- Arts and Entertainment
- Video Game Designer
“The way we come up with concepts for games is by thinking of a cool mechanic, which is a verb or action in a game, like a sword slashing, or picking up an object. ”
I’m a Game Designer and I’ve been in the field for three years, currently working at Schell Games.
My education is kind of wibbly-wobbly. In 2016 I got a Bachelor's in film scoring from Berklee College of Music up in Boston. Then in 2017, I took classes in multimedia programming, simulation, and gaming, at Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I still haven't finished the program completely. My plan is to just close it out as a certificate instead of an A.S. degree since it led me into an internship that is now my primary job,
My job involves problem-solving, being creative, working on a team, communicating, and of course, making games—that's the biggest part. I'm kind of the glue between the visuals and the programming that goes into making a game. I make sure everything works together.
The way we come up with concepts for games is by thinking of a cool mechanic, which is a verb or action in a game, like a sword slashing, or picking up an object. A lot of times you come up with a mechanic that drives the game development and story. You can also start with a story idea first and then create the mechanic. Usually, it's the mechanic that people start with. You might say, “I have this idea that I think is a little different. It might be a mix of something I've seen in this game and in that game, and I want to put those things together.”
Part of the ideation phase is called the “blue sky” phase. In this phase the sky's the limit, you can come up with whatever you want. People may say, “Okay, this idea might be crazy, but...” and the group would say it's the perfect time to just throw out some crazy ideas. Maybe that initial idea might be too crazy, but then you might get other people on the team to be like, “Oh, we could make that work if we change this a little bit and if we do that.” So you can start with a crazy idea, and then morph it into its true essence. Sometimes crazy ideas can lead to some really great things, for sure.
Once someone comes up with an idea, we pitch it to the team or even to the company. This is when the vice presidents get involved. Maybe we’ll have a small team prototype the idea, just to see if that initial thought works, if it feels good. From there, we'll decide whether to take it into production and make a bigger team. The idea will evolve and we'll come up with questions like: What exactly is this concept? Is there a story behind it? What does the character do? What does the player do?
Game designers are often the ones who come up with a lot of these pitches. I think that’s because a lot of our job is making sure those mechanics work, so we're always thinking of actions and verbs that people can do when playing games. The idea for a mechanic might come up when you’re playing a game. You might say, “Oh, I really wish I could make this character do this.” Or, “What if I could make that character do that?” You can really draw inspiration from a lot of different places.
We do a lot of Virtual Reality (VR) games at Schell Games. Ideas for VR can come from real life because VR is based on a 3-dimensional world. So you can think, “What would I love to be able to do in VR that I can't do in real life?” and build that.
I get a lot of inspiration from games and movies and books. For example, I'm on a new project and we're coming up with ideas. At every meeting I find myself saying things like, “In this other game, they do it this way, or that way.” I definitely find myself referencing different games and movies and books.
The whole process starts with the technical team figuring out the really basic stuff. From there it goes to the art team. They're the ones who make it prettier and more nuanced. The designer is usually involved at both points. They will help guide the technical portion, saying, for example, “This is how the sword should swing, this is how this action should be.” Then they'll go to the artists in the next phase and say, “This is how we would like this to feel.” The artists can help it feel that way, starting from that really basic technical prototype, and turning it into something more special and more nuanced.
The length of time this process takes can vary. Last year I was on a project that had a nine-month timeline. I just came off of another project that lasted over three years. The length really depends on the size of a game, how long it'll go, how much content there is, or how visually complicated it is.
Once the game is complete the higher-ups take over. This is when marketing comes into play. They start getting people excited to play it, so when we do release it, people will purchase or download it.
My last project was literally a dream. It was a theme park attraction and I got to go on a work trip and physically go into the space. I had never gotten to do that before. It was a really amazing experience. It's one thing to work on something on your computer but it was another thing to see it. My husband was jealous.
To get into this field requires a combination of education and real-world experience. At Schell Games, interns and fellows are usually getting their master's degrees in computer science or entertainment-related field. But you don't necessarily have to be in a master's program. People have told me the reason I got the job wasn't necessarily because of my degree but instead because of my experience, my ability to pick up different skills, and because I can work with teams.
I do think it's preferable to have some kind of educational background though. This can vary from company to company, but I think they look for people with related educational backgrounds. My highest degree isn't in computer science but I’m the exception, not the rule. They are more likely to go for people with programming, or specific design degrees.
There are a lot of backgrounds you can come from in this field. We had a designer whose original background was in animation. We have programmers who turned into designers. A lot of it comes down to the demonstration of your skills.
The beginning parts of the game design process can be the most challenging, especially when we're done with the blue sky stuff, and we need to rein it in. It can be hard to make people flip that switch and say, “This is how it's going to be,” instead of, “This is how it could be.” That transition is definitely the hardest part. Blue sky ideating stuff is fun and sometimes it's tough for people to be prescriptive and make decisions.
