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Opinion: How To Hire Good Game Designers
Opinion: How To Hire Good Game Designers
October 3, 2008 | By Phil OConnor

October 3, 2008 | By Phil OConnor
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[In this passionate opinion piece, Codemasters principal designer Phil O'Connor outlines 10 different ways you can spot a "real game designer" during the resume and interview process, and avoid hiring ineffective or unqualified applicants.]

I have the incredible fortune of being paid to design games. I consider this a privilege, the result of some luck, but at the same time, it’s something I worked for years at achieving.

I wanted to be a game designer from a very young age, and I built up the experience and knowledge that eventually convinced people to hire me to do this.

As someone who worked so hard to break into the industry, I have a somewhat stronger opinion than most about the quality of game designers that get in. I feel that every designer should pay their dues before they're allowed anywhere near game design, and that they should be supremely qualified as students of gaming! Sadly the demand for designers has created a situation in the industry where many people getting into design positions don’t fit the bill.

Game design is one of the most tricky and contentious positions in the game industry. No two companies I have worked with have treated the position of design in the same way. Some designers have producer-type duties/powers, others treat them like artists, and yet others don’t have design positions at all but instead assign the job to a producer, coder or artist.

The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that you need game designers. The problem is, however, that everyone is a game designer, or thinks they are. What I mean by that is everyone can come up with game design ideas, ideas are a dime a dozen.

Game Designers Suffer From a Credibility Problem

The art of game design is getting the right combination of ideas for a game, communicating them effectively to the team, and executing those ideas through the cycle of development (from conception, to prototyping, to modification, and to the final implementation/cut stage).

The problem is that game designers suffer from a credibility problem. One of the causes of this is the lack of professional accreditation for game design. I realize there are schools now that supposedly “teach” game design, and you can even get a degree in it now, but most developers laugh at the idea of a 23-year-old graduate in game design having any clue about designing a computer game.

The best school for game design remains industry time, at least the years development experience and, at the very minimum, one shipped title. Since most designers working in the industry don’t have a degree in design, many of your peers are reluctant to treat you as an authority in your field, especially since anyone and their dog can come up with game ideas.

There is constant skepticism from colleagues holding computer science degrees and art diplomas about your qualification to make critical decisions about the game. Producers are also prone to “suggest” designs because they have managerial authority, and this makes them sometimes believe that they are better qualified to make design decisions than you are.

Another obstacle to the credibility of game designers is that the field attracts a good degree of charlatanry. The very nature of game design work (mostly ideas driven, no professional qualification necessary) attracts the kind of people who think they can BS their way into the job. Too many of them succeed and thus give designers an even worse name.

For development studios, this can have a fatal effect, and in an effort to improve the reputation of my profession among my peers and help developers hire the right people, I am providing some advice on how to properly interview for game design positions.

Obviously, if the candidate has dozens of shipped AAA titles under their belt and has a proven record, you don’t really need this list. Any candidate who has less than three years in the industry is more difficult to assess, so hopefully these suggestions will help pick the right people.

Ten Ways to Spot a Real Game Designer

The Resume:

1. Look for signs of a deep interest in gaming. The resume should indicate gaming as a way of life, not just a job. Modding experience is especially a key sign. Anyone who wants to be a game designer has an extensive record of making games in their spare time, for free: making levels for favorite games, modding, writing game material, creating board games, RPG background, story writing, etc.

Game designers must be gaming fanatics, not just playing them, but making them in multiple mediums. Beware any game designer that doesn’t play games every spare second of their time or have an extensive history of game making. Look for a long history of gaming interest, not just a sudden career change decision.

Some developers decide that they are tired of being producer/artist/programmer and they want to go into game design. Although experienced, they may not be suitable for design work despite this. Candidates that have a knack for game design usually have demonstrated a passion for game mechanics stretching from early adulthood.

2. Look for a wide variety in gaming taste: A real designer should have a wide interest in games, not just a single format. Look for signs of this wider interest in their hobbies, or ask them what kinds of games they play.

Ask them to describe what they like about each kind of gaming. They should be able to do this at length. I am talking cross platform, boardgames, RPGs, and the classics: cards, chess, backgammon, etc. Good designers borrow the best ideas from all mediums.

3. If the resume lists design credit on shipped games, ask them to describe in detail what their design contribution was to those games. A real designer should be able to go into extensive detail on this, most designers are proud of the work. If the response is vague, you are probably talking to a charlatan.

The Interview:

If you follow these steps in an interview process, you should be able to spot the bull from the real deal:

1. Any designer should be able to describe mechanics in a way that is understandable. If you ask the designer candidate to come up with a sample feature for your game, ask them to describe how the feature will work mechanically. A real designer can describe mathematically and mechanically how a feature will function and be implemented with other game systems, down to every detail.

For example, if a designer talks about how the AI will be able to react to the player’s actions, they should be able to detail exactly how that will work: will it be based on how many “bad behavior” points the player has accumulated, will it depend on triggers set in the dialogue system that will play specific responses, will it be based on a proximity system that the AI checks when the player is within range, assessing the player’s reputation points, shown weapons, clothing, etc.

If a candidate cannot describe probabilities, mathematics, or outline game systems supporting a feature, then they probably are not the real deal.

2. A game designer should be able to explain clearly any of their design ideas. If they cannot make you understand how their idea works, then you should pass. All true designers are able to explain how their ideas work and play to any audience.

That is one of the biggest jobs of game design, translating the feature to the team in a manner that they can understand it and integrate it from their point of view: for coders its codese, for artists its artese, sound language, producer talk, and marketing speak.

3. Making the game is also selling the game. A designer must be able to communicate why the game is fun to you. They have to be able to do this in under a minute and leave you with the unmistakable feeling that they are right. Any designer who doesn’t understand that you are selling it the minute you start making a game, is not a designer.

A designer has to sell to all sections of development, not just the management and marketing departments. Designers have to tell everyone working on the game how fun it’s going to be without a playable version for many months to come.

