What does it mean to be a Game Designer? Different game companies will give you different answers to that question, and Game Designers have their own ideas. This has practical ramifications: when you’re searching for a job as a Game Designer, you have to understand what it is that each company is looking for, and how it matches you skill set.
Designer: The definition of Designers themselves
I try to be active in the games community, and I’ve had long philosophical discussions with other Designers about what it means to be a Designer. The consensus is this: Being a Game Designer, at its best, is like being the Director of a movie. You and your cohorts come up with the Big Idea for the next game you’re going to make, and then you get to plan out how it’s going to happen (Game Design Documents). The top Game Designers know how to organize and inspire their development team, and how to deal with small detail problems while always maintaining their central vision.
Game Designers are jacks-of-all trades, visionaries; we can speak Artist and Programmer, and can translate from one to the other. The main tasks of Game Design are documenting everything and making sure that the game is ‘fun’.
Designers in Flash / Mobile game companies
My last two jobs were with Flash companies, so I know their definition well. Most Flash and Mobile companies, when they post Designer positions, are looking for Artist/Programmers; that is, someone who can both animate images and write code. The core concepts for the games themselves often come from clients.
Here’s a link to a standard job posting for this kind of position: Link.
The reason for this is that most Flash game companies are small, or are contracted to create very small projects. They cannot afford to hire multiple people for the money that they are receiving. Many web games and mobile games are created by one or two-man teams, and are completed with the space of a few weeks or months.
This does not mean that you cannot get a position as a Game Designer in Flash or Mobile companies. Occasionally, these companies will get large contracts for which they need a large team, and those that know what they’re doing will want to hire proper Game Designers. You’ll still need a wide range of skills, including character design, level design, interface design, and scripting (XML at least, Java for pros).
Being a Game Designer on a large Flash or Mobile project can be quite fun, as you will often be one of only two or three Designers present, so your ideas show up everywhere within the final product. You have to be very flexible though, and be prepared to for tasks outside your comfort zone, like QA and asset integration.
Game Designers in AAA game Companies
What AAA companies all seem to want are specialists. They want someone with many years of experience in whatever posting they have available. I’ve seen Game Design postings requiring 10 years of experience in scripting quests for MMOs. I’ve seen posts requiring 8 years of experience in designing UI systems for First person Shooters. AAA companies want as much experience and expertise as possible for the postings they have.
AAA company postings have to be taken with a grain of salt. In many cases the company in question knows the specific person that they want to hire, and are only posting the job because they’re required to by law or by contract. If you apply to these postings you will never hear back.
On the other hand, many companies post high requirements to scare away the rabble. You’ll find that if you have SOME experience in the things they want (especially a published title), they’ll be much more open to you than their post would make you believe.
The best kinds of ‘experience’ for these companies is published titles, but if you don’t have those, create some levels using a popular level editor. It is especially helpful if you create a level in the specific genre they’re working in. Just keep trying, and don’t give up.
Game Designers in other companies
Definition of Game Designer: random. I think I’ve seen everything. Job postings where ‘Designer’ means programmer. Postings where ‘Designer’ means artist, or scripter, or dialogue writer. It’s hard to wade though the hundreds of job postings there without coming across lots of these. I have a few trick that will let you know quickly whether the company is looking for Game Design or not.
First, look for job descriptors within the title of the posting. If the post says ‘Level’ Designer or ‘Character’ Designer or ‘Interface’ Designer, you can be pretty sure of what kind of job it is. If the posting says ‘Flash’, ‘Mobile’ or ‘Web’ Designer, the company is usually looking for some kind of artist/programmer. ‘Casual’ Designer is often a posting for proper game design. If the posting just says ‘Designer’, it could mean anything.
Once you open a posting, skip down to the ‘experience required’ section, which is usually in point form and easy to skim. Look for things like ‘Scripting languages required’ or ‘Good knowledge of Maya’ which will indicate whether the position matches your skill set.