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Orymus

Breaking into Game Design

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Hello all, I've been trying to break into the industry for a couple of years now. My background is that of a university degree in history, I've managed to make into as a contractor QA for a big gaming software company for over 6 months, and I have an indie title to be released in Q4 2011 where I stood as lead game designer (it is no biggy, but it is 3d and could compare to early 2000ish fps/adventure games with interesting systems). I read a lot of articles about design and am constantly attempting to improve my experience and overall capabilities. Basically, right now, I'm wondering, what, from your own experience, is the next step I should take to acquire more credibility for a job interview as a game designer? I understand most companies are looking for people that have 2 or 3 published titles (commercial, aka, from a big company) under their belts, but since this looks like a dead-end, is there anything 'else' I can try to actually get inside of a company as a game/level designer? Note: - I have a decent programming background, but I couldn't work as a programmer. - I also happen to have very good musical composition skills, but companies usually contract external people for that job (they don't keep one in-house, and it wouldn't drag me any closer to my goal) - Like I said, I've done QA, but it didn't seem to get me any closer to design after 9 months on a AAA.

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9 months in QA is not enough time, young Jedi. You need to give it more time. At least two years. Nobody will promote you into design from QA in less time than that. Another thing you can try is level design.
Read these:
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/lesson14.htm
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/designprep.htm
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/m69.htm
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/lesson24.htm
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/lesson27.htm
http://archives.igda.org/breakingin/path_design.htm

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Time, experience, and a good portfolio.
Don't expect to be a designer anytime soon. You'll probably spend several years in QA (if that's the path you choose), and more time as a lead QA or the like.

Even then there's no guarantee that you'll become a designer.

Spend time building and modding games, find the FUN in things.

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I could only tell you right now whether you're going the right way or not... if you care to answer a few simple questions.
-How do you define fun that one gets from playing games?
-To what extent, in your opinion, a game should help the player to gain fun?
-What are the qualities that define a good game?
-Do you have any game ideas that you would like to see implemented?

So I think it's not that much a matter of time as it is of experience you've gained while designing games. And if you're experienced enough (that is, if your portfolio shows that), I'm sure you'll get a job.

P.S. Game design is quite a lot different from level design so I do not support mixing them in one group..

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"9 months in QA is not enough time, young Jedi. You need to give it more time. At least two years."

Although I understand and I agree, this is one of the things where I miss the point. Sure, Game Design is all about a producer trusting you with a portion of his/her game, which represents considerable sums of money, and a certain trust needs to be established. From my experience however, some QA are lazy asses who'll await years in that position to grab the title. I don't think '2 years' is as good a measure as dedication in the field. I won't brag about the details, but one could say I was dedicated.
Also, I went into QA from my 'own accord' and not as a means to go into design. I thought QA was a very good way of learning the gears from within the industry (oh and yes, it is!) but it seems to be on the other end of design. Design is about 'structured' imagination ('structured' because it is what most designers seem to lack, and on that end, i understand a need for a bit of QA first) while QA is all about logics. Or more likely 'illogics' (try to do what you're not expected to and see how it results).

I've also delved into the task of LD. I seem to agree more with snake5 on that subject. The LDs have the job that is closest to the testers in that they use more logics than creativity. The job is incredibly different from the game designer, the so-called 'juggler of illusions' as they call him. LDs, from my understanding, use ingredients made by the GD and generate a new recipe: very logic, simple, tangible. The GD's job is to create ingredients out of thin air. That's a lot more 'magic' than tangible so to speak. Therefore, I am not sure LD is 'such an improvement' to gear towards Game Design as would, for example, design elements in a portfolio earned in a different way.

"Time, experience, and a good portfolio."
Time and experience are vectors that go in a same way, and one will vary according to the other, depending on the capacity of the recipient to learn fast or not. I think experience here matters more than time as time is simply the measure through which experience will be earned (provided an external factor that varies from one individual to the next that defines the rate of experience development over time).
Portfolio, however, is the part that puzzles me. What would you include in a portfolio? Like I said, my only indie-commercial title is released Q4 2011, but I don't suppose that is enough.
Of course, I do have 1001 ideas stored over my computer, some of them good, some of them finished, some of them bad, and others obviously good on paper, but cataclysmatic once developped. Is it good to use non-produced designs in a portfolio? If so, which one should be preferenced: original works that appear to be good ideas? or simpler designs which seem more realizable? (I think the latter is what modern production is gearing towards, less risks, more farsighted, etc, but I'll let you be the gurus there as I'm obviously a rookie in that area).

