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Elijah Chapman

Introduction and Career Questions

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Hello everyone, I'm excited to have finally worked up the courage to participate in this community, I look forward to meeting you all!

My name is Elijah, and I'm a somewhat-recent graduate from a game design bachelor's program. I was aware before I started that career prospects in the game industry could seem pretty challenging for a newcomer, and figured I'd be up for the challenge. In the year or so since I graduated, I've worked on several projects, mostly by myself, and run into roadblocks of one sort or another on each of them (mostly relating to scope, but also some things that I'll mention in a bit). Because of this, I have some things, but not much, on my portfolio to show for my efforts.

I can speak more about any of these things at length if it helps, but my general concern and line of question is around how exactly I should gauge my current status, competencies, contents of portfolio, etc. My primary studies were as a designer, and I'm very comfortable doing that sort of work, but I also have a good deal of experience doing development out of necessity.

To be direct, what exactly should I be capable of to be confident in my capacity to get hired, and perform well in my position? I've had so little dialogue with people in the industry around this that I effectively have no idea of how my current capabilities measure up to what employers would expect from me. Maybe that's the wrong question entirely, let me know if that's the case. My goal here is to become better informed, know what my next steps should be, and hopefully gain some confidence in the somewhat terrifying (to me) job market. Wouldn't hurt to meet some new people either.

I can provide skills, portfolio website, resume, etc. at request, but at the time of writing I'm not entirely sure what would be most needed, and I hope not to clutter up the post unnecessarily.

I anticipate your feedback, and hope I haven't done too poorly trying to jump into a new community.

 

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Welcome Elijah, nice to meet you :)

 

I don't have any experience in the industry so take my words with a grain of salt... but I think that for a game designer, more than every other role in the industry, it's very very valuable to ships one or more game where YOU were the designer.

I mean, if I were searching for a game designer, first thing I would do is to search what titles he has designed, and how they look to me. Yes your portfolio is surely relevant, but for me this would be far more important than that.

They don't have to be huge hits or AAA, but for a designer having some good games shipped under the belt is a big plus. (Much more than it is for a programmer or an artist in my opinion).

I would start designing game in a small team made of passionate people or doing some freelance work, hoping that the game becomes a hit.

 

Leonardo

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Hello Elijah,

Quick terminology point: in the games industry, the main 3 roles are art, programming/coding, and design. These are all 'developers' and all do 'development'. This is different from the web world where the 2 main roles are typically known as designers and developers. You might still see some roles being advertised asking for developers, especially "Unity Developer" for some reason, but in the more traditional game industry that designation is uncommon.

The first thing I would say, is that generally speaking, game development companies hire designers and programmers as separate roles - it's very rare to be hired as a joint designer/programmer. However, with more and more games made using Unity, it's not unheard of for designers to sometimes write some C# scripts, and occasionally other engines use scripting languages too. So, your other work is likely to be a positive, but unlikely to be significant in your job search.

The second thing I would say is: get on the job listing sites and read the descriptions! The skills people are looking for are all out there and widely publicised. Here are some distilled game designer roles I've seen:

  • "Produce designs for game features",  "plan out and author [...] events, multiplayer competitions, and reward ", "explain your designs and ideas in documents", "passion for games and knowledgable about both mobile and console games", "Confluence/Google Docs", " Excel or Google sheets", "Photoshop", "Unity", "JSON Scripting"
  • "solid understanding of the latest 3D packages and level editors", "passion for games design and the enthusiasm to learn all processes and pipelines", "grasp of gameplay flow and layout, it would be really useful if this was in the FPS genre"
  • "prototypes of new concepts, mechanics, and interfaces", "work with our data team to build and iterate economies", "understanding of the mobile/social game space and free-to-play design", "Understanding of UX (wireframing, prototyping, etc) and/or UI mockups"

Will you meet any of these criteria lists? Of course not. But you might recognise some of those skills, which means you will want to be able to demonstrate them in your portfolio. And you might not recognise others, which means you might want to do some research on them.

Sometimes it's hard to find junior roles, because they are not advertised as often. Don't worry; just look at the 'regular' designer roles to see what sort of tools they're using and what sort of skills they need, and aim to get a subset of those.

Regarding the portfolio of work you already have, it is always beneficial to have a full product to show, but it is definitely not mandatory. Game development is a team effort and it's not expected that a junior designer has somehow managed to convince programmers and artists to help them produce a full game before they've even had their first paying job. However, there is a lot that you can do with free tools and assets to demonstrate your capabilities. Game mods, grey-box levels, feature designs, system spreadsheets, UI layouts... all possible without needing a full game to showcase them.

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2 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

I have some things, but not much, on my portfolio

You need a strong portfolio. 

2 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

how exactly I should gauge my current status, competencies, contents of portfolio, etc.

It's very hard for an individual to self-assess accurately. Just keep working on that portfolio.

