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Most recent update: April 15, 2012


LESSON #3:

Preparing for a career in game design

That's right, we're talking about a career here. Nobody just dabbles in game design. (Nobody just designs one game idea, sells it, gets rich, and retires at age 21). If you're interested in designing games, you should make a career of it!

Go to college/university and get a Bachelor's degree. That's a 4-year degree (not a 2-year degree and not a learn-by-mail or learn-by-internet degree). Get a degree in a subject that you're passionate about at a college that you choose based on your own personal criteria.

But even with a degree in hand, you will not get hired as a "Game Designer" right out of school without industry experience! You have to have other useful skills to get a job at a game company. Once you've gotten your foot in the door, you can gravitate into a design position. ... So why get a college degree?...

One thing that a university degree does for you is that it shows a potential employer that you have stick-to-it-ive-ness (the ability, strength, stamina, and intelligence to apply yourself for the long haul). Another thing that going to college/university does for you is it teaches you to learn. High school is about school learning - basic stuff everybody needs to know. College/university education gives you skills you can use in real life. Making goals, overcoming problems, devising solutions, and surviving.

Yet another reason to go to college (university) before getting that game biz job... they say a college (university) degree adds a lot of money to your lifetime income. I even heard this on a TV show, so it must be true! There used to be an article at ABCnews.com entitled "Degree Dollars: Four Years of Higher Education Can Pay Off for a Lifetime" but my old link doesn't work anymore. Maybe you can research this concept, or find that article, or a similar one, using Google or Kartoo or something - research is a good thing to learn how to do! Update, 9/10/09: An industrious reader followed my advice and found it! It's at http://advancedu.org/CAREER_NEWS.htm. See? What I said is true!

To become a "game designer," you will need a broad education. Major in just about anything that interests you, especially if it relates to computers or entertainment -- just get a degree. If you can find a school that offers a program geared for game design, fine -- go for it. If you can't find one (there are some, and new ones are popping up all the time, but they are still fairly rare; see the links at our Links Page) or if you can't get into one of those, then don't worry about it. Just get a 4-year Bachelor's degree in any topic that interests you. And take classes in the topics listed below. Read Lesson 25 for more about picking a college (or making any important decision in life). And read Lesson 40 for more about how important your passions are.

I myself am not a programmer, and I am not a graphic designer. I am a producer and designer of games, but I couldn't program a game if my life depended on it - and I couldn't animate one either. "Game Design" does not mean "programming," and it does not mean "graphic design." Read the rest of this Lesson, and read Lessons 7, 10, and 14, to get a better understanding of what "game design" is. You'll understand why I list the courses that I do, in my list of...

RECOMMENDED COURSES OF STUDY FOR GAME DESIGNERS

Here's a list of things you really really oughta study (as classes, not necessarily as majors):

The above subjects are important if you are going to design games -- you need to understand what makes the world work and what makes games fun. What should you major in? That's up to you. Probably one of the above, but your passions should be your guide. There's more about what to major in, in article 34.

Game designers are, ABOVE ALL, effective communicators and storytellers. Don't sleep through your writing, acting, and speaking classes.


ADDITIONAL SUBJECTS TO STUDY

It would also be good if you study some of these things too:

The point is that game designers, as creators of worlds for players to inhabit, need to have a solid understanding of what worlds are made of. They are not just made of stone, metal, dirt, and water -- they are also made of people with an extensive body of knowledge.

One day you're going to be having lunch with some guys from a game company. If they start talking about the parts of a... flower, say, then you don't want to be sitting there with a blank look on your face when they're punning about a "pistil-packin' mama" or something.

It's unlikely any game designers are actually going to get raucous over flower parts, but you get the point. Get a good education.


FOLLOW YOUR INTERESTS

Become very knowledgeable about the things that interest you. You will never go wrong following your interests. Interested in snowboarding? Great -- watch TV shows about snowboarding, read magazines about snowboarding, play snowboarding videogames. Don't just whine about the fact that your college doesn't offer any classes in snowboarding. Get out there and learn about it on your own.

Which opens one more of my favorite topics:


"WINNING VS. WHINING".

People can be divided into two classes: winners and whiners. Whiners are people who go around constantly complaining about the unfairnesses of life. Winners are people who figure out how to deal with the unfairnesses of life and get what they want in spite of it all.

Oh, a whiner might win a little victory once in a while, but for the most part he's just a perpetual "victim". Nothing is ever the whiner's fault -- bad stuff just seems to always happen to him.

And a winner might whine once in a while (especially in his formative years), but s/he soon realizes there are better (more constructive) uses for his/her time and energy. Like the prayer says:

A helpful reader has suggested that maybe it's supposed to be the other way around:

Either way, the point is: You want to be a winner. Not a whiner.

