How many of us have thought to ourselves “how cool would it be to become a game designer!” It might seem like a pipe dream at first, but with the right approach, it’s possible, even for someone in their 30s with a completely unrelated education or background.
One day, an almost 30-year-old Japanese account manager with a degree in social sciences decided that he wants to become a game designer because one of his friends showed him a game that he really liked.
This article will mostly focus on how to start a career as a game designer, but to an extent, it can also be applied to other game development roles like visual artists, programmers, sound engineers, testers and so on.
First of all, it’s important to understand what a game designer does
The range of a game designer’s responsibilities might depend greatly on the genre and scope of the game, the size of the team working on it and many other factors.
Sometimes game designers might be tasked with focusing on a specific aspect of design, for example, level design (creating the geography for a 3D open-world game or levels for a 2D puzzle game).
Other times, designers (especially when working with a small team) might have to dabble in everything from the UI, balancing difficulty and character progression to writing and even doing some coding or testing.
A lot of the time, it’s also the game designer’s job to integrate the assets he is provided by other team members (like character and environment models, sound effects or scripts) into the game.
It could be said, that a game designer is a jack-of-all-trades amongst the game development roles.
A programmer is good at coding, an artist is good at drawing, but what should a game designer be good at?
When I was invited to my first interview for an entry-level game designer position I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pretty surprised when a lot of the questions they asked me seemed unrelated to game development at first glance.
They asked if I watch a lot of movies/TV series, if I read a lot of fantasy/sci-fi books, if I watch any eSports, if I stream, if I play Dungeons & Dragons and if I’m active in any gaming discussion boards.
The reason behind interviewers asking these questions is that they understand that first and foremost, a game designer needs to understand what makes an experience entertaining and immersive. Every other skill (like working with game development software or coding) can be learned, but creativity, artistic vision, an eye for detail, storytelling and an analytical frame of mind are the hardest qualities to teach someone.
So don’t worry if you can’t draw or code right now. If you spent years and years gaming, watching movies/TV series, reading novels or playing tabletop RPG – you already have some experience as a game designer (and you should definitely include that in your CV).
So how do you actually get your first job as a game designer?
Are any local companies hiring game designers or interns with little or no experience? Don’t be scared to start as an intern. The difference between an internship and a job is that companies take time to teach interns the necessary skills.
Keep in mind, some companies might list the position as “level designer, content designer, system designer” etc. Don’t worry, all of these roles are essentially just different aspects of game design.
Design criteria (being able to justify your design decisions and not saying “I propose this just because I like it”)
Being able to understand the scope of games (no “I can make a MMORPG in 2 weeks” or things like that!)
Being open to criticism.
See things you did (games in game jams, prototypes) and talk about the design decisions involved.
2. Consider a job in the gamedev industry even if it’s not a game designer position
If there are no job postings for a game designer, it’s not a bad idea to start in some other gamedev position, like quality assurance (QA). In a lot of gamedev companies, it’s common practise for employees to change roles, even early on. A lot of game designers started as something else.
3. Research job opportunities in game development abroad
Some companies are willing to hire game designers to work remotely. Other companies are willing to do interviews via video chat. Consider if moving to another country for a job in game development would be an option for you.
4. Network yourself (super important!)
Go to local gamedev events like game jams. Take part in game development discussion boards, follow game developers (people, not companies) on social media. A lot of game designers got their first job because they knew somebody, but whoever they knew, they didn’t meet that person sitting on their couch. Another way to network yourself and improve your portfolio is to start a blog about video games. In addition to increasing your chances of landing a job, networking or blogging will keep you motivated and engaged.
5. Consider developing your own indie game
Having a finished project or even some prototypes in your portfolio would dramatically increase your chances of landing a job in the game development industry and your ability to network yourself.
Creating a game from scratch is not easy, but it’s not impossible. Based on the software you decide to use, you might have to learn to code to some degree.
Here is some more sage advice from Adrián Novell for people in their 20s who want to become game designers:
Study multimedia. Learn a bit of programming, a bit of art (graphic design). Learn to use the Adobe Suite (at least the basics of Photoshop, Premiere, Illustrator).
If you decide to make your own game, you should realistically assess the scope of your project. If your first project is a 3D open-world RPG it will almost certainly never see the light of day. Think less Skyrim and more Flappy Bird. Even something small would be a great addition to your portfolio.
Prototyping skills are a huge, huge, huge pro. You don’t have to be able to make a full game, but clear knowledge of scripting and rough prototyping ability in whatever toolset helps. How else are you testing your designs anyway?
Even if you can’t make a finished game, you can still learn valuable skills and show off your prototypes to other people in the industry.
6. Send cold emails
7. Keep at it
Whichever of these approaches you go for, always remember to stay persistent in your search and don’t be scared of rejection.
If a 29-year-old Hidetaka Miyazaki had given up on his dream to become a game developer after he didn’t get the first job he applied to, we wouldn’t have Dark Souls.