Breaking and Entering: I want to be a Designer!

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Hi. I hope you enjoyed the one about schooling and game development. Today, I jotted down some thoughts about being a designer. By no means comprehensive, but just some things to think about.

So you want to be a designer. The best way to become a designer is to be a programmer or artist first. We’ve even hired designers who were in QA, too. It’s a potluck. You can’t get in unless you bring something to the table. Once you get into the party, you can work your way over. Designers can be broken up into a few different categories – and keep in mind, these roles are split/combined in different ways and called different things depending on where you work in the industry.

This is a VERY general outline and I’m sure there are people out there who can define these much better than I have, but here is my take.

System designers – These guys mess with formulas and spreadsheets and sometimes even programming. They design game systems like how the magic system would work or how frequently a creature should spawn or how powerful a weapon is.

Writers - They write. Dialogue, journal entries, lore books, cut-scene scripts, storylines for quests, factions. They come up with the names of all the cities, taverns, NPCs, races. They are the lore masters.

Scenario designers - They decide how the gameplay is implemented. Very closely related to Writers. So close they are usually the same person. They do the actual work on putting the quests into the game. Lots of scripting involved here.

Level designers - They are the architects of design. They build levels, script combat encounters. If you work on first person shooters, you’ll usually find more of these guys than the other designers.

There are more variations. I’ve read that Bioware specializes some of the designers to purely block out dialogue and conversations (Mass Effect). Here at Bethesda, our designers and level designers basically do it all. We mix and match based on the situation.

OK. Enough chit chat. You want to be a designer. Here is how you do it:

Get your hands on the Source SDK, The Elder Scrolls Construction Set, the Neverwinter Nights toolset (either game, 1 or 2 or both!). Make lots of mods. When the time is right and you have a chance to interview for a design job, show them all your kick ass mods. And if you think sacrificing your personal leisure time to learn arcane tools with little to no documentation is hard, that’s actually the easy part.

The hard part is being in the right place at the right time.

One mistake I see a lot is laboring over making the perfect mod, the perfect quest, the perfect whatever. Quite frankly, your first mod is probably going to suck. Chances are, so is your second mod. But you will never make a good mod unless you can get your crap ones out of the way.

Make your mod match where you want to work. You want to work here? Show us mods using our Construction Set. Want to work at Bioware? Learn the Neverwinter Nights (Aurora, I think is what its called). Want to be first person shooters? Make maps for Half Life or Call of Duty, or Portal maps.

Of course, being a kickass modder doesn’t guarantee you anything. But it gives you a leg up on all the other designer posers out there who say they want to be designers, but can’t be bothered to actually design anything.

By the way, be careful about expressing how many great designs you have for games. Development studios don’t care about your ideas. We have lots of ideas. Trust us. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Implementation is everything. We want to know that you will work your butt off, that you have a thick skin and take criticism, that you are committed to learning and adapting, that you can absorb knowledge and teach yourself.

So, make games on your own time. If you aren’t a programmer, make mods. Doing this dramatically improves your chances of landing the designer gig of your dreams.

I feel I should mention this again. It is best if you do have programming or art experience. I strongly believe that the best developers are the ones who have experience in a bit of everything. It helps you make better decisions, especially when your work is going to get handed off. Hmm. This would be a good topic for future – hybrid developers.

By the way, we like to joke sometimes that everybody wants to be a designer until they actually become one. Don’t put it up on a pedestal above other game development jobs – at the end of the day, its still work :)

PS Want to be a designer? Work for us as a tester. Each of the departments on the development team (Art, Programming and Design) has one full time intern. These interns mostly come from our QA department. It’s mostly grunt work, but the hard work by our interns definitely show up in our games. We’ll be hiring next year so keep an eye on our jobs page.

Reader Comments

  1. While I’m not involved in making games YET, there is one thing to add that I think should be noted.

    “I feel I should mention this again. It is best if you do have programming or art experience.”

    It also helps if you at least have some knowledge about games. If you don’t play them, you can’t create them. If you don’t know at least some of what it takes to get the stuff under the hood running, it’s going to be harder to get all the pieces to work together. As the TV cartoons say, “Knowledge is power”; or was it “Knowing is half the battle!”?

