Breaking Into Game Design, Part 1

By Ethan Levy [07.25.13]

 [BioWare veteran Ethan Levy offers his insider knowledge in this series of tips for up-and-coming designers looking to land a job in the games industry.]

Before I left to work on Enhanced Wars, I was a producer and manager at BioWare's San Francisco office. The majority of my time at BioWare was spent as a producer leading the Dragon Age Legends game team. During my most crunched state I had a team of 25, 19 of whom I managed directly. Hiring truly takes a team to do right (and I was lucky to have a strong team at EA between the fantastic HR department and my colleagues at BioWare) but one of my primary responsibilities during that time was to serve as hiring manager for a number of positions across game design, art and engineering.

Since I left BioWare, I have turned to community participation on Reddit and forums to fill the hole in my life where co-workers used to be. Since my two partners in crime on Enhanced Wars are in different time zones I don't have a lot of water cooler conversation. So, I hang out on threads trying to add value by lending my advice to current and prospective game developers.

I find myself repeating a few pieces of advice over and over again about how to break into the industry as a game designer. I thought it would be valuable to take my perspective as a hiring manager and turn it into a series of articles about how to position yourself best to land that first gig.

A big caveat - I am just one hiring manager with one perspective. Each company you are trying to work for and person you are trying to impress is different. These tactics would definitely work if you were trying to land a job on my team. Personal mileage may vary.

Step 1: Fnd Your Mountain

In 2012 one of my favorite authors, Niel Gaiman, gave a commencement speech at The University of Arts in Philadelphia. It was filled with incredible advice for guiding your creative career. The first step in any game designers journey can taken directly from that speech:

"Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be ... was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain."

This is important because game design is a broad profession. In any given day I might write a design document. I might wireframe some UI or spec out a UX flow. I might tweak tuning values in a spreadsheet all day long or lay out levels. I might do narrative work or write copy for menu screens. I might spend all day fixing bugs in scripting files. I might plan out a monetization strategy.

This list doesn't come close to defining all that goes into the bucket of game design. Even more important than tasks is genre and platform of game you want to work on. For instance, if Enhanced Wars folded and I wanted to get a full time job, I would feel confident applying for monetization design jobs on mobile games tomorrow. But if I decided it was time to build 3D levels for AAA games on the PS4 and Xbone, I would need to spend a minimum of 6 months preparing before I could apply for that job from a space of confidence.

Your mountain will change many times over the course of your career. New opportunities will arise, new platforms will take shape and new genres will be invented. But it is important to pick an early goal. Because applying for a level design job on Tom Clancy's The Division is fundamentally different from applying for a UX design job on Battlefield 4 is fundamentally different from applying as a generalist designer with a small mobile startup company.

Do your research and figure out what sort of job you will want to pursue as a designer. My best advice - look at job postings on Gamasutra and the websites of companies you admire. Read about the actual requirements, roles and responsibilities for real design jobs. Invariably you will find yourself saying "that sounds like a lot of fun" or "I would hate to do that every day for the next 3 years."

And a word of advice, don't set your mountain as Creative Director. Not at first. I know it is everyone's dream to be The Guy or The Gal leading a game's creative vision. But if you find that the only jobs that appeal to you are those with a fancy title and 10+ years of experience required, you are in for a rude awakening. If the years of backbreaking work it will take to climb the mountain are not inherently rewarding, you will never never make it to the top.

Once you have found your mountain, you will be ready to start building your design portfolio.

Step 2: Build Your Portfolio

Although I do not review as many resumes now that I'm an indie developer working on Enhanced Wars as I did when I was at BioWare San Francisco, I still review the odd resume here or there as a result of a Reddit or forum post. When I do, my top line feedback is almost always the same: "You need to work on your portfolio website."

At BioWare San Francisco, we had a strong affinity for interns and co-op students (who would work a full semester at the studio for credit). In a very real sense, we would not have launched Dragon Age Legends on time without the contributions from our co-op team members. As such, one of my favorite times of the year was when the fantastic university relations team at EA would deliver the resumes of potential interns they were bringing to campus for interviews.

It was not unusual for me to review 50 resumes in one marathon session to pick out the prospects that I thought would fit a need on my team. Whether I was reviewing a stack of resumes for intern candidates or a single resume from a recruiter for a full time position, my process was almost always the same. Open a resume and scan it for about a minute to look for highlights. Open the portfolio website link and spend a significant amount of time reviewing (if possible). If a portfolio was great, I would request a phone interview. On more than one occasion, I called someone instantly because the portfolio was so good I didn't want to waste any time lest the candidate be snatched up by another studio. Sometimes the candidate already had. A high quality portfolio was the single biggest factor in landing a phone interview.

Tangible proof

If your professional experience is minimal or non-existant, the challenge you face is that you have no credibility that you will be capable of fulfilling the job requirements. When I'm looking to fill a job, I don't care about your mission statement, your extra curricular activities or your summer job in a completely unrelated industry. I only care about proof of your design abilities.

