How to become a Game Designer? - My career story

Since writing my article on “How to Become a Game Designer”, I've received many comments and e-mails asking me what one should study to increase it's chance of becoming a game designer. Well I've thought about that for a loooong time, and I've came to this very conclusion: I DON'T KNOW!!

I can't pretend to give THE good advice that would make anyone a game designer because there is just so many ways that one can become one. In fact, game designers are probably the one position in the game industry (if that's the game industry you are interested in) that have the widest range of possible backgrounds. I've heard many differents and none the same. But for my own background, THAT I can tell you!
My career story

Act 1: Education, education
Like a lot of young guys my age, I grew up with video games and developed a keen interest in them. Mine might have been sharper because I've set my mind to become a game designer and never wavered from that objective. When it was time to go to college, I applied to only one place, on a program about “Multimedia Creation”, a sort of mixed pack of cinema, advertisement, graphism, art, informatic art tools (like Adobe's Suite and (in that time) Macromedia's Flash), photography and others. This seemed like the closest thing to what I needed to make video games (there werent many programs about game design in that time, let alone in the province of Quebec). Those were two nice years. I've learned so many different things, I was pleased! I continued on that path in University with a similar program in Multimedia for another 3 years. The approach of the program was on creativity. There was a creativity class and in the cinema and advertisement class we went deep into the human psychology to analyze and understand the media's codes and how they are perceived.

Act 2: The first job and the shattered illusions
But it's far from being the whole story. After those 5 years in multimedia, I had explored many different disciplines, from photography to psychology, from painting and sculpture to managing a project and staying on budget, but I had no speciality! I could do “ok” arts, knew a little bit of programming, had done two textured and animated character in 3Dmax for a game, but really, I was far from amazing in any of those things and really wasnt qualified to apply for any of that. But hey! I wanted to be a Game Designer, not an artist or a programmer. So I got a job as a game tester in a big shop making cell phones games. I was in the industry, I had a crappy salary, I was pleased!

So I worked as a game tester during the day, and at night I read books about game design and kept experimenting in Flash, building prototypes and making some arts in Photoshop and Illustrator. Flash has really been a good vehicule for my ideas. Not being a programmer, Actionscript 2 was a great platform to start with, since it had easy to learn codes and a very visual approach. It suited me very well! After a few months, I sent them a small design along with some kind of “Game Designer test” they asked any applicants to fill. I was not taken. The design I gave them was not very good and really my approach not very professional. I kept testing game, reading books and prototyping for another year until I sent another application. I was taken. The design I had submitted was ok and I gave them a strong Flash prototype. I went throught the interview and the questions they asked seemed to be right out of the book I just read (A previous edition of the "Fundamentals of Game Design" by Ernest Adams). And so I became a game designer. My dream was becoming true, my salary jumped up more than 50%. Was I pleased?

I was in a bliss for maybe 3 or 4 months and then I hated that job. The job was not what I had envisioned at all! I had no decision power whatsoever, I couldnt design anything but do some mock-ups dictated by a producer located in another country, I had all the dialogs I wrote for a game re-written (by the same producer), and was in a constant state of frustration. Moreover, I often had to do overtime to extend the torture. Not so pleased...

Act 3: The second job and the search for more
Ok, making video games was not as fun as I thought... But did it have to be like that? I've quit my game designer position after 11 months. I was slowly becoming lazy, I was losing my passion, I didnt wanted to make games anymore. I was not even toying with Flash in my spare times anymore. I had lost it. And it's never been like me to submit to something I don't want. It felt “wrong” to be there so I decided to leave. I went on to become an integrator for a small montreal business making educative children's games. I was losing a lot of responsibility going from Game Designer to Integrator but it was advertised that there was opportunity for part-time work and I thought that would be perfect to keep working on my own projects. The business was very nice, filled with a bunch of great, relaxed peoples. I loved the team and the boss was really a friendly, talkative guy that was fun to be with. And no more overtime. Pleased again!