They are the cheerleaders for the project early on until there is something to show. In an interview, ask the potential candidate to pitch you a favorite game concepts they would like to work on, and if you are not convinced it’s fun, them maybe they are not right for you.

4. A true game designer should be able to describe in detail what they like/dislike about a game. Ask them to talk about their favorite and least favorite games. Ask them to explain why they like/dislike them.

Lackluster opinion in this area is a Bad Sign. So is an answer that amounts to them not liking the color of the interface or the names of some of the characters. They should be able to provide clear and solid reasons for their opinion.

5. Wide areas of interest: A real game designer is inspired by the world around them: books, news events, music, history, movies, art, etc. Depending on the type of game you are interviewing for, this may be one of the most critical questions you can ask.

Ask the candidate to talk about their personal interests, what kind of books they read, movies they watched, any other personal interest them may have. A real designer should have extensive and wide interests, bringing those interests to bear in their design. One question I ask is what their favorite movie is and why. The answer can tell you a lot about the kind of designer they are. A short answer is usually a Bad Sign.

6. Attitude: Beware the Ideas Man. Some people think game design is just about coming up with bright ideas. They fancy themselves the smartest person in the room, therefore employers should be begging to hire them so they can get their hands on their wonderful ideas, which naturally will make millions. This attitude is fairly easy to spot. Stay away!

Another type to stay away from is the Industry Fanboy. A fanboy is someone who is intimately aware of the debates and major conventions of gaming, knows all the top games and the buzz about them, but doesn’t understand game design or have anything original to contribute. They rely on the game press and popular opinion for their understanding of games, basically copying what other people have said and done. They known the canon, but cannot elaborate on it or expand on it themselves.

Some may think this is not such a bad thing, so as an illustration consider someone who has learned a guitar piece by heart: they can play it perfectly, note for note, but if you ask them to interpret the piece by adding a blues feel to it or a jazzy tone, they cannot comply. They known the piece, but they don’t know much about music. Designers can be like that.

Listen to the candidate talk about games and the gaming industry -- if a lot of it sounds familiar, if it sounds straight off the pages of the game press, or if the words are not their own, you are probably dealing with a fanboy.

7. No design survives first contact with code: Ask them to describe an example of a feature change/cut and how they adapted to it. If they worked on a game, they should be able to describe at least one feature in the original design that was cut (for whatever reason), and describe why they chose that feature and how it impacted the rest of the game.

Make sure they go into detail on how the cut impacted other gameplay features, as well as how they took that into account. A real designer should be able to recall in detail the circumstances surrounding such traumatic (but inevitable) events. If they sound like they didn’t care about the feature in the first place, or if don’t have a feature cut story, this could be a bad sign.

Conclusion

Note that none of these 10 points on their own are an indication that the candidate is not suitable. But if you sense that the person in front of you checked off a good number of these warning signs, you might want to reconsider giving them a position on your team.

Of course, even if your candidate checked positive on all of them, there is no guarantee that the person will work out for your project or your culture. There are many factors that make someone a good employee that are beyond the scope of this article, but at least you may have better confidence that they are actually real game designers. Happy hiring.

[O'Connor has worked on several upcoming and shipped titles, including O.R.B, Battlefield Europe, Operation Flashpoint 2. He previously worked as a consultant for his company Iconoclast Games before joining Codemasters in 2006.]


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Comments


craig d. adams
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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 . . . = 10? :P

craig d. adams
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Also, great article - thx!

Joshua McDonald
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3 points under resume and 7 under interview. Scroll up.



Now to the article: Mostly good, but there was one contradiction that I found glaring:



First quote: " Beware any game designer that doesn’t play games every spare second of their time"



Second quote: "A real designer should have extensive and wide interests, bringing those interests to bear in their design"



I strongly disagree with the first, as I find that most people who live for video games have narrow ideas with little idea to analyze them. Game design should definitely be a major hobby, but the section from which that quote was taken seems to suggest that it's all that the person lives for.

Gavin Young
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I also disagree that designers should be doing nothing but playing games in their spare time. Look at the successful games that do something really new or draw inspiration from a period of history or a different culture: those ideas often (usually?) come from additional interests on the part of the designer(s).



However, that aside I really enjoyed the article and agree strongly with most of the points.

Josh Parker
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I respect that Phil has his own opinions--which are obviously strong--and while I give him great credit for his passion for his own discipline in the industry, I don't think I've ever seen a more arrogant approach taken in an article in years. He very clearly expects all Designers to be how he sees himself, which is a fatal flaw for any argument right off of the bat.



Like Joshua McDonald pointed out above, finding someone who's sole goal in life is making games is a fairly narrow and skill-lacking find. I agree they should have a wide variety of interests and studies, but more along the lines of the world as a whole instead of just playing games.



I'd even go a step further in saying that it's entirely possible for some of the best games to be made by Designers that haven't been sitting around borrowing ideas from the games they play feverishly in their spare time.



In my experience there tends to be a fairly general three-way split for Designers...art background, code background, and a blending of the two. They're all to be respected for their individual traits and strengths, which helps make up for other weaknesses on the team.



I would want my Designers to have lives outside of the studio, including families they interact and spend time with instead of playing games at all hours and working on any game type possible. Experiencing life and drawing ideas and strength from those life experiences, not obsessing over game design and expecting greatness to come from said obsession.

Patrick Dugan
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Fairly good article, however I find that the best way to dispel subjective uncertainties is with the artistic science of prototyping. The best way to really see if someone can design is to give them physical materials, a constraint or two, and a few hours, then have them design a game. Likewise, light digital platforms such as GM or Flash can be employed to test gameplay mechanics empirically, rather than on a cache of credibility and hope.

Anonymous
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Good article, however it is still an opinion.



Designers range in skills. Unfortunately there isn't an easy way to test a designer and if he's full of BS like you can with a programming test. Different projects and project teams require different designers. A designer may pass all these tests, but if he or she does not gel with the team, it will only hinder the development process.



