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.

I’d been in a rewarding internship for a start-up in the advertising industry for about a year, and while I enjoyed the work environment, I was entering my last semester of college. It was a milestone, and I felt obligated to pursue an interest that I was passionate about, even though it seemed more or less infeasible at the time. I began to search the Craigslist jobs section and NYU Wasserman’s Careernet for any internships in the games industry. Towards the end of summer two promising leads turned up: one in a Viacom-owned game department through MTV’s enormous internship program, and one through a Facebook games start-up. I applied to both.

Though I’d originally applied as a marketing/production intern, I was asked to interview for the game design team instead. Not only had I not been aware that a game design internship was available when I’d first applied, I also hadn’t known that Eric Zimmerman was a Chief Design Officer at the company. He recognized my name in the applicants, remembered me as one of his students. Part serendipity and part thoughtful gesture, I was able to interview for the position I really wanted. In the end I was offered both internships, but chose FreshPlanet because I knew it was where I’d learn the most.

The rest is, well, semi-recent history.

Getting an Internship: What Not to Do

I’ve been a Game Designer at FreshPlanet for almost half a year now, and this will be my third month of full-time work. As I mentioned before, there was an uncontrollable element —luck and the goodwill of an industry veteran —in helping me get where I am. However, the best advice I can give to anyone looking for opportunities in the field is to take advantage of those opportunities when they arise, and let the part you can’t account for take care of itself. The first step in this process may be taking a Game Center course, for example.

A great experience for me was designing a street game called SMERSH for the 2010 Come Out and Play Festival with a few classmates. There wasn’t anything ground-breakingly original about our game. In fact, it was essentially capture the flag with a few cute twists—and that’s the entire point. Don’t wait around for the perfect moment or the perfect idea, because neither will never come. Put yourself out there!

The worst thing you can do, is to do nothing. Several other internships or short-term projects have come across my radar in the past months that I would have eagerly applied for if I were available. A few of these opportunities were even internships at FreshPlanet, including another position on the game design team. I waited for the applications to pour in, expecting to hear from classmates I’d had in the two Game Center courses I took.

To my knowledge, not one person interviewed for that position in the months that we sought to fill it.

It came to the point where I would ask my friends if they were applying. The typical responses were things like, “I would, but I’m taking 16 credits, so I’m just too busy” or “I don’t think I have the experience.” The answer I hated the most (and which I heard most frequently) was: “Oh I don’t know, maybe.”

What the what, people?! First of all, there are plenty of students with full class schedules who are working 20 hours a week! If you don’t make it a priority to explore your passions in college, you are wasting your most valuable resource: time. Second, if you’re seriously interested in designing games, you probably have more resume material than you think. Have you taken a Game Center course? Made a mod for a game? Been a Dungeon Master for a D&D campaign? Oh yes, I’m totally serious. Anything where you’ve been deeply engaged in the building of interactive human experience is completely applicable.

To the last group of people, if you are content to sit and watch amazing opportunities float by, you might want to stop toying with the idea of working in the games industry—or any creative field—and go find some other career to pursue.

The moral of the story is that the worst thing you can do is to do nothing at all. Seize opportunities. Pass them along to your friends. Follow leads that could go nowhere. Don’t be afraid of rejection, because you have nothing to lose as long as you’re respectful and courteous. Sooner or later comes the surprising moment where, looking back, your success (no matter how big or small) seems like it was a toss of the dice at Fate’s feet. Don’t believe this. Work hard and cast your net wide: you make your own luck.

But you can’t do it without trying!


Nicole Leffel is a recent NYU graduate and active member of the Game Center community. After a successful internship at social games startup FreshPlanet, she joined the team as a full-time game designer. Now she spends her days happily entombed under a mountain of flowcharts and spreadsheets.

If you’d like to suggest a Will Work for XP topic, or have questions for Nicole, contact her at: nicole.leffel@gmail.com