Opinion: How To Hire Good Game Designers
[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
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.
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.
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.]