Just because a designer has many with years of experience and several titles to their name, doesn't mean this person is a good designer. It could mean that this designer has lucked out and gotten in on some projects. They could be set in old ways and developed bad habits and skills that cost the team valuable production time.



Some of this new generation of designers are actually pretty good. In fact, some kids from these game design schools are actually pretty good. Yes, most of them have ego issues. But when they come aboard, they bring enthusiasm. The good ones are the ones who come in and try to learn everything they can from the people around them. I don't think it is fair that you dismiss them because they went to school. In some ways they are better than some veterans. Most of them learn more in these schools than they ever could taking the QA route.



Overall a designer has to fit with a team and a project. Saying there are 10 rules that define a good designer really limits what a good designer has to deal with on a day to day basis. Communication skills, enthusiasm, creativity, not trying to reinvent the wheel, thinking about what's best for the game and not just what they think makes the game cool, knowing their target audience. These are all very important for a game designer. Just because someone makes the best first person shooter game designs doesn't mean they are the best fit for your Hello Kitty Adventure Island MMO.

Sean Parton
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As a designer who just got into the industry for the first time, this was a very interesting article to read. It shows many of the traits I already had, and illuminated a few that I may want to pay more attention to. Good work, Phil.



About the "Beware any game designer that doesn’t play games every spare second of their time" comment: Yes, I agree it's a bit extreme, and there probably is quite a few good designers who arn't horribly rabid gamers to such a degree. Still, even though I don't normally believe to get a job in something it needs to be your biggest hobby, I'd hire a designer who gamed a lot in his spare time over one that did it rarely. Design is one of those fields where your ability to make games at all levels of design will suffer if you do not know many of the mechanics of how stuff is done.



@Anon above: Most of what you said still applies if you change "designer" to artist, programmer, or many other developer roles.

Abe Pralle
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The "playing every second of spare time" bit caught me at first too - but then after re-reading that part it also says "OR have an extensive history of game making." I'm mollified.



Great article!

Lorenzo Wang
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You can learn a lot by asking one question:



"What is your dream project?"



You get a good picture of creativity, production experience, industry knowledge, outside interests, and just sheer passion. The answer I'm most afraid of is "I would make a game like GTA/Gears Of War/WoW/Zelda/etc. but I'd add more of..."



Good article, although I'd add one more point: must have a skill. Be it scripting, art, or whatever, every designer should have at least one measurable skill.

David Sahlin
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This was a really great read. Like Sean, this gave me some insights on aspects I should work on.



I do think designers should be playing games beyond just the one(s) they're working on, though.



I call it research.

Vijay sharma
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I believe a jack of all with great ideas can be a good game designer.

Tyler Sigman
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The credibility observations are very real. It's something we have to deal with on a regular basis, and as soon as the team starts doubting the designers then the project is in for major hurt. The long term solution is to try to ensure more competence through good hiring, so I agree with the article.



One piece of advice I'd add is to make a practical test/assignment part of any design interviewing process. I plan on giving take-home work. Artists have to show reels, coders often have to demonstrate coding proficiency via an interview test. Designers need the same treatment because nuts and bolts game design is hard to prove except by doing.



Enjoyed the article!

Anonymous
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It's true, game designers have to be playing games all the time but that doesn't mean you have to be holding a controller or a portable gaming device to actually "play a game".



I'm sure designers have had moments where they randomly think of "how can this be a game?" I've had these moments during conversations about non-game related stuff with friends or when i'm out photographing for fun, or watching a TV show.



Once you have some kind of an answer to "how can this be a game" you then go into the thought phase of "how do I play this game?" That to me is the most fun part because your mind is racing, creating rules, outlining scenarios, etc.



So yes, a great game designer is always playing games every spare moment they can on the most amazing game system ever created...their IMAGINATION :)

Anonymous
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Creating ideas is not hard; Convincing others that your ideas are good is the tricky part.



Also, some of the best designers I've worked with are quick and decisive when it comes to large concepts, but relentlessly picky when it comes to small, seemingly unimportant details.



So anyways, this is what we should be looking for. Being a gamer helps, and having experience is nice. But you have to be able to recognize these inherent traits.

Joe Tringali
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>Beware any game designer that doesn’t play games every >spare second of their time or have an extensive history of >game making.



Great article, but I really disagree with the above. If you spend every spare second of your time playing games, you're probably playing a lot of garbage, and you don't bring any outside ideas to the table.



A solid game designer should absolutely have played every game that presents a new idea, or is critically acclaimed in design related areas. Is it valuable for game designer play every Final Fantasy, or 500 hours in GT or Forza? Probably not.



2,4,5 are very important. 6 is true regardless of position, and should be the first characteristic evaluated. Candidates with a poor attitude should not be hired.

Tadhg Kelly
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*ahem*



http://particleblog.blogspot.com/2006/04/how-to-find-good-game-de
signer.html



Aside from just a blatant link-pimp, some feedback for Phil:



Resume:

1. A deep interest in gaming is not as important as a deep understanding of play. Lots of people have a deep interest in gaming and can quote them ad nauseum (I find ex-journalists are excellent in this regard) but they don't necessarily understand *play*. I also don't agree that all good designers are born in their teen years.



2. Wide variety: check. In videogames this is surprisingly rare.



3. Yes people should be able to describe their work. However one thing to flag here is that some candidates talk a good talk and are good presentationally, but may indeed be bad designers. This is very hard to spot.



Interview:

1. Clarity in language and diagram is very important. Mathematical proficiency is less so (you don't need to know how to write out log equations etc) but what is important is an ability to describe *rules*.



2. Clarity again. (I would suggest that another designer skill is brevity Phil :) )



3. Sales is not a necessary skill. What the designer actually needs is the ability to convey authority, as in "trust me, this will work". Convincing people that something is fun is one of the biggest wastes of time that you can engage in because fun is far more often found after implementation than before. Selling to marketing and so forth is a producer's job.