As for snake5's questions:

-How do you define fun that one gets from playing games?
I try to earn emotional responses at clear intervals, balancing stress and relief, using rewards at 'balanced spots'. I think the player benefits from relief moments and from being rewarded. The big question is how to reinvent the causes of stress/relief and the magnitude of the rewards and their distribution throughout the game. I think a player will find it fun to be superman at first, but if there is no longer a threat sufficient to generate a stress or fear from the user's end, then obviously, he became superman too fast and the game has reached an end. I think a lot of people want the epic side, because it does have some fun, but designers should tinker with that carefully. I got that from my heavy-rpg past. A good rpg is all about mathematical decisions leading to a perfect balance. The rpg rules are simple (I will disregard the story for this analysis though). If the rpg is too easy = fail. Too hard? A few hardcore players will enjoy it, but the bulk will quit. Then comes the question of 'what is your audience and thus, what kind of players will have fun playing this game'.

I also use the 'relative time' approach where I want either the player to forget about the time, or to feel it flies by too rapidly. This, of course, comes with appropriate game flow, and once again, it is the final balancing that defines this entirely.

Flavor elements (Story, visuals, etc) are also part of the fun, but I have stopped to believe in my youth long ago that they could suffice. What would be Deus Ex without its gameplay elements? A crappy movie (whose production was canceled by the way as told by imdb...) But then again, what would be Deus Ex without its story? a decent game, not very compelling, played by a few, but never a GOTY. Story is the kind of tricky thing you need to think beforehand, and adjust along the way. It won't protect your game from failure, but it can make it a lot more fun if the game has already a strong backbone.

-To what extent, in your opinion, a game should help the player to gain fun?
I think it is acceptable to 'hurt' the player. Frustration, stress and fear are vector one has to play with diligently. If used properly, at an appropriate level, the player will earn fun from the relief moment (success) and the amount of work invested to earn that victory (measured mostly by negative emotional responses) will make that relief moment that much more memorable. Good example: Miguel in Chrono Cross. This boss is epic in that he will kill you the first 5 times, but not because it is made that way. It is part of the learning process, and the save point is nearby. Frustration? Definately! Want the quit the game? Borderline... Relief value? Priceless. Counterexamples would have included a distanced save point forcing the player through a tedious gameplay section. Earlier ninja gaidens have erred on that part. More often than not, I found myself passing through various enemies to get back to the boss. The boss was already a sufficient frustration factor. The enemies were not even that much of a threat. There, there simple were too many obstacles (frustration).
Also, aside from rage-quiting a game out of frustration, the tendril of fear can have a dramatic impact. Too much fear, and the player is no longer affraid. He has come to expect and receive. The greatest part of fear is when the player expects something frightful to occur and nothing happens... So it becomes a bet, and when something DOES occur, the player is surprised. It may not earn a fun response immediately, but relief from fear, if handled properly, is just another tool of the trade. If the player comes to expect and receive at every turn, the fear factor becomes boreness factor.

To sum it up, you need to smite the player and reward him for surviving. And once again, it is all in the balance. A game will help the player have fun only if he or she is ready to sweat for it. But the amount of sweat necessary will vary from target audience to target audience.

-What are the qualities that define a good game?
Wheter it be casual or immersive, games are made to entertain the user. They are good when they manage to entertain their audience. Entertainment comes in a variety of packages (puzzle games, platformers, shooters, etc). Like I briefly mentionned in the previous two questions, I think a good game is one that can earn and generates emotional responses. I think someone unable to have emotions would not play a game, unable to see the point. It is how the machine plays with our nerves that trully makes it fun. Thus, a good game has the ability to touch one or many emotional vectors. Most games, use stress and relief. Even dating sims what the player to fear that he or she might not pick the right dialogue tree option. If a player cannot fear the consequences of his or her choices, the game fails. If the player actually earns relief upon finally 'guessing right' or 'finding another way around' a said issue, then, the game has found a way to score.
In bullet-point:

+ Simple/Coherent Design (This doesn't mean that there needs to be few elements, but that they need to be easy to explain to the player, easy for them to understand, but quite hard to master. Likewise, if one design element does not naturally fits with the others, then it should not be there. The design should flow as a single entity which makes sense of its own. I can't help but find in great games flaws about misplaced elements. Every gun works with bullets, and then one works with energy. This may work out, but it doesn't smoothen the design. Capitalizing on a varying ammunition systems would be a more coherent design than adding this spin-off weapon system).

