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.