds before getting blown up.

Anyone can be a designer, you just need to be a gamer: Not in any place I ever saw.  The world is full of people who have a great idea for a game (just like it is full of people who have a great idea for a film / book / TV show) and surprisingly few who can actually explain it in enough mind-numbing detail that it could ever be made.  You have to be able to pull ideas out of your backside at 11pm on Friday, awake only because the company plies you with free coffee and keeps the Relentless well-stocked, that still make sense on Monday when the publishers are coming to see your designs.

I won't lie; I love my job some days.  When the ideas are flowing and the project is falling together, there is nothing like it in the world.  The only thing better is the thrill of the stage, but that time of my life is over. 

The trouble is that sometimes, all I want to do is cry and hand the project over to someone else, anyone else.  The storylines don't match up, the combat mechanic is clunky and annoying, but you know it is all your fault because you designed them and everyone is looking at you when they can't work out how to complete the next puzzle or open a door. 

You take the rough with the smooth though.  This is not a rant about me saying 'my job sucks', just saying that some people (and you know who you are) think that my job is amazing and cannot grasp why I am not smiling even as I finish a 60-hour week and wave good-bye to the master disc.

It's a great job, but it will still crush you if you let it...

I was actually inspired to write this by a similar discussion at Patrick Rothfuss' blog which contains some bad language, sexual references and a pretty good humour if you can handle mildly adult themes.  If you are not a child and/or not easily shocked by people being brutally honest, I recommend reading it.  If you think you can write if you ever got around to it, or if you aspire to being a writer for games, read it now!  The man is certainly on the money...


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Comments


Armando Marini
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Some of that stuff will come your way grasshopper. You say its been three years. I'll estimate you have another seven years to go before you've paid your dues and get the great opportunities.

Nollind Whachell
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What I find interesting about your post is that a lot of the frustrations you mentioned are mirrored quite closely in other design industries as well (i.e. web, graphic, print, etc). This has led me to believe over the years, that it isn't so much a problem of understanding the particular medium, as it is a problem of understanding people in general. The better we can cultivate organizations and/or create systems that help foster creativity and empower people, rather than stifling and dehumanizing them, the better off we will be.



One quick example relating to the above. My wife has been a school teacher for years. She has seen her fair share of new teachers who come into the profession with a passionate desire to teach young minds. Unfortunately many of these new teachers quickly lose their passion when they find out that 80% of their job is dealing and coping with the systems and policies around their profession, rather than with teaching students. The same could be said for most professions within large organizations and corporations. You spend most of your time trying to work around the inadequate system, rather than doing your actually job.

Ernest Adams
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You're certainly right about the scutwork -- game design includes high-level concept design, which is fun, but also a lot of of writing text that will appear in dialog boxes, which is necessary but not fun. And no, there's hasn't been big money for rank-and-file employees since the late 80s.



The place where designers get to REALLY do what they want is in the indie movement, where there is even less money.

Anthony Hart-Jones
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I know it gets easier, but I just felt the need to comment on the fact that it is not all fun and games. A lot of people think designers are overpaid and under-skilled. I mean, coders need a solid degree and a strong understanding of C++, 3D artists need to be proficient in Max and Maya with a good grasp of anatomy.



What does a designer need? To an outsider, we are just tossing out ideas and letting the 'real' staff turn them into a reality. The reality is all about late nights, constant redesigns and more paperwork than even the company accountant ever writes. I think RSI is a bigger risk than burnout...

Andrew Tilot
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I am entering my second year of graphic and visual production, and the roads are paved with c++, but when it is all said and done. I believe if i can right a 5,000 line code, and write a 8-10 page proposal the first few times, ill be glad to be told to just write documents, and revising juvenile ideas, shaping them into project ideas, just too let the fan base there part of our lives, and that is the big picture.

Luis Guimaraes
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@Anthony



The words "skill" and "degree" are things that have nothing to do with each other. Not exactly. But yes, many people think that.

Dan Brewer
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A part of the problem is that there's a lot of subtle differences of what a Designer does or is responsible for, from either company to company or even amongst development teams within a studio.

You have level designers, game designers, multiplayer designers, narrative designers and a shedload more? How is the average Joe supposed to keep up?



You also have a problem/blessing of the subjectivity of our creative work. Everyone is capable of opening up their mind to accept and implement your ideas into their own thoughts, but this means people (co-workers, game communities and even your average Gertrude on the street) have the ability to generate their own ideas. The amount of "You should make a game with XXX and YYY" pitches I've had aimed at me, is maddening! I've only been 'in' the industry little under a year! Which then also brings into light the issue of choosing between ideas and directions - How do you judge an idea against another? How do you choose the right idea to symbiotically sit alongside the existing game features to further promote an aesthetic?