+ Balance (Everything is about balance. Anything can go wrong if the balance is off, but not everything can go right if the balance is right... though it always help to minimize the impact of other mistakes than to balance them fairly. Balance affects not only rewards and level difficulties, or even AI interactions. It also affects the gameflow, to distribute progressively the action. One wouldn't find any fun in a game packed with 8 hours of action, then a 4 hours idle, and then another 8 hours of fun... the 4 hours off would be just too long. Spread evenly, although not 100% evenly).

+ Emotions (If the game has a flawless design and the balance is great, but the game doesn't earn any emotional responses, it still fails. Add an intriguing or immersive story or flavor elements so that the player identifies him or herself to the protagonist and shares the pain. Heck, even Pac-Man could generate tremendous amounts of stress!)

-Do you have any game ideas that you would like to see implemented?
Thousands, and then, not really. The usual reflex would be to reshape the entire game groundup with my views and all, and this is an automatic failure. There is no such thing as 'my game'. There are constraints. The customer wants something, then the higher instances want some other things. When it falls down to me, I know they can already tell me 'I want an FPS revolving around a specific theme set in a specific world' and more often than not 'make it sound like an expansion of this franchise that we own'. I am aware and I cope well with this. I can still twist the design around, but I can't torch it clean. More often than not, from my indie experience, I realize that 'previous ideas' may generate discussions, but it will be genuinely new ones that will emerge instead. It is always good to have thought about things that games should do, but this is all so theoric, when it falls into such a narrow environment, it would make no sense to import these design elements. Design is like everything else, it evolves and adapts to new criterias. I have made my peace long ago that I won't ever be making my 'dream-game' but I have already used a few of these ideas, evolving them into something entirely different, but that served a similar purpose: make a fun and addictive game. Besides, everything I have 'on paper' sounds fun to me, but outside from its theorical context, and deprived from my own subjectivity, it is just another concept awaiting to be fleshed out, and in the end, like any concept, it could just fail.


... So much for 'a few simple questions'
They are the kind I have heard in my interview, and of course, I've learned never to leave it to chance. If you are to answer a question, make it matter. If you answer too short, no one will believe you can generate a conversation about design. I read somewhere that the art of designing was the art of explaining something simple in a ridiculous amount of paragraphs. Then again, sorry about the lack of structure, but there is only so many options you can use on a forum textbox. Identation, font sizes, etc are not within grasp.

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Ory wrote:
>Sure, Game Design is all about a producer trusting you with a portion of his/her game, which represents considerable sums of money, and a certain trust needs to be established. From my experience however, some QA are lazy asses who'll await years in that position to grab the title.

You can't be serious. No "lazy ass" has the patience to wait years to become a game designer, and no "lazy ass" could ever get promoted to game design.

>I don't think '2 years' is as good a measure as dedication in the field.

That's not what it's supposed to be. 2 years is the minimum length of time it takes the average person to learn enough about the industry (and for the person's bosses to learn enough about the individual) to qualify for moving up into the studio from QA.

>LDs, from my understanding, use ingredients made by the GD and generate a new recipe: very logic, simple, tangible. The GD's job is to create ingredients out of thin air. That's a lot more 'magic' than tangible so to speak. Therefore, I am not sure LD is 'such an improvement' to gear towards Game Design as would, for example, design elements in a portfolio earned in a different way.

My only point was that level design is a surer way to becoming a game designer than QA is. Level design is an entry-level position, an alternate entry pathway to QA.

>I think experience here matters more than time as time is simply the measure through which experience will be earned

Don't forget demonstrability. How do you demonstrate the possession of knowledge? By your actions over time -- and by your portfolio.

