What it Takes to be a Junior/Entry Game Designer


Barbara Walter, moderator of the Newbie Forum over at the IGDA website asked me (and a bunch of other folks) to write up some brief answers to questions on what a junior designer’s life is like for the “Words of Wisdom” series.

What it Takes to be a Junior/Entry Game Designer

1) What duties, responsibilities, tasks are assigned to a junior/entry game designer?

Really, very similar to the tasks that are assigned to senior designers. The junior designers are often responsible for content generation, but are full participants in the system design process, brainstorming, and document generation. We typically wouldn’t assign them a large system, but would try to find smaller systems with less variables or dependencies so that they can feel ownership over the system, and that way we don’t assume too much risk because of inexperience. Basically, we want to ease them into the more complex stuff. A lot of course depends on the skill set the new designer brings to the table in the first place.

2) What are ideal skills, experience, education for someone who wants to be a junior/entry game designer?

We look for junior level designers who have a fairly wide range of skills. In general, I believe that the best designers are Renaissance (wo)men. They should have technical skills, artistic skills, writing skills — basically, the more knowledge they have of every discipline that goes into a game, the more effective they will be as a game designer, because designers stand at the fulcrum of all the disciplines, in many ways. You have to know what the limitations are, and be able to speak the language of the other professions so as to convey what you need or want. That doesn’t mean you have to be all that good at those different things–just have enough grounding in it to know what’s possible, what’s not, and where to push the boundaries.

Liberal arts educations often give that sort of background, but there’s lots of other ways to get it. The best designers I know, like Warren Spector or Will Wright, are intellectually curious people who are always reading and exploring new subjects. Analytical minds are extremely helpful to game designers–working purely off of intuition won’t help you reliably make good games.

Obviously, not every candidate will have all this knowledge when they start, but I’d look for the willingness to learn or openness to this mindset.

3) What should be in their demo or portfolio?

Games. Any sort of games, really, but the more the better. In the case of Sony Online Entertainment, we make online games. So I want a candidate who isn’t just a longtime player of EverQuest, but someone who went and downloaded a mud codebase and tinkered with it, and better yet, actually ran it for a public audience for a while. Someone who has shown that they are more than just idea people. Ideas are cheap (and often wrong!), it’s the nitty-gritty that really counts. When I get a resume that has a game sample in it, I look at it more closely than one that doesn’t; and between two that have game samples, I’ll look more closely at the one where the game was actually played by someone other than the designer.

4) Any additional tips or advice you have for someone who wants to become a game designer?

Don’t go in expecting to be a “game designer” in the sense most people think. There aren’t that many jobs for sole visionaries who are the ultimate word on how every aspect of the game works. Computer and video games are *collaborative* work, and a lot of subspecialties are required, like movies. The game designers whose names get tossed around are team leaders, who are good at sharing a vision with the team, and knowing when to surrender aspects of it to other people – -not control freaks who do everything themselves. Becoming a master of a subspecialty is a good idea because it means that you’re a valuable asset to a team. Too many people wanting to break into design think that movie directors run everything too, and that’s just not how it works.