[This post was graciously republished by Edge Online.]
I decided I wanted to make video games when I was nearing the end of my college career. I knew I wanted to get into design. Unfortunately, I didn't know how.
During this time I attended a free seminar held outside Seattle on the topic of how to get into game development. It was presented panel-style, featuring a group of producers, artists, and HR managers on an auditorium stage before a surprisingly large crowd. Individual sessions throughout the day touched on the qualities developers look for when hiring, how to put together a good CV, a Q&A forum with the panel, and so on. Near the end of the seminar, one of the speakers summed up the takeaway of this entire how-to-get-into-the-industry confab:
"Make cool shit, and show it off to anyone and everyone."
The statement, simple and common sense as it is, was driven home in the context of this big to-do at a convention center outside of Seattle. It seemed almost a trite sentiment, but if these industry people bothered to bring us hundreds of neophytes and wannabes all the way out here, and agreed that this simple mantra was what we needed to hear, then that must be all there is to it. And as far as I can tell, it's turned out to be true over the years.
I'm sure that most designers, myself included, occasionally get an e-mail or question at a social function (often from a mom, on behalf of her teenage son) asking "how do you get to be a video game designer?" The answer is already stated above, but I'll go into detail here, drawing on my own experience.
For my part, I'll assume no technical skill. If you can program code or make art, you've already got advantages I didn't when starting out. Let's assume all you've got is a desire to design video games, and a modicum of free time (or the ability to make some for yourself) and that you're not going to a video game-related college or trade school (for my money, I say just get a good liberal arts degree from a state school.) I'll also assume your interest is in big, commercial games; if you're interested in indie games, redirect here.
My approach was to enter via level design, which is the practice of creating gameplay spaces for the player to inhabit. In a game like Half-Life, the level designer lays out the rooms in part of Black Mesa, and places enemies and power-ups throughout these rooms, as well as scripting thing like the events occurring outside the initial tram ride, or the resonance cascade sequence. In modern game development the artistic side of world-building is generally the responsibility of another person entirely; a level designer doesn't make textures to put on walls or build 3D objects, but may sometimes help decide where these things are placed in the level.
So, step 1: Make cool shit. The barrier to entry here is a capable PC, but if you have a machine that can run new games then it can probably also handle making content for those games. If you're in college there is always the computer lab.
Many PC games ship with free editors that you can use to make your own levels. So, find out which games include level editors, then pick one you enjoy playing and would like to make your own content for. This is the important part: you need to choose a project that you really, truly want to play the end product of, as opposed to picking something you think is "marketable." It's the only way to maintain the momentum required to get projects finished, and to make sure you're really getting into something you're going to enjoy doing. If you like first-person shooters, Doom 3/Quake 4, Unreal Tournament 2KX/3/Gears of War, Half-Life 2 (and all the Source games like Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead, Portal, and Team Fortress 2) F.E.A.R., Far Cry 2 and Crysis are only some of the games that ship with editors. Roleplaying games like Neverwinter Nights, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 all feature tools for making your own content. Realtime strategy games like Warcraft 3 and Dawn of War ship with level editors as well. New games featuring full editors are becoming less common these days due to the scale of projects and the resources required to support the tools, but it's likely that more than a few of the games you like have released the means allowing you to make your own content.
So, dig in. If you're a big multiplayer gamer, make deathmatch or capture-the-flag maps. If you're more interested in singleplayer games with a lot of scripting and enemy encounters, make sure you use an editor that allows you to build that kind of content. Making multiplayer arenas won't do you a lot of good if what you really want to do is set up interesting situations for a single player to find himself in. Most released tools have a wiki or community forum online, filled with tutorials and tips on how to get your level up and running. Spend time after work or school building simple little test maps until you have all the core gameplay concepts down: your first level out of the gate shouldn't be an epic production. Instead just make a simple box and figure out how to get enemies spawning in there, then branch out to more complex situations. Once you have the basics of your editor down, start stringing what you've learned into a more full map that someone else could play through and enjoy.
At this point, move on to step 2: Show your stuff to anyone and everyone. Join forums populated by people who are interested in the game you're working on, and modding in general. Post updates as you make progress. Ask others for feedback, and for advice on how to solve problems you encounter. Most importantly, find people who are interested in playtesting your maps for you. Send early versions out to others on the web and ask them to play them, then to send you any constructive criticism they have.
This accomplishes two things: one, having others playtest your maps will just make them better, period. Take constructive criticism to heart, try to implement the changes that others suggest, then have them play again to see if the experience is any better or worse. A project created in a vaccuum will likely only be enjoyable by its creator. Having more eyes on your project early will help you polish it into something that can be understood and enjoyed by anyone who encounters it.
Secondly, getting your stuff out there onto the web helps you make connections that may later be entry points into doing this as your job. I got my first design job when someone on a message board I frequented suggested I apply for an open position at his company, and recommended me to his boss. If I hadn't been linking to my maps online, talking to people about them, and generally making myself visible, I never would have known to apply at that company or had that inside connection. The first people to get a shot at any open job slot are the ones that somebody on the inside already knows. So, make yourself known. Enter contests and level showcases. Be proud of your work. Eventually someone will notice.
You need to end up with a few levels worth showing off, then to compile them into a portfolio and send it to any company you know of that might have an opening. The most useful portfolio is made up of screenshots and especially video of levels you've made, along with of course the level files themselves so potential employers can play your stuff. Capture video of playthroughs of your maps with something like Fraps, then upload them to a site like Youtube or Vimeo. Include these links along with the screenshots of your work and descriptions of each level. The most important thing to any potential employer is going to be the quality of your work; it's your job to make that work as easily accessible as possible. My most recent portfolio (which, granted, includes professional work) is a post on this blog, containing the aforementioned screenshots, videos and text in an easy-to-read web format.
Finally, no job is too humble to be your first. When I graduated college, I didn't have a level design portfolio yet; but, knowing my long-term goal, I worked as a quality assurance tester, first temp then full-time, for a year and a half while I worked on my levels on nights and weekends. Working QA made my day job productive to my end goal (experience inside a game studio, familiarity with the processes,) while giving me time to work on my portfolio during off hours.
Similarly, I jumped at the chance to move 2000 miles away to Texas and work on a low-budget expansion pack as my first design job. It wasn't glamorous or convenient, but if you expect to be hired right out of the gate to work on the next Grand Theft Auto or Halo game, you are very likely to be disappointed. Experience leads to new opportunities; don't be too proud to work on a project nobody's ever heard of, or that your friends wouldn't preorder. In all likelihood you will learn a lot in the process, making you better prepared for the future.
Speaking of Texas, unless you're very lucky, don't expect the first job offers you get to be right down the street from your house. Games industry people tend to move around a lot, or at least once or twice. If you can't go to where the games are, your options are going to be severely limited. Many commercial game companies are in big metropolitan areas-- think of moving as an opportunity to experience a new part of the world and you'll be better off for it.
So, in long and short form, make cool shit, and show it off to anyone and everyone. If you can't maintain the energy required to build a worthwhile portfolio during your off hours, game design may not be right for you. But find a project that excites you and pour yourself into it, and good things should follow in time.
[This post was graciously republished by Edge Online.]