Death of the Game Designer
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
"This industry....." a fellow game design colleague of mine told me recently, ".....is no longer for us."
Several months ago, I was engaged in a late night instant messaging session with a friend and fellow colleague of mine who had been laid off. Despite 11+ years having worked as a game designer on some rather high profile projects, he was having a hard time gaining employment again. The job search was creeping up on 1 year.
Fast forward a few months and I soon found myself in the same position. The project I'd been working on was cancelled and the team along with it. Such is the industry.
After taking some needed time away to spend with my family following the layoffs, I was back on the job hunt. Only....things seemed different this time....
The last time I'd been job hunting (roughly 3 years prior), there were roughly 50+ openings for game designers on the gamasutra boards. This time around, I saw 11.
It's now 7 months later and, not being the type to continue on towards the path of insanity, think it's time to exit stage left. I've had my fun.....but for me, the game is over. (Save the tissues, I'm looking forward to the next chapter)
How could this happen? Why has this happened? For me, being a game designer was all I'd wanted to be since high school. Getting that first job was a dream come true. I threw my heart and soul into those projects.....but for better or worse, as the years wore on the game changed and so did I.
Back in the early days of my career (2004), I remember the core of my job, as a game designer, was simply to come up with fun concepts. Anything goes. Think outside the box.....just come up with ideas people might really enjoy. In my later days, I rarely (if ever) heard the word "fun" even mentioned. That word had been replaced by the likes of "retention" and "monetization." The idealist in me wanted to still believe that creating "fun" would LEAD to these newfangled concepts of retention and monetization. Turns out it still COULD, but it didn't necessarily HAVE to be fun - as "South Park" does an excellent job of explaining here:
Back in the day, the games being made were different. More story oriented games and games that took 40+ hours to play. It was a console world. This required level designers, systems designers, writers, etc. Now? It's all about a 5 minute quickie you get from some device you have in your pocket while riding the bus. Don't need nearly the volume of level designers or writers for those games.
Back in the day there was a certain human element to design.....about figuring out what things really connected with people. Today there are metrics (often wrongly interpretted) for that. "Monetization Managers" and such are the "designers" of today.
Beyond those changes to the industry itself were changes taking place in my own life. Changes we all face as we grow older. I got married and had (well, adopted) kids. I didn't have time to spend playing games as a part-time job anymore. Despite this, I continually strived to learn and acquire new skills that would (theoretically) lead to better and more opportunities. If I couldn't PLAY games as much as I'd have liked...the least I could do would be to keep training myself to better MAKE them. I spent an hour daily doing so.
Perhaps that was the wrong call. Not having enough knowledge about a particular game and being "too experienced" have been cited as reasons I didn't land the job. I'm sure other prospective designers can relate.
There also exists what I call the "Game Designer Trap." It's a phenomenon I'm SURE exists in the other disciplines as well. That of being typecast and pigeon-holed despite our best efforts. Suddenly, it wasn't enough to be a game designer anymore to get a job....you needed to be a game designer....with mobile experience.....with a knowledge and passion for every infinite runner game on the planet....who has experience working with the AWESOME engine....and will work for under 60k....preferably on nights and weekends too.....and, yeah, if you're also schooled in 4 programming languages, that's a plus too. Jobs became SO specific, fitting the descriptions to the letter became nearly impossible. Becoming a great fit for one job meant not being a good fit for ten others.
There's a final nail in the game designer coffin I haven't mentioned yet. And again I'm sure this applies to the other disciplines as well....but I feel it PARTICULARLY applies to game designers since part of our job is staying current and up to date with the latest games ripping up the sales charts: Family.
If you are blessed enough to have a family (I am), this does not work in your favor. Shame on society. I was recently on a phone interview and things were sounding positive....I sounded like a great fit for the job and was sure I was going to make it to the "next round" of consideration. The final question asked of me (the job was in a different state), was whether or not I was married....and if I was, how many kids I had.
Forgive me if I'm making assumptions here, but I don't think that question is EVER asked unless it's a strike against you:
- You aren't our first priority?
- You can't / won't work nights and weekends?
- You'll be taking care of kids at night instead of playing 3 hours of Call of Duty?
In my own journey, I got to the point where I no longer even liked the industry I once loved. Being in the game long enough, you see and hear things you'd rather not....the most damning among them was once hearing a boss man speak about how we "Needed to shake every last ruple out of [the customers] pockets."
Really?!?! I understand it's a business, but all I wanted was to help create enjoyable experience for a player.....to make people smile. I'm not much into stealing lunch money.
So who are the winners in all of this? Less game designers.....more "Monetization Managers" and hybrid programmer / designer, roles....MAYBE this helps each company's bottom line? I have no proof it does or it does not. However, I'd argue that the likely biggest winners in these modern day times are the colleges offering up "Game Designer" degrees. I recently met an inspired young lad going through some local game design program at some local college I'd never even heard of. He was set to graduate in 3 weeks. He asked me what I did and I told him my primary role had been that of a Game Systems Designer.
"What's that?" he said, "What do they do?"
Welcome to the future.
So here I stand today in the twilight of my game design career. I see parallels between this career and that of a professional athlete. I'm almost 37 now and there are rookies coming up through the ranks who are cheaper and can make this their sole focus for the next 10 years. I'm weary from the grind and frankly, I don't feel like the commitment needed to carry on is worth the reward anymore. The best I've gotten in the past 7 months is a short term contract gig. Who wants to pay a veteran's salary when there's younger, more naive workers in the wings?
This is all alright. You get to a point where you're at peace with it all. You get to a point where you're confident in who YOU are and are tired of trying to get others to like you (aka - the entire interview process). Life moves on and there's more to it than games.
I've loved my time in the industry and have met some great people and made some great friends. Sure, I wish things were different, but things are what they are. I'll continue to play (when I can) and be a fan. Maybe I'll be back in the game one day? Hard to say. But for now, for the time being, my fellow game designer friend's words ring true:
"This industry.....is no longer for us."