Breaking In: Part 2
Getting into the game industry.
Part 2. A Call to Action.
Welcome to Part Two of my breaking into the game industry series! If you missed Part One, you can find it here. You don’t have to read Part One to understand Part Two, but I’ll be referencing it frequently. You can expect this article to be less of a personal story and more of a collection of suggestions that you can actually act on to make your journey into the game industry an easier one.
1. Make games.
That’s it. Thanks for reading.
No, I mean it. This is The Most Important Thing™. This is the one piece of advice that you need to follow if you want to be a game designer. Not only can you not prove your design capabilities without making games, but as I said in Part One, if you aren’t already doing it for your own enjoyment, you might want to reconsider doing it professionally.
Your games don’t have to be good enough to publish. Quantity over quality right now.
Playing games != making games.
Yes, it is important for a potential game designer to play games. All sorts of games. You need to be able to build a vocabulary of design aesthetics you enjoy as a player, or lessons learned from frustrating experiences. Playing lots of games is a great, quick way to expose yourself to a lot of unique approaches to design. However, it doesn’t take the place of actual experience. It compliments actual experience, and shouldn’t be ignored, but it isn’t enough on its own. Until you’ve made something yourself, you can’t fully appreciate the mental process a designer goes through to create, implement, iterate and refine a game, mechanic by mechanic. Sitting on the couch playing Alien Isolation and thinking, “Well this section of the game isn’t fun.” isn’t game design. Figure out why it isn’t fun. Is the visual messaging confusing? Are the controls not working the way your brain expects? How would you fix the problem? Why do you think the designer created the system like that? It’s a great deal easier to answer these questions once you’ve tried it for yourself once (or twice, or many, many times).
And listen, I know it’s difficult to start. I know it’s frightening to confront that empty screen and have no idea where to start, but you need to force yourself over that fence. It’s a beast that all creative folks face, whether it’s a blank canvas, an empty page, or an empty game design document. I’ve heard it referred to as POE, Paralysis Of Enormity. Don’t let yourself be paralysed; in game design, sometimes just making a call, any call, is the right call.
To help fight off your fear of starting, I’ve added a long list of resources to get you going at the end of this article.
Start small, stay messy.
The mistake I see a lot from new designers is trying to craft their Magnum Opus on the very first attempt. This is completely unrealistic, and the fastest way to burn yourself out and make you quit. Start small, make a platformer, clone Super Mario, make a point-and-click adventure game from photos you take of your house. I often hear the lament, “But I don’t have a good idea!” You don’t need a good idea to learn the basic skills you’ll need. I know that seems backwards, but for your first attempts, the sooner you just start, the better.
Look, your first games are gonna be pretty bad, but that’s all right. They’re going to be less and less bad every time you make one.
Don’t believe me? Click on the picture above to play an awful game I made in college to see how bad they can be. It’s a completely trashy Missile Command rip-off themed with the overplayed pirates versus ninjas thing that was hot for a while. It’s embarrassing to look at now, but hopefully it illustrates my point.
The reason creating a game from start to finish is important is that potential employers want to quickly be able to judge your design abilities. Talk is cheap, but what have you made? Completing a game takes a level of dedication they want in a member of their design team.
Even if you don’t want to take on programming yet, you can still create a board game or card game or dice game or literally anything else. Take an existing board game and alter the rules to make a new game. At SCAD I designed a reversed game mode of Monopoly I called Housing Crisis. Players started out with all the properties divided up between them all but they all start out mortgaged. It wasn’t the most fun thing ever, but it was an interesting exercise. Maybe one day I’ll put the rules online.
My point is, everything is a learning exercise. Everything you create has value.
2. Make more games.
Yes, it’s important enough that it’s both the first and second point in this article. I know how much work this is. I know how difficult it can be after working eight or nine hours a day to come home and then work on a game idea. It’s one of the toughest hurdles to get over, and honestly why a lot of folks who end up working in retail after college find it tough to break in. My advice is to scope appropriately. Just do an hour a day if you can. Start a blog or journal where you detail what you were able to learn and do in that day’s allotted time.
It’s also incredibly important is to not get down on yourself for making something really basic. It’s an incredible achievement that you should be able to take pride in. It doesn’t matter if you just made a single platform level with no enemies and no jumping; you were able to create something from an idea in your head. That’s goddamned amazing.
I started (and never finished, boo to you Younger Harrison) an RPG set in the Myst universe in RPG Maker. I have no idea where it went, but if I come across it, I’ll put it online. It was poorly designed and completely derivative of Final Fantasy but that doesn’t matter.
Baby’s first GDD.
Making your first few games is like being a newborn baby who is trying to figure out how all its limbs work. I know I’m harping on this point over and over again, but I’m only doing so because it’s so key. You have to use these muscles over and over and over again, so start now.
In Part One I mentioned that I firmly believe I gained a lot of value from getting Minor degrees in both Film and in Animation from SCAD. I’m not advocating that exact path, especially since for a lot of people it just isn’t an option (and because as I said earlier, a degree is NOT required to be a game designer) however strongly encourage you to learn other skills to help support your designer-brain. Even skills or knowledge that doesn’t seem on the surface to have much to do with game design can help you gain an additional perspective to make decisions from. If you max out your skill in game design but nothing else, you have a much smaller toolbox to pull experiences and solutions from.