4. I think this is missing something: A true designer should be able to describe what is broken about a game from a systemic point of view. It's no good wailing on about a thousand individual bits of nonsense that you disliked. Can you gather that description together in a condensed form and really hit on what the root causes are?



5. Perhaps. It really depends. I wouldn't expect a designer of a racing game to have an appreciation of Mozart, but I would expect a strategy game designer to know something about military history.



6. Yeah, idea men are basically frustrated salesmen, and fanboys can be a pain. This is where I think a test becomes appropriate (see above in my link)



7. I think it's more appropriate to say that all designs are living creations that change over time. Sometimes it's the fault of the design, but sometimes it's the fault of code. The extent to which a design can be implemented is usually a reflection of the quality of a designer's ideas and their experiences in the sorts of problems that code throws up.

jaime kuroiwa
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The problem with becoming a game designer is that it’s become a title that is reserved for an exclusive group of people, when it, in fact, is an indefinable position. Mr. O’Connor states in his introduction how the duties of a game designer differ from company to company. This is because the role of the game designer has become a jack-of-all-trades position where they work in a capacity that needs the most attention. People shouldn’t be applying for a game designer position, nor should they be following a 10-point checklist to make themselves “fit the bill.”



Game design is a creative field. It involves an individual to apply the tools they’re given to create something new and wonderful. The same rule applies to writers, painters, sculptors, etc. That being said, ANYONE should be able to become a game designer, as long as they are given the tools to create a game. Unfortunately, these tools are almost never available to the public, let alone the employees of the company, so the aspiring game designer is forced to use whatever software is available, and unless you’re looking into making an FPS, you’re out of luck.



The solution for finding game designers is to look for creative types that can use the tools your group uses. Give them some tools to work with, and see what they can provide in a short amount of time. To use a real-world example, remember the “Become An Artist” test where you submitted a drawing of a turtle and a pirate? Not only does this test demonstrate skill, but it demonstrates creative ability and personality. Look for people that are generally creative and have the aptitude to work with what is given to them. I’m using the term “tools” loosely, but this refers to anything a company uses in a particular project, be it software or just an idea that needs elaboration.



While I don’t necessarily disagree with everything Mr. O’Connor brings up in his piece, I believe there is a larger problem that involves the compartmentalization of a position that is for a creative, team-based endeavor. Creating a standard of acceptability for this position further removes the role of the game designer from the “design” aspect and makes them become more of an evangelist. Ideally, the game designer title should go to the individual who shaped the game into its finished form, not the one who was given it after a successful interview.

David Tarris
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I think the best "take home test" for a candidate is simply write a design document. Hand them a high concept, some end-user features, and tell them to mock up some good documentation. I'm surprised that this industry is so close to software development, and yet we don't treat our designers like the software architects they're supposed to be. Also, I feel a strong background in Computer Science helps a lot no matter where you are in this industry. I'm sure I'm biased in that regard, but it seems like, again, if we're making entertainment software, our producers, designers, and programmers should know how software engineering works.

Lorenzo Wang
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Um Grassroots Gamemaster, there are many legal pitfalls around that idea. Especially for the design candidate, it's not smart for him to show you his personal work except if it was created with the specific purpose of being part of a design portfolio.



Many ideas have been unfairly stolen. Heck even artists or programmers should never hand over their 3D models and source code to a company like that.



Also, you don't interview potential designers to get game ideas unless your company is doing something horribly wrong. You should be hiring with a purpose and a position on the team. What you are talking about is looking for a pitch, and that doesn't happen in interviews with strangers, sorry to burst your bubble.

james clarke
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Personally, I wouldn't hire a Designer under 30 (exceptional notwithstanding), as a minimum, that's simply my ideal - otherwise, it's simply advanced Q/A and learning to a role. Well, that's that over and done with - just an opinion.



To answer a point above, I agree that it's a common mistake - the hiring of the persuasive, the passionate or as you say, the fanboy: they belong in the fantasy realm of Cult leaders (creative directors) and double glazing salesmen (producers).



One of the more common faults of freshly hired Designers (see Cult leaders and DG salesmen), of which I have first-hand experience, are those who ask for, and at times insist upon(demand), the implementation of singular, personal, binary 'wants', without the ability to see the whole picture. To say, this doesn’t have to be the WHOLE picture, even just your part of the framework. Seeing the whole picture is difficult, in fact, it's impossible. It can take the best part of a lifetime and you'll still miss a letter/rule/concept in an undefinable and ever changing landscape of language and symbols, with time travel thrown in as a bonus. It's been written before, but hierarchical, systematic and degenerative ideas are easy and the design part of design is truthfully about 10% of design. I don’t believe it’s totally the truth, or representative of the issue, but the Bungie guys reckon the next big step in AI is an NPC picking up a pencil from a desk. One day, he might even use it.



So what should a company look for in a Designer? All of it! But that's not possible I hear you cry? So what do we measure? I'd go for a sliding scale of 'how much do you believe they could possibly have learned/created/got wrong/got right, REINFORCED with strong concepts in rules, flow and mechanics, combined with the abstract concept of fun. (I'm still weak in mathematics (currently working my way through Basic Mathematics for Engineers Vol. 1), and scripting, though just about anyone can bodge or cutNcopy an inherited template. Okay. So strengths. What's the role? I'm very, very strong in art, characters, levels and systems design, and my understanding and ability to decompose these these systems and the multi-faceted considerations that bring these parts together, hopefully to fun and ease of re-iterating ever changing requirements.



To this end, some forward thinking companies have thankfully recognised that the industry needs different types of designers, for, erm, different types of design roles, and now employ technical designers, creative designers, system designers, XML designers, balance designers, combat designers, and on and on and on. These, in my opinion, are the winners. Go check out an AAA company job page and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.