.... why is everyone looking at the design team expectantly? :P







My biggest problem though, is people who assume all 'we' do is play games all day. It's a doddle! .... right!



@Ernest - I agree with you, the indie movement is a great springboard for tighter designer control of direction. But it's sickening how many indie gems just don't get the coverage or exposure they need to survive!

jaime kuroiwa
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Oh boo hoo, Mr. Hart-Jones! Why are YOU complaining?



Believe it or not, there are people out there (*cough*) that are fully aware of these "myths" and are willing to accept them as necessary evils. Try working in a position where your only creative tool is Excel. Try working in a position where you DON'T HAVE A DESK. Try working in a position where your "office day" is lunch in the parking lot. Yeah, your job's rough.



If you don't like it, step aside and let someone else (*cough*) take the helm. I think WE can handle the pain.

Toby Hazes
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@Nollind



See Dan's reply to Ernest, the sad thing is, many times that highly-creative environment just doesn't make enough money to survive

Alex Covic
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Suggestion: You professionals should complain more and louder, so the endless stream of young kids who attend these "gaming-schools/classes", never mastered math or still struggle to understand C/C++ (not to mention non-OO languages) or have not the faintest idea of art history or digi-tools, will not sit at your table, eat your cold food, drink your sour wines ... for half the salary. Unless the jobs are already outsourced to - you know where.



We need Mythbusters for the video game industry. "Why are you here, son?" - "I like to play games" = #fail

Jorge Garcia Celorio
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The eternal discussion.. I do not know why people believe that a videogame company will describe your abilities. You are not a game designer because you work for a certain corporation. You are a videogame designer because you are enthusiastic about making games, about exploring new technologies, about drawing your own characters and coding them. That is the way the industry was established. You do not need to burn yourself out in a de-humanizing company. If you like to design games, DO IT! There is a LOT of information in the internet nowadays in order to create a game. Even the UDK is for free!!!! The Diswasher: Death Samurai and Braid are outstanding examples of indie game development. Get a job at something else you like, and during your spare time make that innovate game everybody is looking for. No one will decide for you which characters to include, no one will give you a crushing deadline, nobody is going to fire you while producing a game. PLUS you will still HAVE TIME to play games. Win the Independent Games Festival, the Make Something Unreal Contest, the Microsoft-sponsored program, and you are set to go!!!

ignace saenen
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There was this voice-actor that dropped by to record some dialog, and when we googled his name, it turned out that he actually 'starred' in one of the original star-wars movies - for about 12 seconds. After that, he was, of course, blown up :) The whole studio was celebrating, asking autographs! He just chuckled and smiled, and said that no one ever cared about anything else in his career than those 12 seconds, and that he was lucky enough to be one of the good guys..



Just saying you have to take the good with the bad and focus on the stuff that matters.



And thanks for the tip, The Name of The Wind looks to be an epic book..

Dan Brewer
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Just a post note:



I love my job! I wouldn't trade it for any other!!

All I was trying to do was highlight a few problems that the job entails, which is the same as any other job. I'm very lucky to be working for a company that takes negative industry working conventions and tries to fix them, find a better way so to speak.



I could highlight all the good parts, but I'd be here all day and you'd probably want to kill me afterwards :D

Jacek Wesolowski
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The notion that designers should do whatever they want, and that their job is all about having ideas, is the single biggest bane of this profession, because:



1. What actually makes a game work is when ideas fit together, and the synergy between them creates an added value. A huge majority of people are blind to that synergy on their conscious level, and they only have a vague feeling of the game being "fun", "atmospheric", "addicting" etc. But they fail to appreciate it when designer tries to take care of it. Hence game development needs to rely on tedious and inefficient procedures involving poorly conducted playtests, because it's nearly impossible to convince anyone to do a thought experiment. It's a hopeless battle, because, unlike software engineering, game design has a strong non-technical component. Simply put, there's no math for "fun".



2. In the world of ideas, being "good" is orthogonal to being a good fit. Choosing ideas based solely on whether or not they seem good means making random design decisions, essentially. And it makes evaluating a designer's job that much harder.



3. Anyone can have a good idea. Sometimes people can have a good idea every fifteen seconds. So there's a surplus of ideas, all of them good, most of them useless because they don't fit. But there's no metric for an idea's "goodness". A significant number of people who don't have what it takes to be a designer actually manage to keep the job, because they can talk fast.