Here’s the thing, you are going to wear multiple hats, so get used to it now. I’m not telling you that you need to be 100% a Generalist, but there’s more to a game design position than just game design. I have been, and continue to be constantly in meetings to discuss character animations, voice acting, environment art, wiring prototypes and lots of other ancillary things that aren’t what you’d traditionally think of as “game design”.
The Dark Arts
One of the most useful skills is learning programming. No, wait! Come back! Look, I’ll be the first person to admit that programming is basically inscrutable magic. However, learning just a small amount will allow you to start to learn how to implement your ideas and turn them into a game. It’s also a huge help when collaborating with other programmers. If you can grasp the basic concepts of programming, you can speak their language when discussing how to implement your ideas. There are a lot of great resources online like Code Academy that aim to demystify programming and make it a less daunting task to get into. I’m not saying you should be able to create your own custom shader script or write a physics engine from scratch, but being able to get your character to go from World 1-1 to 1-2 in your game is an extremely valuable skill. Also, seeing something you built functioning for the first time is an incredibly empowering feeling!
4. Find peers.
When I moved to Atlanta, the very first thing I did was join the IGDA and the Georgia Game Developer Association. The first meeting I attended, I got stuck in the elevator for over an hour. It actually became a pretty good conversation starter, as people would remark, “Oh, you’re the elevator guy!” I met some wonderful people that now work in all corners of the game industry. You want to grow a web of friends that can always help each other out, whether someone is looking for a job, or looking for someone to fill a job, or just to gather feedback on their latest project.
While I disagree to a certain extent with the idea that “it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know”, it can be an important part of getting your foot in the door. I want to stress however, that you should not be connecting with people with the sole objective of getting something out of them to benefit you. You should be trying to get to know people, all people, without regards for what they can do for you. Please don’t be someone who uses people like a currency. Not only is it really poor manners, but it’s extremely obvious to people when you’re trying to schmooze for a job and have no interest in forging a real network.
For the duration of the time I worked in Atlanta, I also volunteered during the Southern Interactive Entertainment & Gaming Expo (SIEGEcon). It’s an incredibly rewarding experience that allows you to meet a lot of people you might not have otherwise had the chance to. Find an event or show like GDC or PAX and volunteer if you can. You’ll get behind-the-scenes access to a lot of people and information before the general public will. It also helps to have a résumé that shows that your passion for game development extends to your free-time as well.
5. Stop, collaborate and listen.
Working to create your own game is fantastic. However, it’s also extremely important to step outside yourself once in a while. Once you find local friends, make a game with them. Think about joining a mod team or finding a game jam to sign yourself or your new friends up for.
Understanding how to work within a group is one of the most important skills in the game industry. In Part One I mentioned being able to take criticism gracefully; these two points are closely related, not only from a social perspective, but also for honing your design skills. As a professional designer, people will be relying on you to complete tasks on a regular schedule. They will need you to be able to judge approximately how long a task or series of tasks will take you so they can figure out their own schedules, and vice versa. Learning to be flexible and more importantly, to self-prioritize will make you an incredibly valuable asset to a team.
A secondary benefit is that it’s another opportunity to make games! With a team of three or four people, you can try something new or more risky that you might not feel comfortable taking on by yourself. You can check out my last game jam group attempt here, a goofy, mostly non-violent multiplayer FPS where you can only push your opponents around.
Also, thank you for putting up with me adding a Vanilla Ice reference in this article. You’re a most gracious reader.
I want to take a moment here to mention something that will sound completely contradictory to everything I’ve said so far, but bear with me:
Don’t make games your “everything”.
Okay, let me explain what I mean by this. Of course you care about games; I do too. They’re important enough to decide to dedicate your career to making them (and playing them). That’s incredibly important and also super rad! I’m not telling you to stop loving games. I’m not attempting to diminish how important games are, or how much they can help you through some tough stuff in life.
What I’m telling you is to try to lift your head up once in a while and appreciate how amazing it is that we’re all spinning around on a big sphere of water and dirt with other amazing people. It’s so easy to get completely absorbed in your passions, whatever they are, that you’ll miss out on some incredible stuff. Go for a walk, hug your friends, call your parents and tell them you love them. Don’t miss out on forging memories away from a design doc or a boss fight. I know how hard this can be! Remembering to do this is a struggle even for me, even now. Practice it whenever you can.
End of line
Whew, that was a long two articles! If you made it to the end, thank you so much for reading! There’s some tough love here, but I sincerely hope you’ve come away with some valuable and actionable thoughts for getting into the game industry. If I can make it, you certainly can. There’s no secret or one-plan-fits-all method of doing it, and I don’t expect you to be able to just take what I’ve written and find yourself as Lead Designer of Half-Life 3 tomorrow. Use it as a base for your own journey.
Remember lastly to keep the door open behind you when you finally secure your career in the game industry. There are always more people who could use your help and advice to start their own careers, and it’s important to pay it backwards and lift up those behind you.
I can’t wait to see what you create, and I hope to hear about your own stories of getting into the industry soon!