Game Reviews,  The Lazy Designer

Preparing for a career in the games industry

Generally I only receive questions from college students or older adults asking how to get into the videogames industry but recently a sixteen year old asked me for some advice. This is basically the e-mail I sent back and I’m wondering what other advice those of you reading this might give as well.

Hi! You have plenty of time to figure out which things you like doing but its great you are thinking about this now. I believe having basic programming skills helps anybody in any facet of game development from art to design to leading teams. You don’t have to be a pro but knowing at least the basics is great.

If you are having troubles getting started I’d suggest learning to program by creating things you need.

Growing up I wrote programming tools to organize my comics, to build simple games, automate boring tasks, help me with math problems (I suck at math) and stuff like that.

I’d suggest trying to build a couple small games… go through some HTML5 tutorials on building games or flash tutorials and try to mimic a game that exists. Just grab some tutorials ( is one) and get it working. Then start changing things. That’s how I made my first RPGs… just started renaming things and then figured out how to add to them.

Make it fun for yourself.

From there you might want to try to build something bigger with friends, maybe trying out different roles… build a bit of art, take over some management duties, stuff like that. That said don’t worry too much about not knowing exactly what you want to do. I changed my mind about what I wanted to do several times during college/university. Writing and ‘something game related’ were always at the core but I got into programming purely because it seemed a safe bet… insurance if I couldn’t get a more enjoyable job.

The world will always need programmers.

I’d also suggest if you have the opportunity to do short-term contract quality assurance testing for a game you might want to explore that. Just being near game developers and being able to talk to them might help you figure out which aspects of game development you enjoy more over others.

Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.


  • Typhaeon

    You forgot “learn how to write compelling narratives”. Or at least “put your own fleshed-out ideas to paper instead of shamelessly siphoning off the fever-swamps of pop culture”. I should preface the remainder of this comment by saying that you don’t fall under either category, so please don’t mistake my intent as hostile.

    There’s always this misplaced focus on the mere technical workmanship the industry needs. I see this approach utilized by a variety of designers, yourself and John Romero included, and while I certainly can’t fault either of you your considerable talents in the nuts and bolts aspects of design, there needs to be more of a focus on not producing the same boring, homogenized teenage power fantasies over and over again.

    Even as the months and years roll by, with gaming technology supposedly getting more and more “realistic”, “cinematic” or whatever marketing buzzword you prefer, game designers are still aping “Transformers” instead of “Citizen Kane”; empty, meaningless spectacle in the form of complex-looking (but not -acting), brainless setpieces get to be the focus of a game, then milled out of every stiflingly conformist major studio and sold off on a rapidly desensitizing public as “AAA” titles.

    The straw of this derivative content is spun into golden hype by PR robots and “games journalism” payola, even as the luster wears duller with each successive transmogrification. A poisonous culture emerges of unquestioningly devout studio echo chambers, with the complete unwillingness of “community members” to accept the valid criticism of jaded gamers on why their hobby — their passion — is slowly withering and dying through overexploitation of a single theme. And it’s not even a very good one either.

    Video games need to become more than mindless, parodic violence, threadbare narratives written as excuses for loading zones, cardboard characterizations based on the last 3-4 decades of sci-fi and fantasy tropes, and mere tools to placate the competitive instincts and bloodlust of aggrieved young males. There need to be solutions to conflicts in games that don’t involve killing, where real-world morality — in all its varying hues — is taken into account over being knee-deep in the dead.

    The medium needs to stop trivializing itself by manufacturing tacky, nihilistic pap, and instead move toward creating worlds and plots and arcs that *feel* as though they were crafted with love and care. The people who design games need to come to realize and express their works with the knowledge that what they are creating *is significant*, that it *means something* beyond its boundaries as a mere technical construct.

    And this is why I believe your focus is far too abbreviated and misplaced, Mr. Knowles, as is the entire industry’s: so long as you focus on the mere doing of a thing — the writing of code — and not *why* it is being done, *to what end*, you are marching the industry blindly into the jaws of a new video game crash. Philosophy, art, history, the humanities — all of these have actualized important, sweeping sea changes to all mediums of expression that have come before through their profound influence on the minds and mores of authors, and moved humanity as a species toward greater enlightenment, discourse, and mutual understanding.

    Contrast the incredibly varied permutations of literature — not simply by genre, but by essence and style and perspective — and how it has affected culture and thought, to gaming, which is not likely to inspire anything but blind loyalty and hatred toward difference of opinion. Men and women have written works of fiction that have catalyzed the social movements of an entire generation, as (unfortunately) “Atlas Shrugged”, or (more fortunately) “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” prove.

