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Breaking into game design: Step 1 - find your mountain
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Breaking into game design: Step 1 - find your mountain
by Ethan Levy on 06/17/13 07:53:00 am   Expert 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.

 

Before I left to work on Enhanced Wars, I was a producer and manager at BioWare's San Francisco office. The majority of my time at BioWare was spent as a producer leading the Dragon Age Legends game team. During my most crunched state I had a team of 25, 19 of whom I managed directly. Hiring truly takes a team to do right (and I was lucky to have a strong team at EA between the fantastic HR department and my colleagues at BioWare) but one of my primary responsibilities during that time was to serve as hiring manager for a number of positions across game design, art and engineering.

Since I left BioWare, I have turned to community participation on Reddit and forums to fill the hole in my life where co-workers used to be. Since my two partners in crime on Enhanced Wars are in different time zones I don't have a lot of water cooler conversation. So, I hang out on threads trying to add value by lending my advice to current and prospective game developers. 

I find myself repeating a few pieces of advice over and over again about how to break into the industry as a game designer. I thought it would be valuable to take my perspective as a hiring manager and turn it into a series of articles about how to position yourself best to land that first gig.

A big caveat - I am just one hiring manager with one perspective. Each company you are trying to work for and person you are trying to impress is different. These tactics would definitely work if you were trying to land a job on my team. Personal mileage may vary.

Step 1 - find your mountain
In 2012 one of my favorite authors, Niel Gaiman, gave a commencement speech at The University of Arts in Philadelphia. It was filled with incredible advice for guiding your creative career. The first step in any game designers journey can taken directly from that speech:

"Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be ... was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain."

This is important because game design is a broad profession. In any given day I might write a design document. I might wireframe some UI or spec out a UX flow. I might tweak tuning values in a spreadsheet all day long or lay out levels. I might do narrative work or write copy for menu screens. I might spend all day fixing bugs in scripting files. I might plan out a monetization strategy.

This list doesn't come close to defining all that goes into the bucket of game design. Even more important than tasks is genre and platform of game you want to work on. For instance, if Enhanced Wars folded and I wanted to get a full time job, I would feel confident applying for monetization design jobs on mobile games tomorrow. But if I decided it was time to build 3D levels for AAA games on the PS4 and Xbone, I would need to spend a minimum of 6 months preparing before I could apply for that job from a space of confidence.

Your mountain will change many times over the course of your career. New opportunities will arise, new platforms will take shape and new genres will be invented. But it is important to pick an early goal. Because applying for a level design job on Tom Clancy's The Division is fundamentally different from applying for a UX design job on Battlefield 4 is fundamentally different from applying as a generalist designer with a small mobile startup company.

Do your research and figure out what sort of job you will want to pursue as a designer. My best advice - look at job postings on Gamasutra and the websites of companies you admire. Read about the actual requirements, roles and responsibilities for real design jobs. Invariably you will find yourself saying "that sounds like a lot of fun" or "I would hate to do that every day for the next 3 years." 

And a word of advice, don't set your mountain as Creative Director. Not at first. I know it is everyone's dream to be The Guy or The Gal leading a game's creative vision. But if you find that the only jobs that appeal to you are those with a fancy title and 10+ years of experience required, you are in for a rude awakening. If the years of backbreaking work it will take to climb the mountain are not inherently rewarding, you will never never make it to the top.

Once you have found your mountain, you will be ready to start building your design portfolio, which I will cover in the next article in this series.

 


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Comments


Lihim Sidhe
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"Your mountain will change many times over the course of your career."
"And a word of advice, don't set your mountain as Creative Director."

If an aspiring developer wants to become the next Ken Levine, Cliffy B., or Hideki Kamiya there is nothing foolish about that. The loftiest heights we can wish for are called dreams for a reason. Whatever that mountain is, that is THE mountain and no other can ever take its place.

Your advice could be better applied by saying that before one can summit Mountain Prime one must summit many, many, other hills and mountains before the grand ascent can start. Depending on how high Mountain Prime is (aka Creative Director) the journey will vary in difficulty.

When Neil Gaiman just started out maybe his mountain was to become a highly skilled, praised, and prolific author? But what if he set his sights on something more realistic like a newspaper editor or columnist? He may have reached those less difficult peaks but would we have The Sandman?

So dream big but always keep in mind the bigger the dream the harder the climb.

Ander Ferreras
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" And a word of advice, don't set your mountain as Creative Director. [B]Not at first.[/B] I know it is everyone's dream to be The Guy or The Gal leading a game's creative vision. "

Finish the sentence and you will see his was definitely going in that direction to begin with.

Short sighted and reactive comment above. I would not be surprised if say you jumped at the chance
to type off your lame attempt at sounding wise.

You ended up sounding more gaseous than inspiring to me. But that is just my opinion, which
others might have the same, while it is not a requirement.

Ben Serviss
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Great article and couldn't agree more. I've used Gaiman's idea of the mountain a lot lately when talking to students and recent grads, and it's a very elegant way of reducing meandering career aspirations into a tangible, focused goal.

Marcin Tobala
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Thank you very much Ethan Levy for Neil Gaiman great speech ! And inspiring article, thanks, thanks, thanks !


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