    I was reading about the making of Daikatana (no laughing, please) on Gamespot (http://www.gamespot.com/features/btg-daikatana/) and lack of experience was mentioned, as well as in hiring some of the people involved in the making of the game early on that were rather inexperienced. Add that to the host of other issues, and it’s not hard to see part of why the game didn’t fare as well as it should have. For the record, I like the game.

    *prepares to be victim of Bloody Mess*

    If you want to make games, you need to also play games. At least I’d hope that the people making my game are people who like to play games, Mind you, its not neccessary that you be an expert or uber-modder, but having something to your credit helps. Everyone has to start somewhere, and after you’ve gotten a start, then aim a bit higher and higher each time until you get to do it, rather than choose to.

    Just my $.02.

    btw, where can I get one of those killamajigs?

  2. A very informative post. Hopefully this inspires some modders to leap forward, and some poseurs to scurry away in fear.

    In short, if you’re want to talk the talk then you have to walk the walk right?

    I’m only proficient with audio and writing. I’ll take an uneducated, wild stab in the dark and say those are probably the two most flooded positions in the market, correct?

    I don’t think I’d ever be able to work in the video game industry. I’d probably find a home in a pen and paper RPG business.

  3. After countless hours on the 360 version of Oblivion, I picked up a copy of the PC version for the construction set alone.
    Its hard to find time to mod, especially when you’re an art student, but luckily a lot of the projects I do will likely help my future mods.

    Not too sure if I will get an answer to this, I’m kind of new to the blog. (I’m unsure if non-employee’s are even welcome.)

    But; in a job interview, how effective is having a fun casual game to show? Something made in say… Director, or Flash? (Again, I emphasize fun.)

  4. Generally decent outline towards landing a design job, however I have a bone to pick with the following:

    “Development studios don’t care about your ideas. We have lots of ideas. Trust us. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Implementation is everything.”

    It astounds me how often I hear this, and I’m always taken aback. Dev studios don’t care. True. And so much the worse for them.

    “Ideas are a dime a dozen.” This is nonsense. Crap ideas are a dime a dozen; good ideas are very, very rare. Implementation is important, but that’s not what kills most games. Most games are bad ideas that shouldn’t have been implemented in the first place. A well thought out idea always has been, and always will be, the most precious thing of all. Be that in the games industry, or any other endeavor.

    Does an entry-level designer need to have a good, high-level idea? No, because no one will listen anyways. But the lead better have a kickass, terrific high-level design idea — not just any dime a dozen idea.

    Implementation — that’s the easy part.

  5. the best way to get noticed is to show people that you can do things.

    Daniel, I’m sure all posts are flooded, but look around at mods, they always need people. It’s amazing how many people want to make games, but as soon as you mention no pay and lots of time and dedication, they get very scarce ;P

  6. “Development studios don’t care about your ideas. We have lots of ideas. Trust us. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Implementation is everything.”

    I’ve heard this one a lot too, and it does seem a bit arrogant.

    But not every kick-ass idea equals a kick-ass game. Sometimes it’s not technically possible to turn into a game or feature, sometimes it may not actually make for a good game.

    But it would be nice if more developers would at least open the gates a little to see if we can move a bit further away from cliches and the usual suspect of features, both in gameplay and in presentation. I’m tired of seeing the same game with different textures and the latest must see graphics that’ll be outdone by the time I play the game.

    Yes, the truly groundbreaking, genre-defining, uber-ideas are the really valuable ones, but not everyone has them or wants to give them up.

    $.02

  7. The idea vs implementation thing is pretty accurate though. Every gamer I ever knew always thought he had the Best Idea Ever ™. But typically, they were only fuzzy ideas. They lacked acutal follow-through.

    When it comes to implementation, sometimes it’s just taking the idea from that initial state and fleshing it out in-depth. Saying “I have this awesome idea for a game that involves a plumber, some pipes, and a giant turtle!” is actually pretty useless. It doesn’t tell anyone anything about how to make the concept work, what the hook is etc.

