How do I get a job designing video games?

If I had a penny for every time I’ve been asked this question…

Game developers have only a few broad types of employees. Excluding administrative ones like office management, HR, and IT, broadly the team has Programmers, Artists, Sound Engineers, Game Designers, and Testers (some also have Producers, but at Naughty Dog we didn’t believe in them, so we distributed their work among the team leads). Of these jobs, only “Game Designer” is “purely creative” per se. Truth is, on a good team all game jobs are creative, but designers are alone in that they don’t have a craftsmany trade.

Except they do, because game design requires a lot of craftsmanship. The trick is, it’s not something you can have learned anywhere else but by making games.

Programers can write some other kind of application and demonstrate their coding skills. Artists can show off awesome models, animation, textures, lighting, sketches etc. Externally, at home or school, an artist can learn to use art tools to build good looking art. It can be seen. He can say, “I modeled all of that in 2 weeks, although my friend did the textures.”

Game designers have to learn on the job. While all good game designers LOVE video games, not all lovers of video games make good game designers. There are different sub-types of designer, and all of them require many specific skills and personality traits. Creativity, organization, obscene work effort, organization, creativity, organization, organization, cleverness, willingness to take a beating, willingness to stand up for and demand what you believe is good, grace to admit when you idea sucked ass.

So how do you learn this stuff? How do you demonstrate it to a prospective employer. Tough.

Some you learn by playing insane amounts of games. Better yet, you make games. But… unlike a programmer or artist, it’s kinda hard for a designer alone to make anything. So you need to hook up with a great artist friend and a great programmer friend and make something cool. There are school programs now for this too, but the projects don’t have the sustained scope, scale, brutality, hideous cruelty, pain, and near death quality that real game development has. No. Not even close, not even a tinsy bit.

An old method was to become a game tester, and hope that the brass would notice your organizational skills, creativity, etc and promote you to a junior designer position. Probably this will sometimes still work. It requires a lot of stamina and a high tolerance for day-old hot wings, dirty bare boy-feet, and stale crispy cremes. But then again, if you can’t stomach that stuff you don’t belong in games.

You could also try and grab some kind of coveted internship and try to prove yourself. Also requires extremely high self motivation. Then again, if you don’t have that than forget trying to be a game designer anyway.

Maybe the bigger companies take junior designers with no experience. At Naughty Dog we never did.

But it’s still possible with an artist friend and a programmer friend to make a cool iPhone / Flash / etc. game. Do it. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. When a couple of them are good, you’ll find a job.

NOTE: I originally posted this on Quora, and if you want to see the whole thread CLICK HERE.

Also, if you want to read more of my posts on Writing/Creating, CLICK HERE.

7 comments on “How do I get a job designing video games?

  1. Quora says:

    What is some good advice if I’d like to pitch myself to a game developer as a creative, rather than a programmer?…

    If I had a penny for every time I’ve been asked this question… Game developers have only a few broad types of employees. I will exclude administrative like office management, HR, and IT. Broadly the team has Programmers, Artists, Sound Engineers, Ga…

  2. Great advice. You should just print a stack of cards with this url and give them out to people who ask the question.

    I want to be a sound and music designer for games. I’ve been told by people in the tv/film industry that it’s perfect for tv/film; I just have to find the people who want my style. But I think it’s better suited for games.

    So I wonder how helpful it is to put together a sound/music portfolio and send it out to game developers. Do you guys get stuff like that and actually pay attention to it? I’m sure you have a screener standing over a trash can… right?

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to blog. I played all 3 Crash games when they came out! Nice to read about them now.

    • agavin says:

      I actually don’t know how helpful it is. Sound guys at Naughty Dog were for a long time like Spinal Tap drummers. They didn’t die, but they flamed out and left. Jak 2 was the first game where I personally didn’t end up doing a huge chunk of the sound effect work (picking up where someone ran from it in terror).

      We did have the constant of Mike Gollom actually making the sounds for all the Crash games. And then finally, he introduced us to a co-worker of his Bruce Swanson who was so kick ass, we begged Mike to allow us to hire him away. We did, and he has been sound lead at NDI for 7-8 years. He did all the hiring after that — my and Jason’s hires being psychos (literally in at least 2 cases). So I happily washed my hands of it. Bruce did much better because he is a kick ass in every way.

  3. Haha well making games is a business and not exempt from the perils of bad employees and people problems (I own two businesses so I understand what you mean). I bet a lot of folks get into it just because they love playing games, but it takes a special type of personal to make things happen like you guys did- and to be a part of the team. Thank you for sticking with it and sharing your story- it’s inspiring. I played through Crash 1-3 when they came out.

    On another note.. the Spinal Tap joke is an actual real life situation. Seriously in every band I’ve ever played in we went through at least 3 drummers.

    • agavin says:

      LOL about the drummers. Seriously with the sound guys it was like that. We had numerous guys who couldn’t take it, one who was so scary the other employees nicknamed him “postal,” a guy named after a Greek god who slept in the office, and many others before Bruce.

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