It can be difficult to know what to put in a design portfolio, as there are no standards for what a good design document is or how a game economy should be laid out. The best possible thing to have in your portfolio is shipped games. With tools like Unity and Game Maker Studio and the ease of self publishing, it is my opinion that a prospective game designer should exit college with one game on the app store for each year in school. There is no stronger proof that you are a capable designer than being able to show that:

  1. You know how to finish a game and release it to the world
  2. You took the time to listen to your players, either through metrics, comments, reviews or other feedback
  3. You can tell a meaningful story about how you improved your game based on player feedback

Being able to tell me that story in the initial phone interview is an instant ticket to a full team interview.

Building a proper portfolio will take months, if not years. In college, I tried on multiple occasions to assemble a team to make a game. I got plenty of interest from programmers or artists who wished to talk about a game and collaborate, but when it came time to start working on the game they did not deliver. Unless you have a team you truly trust, my advice is to start out by making small but completed and polished games that you can build on your own. If you don't know how to code, it's time to learn!

Feature portfolio material

What you build for your portfolio is highly dependent on your mountain. No matter what type of design job you have, the tools exist to prove you are capable of doing high quality design work. If your mountain is to work on open world RPGs, then dive into the Dragon Age or Skyrim mod tools and make quests. If you want to work on multiplayer FPS, then dig into Unreal Engine 3 or Hammer and release levels to the world. If you want to work on a MOBA, then get cozy with the WarCraft III or Starcraft II editor and prototype a new MOBA style gameplay mode.

No matter what your mountain is, you cannot wait till you "land that gig" before you start learning how to design content. Only by proving you can finish content, release it to players, listen to their feedback and improve your content based on feedback will you be able to land that first professional gig. And if your goal is as targeted as working on a specific game or at a specific company, if they have publicly available tools you better invest time in mastering them.

Other portfolio material

A designer's job is much more dynamic than simply creating levels or quests. There are a number of other documents or types of content you can create and share as part of a portfolio. Here are some suggestions based off the varied types of work I do on Enhanced Wars and other projects:

Game Treatment - no one is going to read a 75+ page game design document when evaluating you for a position. But they will scan a 5-7 page game treatment that outlines a game, its market and its core features at a high level.

Feature Brief - a detailed document that explains the full implementation of a single feature for a game, including UI wireframes and flow, goes a long way to impress. Design a new feature for an existing and well known game in the genre you wish to get hired in. Make sure that in the early part of the brief, you have a section explaining why this feature needs to be added to this game.

Game balance evaluation - much of a designer's job is tuning and balancing game variables. Pick a game and write a report evaluating balance of a particular system or economy. Take detailed notes on multiple play sessions, compile and summarize fan and review feedback and come up with a series of recommendations on how this system's balance can be improved.

UI/UX redesign - most of my work in mobile/tablet games involves designing or evaluating UI. Designing UI is a difficult task, especially if you've never done it before, but it is critical to a modern game's success. Pick a screen or flow from a popular game that you think is broken or unintuitive, and propose a detailed redesign.

System balance spreadsheet - most of my time as a designer is spent in spreadsheets or JSON files tweaking values. If you have followed the earlier advice and built some games, you will likely have a system values spreadsheet to share. Clean it up and add annotations so that another human can read it.

Pen & Paper prototype - many games start as simple ideas prototyped on pen & paper. Although you cannot easily share the results, you can share your process. Fully document with text and pictures the process of building a pen & paper prototype complete with your final rule set. Explain the design problem you are trying to solve and show the steps you took to solve it, pointing out what does and does not work.

These are just a few examples based off my experience. If you've done your homework and spent time identifying job postings you would like to apply to, you may have other design deliverables you would want to build to prove one requirement or another.

People are busy

The hiring managers who will be evaluating your portfolio are likely to be some of the busiest people on the game team. They will not have a lot of time to review all the materials that you have spent months or years preparing. They will probably not install your game. They will probably not read your full document. They will probably not open your spreadsheet.

If you really want to shine, then for each piece in your portfolio you should create a 90 second or less video on youTube. In this video, show the piece of work, whether it is a level, design document or UI flow. Talk about the process of designing the work. What were your design goals? How did you achieve them? What feedback have you gotten from players or peers and how have you reacted to that feedback?

So, why go through all the effort to make materials that will likely only be glanced at? It's time to learn how to sell yourself.

Step 3: Learn to Sell Yourself

Now that you've built a strong portfolio filled with tangible design works, you may think it is time to write your resume and start applying for jobs. But the same way that when designing features on Enhanced Wars I always set a design goal before writing the actual spec, there is groundwork you need to do to figure out what you want to achieve with your resume before you start writing it.

When I was deeply involved in the hiring process at BioWare San Francisco, I spent a lot of time working with our HR partners on identifying candidates. Although I would spend time on LinkedIn searching for candidates, this may be one hour or less a day because I had responsibilities on my game team. The majority of the searching was done by HR.

