The Education of a Game Designer

[CC 2010: This was written many years ago and is now somewhat dated.]
[CC 2012: I have now added a postscript]

So, my young friend, you want to be a game designer, and you have turned to me for advice. I will offer you my best advice, but I suspect that you’ll reject it and take the advice of those who tell you what you want to hear. But that’s fine with me -- all I can do is tell the truth and hope that it will get through to a few people.

First, you must make a major career decision: training or education? Training gives you specific skills that you can use to get a job straight out of school. Education gives you broader skills that won’t have immediate application, but will in the long run serve you better. It’s basically a choice between a quickie approach and a strategic approach. If you’re in too much of a hurry to plan strategically, then go ahead and attend a school where they’ll teach you the details of handling the latest, greatest computer technology. Energy, not patience, is the strength of youth, so I can understand if you just can’t stomach the thought of not plunging straight into your avocation. When I was your age, I too was impatient with all the irrelevant courses that the University forced upon me; now I blush at my impertinence and thank those teachers who pushed me so hard.

The quickie route will indeed yield faster results. If you attend a school that is dedicated to game design, or major in computer games at a decent college or university, you’ll likely learn many of the details of present-day game design. You have a good chance of landing a job right out of school at an actual games company, working on games before you’re 23.

But hold on here, hotshot. There’s a difference between working on games and designing games. That first job you land will surely be the gruntiest of grunt jobs. You’ll be assigned to some tiny task, like animating a minor character in the game who does nothing but walk across the background, or writing the code that asks, “Are you sure?” when the user decides to quit the game. If you do a good job with that, after a few years you might get promoted to handling more complex animation, or writing a more important piece of code. And after a few more years, you might even get promoted to a position where you’re handling some pretty serious work.

But don’t count on it. The basic problem is that there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of students just like you who are bursting with eagerness to become part of the computer games industry. Think in terms of supply, demand, and price. When the supply of workers is ten or a hundred times greater than the demand for workers, the price goes way down. You can expect to be paid starvation wages, and you probably won’t be treated with any respect. You can complain, but the answer they’ll give you is simple and honest: if you don’t like it, feel free to quit. There are a hundred more kids just like you who are dying to have your job.

In fact, that is exactly what happens. Sometime you ought to wander around the halls of the Game Developers’ Conference; it’s held in San Jose every March or April. You don’t need to actually pay the money to enter any of the events; just wander around the San Jose Convention Center and take note of the people in attendance. You’ll find two surprising rules: first, everybody is dressed in black, and second, the average age of the attendees is between 25 and 30.

I don’t know why everybody dresses in black; it seems to be a standard that everybody conforms to. I can, however, tell you why they’re all so young: everybody leaves the industry after a few years. The games industry is like a big building with one entrance and a lot of exits. There are thousands of eager young kids crowded at the front entrance, pushing and shoving to get inside; only a few make it in. But for every person who gets in, another person leaves – that’s what keeps the industry in balance. And the fact that so many of the people in the business are so young demonstrates how quickly people bail out of the industry. Not many survive until their thirties.

If you think about it, it really does make sense. If there are thousands of kids eager to work for peanuts to build games, then you can hire them at a dime a dozen, work them like slaves until they drop, and then hire replacements. You need only a skeleton crew of managers to keep the kids working. The system works perfectly.

The only question is, do you want to be part of this system? I hope not. However, if you’re too fired up with enthusiasm about making your big break into the games biz, then go ahead – no amount of talk from an old fool like me will deter you. You just have to learn these things for yourself.

But there is an alternative I can offer you. Here’s how it works. First, get yourself a real education, not some one-night-stand training. Go to a real school and major in anything except games. Almost anything will do: biology, physics (that’s where I got my start), art, literature, history, psychology, linguistics. Just make sure that you get what used to be called a “liberal education”. Take lots of courses outside your major. And yes, you should probably minor in computer science.

On the side, you should be experimenting with building games. Don’t go for the snazzy graphics just yet – that can always be slapped onto the design. You want to concentrate on the guts of the game, the architecture and game mechanics. How do the little gears and levers inside the game operate? Don’t try to build games that are just as good as the commercial games – for crying out loud, those games have dozens of people working on them; anything that little ole you can do will look pretty pathetic next to those extravaganzas. Think of your process as rather like building a car. Don’t worry about the chrome and the paint job just now; you want to concentrate on learning how to put pistons together, how the valves operate, what the carburetor does. You want to build little go-karts, not shiny Rolls-Royces. They’re all experimental; you should never think that your designs have any commercial potential. Build them and throw them away. Creativity requires you to murder your children. If you are so enthralled with your designs that you can’t let them go, then you’ll never have the hard-bitten creativity of a truly good designer.