4. People tend to focus on making sure *their* idea makes it into the game. Given how there's no objective metric of an idea's "goodness", and not everyone is a fast talker, the ideas of those in charge tend to make it into the game, simply because they are in charge. Given how anyone can have a good idea, and there's usually more than one good idea that solves a given design problem, it's all too easy and tempting for leaders to keep the creative agency all to themselves. All it takes is to claim your idea is "better", because no one can possibly prove you wrong most of the time.



5. Obviously enough, there's no way to prevent a non-designer in charge of a project from spoiling the game with their pet ideas, or, even worse, their common sense. Ironically, this is not really their fault.



6. Most people define making "their own" game as calling all the shots. When ideas are all that matters, calling all the shots means putting all your pet ideas in the game, even though they may or may not fit together. Many ambitious, creative projects are misguided in this fashion, which dooms them to failure on day one of their lifecycle.

Z Z
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Timothy Ryan
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Three years does not a wise designer make ... stop complaining. There are plenty of people who would take your place, regardless of how ugly you paint it.



They say if you enjoy doing what you do for a living, you'll never work another day in your life. Well, admittedly some days are less enjoyable (and hence more work) than others, but it's better than flipping burgers, driving a taxi, punching in numbers in a spreadsheet or waiting on customers.



We've all had our share of disillusionment, but rarely do we consider doing anything else until the passion has left us. Designers expand the boundaries of human experience, and it's not many people who can do that. Cheer up. You'll get your chance to lead a team some day, maybe not on an idea you can call your own, but perhaps on one that you'll put enough of yourself into to feel personally vested in.

Alex Covic
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@Jacek Wesołowski = wise words, Sir. Your comment makes some blog posts look rather pale in comparison.

Louis Varilias
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"It's a hopeless battle, because, unlike software engineering, game design has a strong non-technical component. Simply put, there's no math for "fun"."



That's just wrong on so many different levels.



Don't be thankful for what you have; be thankful that you have greater aspirations! If you want to succeed, you'll have to redefine video games as people know it. The question is how. Become the "new voice" of game design. So ignore anyone saying get over it. Don't get "over it", take advantage of it.

Erik Hieb
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Precisely why I ended up dropping out of college and not going into the industry. I think "Game Designer" is an improper title. When people think of a designer, they think of the person coming up with the ideas. I think the game industry is the only industry where that doesn't really apply. Seemed more like a manager than anything else to me.

Anthony Hart-Jones
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I seem to have stirred up quite a bit of debate, which is good.



I know how lucky I am, working almost no crunch time these days, actually being productively creative half the time, getting taken seriously when I tell my boss 'I think we should try something different' despite the fact that I have three years' experience to his thirty. I have done retail over the Christmas period for practically minimum wage, I have been unemployed and 'signing on' just to make ends meet, I have even worked in telemarketing just to put food on the table.



That said, like anyone in a creative job, there are days when it all seems too much. Some days, I am not feeling 100% and someone will ask me 'what do you have to be depressed about?' because the myth of the designer is just a little too persistent. When I was an actor / director I saw the same thing; people assumed I was doing okay and partied all the time for fun, but people are more aware of the idea that actors can be starving artists.



I have much less to complain about than most designers, but the image outsiders and (worse) students have can be a little depressing.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Louis - do note I'm talking about challenges of game design in context of the dominant notion of "design as a job about having lots of good ideas". Trying to convince anyone to use thought experiments as a design tool is hopeless in this context, because there's no way to show them where the added value is. This is different from software engineering, because in software engineering, when someone is trying to impose a poor design decision on you, you can draw them a flow chart, or something, and point your finger at where the problem is. In other words, it's much easier to make a verifiable argument.



I never said I like it (as a matter of fact I was hoping the word "bane" would make my intent clear enough), but the point is you can't make a change if you're looking for it in wrong places. Simply asking people to respect your ideas more is not going to work.



In game design, you cannot argue about ideas, because "creative" ideas are arbitrary and subjective by nature. Hence the many pathologies. If you want this to change, you need to shift focus away from sheer ideas.

Stefan Durmek
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If there is a good point, than it is that people think that game designers are allowed to bring their own game structures, mechanics or story (from early concept to final dd), so we should let them know that it doesn't work that way. If you want to create your own game, use game maker or so.

Toby Hazes
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@Alex



See, it's working, look at Erik's post >.>

Louis Varilias
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”In game design, you cannot argue about ideas, because "creative" ideas are arbitrary and subjective by nature. Hence the many pathologies. If you want this to change, you need to shift focus away from sheer ideas.”



