Summer is rolling hot and heavy over the city and I wanted to take some time to cool down and reflect over the Will Work for XP series. Running for nearly a year and a half now, it’s been very personally rewarding to chronicle my experiences as a newly-minted game designer. I owe tremendous thanks to the NYU Game Center for hosting me!
As I cross the threshold from completely green to someone with a handful of solid titles under my belt, I find that I’ve slowly grown out of the original focus of the series. Or, as some friends have put it, “Will work for XP? Aren’t you working for money now?” While there’s plenty of room for discussing the not-mutually-exclusive relationship between working to learn and working for a living, they have a point. I’ve progressed out of the role I set up for myself when the series launched, and it’s time for me to say adieu.
For my last update in WW4XP, I want to talk about how to land a game design internship. Internships are one of the surest paths to fulltime employment, and there are a good number of companies here in NYC that supplement their teams with interns. I began as an intern at FreshPlanet almost two years ago and have since hired and managed interns of my own, so this should be an appropriate bookend to the series.
5 Steps to Landing a Game Design Internship
1. Work on your writing skills.
Game design is a field that relies on communication that is both precise and thorough, and the first impression you make on a potential employer is most likely through your writing.
This weekend I had the pleasure of attending The Winning Pitch, a social game design workshop and pitch competition sponsored by Prudential and hosted by the NYU Game Center. After two full days of exercises lead by veteran NYC game design and freelance extraordinaire Naomi Clark, the groups presented their game concept in a grand pitch-off. The top three teams won over $5000 in prizes as part of Prudential’s generous sponsorship.
As someone with experience working alongside established brands to make games, The Winning Pitch initially excited me as incredibly relevant and useful “practice” for the reality of designing games as a career in New York City. While we here in the NYC games industry especially pride ourselves on our robust culture of indie and experimental art games, the truth is that client-based work is often the bread and butter of a working game developer’s projects. This is especially true for young game developers, where there’s a long tradition of cutting your teeth on branded games to help cultivate your design instincts and build out a strong portfolio.
With classes back in session and 2012 officially under way, it’s a good time to start setting the tone for the next few months. You’ve probably already set some goals for yourself – playing more games and making more games not least among them. If you’re an aspiring game developer, I’d like to add one more resolution to your list…
Set up date for coffee.
Take a local game dev out for coffee!
Love life aside, if you’re just starting out in the games industry, coffee dates are a thing you should be doing Right Now. Rather than a distant goal to work towards, this is something you can do as a student or someone who’s still looking for their “break.” It’s available immediately, it doesn’t take much time, and it’s inexpensive.
Step 1: Find a local game developer whose work interests you. They might be working in a role that you’re hoping to pursue, or they could be in a different role but creating games in a genre that you find appealing. As long as you have a sincere interest in the experiences they have to share, they’re a good candidate.
In late July I wrote about the experience of demoing Dreamland for an audience of roughly 75 at the NY Gaming Meetup. As a quick reminder, Dreamland is a Facebook RPG with a central boardgame mechanic and a darkly cute art style, and it’s one of my main projects at FreshPlanet. We have an incredible team working on Dreamland, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not impressed with the ingenuity and dedication of its individual members.
At the time of that writing, Dreamland had only recently entered into public beta and was pulling between 10 and 20 thousand monthly active users. This is a pittance compared to the juggernauts of the Facebook gaming ecosystem, but it’s a large enough sample size that you can start collecting reliable data on player behavior. After you’ve hit 10k MAU, your metrics are more shock-resistant: for example, a single player buying up $10 worth of in-game items in one day won’t drastically skew your Average Revenue Per Paying User (ARPPU).
All told, Dreamland’s metric-vitals were strong. We were consistently meeting or exceeding industry standards in terms of virality (measured as K-Factor), time spent per session, and sessions per user. Our updates with balancing revisions, bug fixes, and new features were showing positive results in player data. However, it felt as though we were holding our breath, waiting for our “Hockey Stick” moment: a period where a game experiences such explosive growth that the graph of it’s previous traffic is pushed flat as the scale expands dramatically.
