The Pitfall Of Game Design As An Entry-Level Career Choice
[02.09.12] - Jacob Stevens
[Jacob Stevens, the owner of Riverman Media, offers home helpful tips for breaking into the industry, noting why a design job might not be the right fit for a fledgling developer.]
When I was a senior in high school, my math teacher, never one to hold back a nugget of wisdom, had a few departing words for us. "Every girl in my class wants to be a marine biologist, and every guy wants to make video games. So you're all going to have to keep learning math!" He was exaggerating of course-I knew several girls who weren't interested in marine biology-but his point was well-taken: behind every glamorous and desirable career choice lies a hard-earned, but slightly less enchanting, technical skill.
Fast forward about a decade, and I find myself compelled to dispense similar advice. As one of just a handful of developers in my hometown, I am frequently asked how to "get into game design." Indeed, it is rare to discuss my career with anyone (including non-gamers) without them proposing a game concept to me.
Thus, it makes sense that many people, especially high school and college students, conceive game design to be an ideal career choice. However, my observations have led me to the conclusion that a premature focus on game design greatly limits one's probability of becoming a designer later in one's career.
Therefore, if your intention is to eventually become a designer, I strongly suggest that you acquire a technical skill such as programming or art production, alongside pursuing independent projects that will give you design experience.
In this article, I will examine several perspectives that support this claim:
- Entry-level positions for designers are rare. Designers earn their positions by first excelling at other work.
- Proportionately, most of the effort that goes into a game is invested in art and programming. You will be able to contribute more if you know one of these skills.
- Good designers must have a deep understanding of art and technology, so it makes sense to develop firsthand understanding of these fields.
- Learning art or programming does not mean you have to forego learning design. In fact, you will learn design faster if you are focusing on a production skill at the same time.
A Few Disclaimers
Before I continue, I should qualify my arguments with a few disclaimers.
First, in case there is any doubt, I consider game design to be the most important job on the development team. It is the designer's job to hook players with a compelling premise, make sure play elements are balanced and intuitive, keep players entertained with depth and variety, and to help solve all the little hiccups that occur during the development cycle. It is because of the designer's unique and pivotal role that I have come to the conclusions drawn throughout this article.
Second, I should also add that my arguments are based purely on my own unique set of observations. My industry experience comes from three work scenarios: 1) Twelve years of creating games independently, seven professionally. 2) Working as a contract artist for Wayforward, a California-based company specializing in Nintendo handhelds, and 3) As a lead user interface designer for IBM (U.I. design being the "serious" equivalent of game design.) One perspective I am admittedly lacking is that of working for a large studio that produces big-budget, triple-A titles.