On Game Design Careers

Posted September 2, 2015

An old highschool friend send me a message on Facebook asking for advice for her son. He’s interested in a career in game design. She asked for my opinion on college programs. Here’s my response to her.

I’m a programmer, not a designer. I went to the University of Central Florida. There’s two reasons why, my then boyfriend went there, and it was in-state.

There may have been a time when college was a good deal, but it’s not right now - especially in creative fields. It’s expensive and takes time away from honing his craft of game design. From the advice I got from my designer friends, having samples of work is very important. For a budding designer that means designing. Make small games - show off that creative design that only he can do. Create mods for existing games. Join a couple game jams and make something.

My friends also mentioned being knowledgable. Study all kinds of things: economics, history, art, music, movies, poetry, psychology, anything, and everything. Having a wide range of knowledge helps with designing interesting game mechanics, story lines, characters, and experiences. When a designer sits down to create, they pull from their life experience - from what they know. Here are a few books on game design and writing to get him started: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldburg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell - and my recommendation - On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

Also, have a fallback plan. If, at some point, game design is no longer an option, it’s good to have other marketable skills. For example, study programming or art alongside game design. What type of game design is your son most interested in? Story? Level design? Game mechanics? For example, if he focuses on level design (layout and flow of maps), he could potentially take his skills and apply them to modeling - designing cities or office layouts or campuses or the county fair.

Ok, time to get real. College does not guarantee a job after 4 years. I don’t recommend it. Getting into the game industry is fucking hard. It takes perseverance, resilience, luck, charm, and a crapton of work. If your son starts down this path now, he’s got a lot of time to become a game designer. But don’t think getting a degree is going to do it. It won’t. Making games, showing the industry that he’s got good ideas might get him a job. Knowing people in the industry will definitely get him a job (this is where charm comes in). So all the while he’s reading books, studying games, making games, he should also be making connections. Work with people in the field for fun (this is where game jams help). Save up some money and go to a couple conferences. Make game developer friends.

The path to game design success does not exist. The game industry changes too fast. Four years ago iPhone apps were the thing to make. Today the App Store is the most crowded marketplace there is (which means lots of competition). He must find his own path to success. Don’t follow what other people do. Don’t only learn what other people learn (this is what college does, teaches everyone the same things). If he really wants to be a successful game designer, he must first figure out how to become a unique snowflake. Good luck :)