What is design about except ideas? Of course being creative doesn't mean an idea is good. For an idea to be good, it must serve a purpose in an effective manner. You must also be able to justify and defend an idea. You can point to a problem if there is one. But that requires an integrated approach to analyzing design. Any and all design jobs are -idea- based jobs. That's why design is difficult, because few people actually develop an integrated approach to design and don't advance further than "it felt right". Ultimately, though, the designer(s) need to do what they want or else you're left with dissatisfaction (as illustrated by the main post) OR poor design.

Z Z
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stock message boards
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Hey thanks for such a beautiful article.... This shows that how much you love your job...

Thanks

goerge

stock message boards

nancy williams
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The post is really very good. Thanks for the post.

Video Game Design Careers

Luis Guimaraes
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@Jacek Wesołowski



Totally agree. That's what I wanted to say but lost enthusiasm for trying to explain it long time ago.

Tadhg Kelly
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Interesting piece. I've worked as and managed game designers for about 7 years, and have seen many of those experiences first hand. The conversation hasn't really changed. There is a definite movement inside the games industry to formalise and have career paths, and so on, and to enforce an idea that you need to pay your dues before you really get your hands on the levers of power.



In practise, I think this is actually a myth. I think after 10 years of paying dues there will always be more dues to be paid, another year or two, and so on. This is because the people who are top of the pyramid of the industry got there before you, don't want to move on from that, and are too young to retire any time soon. So it could actually be 20 or 25 years before you actually get to be the man with the plan. And the downside of going through that is that by the time you're 45 or 50, all of your best ideas are likely going to be behind you.



On the other hand, what has changed, however, is the opportunities on the edges. Forget console development and C++ and all that old slow stuff. Learn Flash/Actionscript. Learn to make the games you want to make today, or in 6 months from now, or a year. There's nothing stopping a designer from doing that today other than their fear and I think that's where the real wave of next generation big game designers will come from.



The 2DBoy's of today will be the Molyneuxs of tomorrow because they've shown they've got the talent and all the rest is just plugging into a management and production layer. So stop putting off all your ideas and start making them. Now.

Paolo Pace
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Been at this for a few years and during this short period of time I've seen several of my ideas get 'in the game'. I've also traveled and met celebrities as part of the job too. I've had pitches I wrote read by those I never imagined would and I've managed to go from QA Coordinator to Game designer faster than I ever thought possible.



Having said that, I also was back to work less than a week after my 2nd child was born. I accumulated over 9 weeks of overtime in a matter of months and, on occasion, came to work in the mornings and left in the mornings---the next day. It can be tough but the rewards are there if you know where to look.



Best of luck to you in what I hope is a long career.

Anthony Hart-Jones
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Games design does seem to have a strange number of 'polarised' moments, where you are either wondering 'this is awful; why am I doing this?' or 'this is great; they are really paying me to do this?' compared even to my time in theatre.



I think the trick is to push; push your limits, push your boundaries and push your luck. I got my break by approaching a studio and saying 'I can code, design and make levels; I can do whatever you need', landing myself a level designer job. I could have just meekly posted my CV around (and I did), trying to sell myself on my degree, but that isn't how to get ahead these days.

Johannes Smidelov
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In reply to "I have much less to complain about than most designers, but the image outsiders and (worse) students have can be a little depressing."



I can't talk for all students, but as a student of the University of Skövde (second year) I don't recognise that at all. On the contrary, the atmosphere can sometimes give an hopeless impression. "We're educating ourselves to unemployment", "no designers gets hired" (with more nuanced variations), "its a lot of work with next to no reward" etcetera. Sometimes I can't believe as many are still on the education as it is - but we are, because somewhere we still want to make games, because we all believe in games, either as spare-time, culture/art, state-of-the-art software or something else.



Of course the public still don't know much about game-design, or games at all for that matter, but I'd say that problem's source is the games and not the public. I'm currently writing an opinion-piece about that (being my first article on the site, and potentially first impression for a lot of could-be-important people, I don't dare stepping on anyone's toes or say something misguided, so it'll take awhile).

Anthony Hart-Jones
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I have to admit that out of seven students on my degree course, I was the single success. I spent most of my final year pushing hard and burning credit to get my foot in doors; in the end, getting into the industry is not a matter of luck or odds, as far as I can tell, but a matter of how much you want it.



It is kind of a different matter, but it is good to see that some students are at least being made aware of how hard it is to break in. This is a bad time to try to get into any industry, but too many educational establishments (or their marketing teams) are trying to tell people that they are giving their students a leg up into the promised land.


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