Hiring Game Designers
March 20, 1998
In these enlightened days, most game developers and publishers have heard that a development team needs a “game designer.” Some even know what a designer does. A game designer isn’t necessarily the one dreaming up cool new game ideas. Game ideas/topics are often directed, and always approved, at the highest levels of management.
So what does a designer do? In short, a designer does a lot of writing: design documents, the user interface, goals of the game logic, dialogue and screen text, frequently the first draft of the manual, and sometimes the entire manual. A designer also researches data, provides algorithms or tables for certain parts of the game play, works with the team continually to refine and revise the game, and is a major participant in the play testing process.
The greatest problem faced by companies employing designers is how to find and hire good ones. Almost anyone with the remotest connection to game development will tell you either (a) their real goal has always been to be a designer, or (b) they already are a designer because they did “some” design work on project X. Meanwhile, corporate executives trade horror stories about egotistical designers who rant and rave, kick Coke machines into junk, and start childish Usenet flame wars weekly.
On the opposite side of the fence, a small horde of potentially good designers is dying for a chance to break into the big leagues. They all wonder how to position themselves to be attractive to potential employers. The employers, meanwhile, wonder how to find the next genius among the hordes trying to storm the citadel.
Designers Come in Two Sizes
Game design work has two distinct levels: lead and assistant. The vision and game play decisions of the lead designer guide the game toward commercial success. Even if top management dictates the genre and topic, its directives rarely exceed a paragraph or two. Turning those brief paragraphs into a fun, money-making game is where the lead designers exercise their craft and creativity.
Some games require more design work than the lead designer can handle, especially if the schedule is tight or the project is large. Assistant designers are the ditch diggers who diligently work on those tiresome details that the lead designer lacks the time to accomplish. These details might include nit-picking research, setting up level maps, grinding out data tables, or scripting text blocks and voice-overs. In time, the assistant designers (and their employer) hope they’ll learn more about making games; enough to permit their ascent from the trenches to the exalted status of lead designer.
This discussion deals with the quantifiable skills and background that an employer can evaluate when considering different candidates. It is assumed that anyone doing a competent job of hiring can evaluate prior experience and determine if a person is likely to fit into or clash with the corporate culture.
The First Cut: Literacy
The core skill of game design is the ability to write well. Designers must be able to write discursive, analytical prose that clearly communicates complicated concepts. It’s amazing how many people lack this ability. Invariably, these people make poor designers. Their design documents will be a mess, in-game text will be confusing at best, and they are no help at all with the game manual. Besides, good writers are handy elsewhere. In a crisis, a literate designer could come up with a press release, web page text, or even box and ad copy. It might not be great, but it shouldn’t be too embarrassing either.
Unless a candidate has obvious professional writing or editing experience, the best way to evaluate his or her ability is to examine a writing sample. Lead designers should be able to provide their previous game work. Assistant designers should have something that they’ve worked on, even if it was never published. Something game-oriented is naturally preferable. You should write off any applicant who can’t show you a writing sample. Writing is a skill that must be practiced, and that practice inevitably produces something that you can read.
Another reason to demand good writing is that it’s impossible to write well without a certain amount of intelligence, organization, and clear thinking. An inability to write may be the iceberg tip of far greater weaknesses.
Depth and Breadth of Knowledge
The designer is the central source of information about a game’s topic. A topic-challenged designer may need months to read and research enough to become a semi-expert. A designer who is familiar with the subject can immediately start thinking about how subject and game play might converge.
For example, my current employer, Interactive Magic, publishes numerous contemporary and historical games with a military theme. We expect our designers to bring some background to this field and have fairly decent gaming experience within it. Some months ago, while interviewing a prospective designer, I asked him what era of military history or contemporary military affairs he understood best. We started talking about the classical era (Greeks and Romans), but it quickly became apparent that most “ancients” miniatures gamers had a better feel for that period. We tried WW II, where at least he could mention some famous pieces of equipment. Unfortunately, he couldn’t describe what equipment opposed these famous pieces, or why these opponents were overmatched. I don’t expect every designer to master every period, but a good designer needs to have dug into the details of at least one period or genre.
I also probe for breadth of knowledge. Designers are more effective if they understand something about graphic design, art, music, and theater. The best designers that I know are renaissance men and women with numerous interests and abilities.
Good game designers keep up with games published in their field. It’s impossible to play every game, but familiarity with a respectable variety, good and bad, helps one avoid past errors and profit from past successes. A game-challenged designer might need a month to find and play representative titles of the genre, and would still lack the extra insights that germinate during animated pro-and-con discussions about various games. Meanwhile, the knowledgeable designer can anticipate the thorny issues of game play and help steer a team away from dead-ends and toward useful answers.