* Note: I found the first prayer above at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/7015/poems-illness.html. But it has been pointed out to me by another helpful reader that this (the second quote) is actually from 'Slaughterhouse 5' by Kurt Vonnegut, first published in 1969. Shoulda known! I've read everything Vonnegut wrote, but it's been a long time! (Hint: I read those books when they first came out.) The prayer is called "The Serenity Prayer," and seems to be a short version of the longer one by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971).


ASK GOOD QUESTIONS

One last bit of advice about preparing for a design career. By all means, use the internet and chat rooms and bulletin boards -- and especially the newsgroups -- to learn more about what it takes to get into the game business. Don't be afraid to seek advice, but don't expect all knowledge to be spoonfed to you. You will have to do your own research. When seeking advice, keep this thought in mind:

Ask good questions and you'll get good answers.

Game designers are good communicators. Want good information? Communicate your questions well. A good question contains a lot of information for the advice-giver.

Here's an example of a bad question: "Any advice you can give me?"

That's a bad question because the asker didn't request specific advice. And the potential advice-giver doesn't know what the asker is looking for. My typical answer to this question is, "Yeah. Learn to ask better questions. Have a nice day, now!"

A good question involves equal effort by both parties. A seeker who asks "give me advice," or "tell me all about making games," is being lazy. The lazy seeker is asking the advisor to work harder than the seeker does - which not only puts the advisor on the spot but makes the advisor suspect that the seeker may not even listen to what is said!

[Bad analogy alert]
Asking a question is like painting a target. Answering a question is like shooting an arrow at a target. Your goal in painting the target is to get an arrow quivering dead smack in the center of the target you just painted. If you (the advice seeker) don't paint a clear target with a nice crisp center, or if your target is obscured by fog or distance, you run the danger of not having the advice giver hit the target for you. Ever asked somebody a question and gotten totally the wrong answer? Maybe you didn't paint a clear enough target.
[End bad analogy]

That analogy (above) is really bad. I invite aspiring designers to make a better analogy and post it on the bulletin board. This challenge has already netted us a few! Check'em out...

Keep'em coming, readers! This is just more proof that there really is such a thing as a bad question. Post your analogies on the bulletin board.

+ + +

Some might think that this concept ("Ask good questions") is such a simple one that it doesn't need an analogy -- but if that's true, why is it that so many people ask bad questions? There are even those who deny that there is such a thing as a bad question. HOGWASH. See FAQ 30. A good question provides enough information to the respondent so that an answer can be given immediately, without further need of information from the seeker.

One last thought on asking good questions. The wording of the question is also important. Imagine that you are in school, meeting with the guidance counselor. You tell him you'd like to become a game designer, and he says, "oh, then you ought to take a class in writing." Your response is "are you sure?"

The better question to ask would be, "WHY do you suggest that I ought to take a class in writing?" This question seeks understanding. "Are you sure?" merely questions the veracity, sanity, and/or intelligence of the counselor. One question will encourage the counselor to continue trying to help you, while the other has the opposite effect. When somebody asks me if I'm sure, I am always tempted to reply in an angry tone, "Yes, that's why I said it." Sometimes I manage to stifle that impulse, but I rarely continue to have warm helpful feelings for the person who prompted the impulse. I imagine that I am not alone in reacting this way to bad questions like "Are you sure?"

Good questions will get you good answers. For more about how to ask good questions, see Lesson 30.

More about "How To Ask Smart Questions" - http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html.

See the five-part series on "Getting Into the Gaming [sic] Business", written by Steven L. Kent, at GameSpy.com.

Added 7/14/2004: http://www.planetquake.com/polycount/cottages/docrob/Industry.html#a010 is a good FAQ on how to prepare for a game biz career.

See Lesson 12 for some suggestions about making a portfolio, and other things you can do at home to supplement your education, and make yourself someone game companies will want to hire after graduation!

Don't believe my list of recommended subjects above? Read Lewis Pulsipher's 2008 article at http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/614/the_idea_is_not_the_.php?page=1.

Also read Patrick Curry's Thoughts On How to Become a Game Designer in Four Simple Steps.

"A Message From Sid" Meier of Firaxis games on how to "Start A Gaming Career" -- http://www.firaxis.com/jobs/career.php.

Check out http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/so-you-want-to-be-a-game-designer.

If you want lists of game schools, see my Game Biz Links page, and read FAQ 44 and my IGDA Column, The Games Game: The Whole Game School Thing (June 2009) and The Whole Game School Thing, Follow-Up (July 2009).


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Copyright 2000-2010 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. Re-publication by written permission of the author only.