Meanwhile, keep building the intellectual foundations for your creativity. There’s no way you can compete with the formidable creativity of a seasoned game designer, so for now, concentrate on building your strength. Hey, even Neo couldn’t take on Agent Smith until he had spent enough time building the foundations of his skills. Learn everything you can. Do not graduate without having examined every bookshelf in your library; you’d be surprised what interesting things you will stumble on in those dusty aisles.

Once you get out of college, don’t rush into the games biz. Get a real job at a real company and earn some money, but keep expanding your education. You’ll learn a lot about organizational behavior and how to handle yourself in a corporate environment. You’ll learn how and when to stand up to your boss – which is rarely, by the way. And you’ll prepare yourself to swim with the sharks when you do enter the games biz.

But continue to work on games in your spare time. Build lots of different games go-karts, trying out each one for its handling, its speed, and its other characteristics. Once you’ve gotten six or ten games built, you might want to think about putting together a substantial project, but still on your own. Recruit a few like-minded folk to help you out, and build something really impressive. Show it off to the world. Then you can use that game as your resume when you do apply for a position in the games industry. If your game is good enough, you’ll get a job as an actual game designer, not some dime-a-dozen minion. You’ll still be a junior assistant to the assistant game designer, but you’ll be in the right place, and if you work hard and do your job well, you might actually have a future in the games biz.

I realize that this is not what you wanted to hear. What you want to hear is a quick fix. Take such-and-such courses and you’ll be guaranteed a high-paid job with a big office, all the best computers, and complete creative control. Sure, everybody wants that – but nobody gets it. Anybody who tells you that kind of story is a shyster trying to get your money. The sad fact is that the pioneering days of game design are over and it’s now a big industry; nobody gets “discovered” and turned into a superstar overnight. It’s a long, long slog for beginners.

You’ve got the passion, the energy, and the drive to make it happen – do you have the strategic insight to plan for the long slog, or are you going to rush in before you’re truly ready?

Good luck, kid. I’m rooting for you.

Postscript, May 4th, 2012
This was written in the 1990s and a lot has changed since then, so I need to correct some of the obsolete ideas in this essay. First, some trivia: the Game Developers’ Conference is no longer held in San Jose; nowadays it’s in San Francisco.

The biggest changes are in the educational programs available for computer game design. Back then, there were three kinds of programs: training programs meant to get you a job; computer science programs tweaked for game design; and art programs tweaked for game design. Nowadays, there are programs built from the ground up for a career in the games industry, and they’re a lot better than they were 15 years ago. The ones at the universities are closer to liberal education than to training, with the students learning more than just how to code the latest animation packages. They still put too little emphasis, in my opinion, on breadth of learning, but I have to admit that there’s no college major I can think of that offers that much breadth. So I’m changing my recommendation: yes, you should study game design at a reputable college.

Big Studios and Publishers
As far as getting a job at a games company, nothing has changed at the big publishers. They still cynically exploit their new hires. Their system is rather like the system that armies used in World War I: there was a core of officers who directed things and kept relatively safe, and a mass of new recruits who were the “cannon fodder”. The officers used the recruits in the same way they used ammunition: they amassed a big pile, expended it in a big offensive (which usually failed), and then waited while the stream of new recruits built up their reserves again. The big games publishers work in much the same way: they have more applicants than they can ever possibly hire, so they just work their recruits until their bushy-tailed enthusiasm has burnt out and they quit.

I confess, I overstate the case. There are some truly good people in the executive ranks of the big publishers, and some of them have managed to assemble a healthy, happy team of hard-working professionals. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. One other thing: these operations seldom hire kids right out of school. Usually, they prefer to take the good ones who have become disgusted with the exploitative studios.

The conclusion here is simple: you wouldn’t want to work at any big studio that would hire you (a tip o’ the hat to Groucho Marx).