I am the kind of person who likes to have things set in stone. I like to have guidelines to follow. It gets really hard when the sky's the limit because the sky's the limit! There's almost too much possibility. Sometimes people ask me to do something, and it’s hard to start because I don't want it to be too different from how it might eventually turn out when they make those final decisions.
I really like working with people. Also, this is gonna sound nerdy but I love learning. Every day I learn a new skill, whether it's how to do something technical, or how to talk to a specific coworker better. The learning process of everything is my favorite. That might be why I wanted to continue school, too, because I wasn't quite done learning, and I felt there was still something out there.
Growing up, I played a lot of computer games. My dad used to play too, with airplane simulators and stuff like that. There was one game in particular that led me to play music. You were a princess, and you would go into the woods and play the flute for all the woodland critters. I was in the third grade, and I was like, “Oh, that's gonna be me. I want to play the flute in the woods and play for the critters.” So when fourth grade came around, and it was time for us to pick instruments, I picked the flute. And I ended up playing the flute from elementary school and all through high school.
I used to spend late nights playing Legend of Zelda and all kinds of different games. BioShock has always been one of my top games. It's kind of spooky, but the story is really good. These were my top two games.
When it came time to pick a college, I decided to go for music because that's what I knew. I had been taking private lessons in all different instruments up until that point. I applied to my dream school, Berklee College of Music, and got in. That’s where I discovered a major called Film Scoring. People could write music for films! I always have loved soundtracks, but it never crossed my mind that that was something I could do. I was like, “Wow, this is a whole new world!” It blew my mind and I immediately signed up for the film scoring program.
That degree was what draw me in, but a minor in video games scoring also blew my mind. The fact that I could minor in video game music was my epiphany moment. That’s when I started tying together the flute and the video game music, which was always my go-to hobby.
There was a video game music club on campus, and of course, I joined. One of the professors in the club was a composer for one of the sequels of BioShock, called BioShock Infinite and I was like, “Oh my goodness, I want to be you!” That’s why I ended up majoring in film scoring major and minoring in video game music.
I did this for all four years of college. When I got to my senior year, that same professor led the capstone project class for my video game music minor. There were three of us in the class. When we came in, he said, “I want you guys to make whatever you want—I just want you to make a score. I want you to do some audio and sound effects. You can make the score and the sound effects, but you need to make it interactive in some way.” All three of us decided to make a game of some kind, but separately.
I was feeling sentimental about it being my last semester and made a game called Tears. It was about the things that make you cry, but there were happy tears, sad tears, angry tears. You would have your little character go around and pick up different things, its emotions would change depending on the thing it picked up. The music would change to be happy, sad, or angry. That technique is called branching music, so I ended up creating a branching music project. It was a lot of fun. I really liked this project because it was also comedic. I made my own art, too.
I didn't really dive too much into coding at this point because that was daunting at the time. I ended up using a game engine, which makes your game run and is pretty common in game development. The one I used is called Unity. With Unity, I was able to get a template project, hook up the software with my music, and add art. That's actually a technique used in game development, where you take something pre-existing so you don't have to reinvent the wheel and make it your own. I didn't know that was what I was doing at the time, but I was doing something right!
This project was definitely my jumping-off point for everything. When I started working on it, I found myself drawn to making the game more than the music for the game. It was really daunting because I'd never done anything like that, and I’d never considered myself very technologically advanced at that point. This experience never really left my mind. After I finished that class and graduated, I was still thinking about it a year later.
There was a lot going on during that year. I had a part-time job and did music on the side, mostly freelance stuff, writing scores for people who needed help. It wasn't too long, though, before I started taking classes at CCAC for game design.
I used to attend the Global Game Jam. A game jam is where people get together and make a video game within a small period of time. The Global Game Jam is over a weekend, Friday through Sunday. Every year, I would work together with programmers and artists, and I would look over the programmer’s shoulders and be like, “Man, that seems kind of cool. I'd like to learn more about that.” I think that was me just continuing to pine over game design. Even though I still enjoyed doing the music parts, getting to do the design parts was bigger and more exciting, I guess because I'm a very visual person.
When I started taking classes at CCAC, it was very daunting at first. The initial courses were programming-focused, which was like learning a new language. It was a lot, especially because by the time I was taking classes I was working full time as a visual merchandiser at Macy’s, but I made it through those introductory programming courses. Eventually, I got into gaming-specific courses where I learned another game engine, and learn about basic 3D art. For another project, I teamed up with a few people in the class and split up the roles into artist, programmer, and director of the team. I learned a lot of really useful skills in that course that I still use today. Those courses were what drove me to feel confident enough to apply for the internship at Schell Games.
Schell Games is very hands-on, so interns actually get to work on the project rather than get coffee for people. I can't go too much into detail about the first project I worked on, but it was related to the gameplay elements for a major theme park attraction. I had never done anything like that before, but it was really cool. At first, my confidence was really low. About three months into the internship, my manager was like, “Yeah, I was really worried about you those first two weeks, but after that you were fine.” I think it was just because it was a whole new discipline. I'd never been in the industry before, outside of freelance work or doing fun stuff with my friends. I learned a lot of different skills.