>What would you include in a portfolio? Like I said, my only indie-commercial title is released Q4 2011, but I don't suppose that is enough.

No, it's not. Read these:
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/lesson49.htm
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/lesson12.htm

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Quote:
You can't be serious. No "lazy ass" has the patience to wait years to become a game designer, and no "lazy ass" could ever get promoted to game design.

I realize a word didn't get transcribed from my mind onto the post. I didn't mean to generalise, but I've seen a lot of people attempting to show-at-experience through time, but without actual dedication. They've been there for years, I'm told, and when I look at the quality and/or quantity of their work, I feel superior in more ways than can be listed (but I'm far from being the only one, I've seen several QA do exactly the opposite: Great job.) I do realise however, and this is supported by people from the industry as well, that QA is actually a better way into higher QA instances, and strangely, production more than design, although it is really a grey pathway. Most people I've seen however insisted that it is not 'entry-level' except salarywise.

Quote:
That's not what it's supposed to be. 2 years is the minimum length of time it takes the average person to learn enough about the industry (and for the person's bosses to learn enough about the individual) to qualify for moving up into the studio from QA.
&
Don't forget demonstrability. How do you demonstrate the possession of knowledge? By your actions over time -- and by your portfolio.

Point taken. I hadn't seen it that way, that's food for thought on my end, thanks.

Quote:
No, it's not. Read these:
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/lesson49.htm
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/lesson12.htm

Will do, once again, thanks for the input :)
edit: the funny thing? I've read 3 of your articles already :P small world...

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Quote:
Original post by Orymus
Most people I've seen however insisted that [QA] is not 'entry-level' except salarywise.

I have never seen anybody say that it's impossible to get into QA without industry experience.
That's what "entry-level" means -- a position one can get without having any previous industry experience.
QA is most definitely entry-level.

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Hm, since I was lucky enough to catch your attention and you seem to have a lot of advices to hand out (and believe me, I've just crash coursed through your whole site, oh and what gems I found!)
here's a question, that I hope you will not find "stupid" (Let's assume this is my exam ;))

What is the attitude adopted by people from the industry regarding 'alternate' education?

Let me define what I mean by alternate first, otherwise, I possibly won't earn the appropriate answer:

I did a lot of formal studies which are considered normal pathways (college, leads into university, majored in history, etc). Let's assume I did NOT go that way, let's say I dropped after college, but let's also assume that I've 'studied from behind the curtain':
(Examples)
- I've read wikipedia entirely twice (well obviously not but it is an example)
- I took art classes on evenings
- I took an internet course about literature
- I read a series of book about game design
- I go to 'bookclub'-like movie critics every now and then
etc...

Basically, let's just say I have found knowledge through an alternate path. I know you encourage this, and I know everyone should always continue to go that way, because we're always learning new stuff, and it helps to strengten our craft. Like you say, it is never enough.

But how is it perceived by people from the industry when they are presented with such a curriculum? What stands out as positive elements and what makes the person responsible of the hiring process feel doubt or risk when faced with such a candidate? Lastly, what key questions would you ask to someone who is self-taught in that way to separate the good from the bad seed?

*I understand the last sub-question may feel stupid as I do not have a clear understanding of the categorization of individuals that pass the interviews. I merely employed the terms good and bad to refer to the prospects you would consider against those you wouldn't. Please forgive the effort, but there is only so much one can word appropriately in a question when he knows nothing of the answer.

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Quote:
Original post by Orymus
I did a lot of formal studies which are considered normal pathways (college, leads into university, majored in history, etc). Let's assume I did NOT go that way, let's say I dropped after college, but let's also assume that I've 'studied from behind the curtain'

But why are you asking this? You said you do have a degree -- in history. If you're just asking out of idle curiosity, I'm not very compelled to spend any time answering it in detail. The reason for your asking would illuminate your REAL question so you could get the best answer.
I may have already answered this before. See
http://archives.igda.org/columns/gamesgame/gamesgame_Oct05.php
http://www.igda.org/games-game-september-2007
http://www.sloperama.com/advice/bulletinbd.htm#enough
http://www.gamecareerguide.com/forums/showthread.php?t=3244
Also, what country are you from, and in what country do you live? Your wording is a little off. And that might affect your design career chances too.

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