Designing Video Games ... Sometimes

By Jill Duffy [11.08.07]

 "I've worked in games for 7 or 8 years," says Jez Harris, a lead designer at Relentless Software, "and am a run-of-the-mill designer."

Though employed at Relentless now, and previously with Hothouse Creations, Jez Harris earned the bulk of his experience in game development at Electronic Arts working on the Harry Potter franchise. He spoke at the Game Career Fair in London recently about what it actually means to be a video game designer. The jobs a designer is asked to do, he says, are often completely different from what the general public probably assumes they are.

"I had no real notion as such of what being a designer at EA would mean," he says. "It is very different and it changes from project to project. You have to be very adaptable." He cites as an example of having to work on cut scenes, which may be a skill that a designer isn't necessarily strong in -- or might not have at all. But it's the designer's job to fill in whatever gaps exist on the project, he says.

The Unmarked Path
Harris' list of game credits at EA includes Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup (2003), Catwoman (2004), Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Azkaban (2004), and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat (2005). While working on all these games, his business card said "designer." But Harris says the job title often did not match the tasks he performed.

For example, on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harris spent a good deal of his day-to-day time placing objects and enemies in the game world. On the sequel game, Quidditch World Cup, his role was more inclined toward business. "A lot of my job at that point was to look after the vibe of Harry Potter," taking care of the intellectual property in a way that would respect author J.K. Rowling's vision, stay true to what she wrote in the books, and at the same time ensure that the game was fun and would profit EA.

Then, while working on the "appalling" Catwoman game -- which ranked ninth on Gametrailer's Worst Movie Tie-ins of All Time -- Harris says his job was to take the script and adapt it to become a video game. So in one sense he was a writer, but in another sense, he wasn't writing anything because he had to work with the given source material (which he admits was abominable) and somehow make it fun and interactive. The production of Catwoman was actually outsourced, leaving Harris to look after the script, the IP, and an outside team who might not have had much confidence in the game -- and rightly so. That the game was going to be "crappy" despite whatever hard work anyone put into the game is a fact that Harris finds both frustrating and par for the course. That's just part of what it means to be a game designer.


 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."

 What You Can Do
Harris notes that there is a debate among game designers about what kind of informal education is best: whether one should play every single game that comes out and be able to reference them when designing new games, or be a player who has completely fresh eyes all the time by not paying too close attention to what has come out in the past. Harris says he sees both sides of the debate and has himself been in both positions, having gone through stints of extreme game playing and then not.

Harris does have a list of soft skills that a game designer not only needs to have, but needs to radiate. Excellent communication skills, both written a verbal, sit at the top of that list. No matter what odd day-to-day jobs designers are asked to do, at the end of the day, they will always have to present their ideas clearly to other members of the game development team.

Second, designers must be creative in the sense of having fresh and effective ideas and approaches. A designer can't have just one good idea, but needs to have hundreds and needs to be willing to change those ideas outside of his or her own tastes and preferences to best serve the audience and the game's integrity. Third, a designer must have the ability to understand and appreciate what works in a game and why. "It won't always go your way," says Harris, meaning what's best for the project at hand may not be what the designer had originally envisioned. And on that note, Harris ends the list with "adaptability"; being a designer is rarely the same job twice.

 A designer should recall that number one skill, communication, when initially making contact with a game company, whether that is in person, over the phone, or via a CV or resume sent by email. The applicant's speaking skills, use of language, and personal skills can all work together to create a strong first impression about their ability to communicate clearly. "With perhaps the exception of a producer, a designer is the person who has to talk to everyone on the team," says Harris, adding that getting along with others is just as important as communicating with them.

The need to be "adaptable," he says, has several meanings, too. Designers should be versatile in what they're willing to do and be prepared to "get in through the back door" of a company in whatever position they can.

"If I were to receive an email from someone saying, "I've been playing a lot of Buzz! lately, and I'd like to share with you some thoughts I've had,' I'd love that. I absolutely want to hear feedback about what I'm doing.

"If you're looking to find a job, don't just go to a recruitment agency, don't just send out letters." Harris' advice is to talk to the people who work in game development studios about their games, and show interest that is relevant. "They might not agree, but it's far better than an irrelevant CV with your grades on it. That's interesting, but it's not as interesting."

Another piece of advice Harris has is to play all kinds of games. "Don't just play video games: play card games; play word games in the paper; play everything you can get your hands on." Figure out why people like to play, and have conversations with players about why they think they enjoy a certain puzzle or game.

"It's just as important to know what your mum thinks of Wii Sports as it is what your friend thinks of Halo 3.

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