Student Interviews

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Around twice a year I get a large group of students requesting interviews about being a game designer.  In an effort to avoid repetition, I’m including some of their questions and answers, compiled from interviews with several students, here:

  • What did you study in college and what was your major?

I went to NYU undergraduate film school.  I majored in film and television production, with minors in math and computer science.

  • What skills did you find the most helpful for this career?

Game design isn’t really a single set of skills (unless you’re making the same game over and over), so I think the most important skill is learning to learn.  Each game I design feels like a brand new challenge, so I’ve gotten used to starting off very confused and gradually figuring out what this game needs.

  • When did video game design become a “career” for you; when did you realize this is what you wanted to do?

I read a book called “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson, and it inspired me to make games.  At the time I didn’t know anything about how games were made, so I got a job as a programmer at a studio.  I soon figured out that it’s the designer that figure out the direction the game should go in, and got my first design job at that same company a year later.

  • What do you enjoy most about your job?

My favorite part is collaborating with creative people.  If I’m doing well, that happens every day.

  • I am currently studying computer science in college; am I on the right path?

I definitely think that it’s a good idea to learn one of the more concrete skills of game development before going into design: either 2d or 3d art, or programming.  That said, learning those skills just means you’ll be able to execute your own ideas, or at least understand what your teammates are doing.  It won’t actually make you better at design, so you’ll have to learn about that separately.  

  • What should I do now if I wanted to get a job as a video game designer/developer?

The best thing to do is to just makes games.  As many as you can.  Make all your mistakes as quickly and cheaply as you can.  Finish them.  Put them up for sale on or elsewhere.  The more practice you have the better you’ll be, and the more you’ll have to show if you need to prove your skills to others.

  • Can you list some pros and cons about your job?
 Designing videogames is a lot of fun, it’s about solving creative problems.  On the down side, video games are intensely difficult to make.  It’s really amazing they ever get finished at all, and to make them fun to play, and come out on time, takes a lot of time and effort.  That time and effort is most of what you have, as a human being, so you need to be prepared to make some sacrifices.
  • Are there any particular classes in school that you recommend taking?
You should learn at least one of the core game development skills: Programming, or Art.  If you’re a programmer, learn low-level and declarative languages like C, C++, C#, etc.  If you’re an artist, learn to animate, either in 3d with Maya or Blender, or in 2D with Photoshop.
  • How long have you had your job?
I’ve been a professional game designer since 2011.
  • How much money do Game Designers make?
It depends wildly.  Some indie designers get paid a percentage of the profit, which can be $0 or a vast amount of money depending on how well the game sells.  If you’re working for an established company you get paid a salary.  How much is that salary?  It depends on whether you’re a contractor or a full-time employee.  Contractors get paid more to compensate for the fact that benefits (like health insurance) are not included.  What are the numbers on salary?  I don’t really know.  You should google it.
  • Tell me more about your definition of ‘play’ as it applies to gaming.  We have had lengthy discussions of what this means and our readings broadly expand on this so any thoughts are encouraged and applicable.
I really like the definition used in Salen & Zimmerman’s “Rules of Play”: “Play is free movement within a more rigid structure.” It covers all kinds of usages, like when you say a loose screw has a lot of play.  Society itself has a rigid structure, and it’s interesting to hear when people say others are “Playing the Game,” meaning Life.
  • As a designer, what challenges have you faced with as far as creative agency and game design? This question is open to however you want to go with this…activism, social responsibility, design, gender issues, innovation…etc.
Creative agency, if I understand the term correctly, has never been much of a problem for me — even under a lot of constraints, there’s always so much room in the design landscape if you’re willing to go exploring.  There have been a few times when the constraints imposed on me were morally questionable — early in my career that was about making somewhat predatory free-to-play games. I didn’t have the backbone then to voice my discomfort vehemently enough.  Now I think I do.
  • Could I have a personal anecdote revealing a bit more?  
Yes, there was one instance while freelancing when I was asked to make a series of educational games by a company under contract by the Saudi government.  That already had it’s pitfalls, but children deserve an education no matter where they’re from.  Then I heard that the curriculum would be very different for boys and girls.  I had to pull out.
  • Do you have a personal philosophy or mission?
My ultimate goal is to contribute to an environment where anything a player might want to learn can be learned through a videogame.  Not every project I do is an educational game, but everything I make makes me better at contributing to that goal.
  • What steps or processes do you employ when designing a game?
It depends on whether I’m doing a blue sky design, or being given an assignment, but I try to simulate the game in my head.  I make some notes in my notebook for a few days, trying to understand the basics of the game’s dynamics.  Then I try to explain the idea to a few other people, and see if it sounds interesting at all.  Then I start to prototype, either on paper or digitally.  If that’s still interesting we can start development on that feature, which will require a lot of adjustsments and tuning.  At any point I may need to start from scratch or to redo large portions of the design, as I respond to the realities of how the game plays and the resources available.
  • What are your favorite games to play? Why?
I play Threes about an hour a day.  It fits well into my life.
  • What elements do you feel are most important in creating gamer immersion?
I don’t like the term ‘Gamer’ because it implies a level of commitment to the hobby, and a certain mindset that not all players share.
That aside, I think the most important thing to create immersion is having a character that the player can relate to and empathize with.
  • Why is your design process unique/different?

I don’t think it is.  A lot of what I’ve learned about designing games I’ve learned secondhand from books or lectures.  The best I can say is that I have a unique blend of influences.  I think I’m pretty good at it, though.

  • Who is your target audience?
I’ve made games for all kinds of people — kids, housewives, gamer bros, businessmen, language learners.  It all depends on the game.
  • Anything else you would like to add?
There’s something special about games.  They have all kinds of untapped potential, and we need more and different perspectives to realize it.
If you’ve been assigned to interview a game designer, and you’ve chosen me, and you have questions that aren’t answered above, feel free to get in touch.