It is hard to explain to someone who does not have hands on experience developing a game the difference between a content designer and a systems designer. Or to explain that you need a systems engineer who may have previous jobs listed as a system administrator, but you don't want anyone with traditional sysadmin experience you only need someone who works with cloud services like AWS. These are very complex, specialized requirements and there are no standards or guidelines around job titles and seniority levels in our industry.

So you end up telling the HR partner about the types of experiences you are looking for. You may write a list of studios to look at, job titles to search for or explain a number of tasks you want to see on a resume. "I need a designer with experience creating quests and scripting levels on an RPG. But he or she has to be well rounded. Ideally the candidate has experience creating user experience flows and designing new features on a live game."

I explain all this to help you understand what is happening on the other side of the hiring process. HR partners will forward the hiring manager resumes that come in through online postings, but will also spend time crawling the internet looking for candidates (mostly on LinkedIn). If they find someone that they think fits the requirements, they will send that person on to the hiring manager to ask if this is a candidate worth reaching out to. In general people on the hiring side are looking for key experiences on your resume that will convince them you are worth reaching out to for a phone screening. In order to prepare yourself to pass through this first hurdle, you must figure out how to sell yourself.

Hero stories

Part of the reason to build an extensive portfolio is to gain a number of design experiences to talk about. You need to think through those experiences and figure out what your unique selling points are as a designer. Everyone applying for a game design job is passionate, so don't try and sell yourself on passion. Don't sell yourself with unrelated skills or activities. You need to figure out what are the things you want to talk about when you get that hiring manager on the phone. You need to find your hero stories.

Hero stories are the stories of a real world experience you had that highlights why you are uniquely qualified for this job. The conversations you will have with people looking to hire you will be driven by the content of your resume, so you need to seed that resume with lead ins to your most heroic deeds as a designer.

For instance, let us imagine that I am applying for a lead design position on a mobile team. I would want to prove that I am capable of taking an idea from initial idea all the way through the process to execution and launch. I think that pen and paper prototyping is one of my core skills as a designer so I want to make sure I highlight it with a hero story:

"We started prototyping Enhanced Wars by first laying out our design goals. These were a list of bullet points that started with ‘We will know we are done prototyping Enhanced Wars when...' then listed out things like ‘we have a game with no stalemating' and ‘we have played at least 3 full games with the final rule set'. My colleague and I did 22 iterations of Enhanced Wars within 24 hours. Quite late at night, around iteration 16 we thought we had the magic build and called it a night. In the morning, we started the day by reading our design goals. When we tried to verify our magic build, we discovered gaping holes in the design and kept prototyping until we finally had a version that fit all our requirements with iteration 22."

Now, I don't expect you to actually fully write out all your stories like this; I certainly never have. But what I do expect is that you think about the many design experiences you have had and put together a list of bullet points for your hero stories. Figure out how you want to sell yourself to fit the position.

Write your failure resume

Another important aspect of interviewing for a job will be showing how you have learned and grown from past experiences. In order to sell yourself with a level of introspection and acknowledgement of past mistakes, I suggest you write a failure resume. This is an idea I learned listening to a lecture from Tina Seelig, the Executive Director of the Stanford Technologies Venture Program.

The failure resume is a summary of all your biggest screw ups and the lesson you learned from those mistakes. These stories will be just as powerful as your hero stories, if not more so, when you are selling yourself as a candidate for a job. For example:

"At PlayFirst, I was given the role of Lead Designer on my second game at the company, Mystery of Shark Island. Although I may have had the raw design skill to do the job, I did not realize till many years later that I simply did not have the maturity level to lead the design of the game when I was so fresh out of college. One of the biggest areas of difficulty I had was in listening to feedback from the senior people in the company - I would often shut down their ideas (with poor body language and tone of voice) and make them feel like I thought their ideas where stupid. This negative cycle meant people did not like to work with me. From my perspective, I felt like the game was failing because other people did not understand my vision and I had to compromise it past the point of fun.

Years later, I learned to ‘find the why behind the what.' This realization came to me when working on Dragon Age Legends and getting feedback from literally the top people in the company. What I learned then that I wish I had known at PlayFirst is that other people are not as close to your project as you are. You know every intimate detail so it is easy for you to instantly see why other people's ideas will not work within the framework of the game. But when the CEO has taken time out to sit at your desk because he enjoys playing your game, you can't tell him he's wrong. And in fact he's not wrong, he just doesn't know the project as intimately as you do.

So what I did was to listen to feedback then try and identify the reason why the game was failing to deliver that led to a specific feature request. So, if someone would say ‘I want feature X' I would reply ‘I think you are suggesting this feature because you are having problem Y, is that correct?' Now we're having a discussion about root cause and motivation that the game team can solve, instead of talking about the merits of a specific feature."

By writing your failure resume, you will be able to sell yourself at a much deeper level. When you get difficult questions or are asked about past failures, you will know how to take a story about a negative experience and turn it into a positive experience.

Now that you've identified all the stories you wish to use to sell yourself, you are prepared to write your resume, which I will cover in the next article in the series.

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