Leveling Up as a Video Game Designer, Part I

Even if you don’t have ruthless Gordon Gecko-esque ambition, you probably want to get ahead in your game designer job – or at least get a pay raise.

But if you want to get ahead as a video game designer, you need to understand the expectation for a professional at different levels. A wise man once said, fake it until you make it. But you can’t fake it until you know what “it” actually is. Part I of this series explores the expectations around different seniority levels for a video game designer.

A useful book I’ve found that influenced some of my thinking is How to Lead. It’s a terribly, terribly British book but I’ve found it to be a worthy read and full of pragmatic career advice.

So when I think about the qualities that make up a professional video game designer, I basically boil it down to three general headings:

Professional Skills
This covers the necessary skills to actually do the job. If you’re a game designer, it’s how to design games. If you’re an artist, it’s how to illustrate and model. If you’re a software engineer, it’s how to code. If you’re a producer – it’s how to book meetings that keep the people above from doing their work (and yes – I have been a producer)

People Skills
This combines the ability to communicate, act like a team member, play nice with others and all those other skills that they were supposed to teach you in Kindergarten (but are often shockingly absent in adults)

This represents a mindset and outlook. It is how you carry yourself in your job. Your demeanor is often one of the most overlooked – but vital – career assets. Quite simply, people will follow someone who has the attitude of a leader.

So what does all this mean for the different levels of video game designer?

The Junior Designer
Or, you are no longer a game player. 

Every game designer starts out as a game player. But they make a critical leap – from being the audience to being the creator. The game is a lot different in the bleachers than it is on the playing field.

A junior game designer is able to think critically about design and understand the difference between being a game consumer and a game creator. Many things a player thinks they want for a game, they actually would hate if they had to play it. (perma-death is a recurring theme in this area, as well as shared worlds where everyone can make a profound impact on the world). Junior designers have the ability to pull apart and dissect a game design, understanding that certain design decisions were made for a reason and what kind of results those decisions might produce. They demonstrate an appreciation for the aesthetics of game design, which are the factors that go into a good design as opposed to a bad design. They may not always be able to make those calls yet – but they can typically recognize them after the fact.

The junior designer demonstrates appropriate behavior for a team environment and professional setting. They understand that they have entered the professional game industry and this is a business setting. Frequently, a first job in the game industry is a dream come true for a young game designer – it’s sort of like when a teenager get out from under Mom and Dad’s thumb and goes off to university. But while it’s often easy to mistake the casual environment of a video game company for a college dormitory – there are some definite differences. Showering at least semi-frequently is mandatory and please leave the “No Fat Chicks” t-shirts at home.

Finally, the most important things a junior game designer can demonstrate is an open mind, a flexible attitude and a willingness to take direction and learn. They understand their role is to become educated and grow on a design team. Often this means, a junior goes the dog work. But this isn’t a punishment – this is work that needs doing and believe me, you’ll understand a lot about how items in games work after you’ve had to do the data entry work for a few hundred.

Basically, a junior game designer takes on well-defined assignments with enthusiasm and an interest in doing the best work they can.

In part II, I’ll explore what makes a full Designer and a Senior Designer. And in part III, we talk about the rarified heights of being a Lead Designer and Creative Director.

- Sean Dugan is a video game designer who dimly remembers a time when "junior" was applied to him. 

Image by Frank Black Noir via Creative Commons

1 comment:

  1. Perma-death actually does add enjoyment to the game in games where most content is procedurally generated. This works because a new game involves new problems rather than repetition of stuff that's boring the second or third time through.

    Roguelike games are well-designed and deep, if graphically simple, examples of perma-death games with procedurally generated content.

    But procedurally generated content is difficult to work with, doesn't lend itself well to complex plots, and unless you're very very good, tends to fall either into directionlessness or repetitiveness.