Idea! What are you trying to achieve? I'd say, your idea VS execution, with the balance as the execution of time and resources, with and, oh yes, and it had better be fun! (see Mr Koster for answers on that one) [o)



There are incredibly useful secondary abilities. Decomposition (not the bodily variety). The ability to decompose an idea into sound, logical concepts across as many disciplines as you can embody. (with rules, with consistency, with rules, and again with consistency), is one of the major strengths of a great designer and where I've seen it done well, 50% of the task (the rest you do in overtime). Next up, is the budget (not the fiscal variety, but similar enough) - the ability to slice your irresistable tasty game pie into bang for buck (npc's vs environment, reusability vs single feature WOW, communication of single feature conveyance to the player vs the system of commonality, oh yes, and did I say, time VS resources: all in all a pretty endless list).



(For all you systems people, a great primer, Mick West and Adam Martin on 'Entity Systems' (http://cowboyprogramming.com/2007/01/05/evolve-your-heirachy/ / http://t-machine.org/index.php/2007/09/03/entity-systems-are-the-
future-of-mmog-development-part-1/) Designers! Find a new way of thinking, and a future way of talking with your code team).



What you never want to hear from your design/creative department (though to be fair, this is primarily the realm of the cult leaders and the double glazing salesmen):



‘Wouldn’t it be really cool if…?’ – 7 weeks from Beta

‘Can’t you just make it…?’ – Anytime

‘When this does this, make this…’ – Any other time

Jacek Wesolowski
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The most frustrating part about my work as a designer is that I don't get opportunities to prove myself. That is: I can come up with any number of ideas, concepts, designs, you name it, but I never get to verify them. Frankly, I don't even know if I should be doing this job at all.



I have a CS background myself, and I agree it helps tremendously. But I also strongly believe a designer should never be a specialist. As the popular saying has it: liberal arts majors are those who cannot count, and technical majors are those who cannot read. It's just a stereotype, but it proves true all too often, because most people specialise too much. However, designer needs a programmer's discipline of thinking and an artist's sensitivity. I would rather hire a clueless generalist and give them a chance to learn the trade, than hire someone whose mental habits are set in stone.

Brian Pickrell
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I'm not a "coder"--I'm a software engineer! Show your coworkers some professional respect.

james clarke
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Next week: 'How to Hire Good Coders and Architecture Astronauts'



Followed by a quick report on 'Van drivers', or should we say, logistics specialists or realisable supply chain consultants, or?

Anonymous
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I agree with some of the other anons. I don't think it's necessary that someone live, breath, eat, and sleep video games - that they're hardcore, 2 week binge WoW gamers (or whatever). Rather, I think it's important that whoever the person is, they -study- games. That they can identify the mechanics at work on some level; that they have a need to figure out why and how a system in a game works and what it does for the game as a whole. That they're willing to pick up non-AAA titles and non-big name titles because they like the idea, want to see what it's about, or otherwise are curious about it.

Anonymous
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Same Anon as above: I would also like to expand on Industry Fanboy. I think companies also need to be wary of fanboys in general; any creative person needs to be able to be critical. If someone can't look at something - especially something they love - and at least admit that there is a flaw in it, that it could be better in some way, I don't think I'd want them on my team.

Anonymous
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As well, I would say that someone should be able to take bad or only-decent games and be able to take away what -did- work. They should be able to see what a designer was trying to do and how they were trying to do it. If they can only say "Game X sucks" and "Game Y rocks" without any critical analysis or insight, I think that would really hurt them as a designer.

Anonymous
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Uhg all this analysis of the job itself takes the fun out of game design ;p Game designers should analyze games not game designers. Politics kills designers.

Ernest Adams
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An ounce of professionalism is worth a pound of passion.



We had some very passionate people at EA Sports. Loved the games, played them constantly, could talk about nothing else. Unfortunately, some of these same people could not design or manage their way out of a wet paper bag. They wasted millions.



I'd much rather have a guy who turns in a solid day's productive work, day after day, even when he's sick to death of it, and goes home to watch TV or play softball with his kids, over a passionate gamer who's an incompetent developer.

Matt W
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Good article, although I really wish more teams screen designers beyond the list of titles they shipped on their resume.



I've worked with a designer who doesn't play games, doesn't know games, and can't communicate or analyze anything, yet because he was lucky enough to be around on a team during a few big titles, he still gets employment because of his resume instead of his work.



Newbies: Be good and passionate.

Vets: Just pad that resume, many big studios don't seem to care if you're terrible as long as you are willing to lie during an interview.

Joseph Spataro
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"I don't play video games in my free time. On the weekends, I fix things around the house, garden, or play the guitar. Or I'll exercise, go swimming, take the dog for a walk, or go for a hike."

--Miyamoto

Phil OConnor
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Thanks for all the comments, interesting read. About the point on "gaming every spare second of their time". I knew that was going to be a contentious one... I left it to a wide degree of interpretation. Lets just say that I didn't mean a shut-in who just played games all day. "Spare time" in the sense of the time that you had left after all the time spend doing "healthy" life type things. The definition of "spare" for me has changed considerably, from several hours a day in my youth to several minutes now. I stand by the comment though, I still want to see a borderline unhealthy obsession with gaming, if not in their present circumstances at least at some point in their life, usually in their younger years. The best designers I believe are obsessive about their craft.

Dj Weston
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This recurring message of Game Design degrees being little more than utterly useless is daunting. As a student of Game Design how is it you expect me to get a job in the industry without any previous "shipped title" and why are these degrees looked down upon so much?

Anonymous
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Just because you get a degree doesn't make you a good designer (whereas nobody believes they are a bad designer and a degree strengthens that self-approval), in many cases design schools are a path taken by not neccesarily the more passionate and talented but the more self righteous and priveleged, and there aren't enough good jobs to go to all graduates not to mention there are others besides graduates looking for and deserving of such jobs. But I guess it's mostly the feeling of self-righteousness that a degree can give a person as opposed to the uncelebrated and underappreciated QA path or the passionate time consuming and unpromising modder/indi programmer route.



A degree entitles you to nothing, it's up to you to round yourself out and treat it as only a fraction of your required qualification.

