Wednesday, June 21, 2006

So You Want to be a Game Designer (Part I)

It seems to be the latest calling. For those young men (and I suppose a few young women) not aspiring to pro sports or music careers, game design appears to be the dream of choice. I recently took a programming class at a local technical college where it seemed every student under the age of 20 was looking forward to a career in games. When I attended a high school graduation party for some of my cousins last week, I encountered the same sentiment. Even here in Green Bay, game design schools have started to pop up in television ads. There’s something to this, and it’s starting to become big money.

Did You Say ‘Big Money’?
But, who’s making the money? In the cutthroat world of video game publishing, it’s probably not the designer. Sure, there’s money to be made, but usually not big money. Unless you’re in an established studio working on the next in a series of hits, the big payday is an almost mythic daydream. Worse yet for the upcoming designer, the interim paydays are barely enough to cover the rent on your parents’ basement. Is it any wonder your dad looks grumpy whenever you mention your dreams?

What’s an Aspiring Designer to Do?
Aside from all of the industry barriers (which are formidable), the biggest achievement obstruction for the average aspirant is the lack of a clearly defined road to success. If your plan looks like: a) go to game school, b) get a job, then you are missing quite a few steps. Education is critical to success, but it’s like paving your driveway. You have smoothed the very beginning of your road into the world of video game publishing, but you still have to get in your car and drive it somewhere. You, my friend, need a serious roadmap.

A Plan for Success
First, I feel it’s my duty to point out that there is no plan of success that will work for everyone. As I’ve already alluded, game design is a tough industry and the apparent record amount of young blood pouring into (or perhaps onto) the field means that an even higher percentage of aspirants will fail. Any good plan, therefore, is a plan to increase your chances of success. Given that this is already a very low figure, it is critical that you push that number up as much as you can.

What Kind of Job Are You Seeking?
There are a variety of jobs in the game design field, but I’m focusing here on creative and technical talent. If you’re the entrepreneurial, upper-management type looking to start your own studio, you’re aiming too high. This is like building a brick wall at the end of your driveway. No matter where you’re trying to go, you’re going to keep crashing into that brick wall until you either wreck up or give up. Either way, you won’t get where you’re going.

In any job, you should learn first, advance later. Once you’ve joined an established studio and experienced the release of a title or two, you’ll have enough experience to understand what you don’t know about studio management. Then you can put together your own plan, which most likely involves sucking up to a major publisher you met along the way. That’s for you to figure out when the time comes.

So What Are You Going to Do Now?
To get a job as a game designer, you need to make yourself into an ideal candidate. You must be educated, experienced, professional, well connected, and you have to live where the work is. You must be able to pay your bills while you’re searching for work in the gaming industry. You must have a “Plan B” in case your job search fails or takes longer than you expected. In Part 2 of this article, I will expand upon each of these critical achievements.


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