Unfortunately, when I started working there it was the end of a huge project that has been going on for almost two years and I never had the chance to switch to part-time work. I wasnt doing overtime but I was working full time. The job was not very stimulating, very repetitive, so I quickly grew bored of it. What does this all have to do with becoming a Game Designer? I had quit a designer position to become an integrator! But the story is not over and believe me, even then I was not wavering from my objective. I knew it was not right but I was still hoping for a part-time job. And lo! It came to me! I was offered to give Flash classes by the University were I studied. They found my portfolio on the internet and found that I was still working with Flash (somehow I was, from time to time). Very, very pleased. Teaching was something I always thought I would like, and I did like it.

Act 4: The third job and the shattered fears
While being a lot of work, teaching was a lot of fun. After three years of working full-time in front of a computer, interacting with real live students was a blessing. Moreover, the job allowed me to take 4 months of unpaid time off during the summer which was a perfect plan to work on my own personnal game projects. So on the first “summer-off” (2008), I took upon myself to actually finish a first game (HyperSpace Shooter). This finally felt like I was getting closer to achieving my child's dream of making games, much more so than when I was employed as a game designer in the big industry.

I admit this is far from being a good game, but it was a great learning project. Hands-on experience helped me learn the art of design, programmation and about the Flash market at large. But mostly, finishing my own project was extremely empowering! I had a long history of beginning prototypes and designs and never finishing them. I had a lot of fears: fears of not working on the “right” project, of not being able to build what I had in mind, of wasting my life, of... anything that could justify me cancelling a project and start working on a new one. This is a fact of life: starting a project is extremely exciting, finishing it is difficult and requires a painful dedication. But if I could not finish a simple project, I would never go anywhere. Completing HyperSpace Shooter totally shattered those fears. It raised my confidence to levels I could not imagine.

A few months after that project, I started working on Finding my Heart. I came up with the idea for this game in about 20 minutes (scenario and all). HyperSpace Shooter got me tired of programming so I wanted a project that would get me closer to art and animation so I started with the idea of making a short adventure game and the idea came very quickly. Not a strike of genius, no, but a good idea it was. Enough that I wanted to do it. My raised confidence really helped me get started on the new project and right from the start I just knew that I could complete it. I had no hesitations, I knew it was the right thing to do.

Act 5: the future opens up!
So here I stand now. I'm still giving classes one day a week and I'm completing a third Flash game, which is very promising. Finding my Heart didnt make a lot of money but helped me learn a lot again about the Flash game business and gave me good basis for my third game. My teaching contract is not renewed for the winter for reasons out of my control so I'll be a full time indie developer after Christmas. I find it to be yet another opportunity that is put along my way so I'll take it as such and won't even try to get another job. I've got enough money to get me going for a while so it is a perfect time to invest in my own business.

The games I worked on so far have been individual works. They allowed me to prove my capacities and greatly enrich my portfolio. Now I've hired a musician for my next game, which was a great relief for me (I did the music for my previous games but I'm not very good so it takes me forever) and I'm looking to work collaboratively on small and bigger projects in the future. I certainly would'nt be looking at possible collaborations if it werent for Finding my Heart, but it gave me enough credibility to go that way. Now I have to prove I can actually make a salary with my work, and again I'm determined to do it.

So do you still need some advice for becoming a game designer? Is my current position really intesting to you? In any way, this story is my own and you can only make yours by yourself, so really I'm not sure I can give good advices. Oh, maybe just one. Do it. Find some time, work hard, and prove the world you can do it on your own. Nobody will ever give you the means to make games but you. So yeah, just do it.


abiyasa said...

I just played MegaDrill at Kongregate and end up reading your blog :-)

I like your story. It inspires me a lot! Kinda remind me of myself, has a lot of projects but having a problem in finishing them :-D

Thanks for sharing this and wish you good luck!

TripleS said...

Congratulations! MegaDrill is a great game. Good luck on your projects :)

RoseDragon said...

You got nice history there, I understand where you got the determination to keep polishing your games for more than a month each.

I'm contradiction of your history, I never goes to game college and I'm not from the industry before. :D

Nishant said...

ur story helped me a lot and dat told me dat for my ideas there is no room in the corporate world... coz they have to be imlemented by myself...

Anonymous said...

is there anyway to start with a games company as an apprentice?

Nishant said...

let me answer dat question, actually there is for example ArenaNet.. they started their studio with just 3 members in a single room.. well m also going to start my career like this after getting an experience under some big studio..