2 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

what exactly should I be capable of to be confident in my capacity to get hired, and perform well in my position? I've had so little dialogue with people in the industry around this that I effectively have no idea of how my current capabilities measure up to what employers would expect from me.

Once you have built a strong portfolio, you'll have greater confidence in your capabilities. I'm assuming you work with others for parts of your portfolio - you can gain confidence from having the confidence of those others you work with.

3 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

My goal here is to become better informed, know what my next steps should be, and hopefully gain some confidence in the somewhat terrifying (to me) job market.

To become better informed, maybe some of my articles at Sloperama will be helpful. Next steps: more practice, more networking. Also, you didn't mention where you live. How many game companies are there within a 45-minute commute of where you reside? The terror will diminish. 

3 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

I also have a good deal of experience doing development out of necessity.

The word "experience" means something very particular to hirers in the game industry - it usually means paid experience. I only mention it so you know to use the word carefully on resumes and application emails.  

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Thank you for the great replies gentlemen.

To be a bit more specific, I am interested in doing either design or programming, I understand that it would be unusual to be in a position to be doing both. My degree is in design, and I have done a lot of work and would be comfortable in that position; but I also have a computer science background, which made it a bit easier for me to tackle the majority of the programming for the projects that I have worked on so far, compared to the people I was working with. This led to me, in almost all of my projects thus far, being the person who's figuring out the implementation of features, dealing with bugs, etc. All pretty normal fare.

There's a bit of a mismatch between the skills, when working solo I find it very difficult to stretch myself design wise without completely outstripping my ability to actually build what I've designed, but I have taken recent steps to rein myself in on both fronts, simply so that I can have finished games to show. Hopefully this is the correct approach, because I have nearly thirty larger scale projects that got to various stages of completion, before I ran into something that was simply beyond my abilities at the time, and I didn't want to continue adding to that list.

I should probably also mention that I do have some work experience in the industry, I was contracted as a programmer to an (as of now) unreleased project, and worked on it for more than a year until it became untenable to keep up with that, finishing my degree, and dealing with my health.

From my understanding, there are far more programming jobs than design jobs, so I've been trying to hone my skills such that I'm a strong applicant for those positions. The most important thing I could say about myself is that while I may not have every one of a laundry list of disparate prerequisite skills, I learn quickly, and work hard. Hopefully I'll be able to find a position for myself in which I can be interacting with people who are much more capable than me, and can accelerate my growth by learning from them.

Now for some specific replies and questions:

@Kylotan Thank you for your reply, I always appreciate an opportunity to learn be more precise in my speech. I've noticed a fair amount of industry professionals speaking about how, particularly for programming positions, the job listings tend to include a wish list, and that the company doesn't necessarily expect an applicant to be able to do literally everything on the listing. Because of this, it has been encouraged that prospective employees just give it a go anyway, and see what happens. Now certainly I wouldn't ever want to find myself in a position where I get hired into a job I'm simply not capable of performing, but in a general sense would you say that you agree with the dynamic, and should I be perfectly strict in regards to what I can do vs. what the listing states?

@Tom Sloper Thank you as well for your reply, and thank you for being very clear! I will certainly take a look at the resources on your website. As for my portfolio, what exactly makes it "strong"? Currently I have design documentation, level designs, links to some finished projects, and I'm working as we speak to finish some small projects for  inclusion on my portfolio. What sorts of things would be both achievable, and make the best impression, considering that I intend to apply for both design and programming positions based on my portfolio. Are the people who would be evaluating my portfolio going to make judgments about my abilities based on the art (or lack thereof) of my projects? How much should I aim to have?

As for location, I live effectively in the middle of nowhere, so remote work would be nice but I am always open to relocation as a matter of necessity.

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11 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

There's a bit of a mismatch between the skills, when working solo I find it very difficult to stretch myself design wise without completely outstripping my ability to actually build what I've designed

What you're missing here is that a game designer is not just "designing games" at the high level but is actually producing a whole bunch of content for the game. This doesn't require equivalent implementation skill - it just requires using and understanding the tools. The fact that you have some coding ability and thus the ability to implement some of your ideas directly is probably distracting from the fact that most designers do not have this, but they get hired anyway by demonstrating their skills in other contexts - as I mentioned in my first post, you can design levels, you can write mods, you can work in spreadsheets. You don't need to make the game in which these things are used.

 

11 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

I have nearly thirty larger scale projects that got to various stages of completion, before I ran into something that was simply beyond my abilities at the time

Finish projects. Either stick with one until it's done, or redefine the scope of a project so that, by definition, it is done.

In each case:

  • is the 'thing' no longer beyond your abilities? Then go back and finish it.
  • is it forever beyond your abilities? Then you have the wrong attitude, because game dev is all about learning.
  • is it not beyond your abilities but would take too long? Be realistic with the scope. Make smaller things.

You shouldn't have 30 abandoned projects. A handful, maybe. But getting a job is about showing that you can get stuff done, that you can work with minimal supervision, that you can do your own research to overcome roadblocks, and that you don't give up when the going gets tough.