Dj Weston
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I agree having a degree doesn't make you a "good" designer but that still doesn't warrant the way they're looked down upon. One could also say that for those that don't try for a degree aren't as motivated or serious about game design as those that do pursue one. The argument works both ways and frankly isn't true in either case. You can't base someones passion and ability solely on having or not having a degree. So I digress, why are they looked down upon? It's very disheartening to work so hard and love this industry so much then come to a website like Gamasutra and read about industry professionals not taking Game Design degrees seriously.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Dj Weston,



I wouldn't bet on the possibility that all those Anonymice around here are actual professionals.



I have no experience with design faculty graduates, because there are no game design faculties around here. However, there are a few mechanisms that can make a graduate's life more difficult, regardless of whether they are any good or not.



1. Most designers I've known personally aren't really designers. They are either managers and company founders who do design because they treat it as a status symbol, or people who were assigned design duties because someone had to do it and they had no other tasks assigned at the moment. The side effect is that there's no correlation between performing designer duties and having any talent in this direction. I said I don't know if I should be a designer, but I'm at least aware of some of the problems and issues involved in this job. Most designers I've met aren't.



2. There's a common misconception that a game is created by joint effort of programmers and 3D artists. Designers - and level designers in particular - are only needed because some mundane tasks cannot be automated. In other words, many people don't perceive designer's work as a contribution. Design is a meta-activity in that you don't create visible assets, such as source code or 3D models. Most laymen can only see those visible assets and are more or less blind to anything "in between" them. For instance, if the project leader is also the lead designer, they often concentrate all of their efforts on tweaking the controls and the presentation layer (e.g. the colour and size of explosions), but they neglect game mechanics and dynamics.



3. There's a prevalent lack of understanding or acceptance for game design theory. Typical attention span of a project leader is two sentences, so if you cannot explain a concept in two sentences, the discussion is over. It's possible to be this brief is you use abstract terms. But I know from experience that as soon as I start saying things like "integer variable", "interaction model" or "reward mechanism", I may just as well switch to Arabic. You can literally see the moment when the people you're talking to turn their attention off.



Now imagine you're a talented and competent design school graduate, and you get your first job. You try talking to other designers in designese, but they don't understand you, because they don't think the way you do. You have a degree in design, but design is not a real job, so your diploma must be some kind of scam. And you cannot operate that 3D package they gave you as fast as your coworkers can, because you've just spent five years of your life learning about design, while your coworkers were busy operating that 3D package.



Besides, designer's job consists of one part of creativity and four parts of avoiding common mistakes. With so many crappy workplaces around, you don't really need a teacher to tell you about all the mistakes you should avoid, because you can witness them all firsthand.

Maurício Gomes
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I also think that is nearly depressing all the time that I read that anyone can be a game designer, or that a game design degree is useless...



I always loved to create my own games, before I knew that a "Game Design" guy even existed, I learned how to program and how to do 3D modelling (and I discovered that I am a great programmer), also I spent most of my day sometimes playing with spreadsheets trying to test results of combinations of game mechanics, I even done my own RPG ruleset...



Then I joined a university on Game Design without having a idea of what is Game Design, and in there I learned that in fact Game Design is a thing that not everyone can do, a good designer usually know about psycology, maths, coding sometimes, art, and more importantly: design theory, a game is a interactive system, there is not game if there are not a system to be interacted with and a player, the game designer in fact do not create the game, he create the system, and the game is only a true game when someone is playing it, there are no game without player, and most people that think that they can be game designer do not see that, they think that having ideas is sufficient, they ignore the fact that you do not need good ideas or even awesome ideas, you need really to design, engineer, project, create a SYSTEM, a RULESET, that will be interacted with, there are the player on the other side, and you need to predict what he will do, and what he will think based on what the software presented him.



One of the greatest comments of a designer that I saw was when the guy that made the Tempest arcade game said that the time that he became most glad is when he saw a player playing the game so perfectly and so happy with the physical controls (a thing that most designers forgot just because usually the system already has one... they forgot that they need to design how to use the existant one properly or that changing the controls from a dancing pad to a plastic guitar made all the diffrence...) that the player was playing the game as if he was "one" with the machine, the player and the machine acting togheter the same goal (what usability professionals call as interaction, the goal of usability and tool development is to make man and tool work toward a single task), and seeing that the tempest designer was happy that he managed to be a good designer (and I agree with him)



Then I see people on forums around for example saying: Huh, I have great ideas! I wanna be designer! I do not need a degree! Degree suck!



It is because those people do not know true designers, I went to a bar called "Ludus" where there are foodstuff (obvious) and plenty of board games, I went there with several people from the local IGDA chapter, among of them several designers from Gameloft, and it was great to see how we all enjoyed playing board games like we enjoy eletronic games, and how we could discuss what was right and wrong on the game rules.



It is there that some people realized: The game is not created by the programmer, the programmer only make it work on a eletronic medium that understands programs, otherwise games would not exist since thousands years ago....

Anonymous
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The reason why so many game design degrees are regarded as being worthless is that such a huge number of institutions - having seen the rise in popularity of game industry related courses - decided to quickly throw together a course and call it 'game design'. For example; a particular UK university I am closely familiar with (names withheld to protect the not-so-innocent) put together a 'Game Design' degree by simply bolting on a 'Game Design' and a 'Game Production' module (one semester each!) onto an already existing Visualisation degree. Will these students be able to step foot into the industry and start designing? Well, they will have some basic 3D modelling knowledge, a smattering of design skills but - most importantly - no experience of working on a living, breathing game development team. It's all theory - all mouth and no trousers, etc. However, with that said, I've been rather impressed with a course in the Netherlands - IGAD at the NHTV University - that I recently became aware of. Students work in multi-disciplinary teams (2 different games per year) and experience something of the trials and tribulations of real world development. The fact that these students have to continually put design skills to practical use while competing against tight deadlines is (in my opinion) infinitely more valuable than the purely theoretical courses that seem to have sprung up in recent years!

