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NOTE: these lessons are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.


It is easy to imagine a game designer sitting at his computer, coming up with great game ideas and writing design documents, drawing pictures to illustrate them. He lifts his head, looks out the window at whatever pretty view you like (be it a cityscape or a countryside or seaside view), gets an inspiration, and turns again to his computer to record its brilliance for all posterity. At the stroke of 5:00 PM he shuts down the computer, grabs his stuff, and heads out. Every person he passes says "good night" to him respectfully and reverently, then turns back to their own work (which, it seems, is never done). He grunts obligingly, then he gets in his Ferrari and drives off into the sunset.

Then again, there's the reality of being a game designer. Just another guy at the game company, his ideas have to pass muster with programmers, marketers, and executives. He needs them as much as they need him... maybe even more. If the designer doesn't act professionally he cannot succeed. And if he doesn't have a good attitude and work ethic, it's unlikely he would have ever attained his position in the first place.

First you works your behind off to get a degree, then to get an entry-level job at a game company, then you works your behind off to prove yourself and attain the position of designer. Then you works your behind off some more to keep the title.

As I was writing this lesson, I saw a rerun of an old 1977 Columbo episode, Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Test (episode #40). Columbo asks Oliver Brandt (Theodore Bikel) for his advice -- Columbo's nephew, it seems, aspires to be an accountant just like Brandt. Brandt advises Columbo,

Sounds just like what I always tell aspiring game designers. Who'da thunk it... That there'd be a similarity between accounting and game design. Both require professionalism. The position of game designer is a position of trust. It must be earned, one step at a time, just as with any other profession.

For those outside the industry, it may come as a surprise that professionalism, a strong work ethic, and a good attitude are important attributes of the game designer. It ain't all fun and games!

What Is Professionalism?

Merriam-Webster defines it as follows:

But to put it in appropriate terms for this discussion, professionalism means that the designer does what has to be done (for the larger good, meaning the good of the employer), in spite of his personal desires or needs.

The designer undoubtedly has several ideas for games he would like to see turned into reality (in fact, most people in the business have such ideas). But because it takes months to make a game, there isn't enough time to make them all. And because it takes several people to make a game, and those people all have to get paid, there isn't enough money, either. So there are a lot of guardians protecting the gate (the gate through which game ideas must pass before they can be turned into actual games), and very few ideas actually get made. That goes for the designer's ideas as well.

Usually, the designer is given an assignment to work on. It's actually pretty rare that he gets an original idea out of the blue, pitches it, and then gets the chance to work on it. Normally, the designer is working on the details of an idea that was created by a committee. Maybe the game publishing executives get to talking about the competition, and decide that they need a game that combines their engine technology with gameplay "inspired by" some hit game by a competing game company. The sales force could definitely sell something like that! So now it just has to be designed in detail, then programmed.

The designer is given a guideline, and he has to figure out the details. Then he has to pitch his interpretation of the executives' request back to those selfsame executives again. If he doesn't excite them with it, or misinterpreted what they wanted too badly, or otherwise missed the mark, it might be back to the drawing board for him, or the design task might be taken from him and given to someone else. (Sound like stories you've heard about movie scripts?)

The designer is naturally passionate about his own ideas. He can't always feel the same passion about the project he's working on. Passion is a desirable attribute in a designer, but it has to be channeled. The designer's brilliance and passion are his product -- he has to produce not just any brilliant ideas, but the particular brilliant ideas the company needs at a given time. If the designer can't produce focused brilliance on demand, his boss will look for someone else who can.

The designer must be able to put aside his dreams -- his own game ideas -- in order to survive in this real-world environment.

Good Attitude vs. Bad Attitude

Part of being a professional game designer is having a good attitude towards your job. The creative part of you often has to be balanced with the politician side of you, the worker in you, and other aspects of the psyche. Roger Von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (see Lesson 8) talks about four parts of the creative psyche: Explorer, Artist, Judge and Warrior. A lot of not-yet-ripe designers find themselves weighted too heavily on the Warrior side, fighting for their own game ideas until it just turns their bosses against them. And Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip once wrote an article about the "Lazy Entrepreneur." Adams means a different thing by this term, but I frequently run up against folks who have ideas but no energy to work on them. So that's what the term means to me.

It's like what that Columbo character said. "Work assiduously." The guy in the mailroom who volunteers to beta test a game, and writes a well-thought-out report on it after hours, is displaying a good attitude towards the company's product. He could well get himself reassigned to QA. The attribute that gets a tester noticed is an attitude of helpfulness, a willingness to put himself out, a "can-do" attitude, a bulldog's tenacity in figuring out what is going on when he finds a bug. He could well get himself promoted to Lead Tester, and subsequently reassigned to work in the Studio. The attribute that gets a junior designer noticed and promoted is his willingness to help sort out interface problems, to figure out how to make a better installer, to take on those jobs nobody else wants to do. That kind of good attitude can get him promoted to full Designer status.

If you grouse when asked to work overtime, just do the minimum tasks required of you, or have to be reminded to get off your hobby website and get back to work, you're not going to be the first guy considered for promotion.

If you want to move up into the studio, perhaps eventually to become a designer, you need a good attitude. It's the bright stars who get noticed. Don't just look for ways to do more... find them.

But this notion of "attitude" applies not only to you, but also to those around you.

The Attitude of Others Towards You (the designer)

The title of designer is a much sought honorific. A lot of people want to be a designer but don't have a good attitude or work ethic. These people never recognize their own responsibility for not achieving the promotion. These people are jealous of the folks who work hard and do attain the position of designer.

In addition there are the talented folks in other disciplines (artists, programmers, writers, marketers) who may not yet trust the new designer. The new designer may have convinced his boss that he's deserving of the title, but he hasn't convinced everyone else yet. So they may not yet be willing to welcome him into their circle of trust. Trust must be earned, one small step at a time. And it doesn't happen overnight.

So the matter of "attitude" is something you have to deal with not only internally (inside yourself) but also externally (in the people you work with). You have to deal with these matters with tact, patience, maturity, and good humor in order to survive and succeed.

Idealism vs. Realism

The game designer is, by nature, an idealist, a dreamer. But in order to succeed, you have to balance your idealism with the realism of the game industry. That's one of the reasons that I stress that nobody can just get a job as a game designer fresh out of school -- that you need game industry experience first.

I've already drawn a parallel using one of my favorite TV shows, Columbo. Another of my favorite shows is The Simpsons. The classic case of the idealist, the dreamer, is the scene where Homer has purchased some stock in a company called Animotion, and is watching the news on TV:

Homer doesn't have a single cell of realism anywhere in his body.

Here's another classic scene. Homer is at the kitchen table and the dog, Santa's Little Helper, comes in laboriously dragging a huge Sunday newspaper. The paper outweighs Santa's Little Helper by 3 or 4 times, and it was a huge effort for him to drag it to the table.

Some folks resist hearing realistic opinions about their idealistic ideas. When your boss or a coworker says something you don't like about your game idea or your work or about your attitude, you need to respond diplomatically and appropriately, rather than argue or whine or mope.

Realism vs. idealism.
Professionalism vs. passion.
Creativity vs. hard work.

Everything is a balancing act. Everything is a game. You're a gamer. Play the game. Play to win.


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