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Careers in Game Design

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Hello iD Nation! This week, I’ve got a special guest blogger — Boy Wonder. We’ve got so many students inquiring as to how they can break into the gaming industry that we decided to provide some cool, informative information. Thanks, Ken, for your research and enthusiasm. Let’s Roll!

Begin Ken’s Guest Blog:

Recently I received an email from one of our summer camp students who is researching the gaming industry for a high school paper dealing with careers. Having met and having become friends with several people working in various parts of the video game industry, I share an interest in this topic and was glad to help him out by fielding some answers to his questionnaire. I think this particular topic is also very intriguing for many of our campers who are themselves preparing for a career creating video games. Based on my experience and conversations with friends in the industry, I’d like to relate some of my knowledge on a career in gaming.

Q. What high school classes did you take that help you as part of your work designing games?

A. The high school classes you should take depend on what particular aspect of game design you find most appealing. Game studios have evolved from one or two man shops to enormous operations with many highly specialized members. There are specific positions for programmers, animators, riggers, modelers, concept artists, and so forth. Even within those broad categories there are more specialized positions available. Programmers, for example, can often focus solely on a particular area, such as network programming, engine development, or AI development. The first step to the process would be to figure out what you enjoy the most.

If you think you want to work on the programming aspects of game design, take classes in mathematics and physics. Games utilize a wide variety of mathematical functions, so being proficient in that can be a requirement. Knowledge of physics principles and operations have recently become important as well, especially in 3D games that use complicated physics modeling. Even simplified 2D games can require trajectories, gravity simulations, and other similar topics. In addition to math and physics courses, take a variety of programming classes and branch out among languages. Although a few core languages are important (C/C++/C#), scripting languages are often used in conjunction with development tools to streamline the development process.

If you feel like the art is more your style, then you’ll want to focus on art-heavy classes. All of the artists I know who work on games (as modelers, animators, etc.) are also very talented traditional artists. They can sketch and draw very well. Art intensive programs at colleges and universities will emphasize an initial focus on traditional art creation, so you can get a head start in high school by taking traditional art classes. If there are any digital art classes available to you (Photoshop, modeling, or animation classes), then take those as well. It is important for artists to have a portfolio when breaking into the industry, so having these classes will also allow you to start building up a portfolio.

Other routes include leads or directors, which can be seen as generic “designers”. These are the people who actually design the rules and game play in games. Many of these people have degrees in computer science and yet might also have a little experience in programming, scripting, or art development. Having a large variety of experience (even if it isn’t in depth to the level of the specialists) allows these designers to understand what the team members they are guiding are actually doing. They can understand the obstacles and problems better than someone who has never programmed or created an art resource.

There are more positions than that, such as sound or music directors and so forth, but basically take whatever aspect you would enjoy most and take classes that reflect those skills.

iD Tech Camps is also great venue to help you get started deciding what you’d like to do in the gaming world–especially if you are a younger camper or your high school doesn’t offer some of the aforementioned options.

Q. What does your job entail at iD Tech?

A. During the summers at iD I’ve been an instructor starting with 3D Game Design and Game Modding. More recently, I played a role in helping to launch the iD Gaming Academy, a more intensive program that tries to model the way real game studios actually work. When I was there I focused on teaching the programming aspects of the game engine but also helped with technical aspects of art importation (the process of moving models and art you have created into the game engine). During the off-season I work on a variety of tasks including curriculum development. I also design flash games for our website. Currently, the work we do on that is very similar to a studio, though in miniaturized form. I do all the programming and initial prototyping (a way of figuring out how the game might play) and a co-worker designs all the art.

Q. What is the best part of becoming a game designer?

A. I’d say there are two really rewarding parts to game design. The first is sitting down to brainstorm and conceptualize the game. During this stage you get to come up with all sorts of ideas and you’ll generally flesh them out in sketches or storyboards with an artist. It’s an exciting period where no ideas are thrown out and everything goes.

The second part I enjoy is when your game is finished and produced and you get feedback from people who play it. It really is satisfying to read and hear about your game and how people enjoyed playing it. Just being able to show off your creation is a great reward.

Some of my industry friends have told me that the part they enjoy the most is seeing other people play their creations. For them, the ability to bring excitement and enjoyment of the game to others is the most rewarding part.

Q. What inspired you to want to become a Game Designer?

A. Both a friend of mine (who is a modeler/animator) and I started when we were very young. We started programming with QBasic on our PCs and continued programming in various forms while growing up and going through school. We didn’t really have Computer Science or Digital Art classes at our high schools so both of us were self-taught until we started college. Our early-on inspirations were the games we both played when we were younger. We are huge fans of adventure games (a genre which doesn’t really exist anymore in the mainstream – check out Sam & Max as an example). The act of creating games (even simple ones) pushed us to learn more and create better and better games. He then went to an art school and I got a computer science degree.

Q. What guidance can you give me on how to become a successful game designer?

A. First, find out which aspect you enjoy the most. Explore different roles (programming, art creation, sound creation). Doing so is important for a few reasons. The more you know about a variety of subjects the better able you will be to work as a member of a team and with those specialists. Also, you may find you like one aspect more than you thought – the good friend I mentioned thought for a time that he was more interested in the programming but discovered he has a talent and interest more in the modeling.

Next I would recommend that you just get started. Start working on games now and start small. Make an asteroids clone, a version of pong or other simple game types and then make them better. Flash is probably the best tool for the job since it makes creating games simple and contains all the elements you would need. Other simplified packages such as Multimedia Fusion from Clickteam ( and Torque Game Builder from GarageGames ( offer an excellent way to get started building games.

Q. Where do you get you ideas for the games that you design?

A. Most of my game ideas come from games I’ve played and enjoyed. Occasionally I’ll take specific parts of games I like and try to spin off my own version. When you are first getting into game design it helps to create games you’ve already played or that are slightly different, since you can focus on the actual game-making process and the skills needed for that. Later you can work on the ground-breaking new game types and genres.

One process that helps to come up with completely new ideas is to set aside a specific amount of time, either alone or with the team you are working with, and simply brainstorm ideas. Make a list of 30 game ideas and don’t move to the next step until you have 30. Once you have your list, pick 10 you like best and for each of those 10 do a sketch (storyboard) and flesh out the idea a little more. Narrow it down again to your top 3 or 5 and get input from others to make your final selection.

One important note is to follow-through on an idea you start. If you have a game 50% complete it can sometimes be tempting if you get another great idea to start working on that. Force yourself to complete the first game, no matter how difficult or frustrating doing so may become, and then you can focus all your attention on the next idea. You may have tons of great ideas, but a single 100% completed game is still better than 10 half-finished games. Why? You generally can’t show off a half-finished game or put it in a portfolio, but a completed game shows your ability to follow projects through to completion.

For those who like a summary…

I know many of our computer camp students who are interested in creating video games are at a point in their lives where they will need to decide on high school classes or even colleges. To those of you who fit this description I have a few final words that summarize everything in this article. Find what you love about games. Learn as much as you can about that aspect. Practice that aspect, then employ that skill in whatever way you can. Brainstorm ideas then focus and work on projects to completion. When the time comes to decide on classes or schools, find a school that satisfies the roles you enjoy. If you enjoy the art development, take art classes and consider a design or art school. If you enjoy the technical development, stock up on mathematics, physics, and programming and then pick a technology school, like Georgia Tech or the Rochester Institute of Technology, for instance. Discover, learn, practice, focus, and complete: the rest will follow.

End of Ken’s Guest Blog. Thank you, Ken, for the insight!

Until next time, iD Nation!