August 9, 2009

My Interview with

Steven Savage is one of those amazing bloggers who is constantly churning out good content, speaking at conventions, podcasting, the works. In short he makes me feel like a slacker. His site, Fan To Pro, is a career blog that focuses particularly on turning that hobby you love into a paying gig.

Steven asked me a few questions related to my own transition from game fan to professional designer. In the interview, we talk about breaking in, networking, mentoring, and how game design careers are evolving.

1.Do you have any interesting insights to share on your career in gaming that may help people who want to break into gaming? How did you get in, why, what worked for you, and how did your hobbies/interests play into it?

I originally went to college as a music major, and then bounced around a bit before deciding what I really wanted to do. Once I decided I wanted to be a professional game designer, I decided to get a degree in writing, which I peppered with as many electives as possible in media, design, art, and technology. I got a design internship with Maxis (now EA) working on Sims games, ended up staying there full time for a few years, and now I'm a combat designer for online games.

All you need to be an entry-level game designer is to be smart, love games, and work well with other people. You needn't have shipped a game to make a game, no matter what the job description may say. All people want is some assurance that they're not hiring somebody terrible. The best way to ease employers' minds is to have some good games on your resume, but there are other ways. You can make some games in your spare time, do some internships, or both.

Internships are short term, low risk investments for employers. Interns come with an expiration date, so there's a minimum of fuss if they decide they don't like you. On the other hand, people tend to expect so little from interns that it's very easy to be impressive. Do as many internships as you can! I only did one game design internship. If I was smart I'd have interned at 4 different companies throughout college so I'd have had more prospects and be able to negotiate my first salary more.

When you're in college, you can skew your education towards your passion, even if no obvious game development classes exist at your school. Most professors these days love assigning free-form projects and papers, because they recognize that people do better work when they're working on something they care about. I worked on software documentation and internship applications in my writing classes, designed game interfaces in my usability classes, and analyzed games for papers in classes on gender, media, culture, economics, and psychology. You can forge your own path, and most professors are happy to help you do so.

Also, make sure you spend a lot of time working on group projects and making games with other people. Yes, it's easier to just work alone, but game development is all about collaboration, and group projects are the best way to practice for having a real job. Whenever I interview someone who has made a bunch of games all alone, I worry that they must be a selfish prima donna who'll be no good at working on a team.

2.Do you have insights on any other career areas?

Game design is a great job for people who are generalists; game design, writing, and acting are the only three jobs I can think of where just about any experience can come in handy. Great game designers come into the field from all sorts of backgrounds. I've worked with designers who've had previous careers in scientific, musical, theatrical, literary, artistic, military, and culinary jobs. I even know one designer who used to be a city bus driver.

It's not that any of these careers is the ideal training ground for a budding game designer, but the kind of people who make good game designers are the kind of people who soak up knowledge wherever they go, and make a point of applying that knowledge to new situations. This is a critical behavior when playing games, and I think people who make a habit of thinking critically in their daily lives are much better at manufacturing situations that allow players to do so.

In particular, I think game designers can never know too much about psychology. Fun is something we can never directly give players. We have to and allow empower them to construct it for themselves, using the tools we provide. Players do whatever they want, and the concept of fun is defined and experienced entirely in their heads. Designing a game that will cause players to have fun is like designing a room that will make people tango.

Developers ship games all the time that we think are fun, and then we don't understand why our players and reviewers don't have fun playing them. There's a saying in the industry that you can't ship yourself with the game. If only we could walk into each player's house and help them learn the controls and what to do when, they'd surely start to have fun, but that's not how it works. We have to teach our games how to teach our players how to have fun, and ultimately that all comes down to psychology.

3.What role did/does social media and technology play in your career?

Most game designers probably spend less than half their time actually designing things in the traditional sense. The rest of their time is spent implementing those designs, creating and managing data, fixing performance problems, etc. Even the process of writing documentation can be very elaborate, if you're doing special things with a wiki, a database, or excel. It's a highly technical job, and depending on where you work it will require programming/scripting experience, or at the very least mastery of some proprietary tools and editors. Personally, I find myself frequently using small tools and scripts that I've written to automate parts of my work.

Social networking is something I've been notoriously grumpy about in the past, but I've been making an effort to utilize it more. I made extensive use of Linkedin in my last job search, and I do recommend that everyone at the very least make a profile there and keep it current. Even if you never do more than that, recruiters will start contacting you. By joining some relevant groups, I've participated in some interesting discussions, connected with new people such as yourself, and gotten some leads that ultimately led to job offers.

