Well, it's done now. I'm officially done with gaming as a profession, but before I leave, I might as well fill out an exit interview for myself. I had been thinking of appropriate topic ideas to write on Gamasutra for a long time (my more opinionated, game design focused stuff had been written here), and this exit interview idea just felt the most right (and, for an ex game designer, appropriately self-centered and ironic).
Q: So, what did you do?
A little about the past: I started at the now defunct Tecmo Koei Canada back in 2007 as a "Game Creator". "Game Creator" was an interesting title, because it was the generic label for both the programmers and designers. During my ~4 year stay, I: started initially a programmer on a DS game learning through other people's code and system; learned some basic XSI to do stage and object modelling; did QA testing, bug tracking, and some schedule management; re-entered the programming world when a PSP project was short-staffed and multi-tasked the UI porting and design work; finally landing in a full design role dealing with character control, AI, boss fight, and any other miscellaneous design tasks that came along the way.
In early 2011, after concluding Warriors: Legends of Troy, the company decided to downsize and chase the mobile/social hype train. They had initially offered me an opportunity to stay and help them. While I was interested in how the mobile/social space worked in an academic level (I had even wrote up some sample design docs and analysis of the market and the games at the time), I didn't feel that it was something I had wanted to work on at all. I've always been a firm believer that for designers, you must be a fan and a player of the games and genre you're making, and I never had major interest in social and freemium games, nor was I knowledgable in the genre.. I got into games because of all the games I have played in my past, and while social/mobile games were interesting for me as a designer to look at, they weren't want I related to and what I would have liked to make. If you don't truly love the types of games you make, can you actually make a good game out of it?
When chose to leave as part of the downsized group, I knew I was taking a risk to market myself as a designer: design jobs are few and far in between; every company uses and labels designers differently; my potentially lack of years and lack of lead experience, along with the less than stellar track record of metacritic scores can all hurt me. So while I began sending out applications and reaching out to studios all over North America, I began my backup plan of learning programming with iOS and potentially tried my hand at doing some indie stuff on iOS. I wasn't sure whether I'll find something in design immediately, so at least I can have some programming skill to back me up incase everything falls apart. iOS indie development just happened to be a low cost, giant gamble that became my excuse/reasoning for me to say that I'm still active in game development.
It's been two years, I've burnt up most of my cash reserves, the job market and opportunity for game design hasn't opened up (and I would argue that since then, it has shrank significantly), it's time for me to call it quits. The lesson learned?
Q: Explain how the job search went.
Throughout the 2 years of active searching for designers, I've had a handful of interviews and tests with various console development teams. Every time I took a test or interview with the teams, I'm always at awe at how fantastic this industry is and how many creative people work in it. Each of these encounters had motivated me to do my best, and always reminded me how interesting this line of work was...
...and then utter silence. I'm not sure why it happens, but the complete lack of feedback from anyone in this industry is completely maddening. I'm grateful for the few that even bothered to reply with "we've decided to move on with another candidate" because at least it was some sort of reply. Is it because of my lack of experience? Is it because your team does X and Y differently? Is it because such and such doesn't work with how your next project works? I'll never know. The joys of creating a level and gameplay mechanic from scratch for a test in 24 hours, including pages of documentation and diagrams, to be crushed by complete silence.
The lack of transparency and uniformity frustrates me: a level designer at X could be an artist who does modelling, where as at Y they're the high level concept designer. If a company asks you on how to approach level design on an interview, without knowing how they operate, you're boned 50% of the time already. The same can pretty much be said for any other specific design posts. I don't expect this to change, but at some level, knowing why it didn't work out would have been better than trying and failing over and over for reasons unknown.
Q: Why not go social/mobile?
Talking to social/mobile companies, on the other hand, is a fantastic look at how that space is operating right now, and frankly, it worries me how bad the fallout will be when the bubble bursts. I've encountered: places where they were looking for designers who can "create" cookie cutter ideas lifted directly from successful games; places that confound the roles of a game designer and a monetization designer; one place straight up asked "how can you make us more money". Within the handful of interviews and talks, never did "fun" or "gameplay" ever enter into any of the discussions. I honestly just never felt good talking to any social/mobile dev place about passion, interest, or motivation on "making interesting things" when the words that come out from them are followed by ROI, retention, and monetization.
If the company's goals is to "innovate in the mobile/social space" by "well, look what Zynga/game company of the week on iOS is doing, copy them", then what am I really doing outside of analytics and copying what others do? I understand that at the lowest level, games is still a business, and it's about money, but I guess I still hold games to a higher moral standard and that as a game designer, I should always answer to players's enjoyment of the game and not the bottom line and the most optimal way to exploit IAP.
I ended up rejecting/not following up on these companies for the same reason I left Koei in the first place: if I as a designer aren't a fan of the types of games I would be making (and making gameplay and design decisions on), how can I do a good job on it? (Interesting observation: There's been a few companies I had looked up where all their staff listed their favourite games: all had named many beloved PC/Console games of years past, none of them resembling the types of games they currently make - a direct clone of Farmville/Cityville. One had even posted the reason he entered into games was because of all the fantastic games he had played and he wanted to make those. I wonder how he feels about what he does now.)
Every time I talked to or interviewed with one of these places, I feel disgusted at myself at "giving them the answer they want to hear". I believe that game designers wield tremendous power in their games, and it's their choice to use player psychology, design tools and mechanics to increase game entertainment and enjoyment; the methodology of most social/freemium studios on the other hand, exploits basic human psychology and mechanics to extract money from players. I would go as far as saying that most social/freemium places operate in an amoral space, and I am more than willing to leave the industry if this is the only space it wants to operate in.
Q: Would you come back into games?
So yeah, it's been two years, and it's time to throw in the towel, and render my services somewhere else where it's more stable and more profitable. There was a time and a place where I was more than willing to take insane work hours, gruelling work and low pay for the sense of sanctification and potential for creating something I was truly passionate about, but that time has now passed. I'm sure everyone came into the game industry thinking of all the awesome stuff they want to work on, to contribute to the types of games that they loved, but I think it's time to chop down that lofty goal. I guess I had a good run, and still further than most who wish they had a shot at it.
I know this reads like quitting, and I've had enough people questioning why I don't continue onward, go do something else for financial gain and come back to making games when the opportunities come around. I feel that game design is one of those "you don't use it, you lose it" skills. I know that I've stepped away long enough to be detached from the current processes, the considerations and ideas of professional game development. I can try and keep up by staying current in reading, observing and playing current trends in game design, but I know that everyday I'm not in it, I'm falling further and further behind.
I don't know if I would ever rule out professional game development, but I have my doubts know what the pay will be and the kind of stability and trajectory this industry may take on. I will probably proceed forward with doing my own hobby game development, but that's all it will be, a hobby.
Sorry folks for that long rant. This was probably a more disappointing and depressing post that I should have written here, and I'm not sure whether my journey in and out of game development is even remotely interesting or notable, but at least it's now here for you to read. Feel free to drop me a note telling about all the dumb mistakes I did and how I should have approached all of this.
You can find and contact me on twitter at @HaroldLi. I also have game design blog "Confessions of my Gaming Mind" and is one of the cohost of Game Over! Retry? podcast, a game design focused podcast.