Steve Meretzky (1981, Vice President of Game Design, Playdom): My stock answer to this question is that the best way to prepare to be a game designer is to be a world-class generalist. Instead of being an expert on one thing or a few things, be somewhat knowledgeable and interested in everything. You never know what themes or subjects your next game will be about, and you never know what little fact or tidbit of life experience will inform your next design decision. But be able to become an expert on a subject quickly, whether it's WW2 era airplanes, Japanese mythology, or models of global warming. And, of course, changing your hairstyle and color several times per day and posting it on your Facebook status is extremely important.
Tom Hall (1987, Game Designer, Loot Drop): If you're looking to get into the industry as a game designer, what practical concrete skill do you have? You may be a writer, lever designer, artist, or programmer. If someone does not have a concrete skill to actually make data, that is worrisome. Everyone has ideas. Everyone plays games. But mere interest isn't enough. Your interest should have driven you to make in some fashion.
That leads to second part -- an actual game or mod. A work. Something you finished. A little 2D game. Something in Garry's Mod. Something written with Pygame. Something amazing in Little Big Planet or Minecraft. Something concrete that shows me you have the passion to make and to finish. By the time I joined Softdisk, I had written 50 games. Finishing games is hard. If you have a game, and just got to where it kind-of-plays and stopped, that's a warning sign. We've all done it. I did it on an early game I tried to make, a copy of Wizardry called Slayquest. I got the hallway drawing code from Softline Magazine, drew up a monster or two, got it to where you had an encounter... and stopped. It was so big, and it was too daunting making that big a game from the skills I had at the time.
So, I understand. That's a stopping point for most people. Finishing it, tying up every last loose end and detail. Crafting the game. Getting the core mechanic just right. Having an end condition, win or lose. It isn't that hard. But you should be able to get past that. I did. How? I made smaller games. I made single screen arcade games. I made 15 text adventures. Those were actually pretty good, at least comparable to what was being published at the time. Finishing games made me realize, hey, I could actually do this as a job.
And all those games got me my first job at Softdisk, and they published a number of those adventures and arcade games! You can say, ah, times were simpler then, but it's actually easier now! There are great tools and software libraries and games to mod. Just look at all the web games that are out there. 300,000 iPhone games. Mostly simple small games. One or two or three people can still make a wildly popular game. And finishing a reasonably-scoped game doesn't take that long.
For instance, I did a very simple clone of Galaxian called Bugaboo in Anachronox. I did the graphics, sound, code, everything in 15 hours. It was in our scripting language, but there are plenty of scripting languages and tools out there. Or just make it in text! Graphics don't matter. Gameplay does. Finishing
does. There's really no excuse not to make a game. You can't code? Find someone who can. Or make a mod. Or be like Brenda and make a non-digital game. Now there are no barriers, no excuses as to why you couldn't finish. Make a new game with a checkerboard. Or with D&D figurines. With a piece of paper and dimes and pennies. You want to make games... why aren't you making games? It's not some magic baton that someone hands you. It's not a conch shell you're given and now you are the authority to start enacting your vision. Your desire should have given you the power, and your persistence should have produced a game.
Thirdly, I look for a creative spark. Many people come in and say how their version of World of Warcraft would feature this, or their Call of Duty would have a cooler weapon. That's more desire fulfillment than design. It also hubris to assume from making nothing you can go make a AAA title. Sure, that can be a dream, but you have to take the steps to that dream, to work at it. And have a mind for design.
When you interview, I will give you a few scenarios in a game, and ask how the player gets through them. Truly creative people will ask, "how many do you want?" and rattle them off. It's sort of an impromptu definition of a game design. What does the player get to do? What are you teaching them to do at the start of the game? And how pedestrian are your ideas?
Take the well-worn interview scenario, "You are the player, starting our new game, locked in a castle prison cell. How do you get out?" It's so easy to say, "They attract the guard's attention, then grab him through the bars." This is the predictable rom-com of design. "You search and find a key" is, too. Wow, your abductors overlooked that!
What I want to hear is how you are starting your game, and what new thing are you immediately teaching the player. Could be something simple but mechanic- and environment-aware, like:
Create something novel and understand that these are the first moments of a game, and you are teaching the players critical things. You are defining the experience from the cloud of infinite possibilities. You are telling the players what they can and can't do. You are giving them rules. And you're showing me you can come up with solutions as a designer, creative ways to make things happen given parameters. I'm giving you rules. You are playing the game of game design.
Yes, it would be great if you can make a coherent game design document and have an example. Yes, it would be good if you can break down small games into tasks for programming, art, design, and sound, what I call PADS. But that can be taught. Passion and creativity and persistence cannot. You say you want to make games. Don't tell me. Show me.