Is there a level designer in the house?
February 7, 2015 6:39 PM   Subscribe

My son is graduating in May with a degree in English, minors in business and econ, and an interest in pursuing a career in game level design. He's been sorting through a lot of conflicting information and he's looking for advice regarding where to start, e.g., programs he can study on his own, classes and/or certifications he should consider. He's willing to get a second bachelor's degree if that's the best way to get into the field. (He thanks you in advance.)

Btw, I've seen How to become a video game designer—I'm assuming that things have changed in the past 9 years.
posted by she's not there to Work & Money (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think most of the advice in that thread still holds true actually. The AAA game industry is tough. Sure, there is a much more thriving indie gaming scene these days, but the vast majority of indie devs are not financially successful.

What he needs is actual projects. Start working with UE4 or Unity. SMALL GAMES at first. Beginners always try to bite of more than they can chew. Or maybe mod some games, not sure if that is as viable a route as it has been in the past. Start learning how to code if he hasn't already. There are no shortcuts!
posted by meta87 at 6:54 PM on February 7, 2015

Don't study, or not formally; make something. Then make something else. Then make something else
posted by Sebmojo at 7:09 PM on February 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

The womderful Rimworld is a great example of the sort of thing that does well, a clever variation on a popular theme, supported unstintingly.
posted by Sebmojo at 7:11 PM on February 7, 2015

I've worked in and out of the gaming industry since I graduated from high school, both AAA and indie. That link you posted is pretty relevant still, but now we have the chasm between AAA and the indie scene -- there are two ways to enter the industry now but neither of them are any easier than they were when that question was posted.

The gaming industry is 10,000% who you know, full stop. There's no other way to crack into the creamy center, short of a Christmas miracle like releasing the next Flappy Bird. Even indies rely on their vast network of peers/friends and a heavy grass-roots marketing arsenal of early fans and supporters.

Your son could just go to a school like DigiPen and get a degree, and it's not impossible to just walk into a job immediately after graduating, but that's because of who you know (making connections with fellow students, interning at companies) and heavily dependent on the work that you do in your spare time while in the program. Your portfolio will make or break you, the quality has to be there.

Participate in game jams like Ludum Dare or the Global Game Jam. Find local meetups and make friends, learn how to work with other people, and hopefully don't get bogged down in a long-term project with anyone who isn't as committed as he is, or is too stubborn/good for criticism. Go to events like GDC or IGF. Get himself out there and just start meeting people.

Regardless of any game-specific education and extracurriculars, he needs to be able to code (Java or C++/C# is a good idea), build levels intelligently, and then defend his design decisions. Why are there stairs there? Why is the jump height four times the head height of the player character? What purpose does this room serve? What is the goal of the player completing an event? What happens if the player fails to collect enough tokens before time runs out? etc etc.

The rest is pretty dependent on which route he wants to go.

The AAA route:
  1. Be good at making games
  2. Get lucky
Ok, I'm actually being bitter and sarcastic. It's more like...
  1. Work in QA (or get into the degree program) and network like hell
  2. Build levels in your spare time using common engines e.g. Unity, Unreal, Source
  3. Make a portfolio of your work
  4. Get lucky
Any studio usually requires that you have already shipped at least one game in order to get hired, in some kind of Yossarian nightmare, or you can luck your way into a job if you've 1) interned there, or 2) made enough friends and someone likes you a lot. The friends your son could make in QA or college will pay off as everyone moves on in the industry. The one person who gets lucky will usually take a few friends with them, or contact former colleagues they liked about job openings before they even have a job description written up.

Job postings at studios will never tell the whole story about who they're looking for, and might actually just be cursory CYA moves to make it legal for them to hire someone's friend they've already picked for the opening. He's better off aiming himself at a specific company and tailoring his skill set to what they do/what they want. Plenty of stories about people who have been hired at ArenaNet or Blizzard or Bungie because they spent years preparing themselves to work at that specific studio: cultivating their sense of art/animation, building worlds and levels in the same style, following their design standards. He'll have to move to where the jobs are, of course: LA, San Diego, Seattle, Austin, etc.

As far as the indie racket goes... What I've seen have the most success is working in either QA or a non-gaming-but-still-programming job during the day, and start building small games in his spare time as if he knows what he's doing. Having a target to aim at -- a mobile puzzle shooter with roguelike elements? why the hell not -- will make it easier for him to learn what he needs to know to accomplish that. Doing by trying!

Indie means wearing many, many hats: marketer, project manager, business development, possibly art and music as well. He'll need to study indie game Kickstarters, watch Steam Greenlight, get active on /r/gamedev and regularly talk to the vast underground network of indie game developers on Twitter. There is a massive lack of artists in the indie scene, so that's its own hurdle. Being both indie and successful often takes years of late nights and bulk ramen grocery trips. Perseverance is required, and sometimes you have to just grab your junk and bet the farm.

Anyway, I hope this helps him make a decision. Feel free to MeMail me!
posted by Snacks at 9:58 PM on February 7, 2015 [10 favorites]

Not in the industry, but I have a couple of friends who are (AAA behemoth and full time indie developer.) Snacks' advice above rings true on both sides. AAA gaming in particular is not a field that seems to treat its employees well.
posted by quaking fajita at 6:39 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding the majority of Sebmojo and Snacks' advice, although I will say starting in QA is not the only way to go. Also, knowing people/having connections is a considerable leg up on finding opportunities, no doubt, but bear in mind knowing someone who already works at a studio is not the only way to get hired at a studio.

