Excerpts are from Breaking Into the Game Industry, Advice for a Successful Career from Those Who Have Done It by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber, published by Course Technology PTR. The book can be purchased at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers. Find more books on Game Development at Courseptr.com.
What Do Game Designers Need to Show in Their Portfolios?
Brenda: Games, games, and more games. Showing completed games in your portfolio is a must whether you're just graduating from a college program, coming in as a self-taught designer, or are a transitioning game industry vet. A game designer who has no games in her portfolio may as well say, "You'll just have to take my word for it," and that never bodes well for future interview possibilities. On many occasions, I have heard budding designers say, "Well, with all my college courses, I just didn't have time to work on games." To a professional, this suggests a genuine lack of passion and insight as well as a naive view of the industry. If you felt so overwhelmed by your college courses, how will you do under the pressure of intense deadlines and game industry scrutiny? You think it gets easier?
When I am hiring entry-level or intern game designers, inevitably, there will be a pile of résumés. Some will contain giant design docs. Others will contain actual running games. I will go for the actual game every single time. It shows you went further, and had that discipline and devotion to see it through. There are a thousand ways for a design to go right and wrong, and the finished game shows me the designer has considered those paths, for better or worse. Completed games or levels will win over a design doc every single time. Who wants to read 200 pages when you can play a simple game?
Although it might seem challenging, select a group of individuals (or go solo) and participate in indie games and game jams. The indie scene is strong and conferences like IndieCade and the Independent Games Festival at GDC offer budding designers a chance at substantial recognition and awards. Even being selected to show at these festivals is prestigious. Game jams, in contrast, are open to everyone and offer a chance to make a game in just a weekend (with spectacular results, both good and bad). Participation shows drive, genuine passion, and might just get you a finished game at the end.
The ability to code in some language is also highly desired. Language preference varies company to company, genre to genre, and platform to platform. For many, the perfect package is a coder who can design games. Many of the industry's greats, from Will Wright to John Romero to Sid Meier, are exactly these types of designers.
Another clue into a person's passion is a "body of work" and play that suggests passion for video games and game design. People who maintain blogs with posts that talk about or dissect video games are useful, provided their analysis is accurate and reasonable. Also, slamming a game publicly isn't looked upon well by people in the industry, in general. Likewise, many developers also do a thorough review of a new prospect's playing habits, as much as they are able to. Facebook and Twitter show plenty of clues to let prospective employers know what a person is and is not into. When an employee applies for a job making social games, for instance, I check out their Facebook page to see what they're playing. If there's no evidence to be seen, it suggests one of two things: They aren't really interested in social games, or they delete all their posts. Neither says good things about a prospective hire.
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:
- "I am a monk. I learn how to hop from wall to wall, reaching a window 40 feet up."
- "My abductors don't know I am a spirit mage. I learn through a few prompts how to take spirit form, and walk through the bars. It takes most of my energy, so I know I must use it sparingly."
- "I am told I will die of starvation in this secret cell and will never get out. However, I am immortal; I learn the time-acceleration mechanic, and stand in place for centuries while the castle crumbles around me. Being able to travel through time in a place where I will not be interrupted will give me access to inaccessible areas if I am clever."
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.
Kim McAuliffe (1995, Game Designer, Microsoft Game Studios): Play games -- and not just the games in your favorite genre. Play what your mom is playing on Facebook and figure out why it's so compelling to her even if it's not to you. Play things normally out of your comfort zone. Being able to talk about any genre at will is valuable. Play board games, card games, everything. Analyze the major systems as you play, figure out how they work together to form a cohesive experience, decide what you feel works really well and what you think is broken. Know what rubber-banding is. Notice when something feels too random, or not random enough. Modify the rules; create your own.
In every interview I can remember, I've been asked, "If you could make any game, what would you make?" Have an interesting answer ready for that, not just "I really want to work on Sequel X." What would you do that hasn't already been done? Also, do your homework before interviews. Play the company's games and dissect them. Talk about what you like, but more importantly, talk about what you don't like and how you would change things to make the game better.
Be willing to start out as a level designer, and play with level editors to create your own. It might not be possible to leap straight into systems design without prior experience, and on smaller projects/teams, you might be called on to do both. Even if you don't end up in level design, you need to know what level designers do.
Be multifaceted. If you're in school, take classes in writing, art, programming, and public speaking. Being able to organize, explain, and present your creative ideas is as important as generating them. You will be writing documents for an entire development team and/or clients to read, so they have to be clear and concise and use good grammar. Having a basic knowledge of what the artists and programmers who will be implementing your ideas do makes you a valuable commodity to hiring managers.
Stay current with industry news and trends. Add RSS feeds from major game sites to your daily reader; follow industry vets on Twitter to see what they think is hot and noteworthy.
The best tactic is to make a game. Having something playable that demonstrates your creativity, knowledge, and skill says more than an artfully written résumé.
I Want to Send My Idea to a Game Company. How Do I Do This?
Ian: You don't.
But you want to. How can you possibly get your amazing idea made if you don't submit it to a company? And why would they turn down your idea when it will obviously make them so much money?
For one thing, there's the legal system. If they so much as look at your idea and then they happen to come out with a game that has even a superficial resemblance, you might sue them. Game companies know this, so many of them will flat out refuse to look at anything you've done. If they do look at your work, it will probably only be after they have you sign a release form that signs away all of your rights to the idea, which probably defeats the purpose of sending it in.
Also, "ideas" are worthless in the industry. Just like everyone in Hollywood has a "brilliant" movie script they're working on (including the janitors), everyone in the game industry has at least one "brilliant" idea for a game. Ideas are the easy part; actually building the game is the long, hard, and expensive part. Give the same "brilliant idea" to ten different teams, and you'll get ten very different products. Ideas are nothing; execution is everything. A wonderful idea, horribly implemented, loses money.
If you want your game made, go forth and make it. If you don't have the expertise, you can learn the skills you are missing, or try to team up with someone else who can provide those skills (but you will have to convince them that it is worth their time to work on your idea, rather than their own idea, and the burden of proof is on you since you're asking for their time). If you have a working game, and the game is fun, that will get people's attention much more than an idea.