Small Studios
Pretty grim, huh? But you have two options that your predecessors didn’t have 15 years ago. The first is to join a small studio. These things are popping up like dandelions; they’re coming so thick and fast that it’s impossible to keep up with them. As you approach graduation, scour the Internet for them. The ideal studio is one that has just released its first game. If the studio has a future, that game is generating revenue that will permit it to expand (i.e., hire you). If the game is bombing, the studio is going down the tubes and you don’t want to be with them. If you’ve done a good job in school, then you’ll have a game of your own design to show. Just put it up on a website and point them to it. You’ll get lots and lots of rejections. Don’t be deterred; this is a statistical operation, with lots of trials. You need just ONE success out of all those failures, so go for it. 

Small Projects
Which brings me to the game projects you do in school. Your first project should be something conventional; your task is to get down all the basic mechanical tasks of building a working game. But your LAST project should be something unconventional. You need to think way outside of the box. This is the real test of your chops as a game designer. Most students fail this test; their idea of an unconventional design is a shooter with different guns, or a platform game with some cute twist. You need to get wild and crazy here. The best way to do this is to spend your first three years playing weird games. This is important: don’t waste your time playing games for fun. You don’t have time to waste entertaining yourself. You have to educate yourself about the huge galaxy of game design, and you won’t learn much by sticking close to the center of that galaxy. You need to explore the edges, the remote areas that few people visit. Every hour you waste playing a regular old game is an hour that could have been spent discovering a weird new idea about game design.

It won’t be fun. Any game that’s fun represents an idea that has already been figured out; there won’t be much room for you to improve on it. You want to look at broken games, games that don’t work, games with ideas that didn’t quite make it. You’ll learn more from ideas that almost worked than from ideas that already work. Prowl the dark corners of the web searching for the bearded ladies, the deformed monsters, the freaks and weirdos of game design. They’ll teach you more about game design than you could possibly learn from Halo XXVIII: the Return of the Revenge of the Son of the Successor of the Sidekick of Whomever It Was Who Started This Series.

Your senior year game will NOT be as much fun as the conventional games that your fellow students make. It doesn’t have to be; its purpose is not to make money but to impress studios. They see that conventional crap all the time; something truly different will make them sit up and take notice. So long as the game has an interesting idea that could be fun with some more polish, it serves its purpose. 

Don’t waste time on the cosmetics: focus on the game mechanics. The important question is not “Does the game look good?” There are a million crappy games that look good; you want a game that does interesting things. If the I/O is pure text but the game does really neat things, then any idiot can look at it and see how to make it pretty. If, on the other hand, the game is beautiful but does boring things, then a prospective employer can’t see how to make it better.

Making Contacts
You need to make connections with the right people to get a job. How do you do that? First off, don’t go to the Game Developers’ Conference; that’s a conference for big businesses to do big business with each other. An eager army of wannabes flitter around the place, trying to get noticed – and failing. Besides, the GDC charges far too much money, making people pay through the nose for the slim chance to make connections. Don’t waste your time or your money.

I strongly suggest that you go to some of the small-scale conferences. There’s a good listing of events for game designers here. You should especially be on the lookout for smaller conferences for independent game developers. There’s the Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers’ Conference, but again, they charge too much money. 

The best way to make contacts, however, is over the Internet. Frequent the websites of small studios that interest you. I would advise against participating in blogs about independent games, other than to ask questions. Every blog is infested with trolls who turn every interesting discussion into a flamewar. It’s almost impossible to accomplish anything useful in blog discussion. I say “almost” because there are a few exceptions. If you find a blog with a decent peanut gallery, lurk for a while before making comments, and then confine your participation to questions. You can’t impress anybody by arguing.

Setting up your own little studio
This is a frequent course taken by new graduates. Unable to find decent jobs, they band together and build a game to prove their mettle. Such projects rarely yield anything commercially viable, but they do occasionally catch the attention of a commercial studio and snag interviews for some of the participants. I must warn you that these efforts usually end in failure. 

One variation on this is to get a paying job doing something else and then work on your game on nights and weekends. This can work, but it will probably take several years.

Whatever you do, I think that your best route is still to pursue you own weird designs by hook or by crook. And don’t forget to continue educating yourself after graduation. You need broad intellectual horizons, so be sure to study history, biology, linguistics, economics, psychology, physics, and all the other fascinating fields that will give you insights into new games.