I work in game development and am very involved in the hiring process at our studio.

It sounds like your son doesn't have much if any real experience in game level design, even on personal projects, which means breaking into the industry into the specific role of his choosing will take a lot of work. I recommend building something and getting a feel for it, starting very small as meta87 mentioned, and gradually building from there. It's important to get a feel for whether your child actually enjoys the work and if it makes sense before diving in and making any a serious commitment of time and finances.

When it comes to looking to get hired, the #1 thing I cannot recommend enough is having an awesome portfolio. This is the thing that an applicant should be sweating over to make sure all the details reflect their skillset as best as possible. If a candidate demonstrates they are above and beyond their peers in talent and skill, I frankly don't care what school they graduated, or failed to graduate from, or list 4 different programming languages on a resume. I'm looking for someone who has put in the thought and time to make sound choices that always tie back to the player experience, and even if early in their careers, are setting themselves on the path to mastery.

GDC is coming up in San Francisco next month and comes highly recommended. It has one day especially devoted to students, but it might just be worth attending the main conference to meet people at all levels of the industry and get a real sense for the kind of work they do, especially for someone new to the industry. Post mortem sessions are great to pick up learnings from other projects. It is the most content-rich multi-day event focused on game development industry in the world. Better to spend $1k attending this event for a few days, than $$$$ and years getting another degree that may not even be necessary. Again, it's about skills and ability to use knowledge, not a degree.

The caveat to this is that I will actually read every applications for a job opening we're hiring for, and don't have a software program pre-filter applications for me which is designed to toss out valid candidate based on lack of keywords, etc. etc. But I will say anyone hiring worth their salt can identify a talented candidate by perusing a portfolio, and not relying on a keyword filter. Granted, I don't work at a mega-studio that receives thousands of applications everyday, either.

Also, read sites like Gamasutra and don't be too quick to sign up for a certification, online course, or university program without doing proper research into any of them. Given the new demand for such courses, the market has responded with all kinds of "educational programs". It's far too easy to find these programs with a terrible results/expense ratio. Have your child do a lot of independent research first, so at least if he does sign up for something, he has the background to know what he's looking for and what's valuable to his future career prospects.

I hope this helps. Working in game development can be very rewarding and enriching, although it's not sunshines and cupcakes by default. Also, having a supportive and understanding community (such as parents), also helps a lot. I hope this helps your child get on to the path to a career in the industry, if that works for him. Best of luck!
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 8:25 AM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I also work in the games industry, and the advice here is pretty solid. However, I went to zero in on something that was said previously, which is to just make something.

When someone asks me how to get into the game industry, I always say, "Why aren't you already in the game industry?" Meaning, there are so many free tools with which to get started, your budding level designer should already be using them. Heck, there are games, such as Minecraft, Little Big Planet and Project Spark, where nearly the entire purpose is to make levels for others to play.

It is like if someone asked me how to get into a career writing music. Step one: write music.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:20 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Stop worrying about programs, courses and certifications. This is an industry that values portfolio and networking above all else. This sounds harsh, but - if he isn't already making games in his spare time, then he may not be right for the job. Its really a labor of love type of career, and he needs to be learning how to make games by building them right now! Get him to make some games alone (board games, card games, as well as small videogames on PC or iOS). Have him test them on friends and integrate feedback into his design revisions.
Skills you need to be a good level designer:
1. Analysis. Look at other levels and understand what makes them tick. With an English degree this should be something he has some skill at already for writing; but he needs to learn the vocabulary and mechanics for game designs. He needs to be able to analyse a game or a level's workings and explain them to other people. What made this level great? What were its flaws? What would make it better? How was the player led through the environment?
2. Teamwork. Make some games on your own so you start to understand the designer's skillset, then move onto working with a small team to build something together. With the exception of some small Indie devs, most games are made by more than one person, and if you can't work on a team well with others, you will never amount to anything. I work on AAA games with a team of 100+ people, so I need to have the social skills and teamwork skills to co-operate with others, as well as take and give good constructive feedback.
3. Communication skills. Part of both points above. You need to be able to explain your ideas and feedback in verbal and written form, so people can clearly understand your ideas and opinions. Should be able to sketch out a simple level design on paper and talk people through it. Need to be able to go to local development events, or conferences, meet new people, and make connections. That means finding other students or newbies to work with, rather than hounding people for internships ;)
4. Some technical skills are a great benefit. You don't have to be a fully-fledged programmer, but if you can pick up enough scripting skills to make a game in unity, or a browser, or iOS, then you have the freedom to try things out yourself and learn a lot more. You will also better understand what is involved in implementing your ideas - newbie designers usually come up with grand plans for a game that is almost impossible to execute, because they don't have a sense of the scope involved. This is why building games yourself will get you that experience fast and help you make better design decisions.
Hope that helps!
posted by Joh at 11:22 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

As an addendum to what I said and Goblin Barbarian said, your son could flip his English degree into a localization or writing position at a studio, but that's dependent on his skills and already having a wealth of writing material that those studios would be interested in. And to get out of that and into design, he would still have to be making games on his own time and have the portfolio/material to back his skills up.
posted by Snacks at 12:21 PM on February 8, 2015

Wow there's some primo advice in this thread. I'll do my best to add to it with a Tom Francis (Pentadact) link: Make a game with no experience. Tom is a games journalist who made the excellent Gunpoint and made enough money, if not to retire, to be immediately clear that he could support himself (as a solo dev, working from home) making games rather than journalising.
posted by Sebmojo at 10:59 PM on February 8, 2015

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