Dj Weston
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So far the only argument I've ever heard for getting a degree is that it's the only way to get your resume passed H.R. I don't feel like my college has done an adequate job of teaching me the job of game design. Nearly every valuable skill I've learned had to be done in my own spare time outside of school which makes me wonder why I'm paying the college thousands of dollars for something I'm teaching myself. I'm going to be a father soon and I don't feel I have the time for such mistakes as spending 40k on an education that won't get me into the industry. I'd feel much more comfortable ditching the degree and doing this myself if I saw a solid presence of companies that would consider hiring someone without the degree. So far I just see a lot of bad press for Game Design degrees but no other suggested route.

Maurício Gomes
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This is why my game design school make us do 2 projects each year, starting with a BOARD GAME on the first year (yeah, no computer!)



We then do 2D games, flash game, 3D game... Some students even made cell-phone games!

Jacek Wesolowski
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Well, if that's of any consolation for you, I owe all of my industry jobs to date to a lot of hand waving only.



Forget about studying for the sake of occupation, or industry, or money. That's not what universities are for. They aren't giving you experience, but they're giving you experience multiplier. I just hope it's more than 1.0.

James Wiggs
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Game Design Degrees are NOT useless. The problem is that all of the examples given so far are regarding Senior to Lead Design not "Level Design" which is what they mostly teach in the trade schools.



Since the majority of game companies are using some kind of world building toolset, designers today need to be able to create levels...not just a design document!



For me I came up through QA 13 years ago and learned from veterans of the industry the good, the bad, and the ugly of game development. It is not an exact science like many on here are trying to spin it. In fact I've met some young level designers that have more heart and desire than a 5-10 year veteran...WHY? Because many of the old designers are dinosaurs now and have become managers.



If you want my advice on becoming a game designer, then get the latest world building tools and start making levels. Learn how to use photoshop and take a writing class. I bet you that if you save a couple of levels on a flash drive and use some of this articles points on interviewing, you could get a entry level design job somewhere.

Patrick Reding
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As someone seeking to break into the industry, I'd like to thank you greatly for writing these out. I know I hit a number of these point, but my resume and cover letters don't reflect this fact. It looks like I have some rewriting to do.

Maurício Gomes
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In fact Wiggs advice works!

I got hired somewhere as a level designer contractor, and now I am a design consultant there :)



Of course, this is not a oh my god you work at Square-Enix! It is just a: you done a indie game :P But it is a start o/

Anonymous
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Wiggs is right. As far as tests, there is more than one way to look at them. Are there really correct answers in design tests? I suppose there are. But even wrong answers show value in a person. Did the person TRY to think the mechanic through? Or did they just slap it together? Does the candidate clearly and concisely attempt to get an idea, concept, or mechanic across.



Locking a person in a room with some objects and saying "make a game, see you in four hours." might have a few merits, but I don't think that is the right way. Seems more like a tactic an old designer uses to stifle any possible competition from a hopeful up and comer.



Maybe one is over analyzing this. Throwing so many things to at the wall that we miss the one thing that makes a person a good designer. Something simple that everyone here missed: The ability to LEARN and ADAPT.



That is what you must screen for in an interview. Does this candidate seem like they are willing to learn and adapt. Designers that are always willing to learn and adapt from those around them and on their own? The biggest problem with designers is that they often become complacent once they get their spot. Those are bad designers.

Sean Parton
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Dj Weston: People like pieces of paper, if only it means you've dedicated a lot of your time and money to do something.



Also, a really important thing about universities for game-related programs (not just Design, but Art and Programming too) is that you can get freebie contacts that you know really well in the industry. Sure, a lot of the people you know that graduate with you probably won't make it (an unofficial number for a good game college near me is 25% having jobs in the industry after a year), but contacts will get you jobs better then skills. I was hired based on a recommendation from my instructor (and all the instructors at my school are current industry professionals).



Also, James Wiggs has it right. Just get some world building tools and make levels, because that's sure as hell what you're doing when you first get into the industry as a designer. If you want to be able to target smaller companies in the design role (usually best for entry into industry), have some backup skills (usually Art-related, like able to generate assets and so forth, or perhaps animation).

Dj Weston
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Well that definitely lessens my worries. I spend all my free time creating and modding. Sometimes it's hard to be so passionate about something and see the means you're using to make that passion a reality constantly belittled. I appreciate all the positive feedback.

Chris Chiu
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About those "cross-disciplinary" people (i.e. the ones who'd want to move, say, from programming to game design), I think that while caution is never wrong, I think that there's actually a substantial benefit to this:



Many programmers (and I suppose artists and producers too) got into their respective field due to an interest in game mechanics, game design, and games in general. At least that's how I got into programming for games (having a Computer Science degree, I could go into any more profitable field of engineering, but it is my passion for games that made me get into the games industry).



My personal history is that I designed games from the grounds up (including game mechanics, story, and graphics/art), but without actual code those fragments would always be theory. I learned programming solely to make these ideas come to life... and sort of stayed in that field, but not without thinking of doing different disciplines in the future.

Anonymous
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The one thing that I have a hard time with in this article is the same thing that many people have been running across. He is so adamant about getting the "real deal" that he forgets that people have to start somewhere. It's a catch 22, really. You have to have experience to get a gig, but you can't get that experience if you don't have it because no one will hire you.

Trace o'Connor
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To Phil O'Connor and those who review resumes of candidates for the industry: I'm a resume writer, and I'm interested how to showcase "a long history of gaming interest, not just a sudden career change decision" in the resume itself.



Am I correct that this advice has in mind someone with little relevant professional or educational history? Traditional wisdom for resume writing says that no matter what the industry is, "nobody cares about your hobbies." Are games industries an exeption to that rule? Should a candidate include a section for Hobbies or Interests in the resume itself? And if so, should one include on "leadership" experiences or something tangible (mods), or general interest?



Or do you suggest that this should be an accessory in the resume, something for a cover letter, LinkedIn profile, or at least a section on the candidate's website in hopes that a resume reviewer even gets that far.



