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Playing the Upgrade-To-Designer Game

Originally appeared in "The Games Game" column on IGDA.org. The IGDA website was massively redesigned in 2013, making old columns unavailable, so select columns are now being reposted here on an as-needed basis. This column first appeared in April, 2006

Hi Tom,
I'm working in customer support at a big game publishing company. Hope you don't mind if I don't mention its name - and I'd appreciate being anonymous? Anyway, my goal is to become a game designer. I know, it's a prestigious job and I have a lot of competition, but I've read on your site that once somebody's foot is in the door, it's easy to move into other positions. Well, I've been finding it difficult (not easy). Rather than give you grief for saying it's easy, I'm writing to ask for some tips. What can I do to make the move from customer support into game design?
Hopeful Designer

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Dear Hopeful,
There isn't one straightforward path from customer support to game design, but it can be done if you regard it as a creative challenge and take it patiently. It should go without saying that you should perform your CS duties well and faithfully, first and foremost. You have a job to do, and it's important that you do it well and enthusiastically.

Secondly, the company where you work is an important factor too. You didn't mention its name, so I don't know if it's a company that has an internal studio or not. If it doesn't have an internal studio - if your company doesn't have people employed, in the building where you work, as game designers - then there is no way to move laterally/diagonally from CS to game design in your current situation. So let me offer some ideas for ways you can move into game design based on the two possible scenarios.

Scenario One - You work in the same company, the same building, with a game studio where game designers are employed. This is the best case.

First, in your free moments (when you are permitted by your current supervisor to be away from your CS post), get to know the people who are working in game design. And not just them, but also their leaders and their producers. Get on a first-name basis with them. When you introduce yourself (if you haven't already), avoid job begging. Don't say, "please please please, bring me over to work with you guys instead of over in CS where my talents are being wasted." Remember, you're a hardworking and faithful CS guy! "Hey, how ya doin'. I'm Joe from customer support. Hey, I had a customer question about Game X, were you involved in designing that?" Something innocuous like that would make the smoothest intro.

Every now and then, wander over and say hi. It's okay to ask an occasional question about the project they're working on, projects they worked on before, and how they do their work. If you have ideas about how some existing game could have been better designed, find a non-irritating way to discuss that game's flaws with the design team. Don't say, "we get a lot of customer complaints about Game Q and how hard it was to figure out how to put the newt eyes into the potion, what the heck were you thinking?" Instead, "hey, I had a thought - you know how some Game Q users had difficulty figuring out how to solve the newt eyes puzzle? I was thinking, a spell that puts things inside other things would've been a good design solution. Crazy thought?" If it's a non-crazy thought, they'll start getting the idea that you think like a game designer.  Don't say things outright - plant little seeds here and there.

Keep your radar tuned for any hints that the designers are trying to figure out how best to design some user interface or feature. If you hear a couple of designers having a discussion about whether their projectile weapon's targeting system ought to be like the one in Weapon Extreme III or like the one in Fragonia, you can just pipe in, "I preferred the one in Fragonia, because its use of the right trigger button was more intuitive." Seed planted, return to CS and get back to your regular job.

Be patient. Seeds take time to grow, and you need to plant lots of seeds. Having planted numerous seeds over a couple of years, watch for junior designer job openings to apply for. If you do your job well, your CS supervisor who hates to let you go is actually a positive thing (it means you're a dedicated worker).

Scenario Two - You work for a publisher without an internal studio or any internal designers. This is a tougher case.

In your free time, work on building a design portfolio. Analyze the design flaws of your employer's games and of the competition's games. If you write game designs while employed, be aware that your employer probably owns them. If you can build a design portfolio without writing designs, that's better. Take evening courses in creative writing or creating 3D graphics or anything you're passionate about that relates to game design. Get familiar with using mod tools if you can, or work on mods in your spare time.

Thing is, though, if your current employer doesn't have designers internally, you'll have to go to another company to make your move into design. Don't quit your CS job until you have a strong design portfolio. Apply for level design positions, production coordinator positions, or ... that's right, Customer Support positions... at a company that does have an internal design studio. Then play Scenario One.


The Path Back to Designer

Originally appeared in "The Games Game" column on IGDA.org as "The Path to Designer." The IGDA website was massively redesigned in 2013, making old columns unavailable, so select columns are now being reposted here on an as-needed basis. This column first appeared in August 2003.

Dear Tom:
I have worked as a game designer since 2001. But in France (where I live and where I'd like to stay), the game industry is in decline. I'm without a job, and I can't find any game design job openings right now.

What do I have to work on to improve my chances of finding a job close to game design: my ridiculous programming skills, or my bad designing skills?

Do you think that becoming an independent worker could help find a permanent job? That is to say, is there enough demand for freelance game design projects, especially given that I have only two years of experience in the game industry?
François-Xavier B.

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Dear François-Xavier,
The position of "game designer" can be tenuous, subject to interpretation, and some companies may not have a full-time position with that title. It is also a "sexy" position, and thus much in demand. It's great that you have had the opportunity to work as a game designer - it looks good on the resume.

To find another game design job, though, is likely to be very difficult. Especially since you yourself say you are not very good at it. Since you also are not a programmer, then you need a skill or talent that is needed by game companies, so that you will be hired. All you need is a job at a game company - ANY job. I personally know people who started in Q.A. and became designers, and I know one guy who started as a forklift operator in the warehouse. He rose to the position of producer and eventually became the president of a very significant game company.

Designers come from many different origins. Graphics, programming, audio, testing, producing, customer support... All you need is a job at a game company - ANY job. Oh, did I say that already? (^_^)

So if you aren't a programmer, and you don't have any artistic talent, then I hope that you are a good team player and that you learned a lot about the process of making games during your two years as a game designer. You should be able to get a job as an assistant producer or a tester or ... something. Game designers are communicators, so perhaps you could work in customer support.

But let's consider two less pleasant possibilities.

Firstly, maybe you need to go to college. If you don't have a four-year degree, and you aren't yet over 30 years old, then it's not too late to go back to school.

Secondly, maybe it was discovered (by others) that you don't have the talent to be a game designer. If this is so, then like I say, there are lots of other rewarding jobs in the game industry. The next step for you is the same - if you have a four-year degree, get a job in a game company. ANY job. Any game company. Then you can move diagonally or sideways from there.

© 2003, 2006 Tom Sloper


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