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  • Designing Video Games ... Sometimes

    [11.08.07]
    - Jill Duffy

  •  On another game, Harris spent most of his working hours running gameplay tests and capturing gameplay footage and building cut scenes, while on another he did finally have a much more recognizable role designing the game, but was sent in to help a struggling team (who likely resented the fact they needed to be bailed out) and had to live in a hotel for six months while doing so since the outsourced team was based in another geographic location.

    All of Harris' examples shed more and more light on what it means to be a designer, especially in a large company where many projects are in different stages of development at once, and designers may be sent to task wherever problems exist.

    Harris also says there is no one path, be it educational or training-based, to becoming a video game designer. One encouraging aspect of this, he says, is that, in terms of technical knowledge, a designer doesn't necessarily have to learn any software before finding a job. "Where an artist will use [3ds] Max or Maya ... from my experience in design, I've had a custom editor on every single game that I've worked on," he says. "You have to learn a new skill set on every single game that you make." In other words, it's not actually possible to learn specific software skills, since the custom editors are not available to the public. Designers are oftentimes simply expected to learn the software on the job.

    A Designer's Timeline
    "You do have to get a little bit lucky, and you have to do the right things" to initially break into the game industry as a designer, he says. "It's not as defined as other roles. What's important for you guys if you're interested in becoming a designer is that it's not as hard and fast to get into it."

    Harris' own story, as he tells it, starts with what he didn't do. "I didn't go to university. I did two A-levels [or courses in specific fields of study for students age 16 to 18, approximately] very badly ... and getting into the industry was kind of good luck." Harris had been working in a warehouse after finishing his A levels and says he was "dangerously close" to staying there full-time simply because he didn't have any other plans. When he decided to make a change, he simply picked up the phone can called EA to see if the company had any game testing jobs available. It did. Harris says he actually ditched a final exam in English to attend the interview at EA, but that it was ultimately worth it. "It was a slightly different time then than it is now. It's more structured now ... and you can spend many years working your way up through it; and it's a more viable career path now."

    Harris spent a year testing at EA, before moving on to a design job at Hothouse Creations in Bristol. He says he just happened to find that job in a similar way to how he just happened to find the QA job at Electronic Arts. Still, he attributes some of his success to being a lively and "charismatic" person.

     At Hothouse, Harris built maps and wrote the story for a game. "It was my first real exposure to being what a designer is ... It isn't well defined. It changes day to day" from story writing, to map building, to developing game mechanics. He adds, "The nice thing about being at Hothouse for those years -- I was 20 at the time, which was the youngest member of staff at the time, and it was a bit of a stuffy company" where his friendly attitude, enthusiasm, and positive energy stood out in contrast to the other employees at the studio.

    Harris spent two years learning more about how the industry works, until one day he "happened to see my old boss on TV promoting the first Harry Potter games." He says he called his former EA colleague and, after a bit of chatting, was asked to come back to the company.

    Nowadays at Relentless, Harris works on the Buzz! games, a series of social interactive games for PlayStation 2. Buzz! was already established as a franchise by the time Harris came on board, and it had already sold more than a million copies. "It was a very different role. They wanted a fresh perspective on an existing format."

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