Perhaps because video games have come a long way in a relatively short space of time, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the numerous roles available within this expanding industry. There is also a corresponding – and worrying - lack of communication on the part of those already working in the industry, with those aspiring to a career in games. One role about which there are many misapprehensions is that of game designer.
The video game designer is the ‘vision holder’ for a project; he or she makes decisions regarding the many aspects of a game such as core gameplay, additional gameplay features, scoring system, characters, story, difficulty, risk/reward, etc. The job varies depending on the development company in question, but writing is always a key skill, (the ability to communicate is essential) as well as the use of certain proprietory software tools, which will almost certainly be learned on the job, rather than via any academic course. But I’d like to attempt to dispel a persistent myth regarding game design: that to be a game designer, you must also be a talented programmer.
When high school students with ambitions to work in the games industry are searching for university courses, they may consult careers advisors who seem determined to send them in the direction of computer science courses or – more commonly now - dedicated computer games technology courses. In both of these, a core focus will be on computer programming. But a rarely discussed aspect of programming (perhaps because it is an uncomfortable truth!) is that it seems to be heavily aptitude based. A Middlesex University study by Saeed Dehnadi and Richard Bornat acknowledges that, despite many and varied approaches from dedicated academics, there is clearly more to programming than good old-fashioned hard work alone. Anecdotal evidence suggests that computer science courses have a high drop-out rate and aptitude, or lack thereof, may be the key. At worst, this can result in a woeful state of affairs where, as the study concludes, ‘many ﬁnd that they cannot learn what they want to know, however hard they try. They struggle on to the end of the course, for reasons of personal pride, family pressure or because of a lack of pastoral support and a dearth of escape routes, disillusioned and with a growing sense of personal failure.’ (The Camel has Two Humps, 2006)
None of which is to denigrate programming without which no game could be made! Quite the reverse. All companies need good programmers – but in my experience, the best programmers are not too interested in overall game design; rather they enjoy being presented with the many complex problems which innovative game designs present, and their highly skilled job is to make a game mechanic work, technically, not to maintain a project’s vision. Of course, a knowledge of programming is helpful to a designer, but it is not essential to be a genius coder. The same can be said of subjects such mathematics and physics; university level knowledge is desirable but above all, the aspiring designer within this evolving industry needs a portfolio of skills. This should not, however, translate into the naive notion that design is easy, and involves simply telling talented people what to do, any more than - for example - an artistic director’s job (which it can resemble) is the soft option in theatre.
With hindsight, I’m inclined to think that a broad focus, early in a University career, is worthwhile. This will partly be dictated by the University itself, but the first year should give the aspiring designer the opportunity to experience a number of different subjects, and the student should be conscious of not specialising too narrowly, too soon. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was fortunate that my first university (Glasgow) gave me the opportunity to keep my options open for a couple of years. I began with the conventional aim of completing a computer science degree, but a number of other subjects were compulsory during my first year. I kept mathematics and computer science on the go until my honours years began, then decided to continue solely with mathematics, favouring pure maths. If I had gone along with my original intention to study computer games technology alone, I doubt if I would have completed my degree at all.
The truth is that game design does not have any well defined route to entry. The best thing you can do is to get a good first degree, slanted towards the sciences, but keeping a broad field of interests. You should also look to work in Quality Assurance, otherwise known as game testing, for a while. This is an entry level role and you can even land work before you have graduated, during vacations. I’ve heard students on CGT courses declaring that they are ‘too highly qualified’ for QA work, but in reality, this often provides a great springboard to design.
As the industry continues to move forward, it seems as though Masters level education is becoming desirable for the whole games industry. The Professional Masters in Game Development at Abertay University in Dundee is one such example, which allows each student to specialise in his/her area of interest, creating games in teams, and working in situations designed to mimic the actual games industry. Obviously, other excellent courses are available, and the number is growing each year, but I strongly recommend any course where teamwork is a key aspect. Video game design involves achieving a balance between scientific creativity and artistic inspiration, all underpinned by the ability to communicate with people and facilitate them working productively together. The whole field is evolving and it will be interesting to see which direction this fascinating new medium takes in the future.
Charles Czerkawski is a game designer and one of four partners in a Dundee based independent video game developer, Guerilla Tea . He is a qualified mathematician who has worked in video game testing on titles including Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City and Dirt 2. He holds a shodan black belt in Shotokai Karate, is a keen sportsman and loves to travel. His eBook guide for school students and undergraduates, Breaking into Video Game Design – a Beginner’s Guide is scheduled for publication in October 2011