On August 2nd, we hit that moment.
Currently being developed by social gaming start-up FreshPlanet, Dreamland is a new Facebook RPG with a stunning, Tim Burton inspired art style. The original concept and foundation were created by Eric Zimmerman and Naomi Clark, and it’s since been my pleasure to take on the game’s design as one of my primary projects. Extremely proud of all the great work the development team is doing, I submitted Dreamland as a candidate for the game demos shown at the monthly NY Gaming Meetup, and within the hour we were confirmed a spot. The pressure was on to come up with a brief but engaging overview of the game for nearly 100 attendees.
After an introduction by Mathieu Nouzareth, Co-Founder of FreshPlanet, I demoed the tutorial level. There were positive audience reactions to the game’s music, art style, and combat animations: none of which I can take any sort of credit for. The presentation wrapped up with a quick look at the game’s Bedroom Customization feature. After fielding some audience questions with help from Mathieu, I returned to my seat to knock back a beer and watch the rest of the demos.
Since then, like a designer of any sort, I’ve been trying to categorize the experience. What had been the most difficult part? What was left unsaid? What could have been better? Most of all: what other types of experiences did it feel like?
The conclusion I came to? The first time demoing was a lot like the first time being a dungeon master.
Whether you’re a student, a freelancer, or working 9-to-5, designing games is an intensely multimedia endeavor. Game designers are largely expected to be generalists, especially in smaller companies and on personal projects. It’s your job to organize information, model systems, and ease your game into creation. In other words: produce results. From my experience, exactly how you do this is more or less up to you.
As a generalist, your ability to nimbly switch between online tools, desktop programs, and different file formats will directly impact the quality of your work. Game designers are known for using whatever’s available to get their job done, and developing this scavenger mentality will serve a prospective designer well. Fortunately, there are an incredible number of tools around today for a new designer to choose from. Unfortunately, there are an incredible number of tools around today for a new designer to choose from.
In this post I’ll outline the tools I use most often, with a brief description of how they help me as a game designer. The focus here is on digital games, but many also apply to non-digital game development!
No one will be surprised to hear that going from student life to the working world marks a pretty significant shift in your routine. It’s normal to find yourself actually eating this “lunch” meal on a daily basis and to trade sleeping in until 2PM on Fridays for homework-free Sundays. Having graduated earlier than most of my friends, it can be disorienting to adjust while they’re all still in college-mode. I still feel the palpable tension that comes around during at the deadlines for big projects, but as finals rolled around this Spring I was able to observe the building anxiety from a relatively safe distance.
For my friends in game design courses (both Intro and Advanced), a recurring theme in our discussions was the unique challenge of working in highly collaborative environments. Many times the subject of the conversation would revolve around the more technical aspects of group work: who’s taking on which role, schedule coordinating, best meeting locations. Occasionally everyone would stop to praise another teammate’s commitment or new idea.
Mostly, however, it was just a lot of ranting.
I’ve been asked a few times what an “average day” is like as a new Game Designer, both by curious family who have no idea what it is I do, and by curiouser friends who have a bit of an idea. Rather than coughing up the most cliched response—”There is no average day!”—I’ve tried to put together a summary that I hope is more satisfying.
As as general disclaimer, I can only speak for my experience working on Facebook games, and for that matter, working in a small start-up environment. Compared with bigger companies, different platforms, and other genres, mileage will most certainly vary!
If it happens to be Monday, it’ll be time for the weekly company meeting. Someone from each project spends a little time talking about what was accomplished last week, and what they’re tackling for the upcoming week. It’s a great way to keep up with what’s going on, especially if because no one works deeply on all the teams at once.
Before any work can be done, there’s a ritualized fueling process which needs to happen – and that requires some strong, bitter coffee. After a few gulps of scalding espresso, my brain is ready to start handling some basic functions.