When I interview prospective designers about game play, I always apply my professional/amateur acid test. This involves discussing various games that we both know, preferably games similar to the ones he or she will work on — although in a pinch, anything will do. We talk about what features we felt were successful and unsuccessful. We discuss how these features contributed to the overall success or failure of the game. A candidate who can talk only about what he or she enjoys, and has no interest in the opinions or attitudes of others, fails the test. If they genuinely are interested in trying to figure out what gamers want, identifying what features seem to attract customers, and banishing elements that drive customers off, then they pass the test with flying colors.
A designer must go beyond personal preferences and try to understand what customers want. It’s dumb luck if your personal preference happens to match that of the general public. This lucky match can happen once or twice. Unfortunately, it rarely lasts. I know a couple of egocentric designers who were very successful in the 1970s. Although their products from then are still known today, their subsequent work has passed unmarked by any success. Another example occurred a few years back when a well-known game designer “retired” because the public wasn’t ready for and didn’t appreciate his work.
Lead designers really must have a strong grasp of the genre in which they work. This often leads to specialization among designers. For example, one of the Interactive Magic design staff is famous for his attitude toward anything science fiction or fantasy: “Never touch the stuff!” Nevertheless, he happens to be one of the world’s most experienced designers and inveterate players of nineteenth-century wargames, and he knows and plays the twentieth century just as well, not to mention ancients. For a company heavily involved in military strategy games, this designer is a priceless asset.
On the other hand, breadth of ability is important. Very often, staff designers get matched to projects simply because the designer happens to be free. The flexibility to do a good job in a field outside your specialty increases your job security and improves your chances of getting hired. My own resume includes published credits in simulation, strategy, RPG, and even console action games. This really helps when (not if) the company folds or you're caught in a downsizing.
The Importance of Cool Ideas
Innumerable people believe that they’d make a great game designer because they have a cool idea for a game. Unfortunately, because so many people have so many cool ideas, different people frequently come up with the same cool idea. Furthermore, most game companies spend at least 90 percent of their resources milking a past cool idea that “made it big,” and less than 10 percent gambling on the next cool idea. When they do gamble, it’s because people like the chairman of the board, the president, or some vice president insist that the company bet on their cool idea.
What a game designer contributes is the zillions of cool small ideas that make a game better, even if the president’s cool idea actually is tired and lame. A good game designer will flesh it out, add some nifty features, downplay the irrational stuff, and deliver a product with some chance of success in the marketplace.
Anyone seriously interested in game design automatically has lots of cool ideas. Any designer worth his or her salt can give you three blockbuster ideas before breakfast. I know I could do it, but never has my employer asked, “Hey, make us a game for Christmas next year — your choice, just so long as it sells well.” Still, I’ve been more fortunate than most. Exactly once during my 15 years in the industry, I was able to talk a company into doing “my idea.”
Another indicator of a good designer is that he or she feels no obligation to be original. The real pros understand the value of reusing ideas that have worked in the past. Many people criticized DIABLO for being NET-HACK or ROGUE with cool graphics and sound. The truth is, NET-HACK and ROGUE were great games. The DIABLO team had the wisdom to take a well-proven idea and do it really, really well. A designer who ignores such lessons and insists on constant novelty is a financial disaster waiting to happen.
Today, games are created by teams of artists, programmers, designers, and increasingly a sound specialist. A good designer must work well with such a team. In both the interview and the reference check, be sure to probe for their attitudes towards others. An overweening ego almost invariably means poor teamwork skills. If a designer even hints at being an overbearing know-it-all who sneers at the rest of the world during an interview, don’t expect him or her to suddenly become thoughtful, considerate, and collaborative with the development team.
On the other hand, a good designer, especially a lead designer, needs a certain amount of self-confidence and willpower to keep the game on a sensible path. Like any collaborative effort, games need a “direction giver.” This person has the authority to prevent the effort from fragmenting into a mish-mash of features that pleases no one.
Game designers need not be programmers. Even those who were once programmers find that being a good designer leaves them little time to code. However, a designer must have sufficient experience or native intelligence to understand what programmers and artists say. Lead designers need sufficient experience to know what should be easy, what will be difficult, and what is impossible. Every few years, a new tide of hardware and software washes through the industry. Designers need an awareness of this, since apparently miscellaneous bits of flotsam and jetsam can hold the keys to dramatic advances in game capabilities. Designers with recent work experience in large organizations have the advantage of strolling down the hall to get insights. The solo freelancer spends time and money discovering what is possible and what is not.
For example, I believe that the astute use of 3D art software (not 3D real-time display engines) to achieve animated, photorealistic scenes helped make COMMAND & CONQUER or DIABLO into megahits. Guessing right on programming protocols for 3D accelerators could be equally important for late 1998 and 1999.
