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Breaking into Video Game Design: A Beginner's Guide

by Charles Lees-Czerkawski on 02/02/15 01:25:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

My eBook, Breaking into Video Game Design: A Beginner's Guide has been updated. I've re-worked the 10 practical steps you can take to get your foot in the door of game design. I've included a section about going down the independent route, giving some insight into setting up a small studio thanks to the journey we've had running Guerilla Tea for the past (nearly) 4 years. I've reworked the misconceptions about working in the games industry as well, and generally added more substance to the book.

If you're yet to go to University, then the final section on University Courses is well worth a read.

The book is not intended to be an exhaustive guide, dip in and out as and when you need, take the bits that work and enjoy!

Here's a short excerpt:

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SECTION 1: SETTING THE SCENE

In the eyes of many young people, breaking into the video games industry is the holy grail of future employment. For those who are passionate about games, making them for a living is the best thing you can possibly do with your life. And let me start by saying, this is absolutely true, so don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise!

I feel that it’s important to make that clear in the opening paragraph of this little guide. Run any search on this topic and you’ll find a number of coldly scientific advice articles, crawling like spiders around the internet, waiting to trap the unwary and poison all their dreams. This guide aims to give you a good injection of reality, while at the same time trying hard to encourage rather than dishearten. And that’s my first piece of advice.

Don’t ever let anyone discourage you. Remember that people can become disillusioned for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes those same people will take a sort of perverse delight in putting a damper on the aspirations of others.

I didn’t quite make it, so why should anyone else?

You have to learn to distinguish between this, and good, solid, realistic advice, of the kind which may be difficult to hear, but which will surely help you climb the ladder.

So, what can you expect to find here? Well, this is only a starting place. Through the following short chapters, I’ll cover the role of ‘game designer’ from a number of different angles, I’ll try to be practical and realistic and attempt to give you some appropriate guidelines in order to help you to pursue the career you want. There are no easy answers and the rest will be up to you. But I won’t make it seem like an impossible dream, the equivalent of winning the lottery.

This guide is aimed primarily at high school students, and university students without any significant work experience, who are ambitious to forge a career in game design, but there may be parts of this that would be of interest to others, perhaps at a later stage, hoping to change direction.

WHY SHOULD YOU BELIEVE ME?

As previously stated, there are many places to go for advice, and in what is such a fledgling (but rapidly evolving) industry, the advice will vary very much, depending upon who is giving it and when. In many cases, the veterans with many years of experience will contradict each other. So why should this book be correct? Why should you take my advice any more seriously than that of others with arguably more years of experience? The answer is simple. You don’t have to. All you have to do is take what seems useful to you and leave the rest.

There are a handful of superstar game designers out there, such as Hideo Kojima, Cliff Bleszinski, Sid Meier, Yu Suzuki, the equivalent of the superstar writers or artists you’ll find in other areas of creativity. There are a good number of other game designers that I would probably consider to be exceptional in some way and not just exceptional in their talents. They are exceptions to the general pattern of a career in game design because of the work they do, the games they’ve released, and of course the luck they’ve had. You may become a superstar as well. Somebody has to! But meanwhile, you have to take things one step at a time and work hard if you want to succeed.

In the grand scheme of things I am pretty much a beginner and at the start of what will certainly be a long road. I have however had some luck, mostly as a by-product of very hard work over the last few years, and I’ve helped to build up what is now recognised as a successful indie studio, here in the UK - Guerilla Tea - and had the pleasure of working on some remarkable projects.

This is the driving force behind writing this guide and perhaps one of its key strengths. It is intended to be a realistic, but by no means pessimistic, overview of the game design career, written by someone who is very much ‘in the trenches’ at the moment. I can offer some down-to-earth and hopefully relevant points to consider along the way.

It strikes me that I may be in a position where my advice may be more immediately applicable to a school student or recent graduate than the wise words of a thirty year veteran. That is not to say that a long time veteran does not have useful advice, because of course he or she does. But the fact is that these people are far removed in time and experience from the situation of your average student. Their situation was akin to the early days of television when people would be roped in to do all kinds of things with very little experience. They learned on the job and their expertise grew with the technology. But by definition, these same people – experienced and talented as they might be – would have very little practical understanding of what it might be like to try to get ‘into television’ nowadays, since things have changed so radically within that industry and with the levels of expertise required.

Always remember that you never know what the future will hold and what will happen. You have to believe that your dreams stand a chance of coming true. But it can also be helpful to have a reality check to help you on your way during the early stages of your career development. There’s no substitute for experience, so perhaps now would be a good time to give a brief overview of my own career in game design so far.

I completed my first degree in 2008. You may be surprised to learn that I didn’t take a game-specific course. I gained a BSc Honours in Pure Mathematics from Glasgow University. Truth be told, any solid three or four year degree from a reputable university will stand you in good stead for a career in game design. From here I began working in a QA testing lab in Glasgow, contributing to titles such as Dirt 2 for PSP, and followed this with a stint at Rockstar North, working on GTA: The Ballad of Gay Tony, and Red Dead Redemption, before eventually moving to the North of England for a QA role with Traveller’s Tales. Then, like so many before me, I attempted to join a small start-up as a designer. This was a good experience in all kinds of ways, but it didn’t work out as a long term solution for me. It’s always worth remembering, however, that everything that gives you experience in this industry is helpful.

Recognising that I needed to approach things from a slightly different angle, I undertook a twelve month Professional Postgraduate Masters course in Video Game Development at the University of Abertay, in Dundee, which turned out to be the best move of my life. This is an excellent postgraduate course, involving people from all disciplines within the games industry, many of them with some previous experience, even if only in QA, working together. I was very lucky indeed in my first semester as my randomly selected team ‘gelled’ incredibly well, and we ended up creating a terrific mobile game prototype called ‘The Quest’ - a puzzle game heavily inspired by the mechanics of a Rubik’s Cube. It attracted considerable attention in academic circles, culminating in some publicity in the shape of TV coverage and magazine articles. It even picked up a few awards including a BAFTA New Talent nomination here in Scotland.

After the course finished, however, the really tough work began when the four of us who had created The Quest decided to set up an indie studio in Dundee. This first semester team, involving myself as designer, our coder Alex, artist Matt and producer Mark, formed our indie company: Guerilla Tea. We started from zero. Like the conventional media image of the indie start-up, for the first 8 – 9 months we were working with our PCs set up around Mark’s kitchen table. We managed to gain a small piece of contract work and at the same time, took the so-far partially developed Quest into full development.

Shortly after The Quest was released, we managed to secure some funding to put together a prototype game, which led on to further work with several clients, most notably DC Thomson. This is a Dundee based magazine and comic publisher with a long and distinguished history and we were very happy to secure work on several projects including an app tying into the popular Beano comic. However, our real break came when we began working with Cancer Research UK on Play to Cure: Genes in Space, a world-first mobile game where players are actually analysing genetic cancer data with each round of gameplay. It was a tremendous success, with 1.5 million samples analysed within the first month of release, and it ultimately gained a lot of press coverage including some celebrity recommendations.

Now, soon after our third birthday as a company, working from excellent office premises in Dundee, instead of from a kitchen table, we try to maintain a balance of work-for-hire projects, along with releasing our own original games, and it has certainly been an effective strategy. We have hit many hurdles along the way, but we have learned so much and are going from strength to strength. This is one reason why I might be able to offer some very immediate and pertinent advice to those still thinking about future careers, and wondering where they might best apply to study and then what route they might best consider taking into the industry. Sometimes it seems like feeling for footholds in the dark. But I’d like to offer whatever help I can to those just starting out.

To continue reading, grab a copy for only0.99.


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