After opening half a dozen browser tabs, I start going through my emails and replying where necessary. Most of them are automatic responses about resolved tickets made by the coding team, so they don’t require my attention. When that’s finished, I start catching up with whatever I was working on the day before.
Individual project meetings start. We use the Scrum method for keeping everyone on track, which involves brief, daily recaps in our project teams. The teams are fairly balanced: lead by a project manager and composed of one or two coders, artists, and game designers. We spend some time making tickets for our tasks and tacking them to the corkboard. Most importantly, this is when we address any blockers.
Blockers occur whenever someone can’t proceed with a priority task without some kind of work being done by another person in the team. For example, art or coding may not be able to work on a new feature without first having a schematic drafted by game design. If any blockers come up, it’s almost always critical to remove them right away.
This past weekend I attended the second annual PAX East. Held in Boston, PAX East is an offshoot of the tremendously popular PAX Prime, a convention held every year by the Penny Arcade team. Both events draw huge crowds of gamers, with genres to suit every taste — from tabletop to indie to blockbuster.
On long bus ride north, a friend and I were chatting when I brought up the blog series I’m writing for the Game Center. “What should I write about next?” I asked him. “There’s so much to choose from.”
As a former classmate who’s been in the industry for closing on two years and who has the launch a major console title under his belt, he’s a great target when I need to bounce ideas off of someone. His answer didn’t disappoint.“Well, you were saying how strange it is that last PAX East you were just a fan, but now a year later you’re actually in the industry,” he reminded me. “Talk about how that changes the experience. I’d want to read that.”
Too perfectly reasonable to pass up!
We know who the heroes of the games industry are: the Will Wrights and the Shigeru Miyamotos and the Brenda Brathwaites. Our leaders are nothing short of inspirational. Whatever the genre or the business model, they show us what it means to craft rich, deeply human experiences in a moment of play. If you are looking for insights of this caliber, you’re in luck! There are hundreds of blogs, collaborative sites, and books dedicated to game design as told by the experts.
But what if you’re new to the field? Where are the stories about the small fish in the big ponds? There’s plenty to learn from the heavy-hitters, but sometimes you just want to hear from the people a little—or a lot—lower on the foodchain.
Ten months ago, I had some idea of what it takes to make a game fun, thanks in large part to Eric Zimmerman’s Intro to Game Design course here at the Game Center. Still, I couldn’t have told you what an entry-level game designer actually does. The idea for this guest blog series began when I started my game design internship with FreshPlanet roughly six months back. FreshPlanet is a social games start-up focusing mainly on Facebook games.
Make no mistake: I’m not an expert, and I certainly don’t claim to be. I’m just a mere mortal, hungry to make games. Hopefully, in partnership with the NYU Game Center, my experiences can be a resource to my peers.
Getting an Internship: My Anecdote
When I was accepted to New York University, a deciding factor in my college choice was the location. No one can deny that Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs create a Metropolis of opportunities, especially in the form of internships. As I navigated college courses and explored my own interests, there was good news and bad news. I was heartened that working in games began to seem less like an unobtainable fantasy and more like a very real career path. However, after some quick research it became clear that while many industries in the Entertainment sector are well-represented in New York City, major videogame studios generally aren’t one of them.
Today I know that though the NYC games community is relatively small compared to some other cities, it’s also incredibly robust, powered by a select group of dedicated individuals and drawing in more all the time. At the time, however, I was only looking for the juggernaut studios that create AAA blockbuster titles. This wasn’t out of snobbery or some lack of appreciation for other types of games. I was just doing what any soon-to-be graduate would; looking for the recognizable companies that I had long admired, whose games I had grown up with. The almost total absence of these studios struck me as a sign that if I wanted to do anything in the games industry, I better pack my bags and catch the next flight out West (or y’know, at least to Austin).
This was pretty much my mindset when I stumbled my way into a game design internship.