 

11 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

From my understanding, there are far more programming jobs than design jobs, so I've been trying to hone my skills such that I'm a strong applicant for those positions.

You say you have a computer science background and how true that is will be a big factor in whether you can be hired for it. When I've interviewed graduates/juniors I was looking for good quality code samples, ideally in more than one language, which demonstrate that they understand good programming principles - abstraction, encapsulation, naming, commenting, etc. I personally don't care how good your game looks or plays - mostly I just want to see source code, and to be able to ask you about it, and about coding in general. And I want most of that code to be directly game-related.

 

11 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

the job listings tend to include a wish list, and that the company doesn't necessarily expect an applicant to be able to do literally everything on the listing. Because of this, it has been encouraged that prospective employees just give it a go anyway, and see what happens. Now certainly I wouldn't ever want to find myself in a position where I get hired into a job I'm simply not capable of performing

The chance of being hired for a job you're not capable of doing is basically nil. It's not something you need to worry about. Competition for entry level jobs is very high and the interview process is usually fairly rigorous. The main purpose of a job description is to attempt to ensure a good alignment between the skills of the applicant and the needs of the employer, and it has to do that without becoming a complex and overly long document. You just have to read it over and decide whether you're wasting your time or not, and read between the lines to guess what it implies.

e.g. If a job description says "2 years UE4 experience" then they're most likely hiring for a UE4 game and want someone with explicit experience of that engine. You could apply if you only have 1 year UE4 experience. You could apply if you have 3 years of Unity experience but are confident enough with C++ to think you could make the switch (and this is what you'd put in your cover letter).

Similarly, if there is a list of 5 required skills and you match 4 of them but the 5th one is a bit obscure, it's worth applying. Maybe they don't realise how obscure it is yet. Maybe the people with that 5th skill actually demand too much money and won't get hired.

What you shouldn't do is see a list of 5 required skills, realise you have none of them, and apply anyway. If you're hopelessly unsuitable then your resumé goes straight into the trash and if you're unlucky someone remembers your name the next time you apply. Use your discretion.

 

12 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

remote work would be nice but I am always open to relocation

Almost nobody offers remote work to juniors, just so that you know. Very few even offer it to seniors.

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I clearly still have a long way to go, and a lot to learn, but I'm committed to finding a place for myself in the industry. In the immediate future it seems a good course of action might be getting involved with a team to do something tangible. I noticed that there are some boards here for those purposes, would that be a good place for me to start?

Additionally, I've been intentionally somewhat vague about my specific skills and contents of my portfolio, but if it would be of any help I would be happy to share those.

Thank you again for your willingness to help!

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I think it can be worthwhile joining a team, but you need to be aware that the vast majority of hobbyist teams - e.g. 19 out of 20 - do not finish their projects, and probably most of them don't even get the project into a shape worthy of showing to others. It's a nice thing to do to get practice of working in a team, but for your portfolio you will want to work on that yourself.

As for the specifics of your portfolio, you can show it if you want feedback on it, but personally I would just advise having 2 separate portfolios, one for code and one for design, and making sure each one showcases a wide range of your best work in that area. If you want design jobs then I suggest you focus on the things you can show that don't require much or any coding, and vice versa.

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15 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

As for my portfolio, what exactly makes it "strong"?

You should show screen shots of games you worked on, with descriptions of exactly what you did on those games. It's "strong" if you contributed significantly to those games and those games have been released to the public.  It's "strong" if less-impressive stuff is not listed.

15 hours ago, Elijah Chapman said:

What sorts of things would be both achievable, and make the best impression

"Not thought to be achievable" would make the best impression: "I didn't know that was possible!"  

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I've been reflecting today, and realized after reading your comments that pulling myself into two different disciplines isn't going to get me anywhere fast. To add a little more specifics to the conversation, I've got four years and some change experience working in unity, most of those experiences were with teams (including one larger scale yet-to-be-released indie project). Across those teams I gained a lot of leadership experience, in the formal definition of the term, and I also handled most of the heavy feature implementation, (ai behaviors, pathfinding, ability modules, etc). Most of the teams I worked on were during my degree program, if that has any bearing on the conversation. 

Having said that, I will be focusing my efforts on things that demonstrate my design abilities. It seems that one of my misunderstandings was that prospective employers wouldn't take my work seriously if it wasn't shown within the context of a full game, so thank you very much for clearing that up!

I've worked a lot on different sorts of design documentation in the past, from small concept proposals, to technical documents on specific features, to full game design documents. I'm really proud of my previous work in these areas, and very confident in my ability to do that sort of work in the industry, but I'd like to work up some updated examples.

If I could impose just a bit further, have I interpreted your advice correctly, and would you be willing to take a look at some of my work when I have completed these examples?

Thank you all very much, your advice has been invaluable, and it's really helped me make sure that I'm not spending effort on things that won't help very much.

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