    The designer types listed above aren’t code-implementation necessarily. If you’re a writer, implementation means writing a full story, or a set of dialog trees, quests, whatever.

    So yeah, saying “I’ve got this great idea” isn’t worth nearly as much unless it’s followed by “and here’s a full, in-depth proposal outlining how it works”

    Everyone has cool ideas, very few people follow-through with them beyond the “cool idea” part.

  8. Contrary to what a few people here think, ideas really are a dime a dozen. I’m talking about good, solid ideas that would turn into a very fun product given enough attention.

    Imagine this, however: Think about how many simply awesome ideas you have, and then think about how many more awesome game ideas you would have if you thought about games day in and day out. I’d imagine that even a remotely creative person could have 10 outstanding game ideas in a month. Now imagine there are 100 people at a game company, all capable of coming up with 10 awesome game concepts a month. That’s 12,000 ideas a year. Now, these numbers are purely hypothetical, but you get my point.

    A good idea gets chosen because it fits well with a number of other factors including resources, marketability, timing, current available technology and a host of other things.

    Particularly @Liquidgraph: Implementation is not the easy part. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. Implementation takes more development time than anything else, and if something isn’t implemented well, people won’t play it. If the controls are clumsy and unintuitive or if puzzles are unfair, the story not interesting, gameplay too repetitive, etc. People simply won’t play the game. Implementation is refine and polish on top of a solid foundation. In fact, you can take a fairly basic idea, for example a futuristic military space FPS and turn it into something wholly unappealing because it was implemented poorly, or it could turn into one of the most popular and high-selling games of all time. Just look at Halo 3. There’s no earth-shattering new concept to Halo 3. It doesn’t have crazy portal puzzles and it doesn’t have its own special guitar-shaped controller. However, it’s one of the most popular games to be released, simply because of good implementation of a proven idea(and lots of marketing).
    If implementation was so easy, there would be a lot more home-brewed games out there.

  9. Interesting and informative post. It’s a good note to have now that my hours spent modding and coding weren’t a waste in the grand scheme of things! Now… I hunger for more on getting industry jobs from the mouths (or keyboards) of those who actually work them! ..if you please.

  10. Just daydreaming-type of ideas are common, sure. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about a good core vision that’s hashed out in detail — the bread and butter of design.

    Implemenation is always the easy part because mistakes are easy to correct and test for. An architect and an structural engineering draft up blue prints for a skyscraper, and then you get 1000 beam welders (etc.) to do the grind work. The 1000 beam welders have to do their jobs well, but it’s not difficult to get it wrong because it’s easy to check for flaws. The architect and structural engineer, however, need to know exactly what they’re doing, because if they screw up, or pick a bad design, no matter what the 1000 beam welders do, the project will be disasterous.

    It works this way in all industries. 1 or 2 visionary individuals are in charge of the most crucial design work, and then the rest are worker bees. Sure, the worker bees need to do their jobs well, but your visionaries need to truely be visionary, or else everything goes down the tubes.

    Halo 3 incorporates many visionary features. Coop play, health meter, expansive environments, and the highly addictive core mechanic. These are good ideas first and foremost, and on top of that, they are superbly implemented. Very few FPSs have even tried to emulate these ideas. These FPSs limit their success before implementation even begins.

    Every kid thinks they have a great idea for a game, but that’s not what I’m talking about at all. I’m talking about well thought out designs.

  11. Acheng,

    Most articles i read about “how to break into the industry” discuss’s the various jobs like designer, programmer and artists. What I want to know about is more on the end of marketing/advertising for the games. Who does what? Is it all in house, done by the parent corporation, or is it placed on a marketing firm that you use when the time comes up. What type of opportunities exist for someone that who would like to promote and discuss the games that are developed? Could we get a perspective from that side of the industry as well?

    thanks.

  12. Great interview. I learned a lot from this blog entry, and will definitely consider a lot of it. I have 8-10 more years of school ahead of me at the college level, and I was considering game design while I finish up my degrees. I’ll be at UMD too, so I’m close to Bethesda Rockville.

  13. they need a mmo for elder scrolls so all of us can play with there friends. it shoul do better than wow if they tried to do it so email them to do that.