I did a mix of things as an intern. I did documentation, which is the least glamorous. I did a lot of User Interface (UI) design. UI design is what you see when you open up a menu on a game, for example. It's not necessarily part of the game, but it's stuff that gives the user more information to help them along the way. A lot of the 2D graphical elements of a game can usually be the UI.
I also did level design. In a game, a room could be considered a level. I helped design a little bit of that, and also did a lot of fine-tuning. Another thing I did was help perfect a point system. I presented ideas to clients. I did a little prototyping. I worked on teams. Now that I think about it, it's really cool that they trusted me to lead on certain things. They really want people to get first-hand experience so it doesn't feel like a waste of time.
I’m currently a Game Designer at Schell Games. We have different levels of seniority here, and I'd love to keep going up that ladder. In the beginning, when I was taking classes at CCAC, I thought I wanted to be a creative director. We don't have that specific title here, but we have a design director, which is similar. I took over as a design director for one project. Eventually, I'd love to start a project as a design director and take it to the finish line.
Usually, we start the day with a scrum meeting, which is when we give updates to the team on what we did the day before and what we're planning to do that day. That gets you in the right mindset. A lot of times, my day consists of a meeting. When I don’t have any meetings, I write up documentation to present to the VPs, prototype an idea or get feedback on a project.
The kinds of things we document can vary. Let's say I have an idea for a new weapon. I make a document explaining what the weapon is for, what it looks like, where it came from, and how many there are of something within a level. In the past, we had to keep track of all the different types of enemies to make sure there wasn’t too much of one thing over another. Documentation is also important if you leave a project mid-production and someone else takes over for you.
Our workplace is hybrid right now – some of us work from home, and some of us work in the office – but the best word to describe the overall Schell Games experience is “camaraderie.” It feels like everyone in the company is part of the same team.
When I work from home, I work from a little room with my cat, so it's very comfortable. It's been pretty easy to work hybrid. We have virtual meetings, and then we have a chat room where we can constantly message each other.
The office almost feels like a playhouse. It's very colorful and very whimsical. Our logo is bright orange – everything is just vibrant. I think the office space fosters camaraderie since only the higher-ups have offices. Everyone else sits at rows and rows of desks. There are no walls or cubes or anything, we're all next to each other. There are a couple of common areas. It feels fun, but it's not a goof-off kind of fun. Everyone's very passionate about what they do and happy to work there. People say our company, in particular, is special because people just really like it there.
There also isn't a lot of extra pressure to perform. A lot of bigger game companies do “crunch,” where people crunch as many hours into a day, or into a week as they possibly can, in order to get more work done. That's a big problem in the games industry. Jesse Schell, who's the CEO of my company says that we don't do crunch, because we value our people.
The dress code is pretty much come as you are. Of course, you can’t have your belly hanging out. And we used to do this funny thing called formal Fridays, where people came dressed in fancy clothes. That was pre-pandemic times.
The work hours are pretty flexible. Some people arrive at work at seven in the morning, and some people arrive at 10. As long as you make your meetings and get eight hours of work in, that's what matters.
We have a decent amount of vacation and sick days. If you've been at the company for 15 years or longer, you get to have extended leave for vacation. They try to make sure people take their vacation days. In December I’ve gotten a notification that said, “Hey, you still have two vacation days, you should use these before the end of the year.”
One big myth is that we just play video games all day. One of my professors at CCAC asked me to come in to talk to her students because a lot of them think that you just have fun and play games all day. She wanted me to insert some sense into them.
First, see if there's a community college near you that has some of those courses, just so you can dip your toes in it before investing more money. There are also so many online resources and online programs that are a deep dive into game design. Start taking classes and learning. There are even free YouTube courses. I also think it's really important to learn a game engine, whether it's Unity or Unreal. You're probably going to have to learn one of those if you want to join a game company. If you can prove that you can use those programs, this makes you a stronger candidate.
I also recommend trying game jams. In game development, working on a team is very valuable. That's usually what you need to do, especially at a big company. Get yourself a little team and just to make something. Of course, you can work on a game on your own but that is always a little harder.. It’s good if you can demonstrate little blips of things, smaller projects you’ve worked on. It doesn't have to be a full-fledged game, but something that can show off your skills. Something small and polished is worth more than something big and unfinished.
Keep working hard. Keep playing video games. There definitely is a point where you feel pressure to get a degree in something, and there's a sense of guilt in taking interest in something else. It’s like, you just spent all this time and money in something, and now you're gonna turn and do something else. Your time spent isn't wasted, because those skills can always transfer, even if it isn't a direct transfer. For example, when I was doing freelance work, I developed time management and communication skills that I was able to use in this job.
- Arts and Entertainment
- Video Game Designer
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