    The excuse that gaming is a new medium bound by technological limitations, and therefore cannot hope to evolve so quickly, is at an end; engines nowadays can produce stunning environments and characters with complex shading effects, while computer limitations are increasingly left untried due to the singular focus of the industry on the console market. Further, games (and their designers) have a colossal foundation of *centuries* of books, films, radio serials, music and culture to cultivate and grow on — not because of their mere content, but their ideas, and the knowledge human culture has accumulated on *how to present those ideas*.

    The sad reality of modern gaming is that it remains servile to a societal faction that is hungry for fantastic violence, prudish and squeamish about sexuality when portrayed in any depth, and obsessed with Ur-Fascistic narratives about control and outsider death and power. I personally believe that games that play to this audience without challenging their preconceptions, or trying to include another segment of society that might not normally be so enthusiastic about the common stereotypes of gaming subculture, encourage the stagnation of the industry. It has become mired in shamelessly pandering to a singular, miniscule demographic, and is sacrificing the potential of expanding that audience by regurgitating “what works” — to the utter, absolute exclusion of experimentation and discovery. The result is the subculture remains as bigoted, right-wing, hostile to femininity and feminine sexuality, and instant-gratification-obsessed as it has always been.

    We are stagnant as an art. This is why Ebert has been able to put credibility behind his notions of video games being less than films and novels: Because he’s right. Because it is objectively true; there is no “Citizen Kane” of video gaming; there is no “Anna Karenina” or “Dark Side of the Moon”, or even a Lady Gaga. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

    Hire people who know that creative works can mean something. Not just people who know how to code, because the repetition inherent in that low-level world-building desensitizes the builders to the fact that they have the POTENTIAL to create something that actually MATTERS. When you see the world in terms of ifs, thens and triangles, that’s all you end up seeing. All books started off once as blank sheets of paper — legal pads or white cream vellum, all without inherent purpose or meaning. All film started off as blank celluloid, or unmagnetized zeroes on a hard drive. Authors, artists and directors didn’t look at their blank canvasses and conclude their mere emptiness made them irrelevant to society as a whole, nor could they work without the guidance, support, and — yes — criticism of others.

    For every 10 authors who write vapid, meaningless pulp stories for a buck, there is one visionary who uses his talents to convey ideas he genuinely believes are important. Do we not have similar auteurs in video gaming because of the complexity of the tools involved? Is it the case, as it is increasingly in film nowadays, that doing what’s easiest and doing nothing at all are the only choices we face? The problem may rest in the collaborative nature of development most major games are forced into, due to the empty pursuit of short-term profit, which seems to be ever-expanding to keep up with technological complexity.

    Developers can overcome the obstacle of not having full authorial control over their works — or simple bad taste — by hiring on more people, at EVERY level, that have a liberal arts background. People who understand how important a visionary work can be, and are committed to the singular ideal of realizing its production, can cause a narrative to cohere into a cultural phenomenon. I know it’s possible, and I know the visionary is coming. But the industry has grown up now; it needs to infuse its works with that newfound maturity (which isn’t a codeword for blood and DD cups).

    Stop looking at the dumb side of the postmodern here and now, where everything means nothing. Start looking at the past; start trying to deeply move people; start being unafraid to unhinge and open closed minds. Start challenging yourselves, society, morality, pretense. Live. Imbue your works with that sapient, shimmering light of life.

  • Brent Knowles


    Thank you for the post. Some interesting observations here.

    I understand your intent with this and I know others would like to see games be seen as art as well — though I think their definition of art probably differs from yours.

    I would say that games I’ve worked on have had moving and important messages that did rise above ‘blood and DD cups’. But they are (and can only ever be, in my opinion) fragments within a larger game, or at least within a major studio game. Games, due to the sheer nature of the effort needed to make them, are group efforts and within the group there will be many different ideas coming together (even if they are all liberal arts grads) — there will be ‘art’ within the narrative, in places and there will be ‘not-art’ in other places.

    So individual designers have certainly done some of what you are asking, but as a whole I don’t think we’ll ever see a massive game that resonates around a single core philosophy or that drives a single, deep message. A smaller studio might attempt this but because of the financial risk they would have to do it for the ‘love of the idea’.

    For better or for worse, in my opinion, games are going to skip the whole ‘art’ stage of entertainment evolution that movies went through and jump right to mainstream/blockbluster.

    – Brent

  • Brent Knowles

    Something else I think people looking for a game industry career can get from Typhaeon’s post is that having a balanced education is important.

    I put stress on the programming degree in my original post because I do feel its hugely important but when I got my computer science degree I also maximized the number of other types of classes — anthropology, history, philosophy, biology and so on — that I could take.

    Having a balanced perspective and learning different things is, of course, important. Don’t stick just to the computer classes!

    – Brent

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