What to Look for in New Game Designers

06 Jun
6 June 2011

Not long ago, colleges didn’t offer degrees in game development.  When they started to, the programs were generally not seen as a great source for new hires.

Things change.  Over the years, many programs have found their stride (helped in no small part by actual developers taking teaching positions).  So much so, in fact, that there’s now a symbiotic relationship at work – studios count on instructors to birddog promising graduates, and instructors count on devs to keep them current with the business.

As a result, I’m asked, “What do you look for when hiring new designers?” a lot.


Is this person adaptable?

It makes sense that engines and editors are taught in formal courses (and I’d include them in a curriculum), but I’m not concerned with a candidate’s out-of-the-box proficiencies.  Anyone can learn the tools (and there are forever new tools to learn).  Designers are also frequently assigned diverse tasks involving all sorts of different systems and tools.  That in mind, I look for quick studies – adaptable people interested in learning how things work, who seem likely to pick up the lessons they’ll need to be solid designers.  What you can learn is more important than what you know.

Do they ask “why?”

Being a designer is like being that asshole at a party who ruins jokes by dissecting them and explaining why they’re funny.  It isn’t enough just to be able to identify something as “fun.”  You have to be able to understand why it’s fun.  You have to be able to figure out how to fix something that isn’t fun (hopefully via some technique other than “try random things until miracle occurs”).  You have to know how something could be more fun or how fun experienced in one thing else might be migrated somewhere else.  Most importantly, you need to know when, despite being fun, a feature or experience is still not the right thing for the game.

A really basic litmus test for this is:

  • What’s your favorite game?
  • Pick one thing that is fun about it?
  • Why is that one thing fun?

Everyone can answer the first question.  Most people can pick something for the second.  You’d be amazed by how few people — people who aspire to be game designers — can provide a good answer for the third.

Do they understand the role of design?

A surprising number of people seem to think the role of design is to dictate awesome ideas to a group of people waiting around to implement them.  Reality is a little different.

Firstly, awesome ideas are wonderful.  Everyone loves them.  They’re truly great.   However, awesome ideas that work with the engine you’ve selected, that fit into the schedule, that don’t require a redesign of your art pipeline, that don’t force radical changes to systems already in place, that don’t demolish the performance budget, that play well on all the platforms you’re targeting, that can be coded without having to invent new kinds of math, that won’t require purchasing barges of middleware and servers, and so on – those ideas are the ones that generally matter.

Secondly, yes, to be a designer you need to be able to produce some of the concepts that will go into a game.  At the same time, designers are generally going to be working with an amazingly capable group of people, and  these people will frequently have fantastic ideas that are better than what the designer had in mind.  A designer needs to be able to incorporate this material without feeling anything but happy about that – the design job is not to be the burning bush of all good ideas, it is to make sure all the good ideas get in the game.

At the same time, the job also involves presenting, keeping, and steering a vision.  This means needing to know when to incorporate someone’s awesome idea and when (and how) to tell someone that their awesome idea isn’t awesome or isn’t awesome for the game or isn’t awesome for the current circumstances.

In the end, it’s a very hazy balance between providing direction and taking direction, being a leader and a follower, complicated more by the multifaceted, complex, and evolving demands of the project.  Everyone has trouble with this.  (Everyone.)  But there are different flavors of “trouble” and different degrees.

Have they done some of this already?

Compared to even a decade ago, it is so easy to do something with games today that a wanna-be designer better have some of that on their resume.  Games ship with amazing editors, free compilers are a Google away, things like Blender make it possible to get into 3D for $0, whole game engines are available for the downloading, there are myriad wikis and YouTubes and forums to collaborate or find tutorials and instruction –  someone telling me they love games better love them enough to have had their fingers in some of these.

Can they write?

I’m a dinosaur when it comes to this (I capitalize and punctuate my texts) but I give bonus points for designers who can write.  It isn’t essential – I know plenty of good designers who are not great writers – but there are a lot of times when team emails or pitch documents or game content requires (or at least would benefit from) someone with an understanding of how to put things on paper.

(Also, if your resume includes IM-speak, fuck you.)


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