What is a Senior Designer?
A senior designer helps direct the player experience in a video game. Designers write up the plans for all kinds of systems and gameplay, whether it be a really unique control scheme or an exciting level or mission that tells a cool story. They work with the art and programming teams to get these plans implemented and functioning, and then use both their intuition as well as testing data from users to adjust and iterate things until it “feels right.” Senior designers at Volition typically have 5 or more years of experience in the industry and have shipped multiple games.
What do you actually do?
Gameplay designers spend a lot of time writing documents. Every proposal for things going in the game get planned out and vetted by programmers and artists for technical feasibility. Depending on the type of game being worked on, and the structure of the team members’ responsibilities, a designer may also use 3D modeling packages to create geometry rendered in the game engine, or use a scripting language or C/C++ to create gameplay using the game’s assets (character models, vehicles, etc.) The job description of a designer varies substantially from company to company.
At this point in my career, I largely manage other designers – I make sure the gameplay and ideas proposed by them fit within the overall structure of the game’s plans and meet the quality levels we expect and demand. I also ensure that the designers have access to the tools they need to get the job done, like certain software packages or editors that make their lives easier.
What are the general qualifications?
The absolute number one qualification is that a designer needs to love games; though it’s very possible for individuals to have a career in the gaming industry and be only a casual gamer or not play games at all, you usually find those people in other disciplines like art or programming. But to design games, you have to be on top of everything that’s out there – RPGs, shooters, open-world games, strategy, etc. And it’s not just limited to video games; a designer needs to be able to analyze and enjoy the rules and functions of all types of games: electronic, board games, pen and paper, puzzles, sports, and so on.
Beyond that, designers need to be very strong communicators in both written and verbal formats. Designers are advocates for the player experience, and need to evangelize the ideas that support that to the programmers, artists, sound engineers, and animators that will be crafting assets for it. Being able to speak and write in concise, clear, and accessible language is vitally important.
There are several other skills that designers bring to the development process. Many are capable programmers in their own right, or have used popular 3D game modeling/editor packages such as Epic’s Unreal or Valve’s Hammer to make multiplayer or single player levels. Others have experience writing books or plays and may assume the role of a dedicated writer for the game, composing scripts for cinematic scenes and character dialogue.
What sort of classes (if any) would you suggest to someone interested in becoming a Designer?
Though there are an increasing number of game design curriculums cropping up at dedicated schools, a huge portion of designers in the industry are self-taught. If you aren’t attending a school that has actual courses in game design, you can still do a lot to advance your prospects of landing a game design job. Companies care a lot more about your attitude and motivation than they do about how you acquired your skills. I would recommend that aspiring designers:
Read everything you can about anything remotely related to the industry; gaming magazines, company websites, game reviews, etc.
Learn standard office software packages inside and out, such as Word, Excel, Powerpoint
Learn how to use Photoshop or other drawing programs to be able to quickly create maps and diagrams to communicate ideas.
Learn some common 3D or gameplay editors (Hammer, Unreal, 3D Studio Max, Maya, etc.). Create levels for your favorite games.
Practice or take classes that build both creative and technical writing skills
Practice or take classes that emphasize speaking in both groups and one-on-one situations
Play games every chance you get and write reviews about what you liked and didn’t like. Compare similar games on the basis of their strengths and weaknesses. Almost every company you apply to will ask you to analyze games during their interview process, and you’ll need to be able to articulate why you thought they were good or bad.
Design some games as practice – start with pencil and paper puzzles, board games, tiddly winks, etc. Document your plans and then your findings. Dissect and analyze what makes these games tick: is the player competing against themselves, someone else, the clock, etc.? What is the challenge of the game? How do you increase the challenge as the game continues?
If you are technically inclined, try creating games with Flash or Java, using the same principles you used when designing pencil and paper games. Do this either on your own, or with a small team of like-minded friends to show that you can work both individually and as part of a team. Create a documented schedule for your work and stick to it, noting when things take longer or shorter than expected.
Look for internships or testing positions at gaming companies. If it helps you land the job and you can afford it, offer to work for free. Getting hired into one of these positions will help you learn more about how companies are run and how games are built while you build your qualifications for more advanced positions later in your career.
Talk with other gamers. Find out what they love and what they hate, what kind of games they played that you might have missed.