Scranton Excalibur Interview

I was contacted by a student journalist from Scranton High School asking if I could answer some questions about working as a game designer:

1. How did you first became interested in video games?
I don’t know how I first became interested in video games, but if you mean working on video game or designing video games: I had ideas for video games from as early as 1st grade. I always assumed that I’d eventually make a game with my friends, though it never really occurred to me that it was something you could have a career in. It wasn’t until I attended my first GDC in 2003 that it became clear in my mind that I wanted to work in the video game industry. Before 2003 my background was in new media design and documentary film making.

2. What is it like working as game designer  from your experience?
There are different phases in game development and in that regard I think game design is an interesting profession. Also many people in game development work on a project basis; either contractually, or because they are laid off at the end of a production or they decide to move on to a project at another company. This can be a bad thing if you want stability but it is more interesting to experience many different projects and company cultures in my opinion.

3. How would you say game design has changed from when you first started out?
When I first started it was hard to imagine a small team affording the tools necessary for making commercially viable games. Now you can get started with a powerful tool like Unity for free. That’s the biggest  difference, the democratization of game development. The other change has been the industry landscape. I started in the PS2 era, then there was huge uncertainty as to what “next gen” would mean in terms of budgets and art pipelines. Now next gen has matured but it feels like all of the industry and venture capital focus is on mobile and web.

4. From your experience how was it like taking this major in college?
I did my undergraduate at a liberal arts university with a focus on film and television production. I later attended a graduate program with a focus on game art and design. The liberal arts education was vital for giving me a wide base of knowledge to draw from. The art school was helpful for developing domain specific knowledge. I wouldn’t recommend majoring in game design in university, unless the program involved lots of programming and you were trying to become what’s known as a technical game designer. Otherwise you’re better served in a program where you can learn a bit of math, a bit of literature, a bit of history, a bit of business, etc.

If you’re interested in becoming a game programmer a general CS degree is probably best but be sure to make games on the side, and if you want to be a game artist, learn to be a good artist but also learn some domain specific things like optimized texture maps and polycounts.

5. From my knowledge, I know being a game designer can be competitive, what would you have to say would be the most important part or detail to be aware of as a game designer?
Maybe the most useful attribute of a game designer is the ability to communicate clearly, using visual, spoken, and written communications, to all team members regardless of specialty. To do this, not only do you need to become a good communicator and a good designer, you also need to have some experience in or understanding of business, math, logic, art, animation, and scheduling.

6. When going into the gaming industry, what would be the be the best strategy in starting with a company even if you’ve just major in game design?
The best strategy is to have some finished games, playable prototypes, or visual prototypes on hand. That means you already need to be a game designer before you can find work as a game designer. Most companies don’t want to take the time to train you up — so it is up to you to prove that you already have what it takes. If you don’t have any of these prototypes then you’ll have to start as a QA tester unless you happen to luck out and find someone willing to take a chance on you. Programmers and artists are going to have an easier time getting work right out of school because 1) everyone seems to be in need of programmers all the time and 2) an artist has an easily assessed portfolio. Of course I’ve seen many bad artist portfolios and I’d never give them any work.

7. In your opinion , what would you have to say game designers today lack in when making games?
1) Knowledge of the process of making games — how to mitigate risk, find the fun, and tune/polish. The secret sauce to game development is in many cases handed down from master to disciple and it is hard to find masters to learn from.
2) Focus — too many people focus on the story without getting the basic gameplay loops done right.
3) Time — ten months is not enough time to develop an original movie tie in game that can match up to Call of Duty.

8. What would you say would be the most difficult part of being a game designer?
It is expected that you’ll have to fight hard to prove the validity of your ideas, that’s fine, but the most frustrating part of being a game designer is when you’re working at a studio that is too egalitarian; where an animator, artist, or programmer might not follow through on the direction because they personally disagree with it. Design by committee doesn’t normally work out too well. Game development should be more of a meritocracy to avoid mediocracy.

9. What would say makes a game good in such areas like the gameplay and the development?
A clear focus. My friend David Sirlin wrote an article about Subtractive Design which would be a good starting point. Furthermore, in action games, here are some things that make them good: responsive and intuitive controls, interesting yet somewhat predictable enemy behavior, and interesting setups (where the enemies are placed and events) in the level design.

10. What role do you think game design plays in society or the media?
Some think that games have the power to improve the ways in which we learn about complex systems, or on the job training, or elementary skills, and they can also be a vehicle for fostering communication. They’re probably right, but for me, I’m happy if I can help someone unwind after a hard day of work.

11. What would have to be your most memorable moment working as game designer?
There is no single moment but the project that was the most exciting to work on was an elaborate speculative pitch for Street Fighter IV.

12. From viewing your resume on your blog, I see you’ve worked with different companies throughout your career such as Sega Studio and Backbone Entertainment and work on  some major games like Iron Man 2 , Sega genesis collection and Super Puzzle Fighter II HD Remix; out of all of the games, what would you have to say would be the most hours you put in on ?
So far that would be The Spiderwick Chronicles — I put in a lot of extra time, not because I was forced to, but because I wanted to. The job was also a big step up for me in terms of responsibility and tasks and I needed to put in extra time to make up for my lack of experience.

13. What advice would you recommend for anyone majoring in game design in the future?
It doesn’t pay as well and it isn’t as fun as you assume. I keep trying to figure out different careers I could do that would pay better, like something in finance maybe, but I really enjoy making stuff and find it hard to imagine working in a non-design job outside of games. I would love to try my hand at other kinds of design though, transportation, architectural, fashion, etc.

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3 Responses to Scranton Excalibur Interview

  1. lauren lamonica says:

    Great article. I just passed it to a HS student who was looking to get into game design. – Lauren

  2. Thomas,

    This is such a well thought-out response to well designed questions. I am really impressed that you took the time to answer your questioner’s questions so thoughtfully. Apart from the excellent content, the fact that you even DID it demonstrates the depth of your character. I like your comment: Game development should be more of a meritocracy to avoid mediocracy. This could be applied to every aspect of life. Mediocricy just doesn’t cut it. There is nothing mediocre about you.

    I am so very proud of you!

    Dad.

  3. disco says:

    I can totally see you as the student journalist in high school writing some guy who’s blog you came across (if blogs existed when we were in hs) and getting a cool response like this. Evokes memories of the Möbius strip story you made at uni.

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