Naturally, experience in game software development is valuable. Prior experience should be a modifier to the factors mentioned previously. A designer who seems to have the necessary abilities, insights, and attitudes will be more useful if he or she has experience. However, a designer with the appropriate qualifications but no experience is actually preferable to a veteran designer who can’t write, has insufficient background, can’t think analytically about games, is outrageously egocentric, and refuses to work on anything other than a current brainchild. Worse, a “poison pill” veteran will not only command a large salary, but will also need a big, expensive support staff to do all the real work. Hidden staff costs aside, I would always trade one “poison pill” designer for a brace of promising assistant designers.
Nevertheless, it’s also risky to give an assistant designer a lead designer’s job. Large companies, especially, benefit from at least one senior or lead designer to help the assistants along, guide their efforts, and nurture the best into lead designers. Naturally, being one of this sort myself, I believe companies should spend lavishly and wisely on this critical bit of senior talent. Still, in some cases, veteran lead designers need not be hired; at the moment, I know of numerous superbly qualified individuals who work as freelancers.
Finding good lead designers is very difficult. As with any professional position, a company is best served by a nationwide search, a willingness to examine agency candidates, and a general “rattling the network” to see who might be available and interested. Designers tend to know other designers, which makes networking exceptionally important.
Conversely, for assistant designers, companies are served best when they start close to home. Many good candidates may exist within the company, toiling away in play testing, customer service, or other junior positions. I’ve had the most luck with the play testing staff. Their continued presence proves that they can survive the horrors of finishing a game. More than once, I’ve invited play testers into a specific project on a probationary basis, just to see what they could do as an assistant designer. On occasion, I’ve been pleasantly surprised, and the person has gone on to a happy and successful career in design. Other times, I’ve seen my worst fears confirmed and had the unpleasant task of telling a person that their skills, abilities, and/or knowledge were insufficient to do the job.
Looking beyond the company itself, local universities and gaming groups can be talent gold mines. Even if you don’t find any assistant designers, these people are often willing to work part-time in play testing. Ads in local newspapers can turn up some surprising candidates. One of the most successful “finds” at Interactive Magic was a meteorologist who just happened to have all the right skills and attitudes, despite a lack of professional experience. Within two years, he’d survived lead design challenges and moved up to an assistant producer role.
About “Breaking In”
ne seeking a first job in game design can infer much from this discussion. First, make sure you have the appropriate skills and can demonstrate them clearly to an employer. Some companies may have wacky ideas about game designers, but the level of intelligent hiring grows as the capitalistic equivalent of Darwinian selection bankrupts firms that consistently make poor decisions.
The best place to get a foot in the door is at a large firm that needs assistant designers. These companies are more likely to consider candidates with little or no experience. If a design job isn’t available, consider a related position, perhaps in play testing. Even if you can’t get promoted from within, a year or two of industry experience and product development exposure can help you snag an assistant designer position elsewhere. Another useful place to get experience is to volunteer your assistance to the various professional web sites that deal with gaming. Some marketing departments take these sites almost as seriously as print magazines; perhaps your interviewer will feel the same.
For those still making educational decisions, a four-year college degree at the most challenging school you can handle will help. A well-rounded liberal arts education can be as useful as math or computer science. It’s easy to imagine courses that might help you write scripts for an introductory narration (public communications), research obscure historical data (history), guide a composer onto the right track (music appreciation), discuss screen layout and color with the lead artist (principles of design), understand the techniques and limitations of the new 3D engine (advanced algebra), then pitch in to write a decent manual (writing). Of course, some programming courses won’t hurt either. Lack of a college degree need not be fatal, but those without a degree need work samples to prove that their abilities and skills are equivalent to a college education.
All companies hire in spurts. During the happy times when a company expands, they need people right away, if not yesterday. During the down times they just don’t hire, period. Therefore, try to figure out which companies are doing well and check up with them frequently.
Work on your job hunting skills and apply them intelligently to the game industry. It always helps if you walk into an interview familiar with the company’s products and future plans. That means playing their hits and recent releases, memorizing their announced list of future releases, and finding a way to reveal this knowledge in a cover letter or an interview. In interviews, always be careful with the classic question, “Give me an honest appraisal of our game X.” Most people are testing not only your insight and honesty, but also your diplomacy. Congratulate them on what they did right, and offer suggestions for improvement in areas where they had trouble. A cardinal rule of business it to offer solutions, not problems. Find something nice to say about even their worst game and don’t hesitate to point out weaknesses in competitive products.
Finding a job in game design can seem difficult to impossible. It requires patience and persistence to find a company that successfully filters out the clamor and concentrates on candidates who can really “do the job.”
Arnold Hendrick spent ten years designing paper wargames, RPGs, and miniatures rules before his 1982 arrival in computer games. Since then, he spent three years in the “cart game” trenches at Coleco, enjoyed MicroProse’s ups and downs for ten years while working on various well-known products, and for the last two years has been involved in building and guiding the design staff of Interactive Magic.