When I had to make a difficult career decision a couple of months ago, I was able to solicit advice from some game designers and creative directors who were a lot further along in their careers than I was. These were people I'd never even have met without my blog and Linkedin. It was very useful to be able to zoom out like that, and get a survey of opinions and advice that went beyond that of my close friends and coworkers.

Social media also teach us lessons that apply to games themselves, particularly online games which are a social medium unto themselves. MMORPGs, Steam, and Xbox Live all incorporate concepts of social networking technology, and in return they influence those same social networks. Linkedin profiles come with a score to tell you how complete your profile is, which is a concept right from videogames. Team Fortress 2/Steam let me look at a friend's profile, and see what achievements they've recently unlocked, or what new games they're playing, which is a concept directly taken from social networking sites.

4.What do you think is the best way to reach and encourage people interested in gaming careers? Is this extensible to other careers?

I really enjoy direct mentorship, when possible. I've found it very satisfying to train junior designers and interns over the past few years. My first boss in the industry (a great designer named Charles London), really helped point me in the right direction. Having someone like that at your first job can make a huge difference in your career, so I do my best to try and help people out the same way.

However, that's not a very efficient way to reach people. Part of the reason I started blogging is that I wanted to be able to reach a larger group of people and become part of the larger discourse on game design. As I mentioned earlier, Linkedin is also a great way mentor and be mentored by people you might never have met otherwise.

5.What role did networking and informal connections play in your career?

I'm pretty terrible at networking for networking's sake, although I do think I've gotten a bit better about it in the past year. Networking has become more and more important for me over time, but it's generally the sort of networking that happens naturally as a result of working with people you really like. I've got a group of people who I've loved working with, and would recommend for a job without question. Similarly, I have a group of people who I know would do the same for me.

What I think most people get wrong about networking is they become overly concerned with making friends with people who are already in positions of power. Networking can happen at any stage of your career and still be useful. A lot of my contacts in games are people I've known since before either of us worked in the industry - people from college, and even one or two from high school. If you surround yourself with skilled people whom you respect, it's inevitable that some of you will eventually become successful enough to help each other out.

6.What do you see the future of gaming careers evolving?

I think job descriptions, particularly in design and production, will become more well-defined. Design as a discipline is something that large companies like EA have only acknowledged on a wide scale in the past few years. Previously all design work was done by producers. Some companies have producers that do project management and schedule people, and others have development directors to do that work, leaving producers as quasi-designers.

Some teams have lead designers, some have lead developers, some have executive producers, some have creative directors, and some have all of the above. Creative directors at some companies work on many projects, and outrank lead designers and executive producers. At other companies the creative director works on only one project, and may be subject to direction from an executive producer. Some designers write code, some write stories, some do nothing but write design docs.

In short, this industry is still a big primordial mess. Different companies, or even different teams within the same company, completely reinvent the wheel when it comes to structure, process, project management, compensation, and career path.

What I hope will happen over time is that we'll start to learn from the software industry, which has been around longer and is much better at regulating itself as an industry as a whole. There is no right way to make a videogame, but there are many wrong ways and we need to stop blundering back into them over and over again.

I also hope that the industry, especially design, will manage to pry apart the two concepts of seniority and management potential. There are many great designers who are terrible managers, and many great managers who are terrible designers. Only a precious few people are good at both, and it's ridiculous to “reward” someone for succeeding at their job by forcing them into a second job, if they are not likely to succeed at performing it.


Nick said...

A good interview. I agree fully on the value of internships- it was my way into the industry as well and every sort of gaming school should at least try to offer one, if they don't already.

As a side-note; I never realized you worked on Cryptic! My internship almost ended up being there, but problems with getting a visa put that idea down.

Looking forward to Champions!

Mike Darga said...

Thanks Nick, I'm glad you liked it. I do work at Cryptic, I just don't talk much about my job or what game I'm working on here. It's good to keep these things separate =)

Ysharros said...

That was a good interview! If I weren't the age I am *cough* and if I had the first clue about programming (dammit Jim I'm a writer, not an engineer!), I'd be trying to find my own in. Hey, I could always mention working for TSR-UK back in prehistoric days. ;)

Mike Darga said...

A lot of teams have dedicated writers now, maybe you could try your hand at that =)

Ysharros said...

After everything I've read about working in the MMO industry? According to some, I'd do better to chew off my own arms right now! :D

Well, and oddly enough I've grown to really enjoy my current work (translation for humanitarian agencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo), even if I *am* working for my mother. Who'da thunk!

Mike Darga said...

Haha I can't argue with that.