Thanks in advance for any potential answers on this,

Trace o'Connor

Shannon Buys
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What I liked about this article was that it could also be applied to myself. Am I really a game designer or am I one of the charlatans/ideas man/fanbois that the author warns about?



I think it's great for people in game design or considdering it, to read this through and see how clearly they fit into the right category. Do they have the background, interests and approach to be viable?



I think it would also be a lot better for the industry and the medium itself if employers start focusing on 'real' game designers. We'll hopefully stop seeing as many uninspired cash ins on what's currently popular and more of a focus on making decent games.

Anonymous
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To Trace -



Only differentiating accompishments within gamingenthusiasm would be taken seriously. This can include competitive gaming accomplishments (tournament victories, professional league experience), modding of course, other contributions to indi game creation, or running significant thousands/millions of hits enthusiast websites. All of these may have only been a hobby, but show the person to be constructive, creative, and show an example of their work. Putting "really into games" or "played 100,000 hours of games last year" or the like on a resume is as trashy as it would be in any other industry.



This would fit best on the cover letter and maybe a few lines on the resume. But if it's modding experience, explication of your experience with the toolset is absolutely relevent on the resume.

Anne Toole
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I have another suggestion on choosing a designer. Aside from asking your designer or writer to design a game, also consider giving feedback and having your designer revise it. We added this suggestion to our post on how to hire game writers: http://writerscabal.wordpress.com/2008/07/03/top-3-ways-to-choose
-your-game-writer/



I have to say I am impressed by the number of people who've commented -- and on a weekend!

Phil OConnor
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In answer to Trace o'Connor's question (there is no relation ;)



"Trace o'Connor 5 Oct 2008 at 3:48 pm PST



To Phil O'Connor and those who review resumes of candidates for the industry: I'm a resume writer, and I'm interested how to showcase "a long history of gaming interest, not just a sudden career change decision" in the resume itself.



Am I correct that this advice has in mind someone with little relevant professional or educational history? Traditional wisdom for resume writing says that no matter what the industry is, "nobody cares about your hobbies." Are games industries an exeption to that rule? Should a candidate include a section for Hobbies or Interests in the resume itself? And if so, should one include on "leadership" experiences or something tangible (mods), or general interest?



Or do you suggest that this should be an accessory in the resume, something for a cover letter, LinkedIn profile, or at least a section on the candidate's website in hopes that a resume reviewer even gets that far."



In answer to this I would say that for Game Designer positions, after development experience, the hobbies section is the second most important thing I look at. Good game designers mostly learn their trade "playing". I really cannot stress this aspect of the trade enough. How can you be good at creating fun for other people if you don’t thoroughly understand gaming fun for yourself in all its aspects and permutations?

But it’s not just about fun, the understanding of mechanics and workable models are just as important. A big part of what a good designer does is not lead the team down blind alleys, your ability to make good calls on game features depends on the ability to predict or "see" the entire game in your mind before all of the many aspects are brought together. Good game instincts can only be learned from extensive time playing tons of games. People learn what makes games tick in their spare time, so I want to see that reflected in the resume.



Not only that, I want to see that the person is well rounded, has an interest in literature, or history, or politics or science, etc.. or all of the above. This depends on the game of course, but having a wide degree of interests is always going to be of benefit in the game making process.



My recommendation is for prospective designers to include a section on what games they play, what their favourite platforms and games are, and put a little bit more effort in detailing their personal interests outside of games.



If you are an inexperienced designer looking to break into the business, this may be especially important, since you have nothing really to put down in the “professional” experience section.



If you are someone who has a degree in Game Design, I would recommend that you highlight the development experience of your teachers, I have seen many schools use people with no shipped titles to teach Game Design. The second thing I would highlight is your game making projects, and include a demo if possible.



Even experienced designers get asked about their personal game preferences. Whenever designers interview each other, the question of “what is your all time favourite game” always comes up. The answer tells you how well matched up your tastes are. There is no right or wrong answer; it’s simply a matter of hiring someone with the right gaming tastes for your project.



Hope this helps.



Phil

Phil OConnor
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Errata:



By the way, Gamasutra made a booboo and actually included a typo in the original text of the article!! ;0



The section "The best school for game design remains industry time, at least the years development experience and, at the very minimum, one shipped title." The "at least the years" should have been "at least 3 years".



Just had to clear that up. Thanks Gama for putting the article up :)

Trace o'Connor
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Thanks, Phil, for reading through the comments and for the detailed follow-up about how to showcase this interest. My better half and a lot of friends are currently at the Guildhall at SMU right now. We'll talk over ways to highlight his personal interests and experience with games.



This article was great food for thought and very helpful, thanks for taking the time to share it!



Trace

Anonymous
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I found this article most interesting. I have had the misfortune of working with Phil and would have to say, that in almost 10 years of working in the industry, he is by far the worst designer I've ever worked with.

His designs are usually flawed and are filled with useless or contradictory information. This wouldn't be so bad except for his complete inability to listen and refusal to accept any other point of view. He seems to have no understanding of how video games work perhaps his skills would be more suited to working on board games.

This may seem like a personal attack on Mr O'Connor but I genuinely have nothing against him. I just believe he is probably the last person anyone should listen to on this subject and he's wasting his time in the games industry.

He also seems incapable of spelling anyone's name correctly in emails. Seriously how long does it take to check the spelling? Or is it that Phil believes that his is the correct spelling and that everyone else is wrong.

Hoby Van Hoose
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I think it's good to look for good people but there are big problems with this list.



- Several these "warning signs" contradict one other.



- If you only hire people that have lots of experience, you never hire anyone new with fresh ideas.



- Interviews can often be the worst way to try to assess someone's proficiency.



- What a prospective designer can do for you is more important than what they have done in the past. Design tests or challenges can be far more enlightening than asking them about previous experiences (that may or may not be relevant to what you're hoping they'll do for you).


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