Thursday, January 9, 2014

Don't be a designer.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a game designer.  I wanted to come up with the stories, design worlds, do all that stuff.  In high school I designed a table-top RPG that my friends and I had a lot of fun playing.  When it was time for college, I decided I needed to get an English degree.  As a designer, I figured I'd be writing a lot of dialogue, design docs, flavor text, etc.  English degree seemed to be the way to go.  I told my dad that's what my plan was, and he said no.  He reminded me that he was helping to pay for my degree, and he wanted his money to go to something useful.

So I decided I would get a degree in Computer Science.  I figured it would help me understand when I talked to the programmers what was possible and not.  I knew that I wouldn't be very good at programming because I took a high school AP class and I couldn't really do anything after it.  I mean, I really couldn't do anything useful.  All I could do was declare variables.  (Turns out that the teacher was just really bad.  Everyone in the class got the lowest possible score on the AP exam.)  So I took some time in college to learn how to program.  It was rough at first because most everyone else there seemed to have some practice with programming.  I felt very behind.

But I got to the point that I could start doing things.  I started making my first game.  A little text-based RPG I wrote in Java called Darkened Dreams.  (I only wanted to get the link, but I ended up playing like a half-hour and now I'm convinced I need to remake it!  I've gotta tame that Giant, Draconic Bunny I saw outside of town!)  This taught me a lot.  Not only programming (I learned so much, I never want to look at that code again!), but also something major that I learned about my dreams.

I was now able to make a game.  I could do all the design just like if I was a designer.  Sure, it's still just squares and circles and a lot of text, but I did it.  At that point, my dream of just being the guy that writes stuff down and has other people turn it into a game felt silly.  I never realized I was shooting so low.  Throughout this, and working at Sensory Sweep, I learned a lot about the dangers of being a designer.  I want to share them below.  These are not in order of importance.

It doesn't pay as much as other jobs in the same industry.
No matter how important having a good designer is, the designer is going to be paid less than the other people on the team.  The producers, the artists, the programmers.  They are all getting paid more.  Maybe you'll say, "Fine, I don't care about getting a lot of money, I just want to make games."  And I'll say "Fine, why don't you get some more skills so that you can get paid MORE to make games.  And be able to make games even when you're off the clock because you have the know-how to do it?"

Your skills are only relevant to a single industry.
When I was in college, I knew I wanted to make games.  That's all I wanted.  That's all I would ever do.  I would make games from the time I got out of college until I retired.  Maybe make some more afterwards, just for fun.  You know how long I was in the game industry?  TWO YEARS.  That's right, only two years before I realized that working on a game that you don't care about isn't any better than working on any other project you don't care about.  First game in the industry was a kid's game based off of a movie.  Second game was My Japanese Coach, which I believe I have complained enough about.  Third game was some pro-wrestling game for the DS, and I have no interest at all in pro-wrestling.  And with how unstable the industry was and is with my young family to care for, I needed something better.

If I had focused all my studies towards being a game designer, what else could I have done?  Welcome to McDonalds?  That's not a better way to take care of a family.  With my coding skills I can and did get another job.  A good artist can always get a job.  A game designer is pretty limited in what they can do.

Your skills are only relevant to a single, crowded industry.
When Sensory Sweep started sinking, we started running to the other game companies to try to get work.  They weren't particularly looking to hire, especially not is such large amounts.  I ended up leaving the game industry, and even with two degrees (Computer Science and Japanese) it took me seven months to get another job.  Do you know what I heard over and over?  "All you do is games."  As if writing a game was such a simple task that I would never be able to learn how to code up the forms that they wanted.

Months after I'd gotten a job, I met up with two designers I knew from Sensory Sweep.  Still no work a year later.  No hope of work on the horizon.  I felt terrible for having a job.  Survivor's guilt, I suppose, but a little more than that.  I knew, deep inside, that that was the life I had chosen.  If not for my dad veto-ing the idea of an English degree, I would have been in the exact same position as them.  Jobless for more than a year with no hope on the horizon, wife and baby to take care of while I lose more and more self esteem through hundreds of companies never calling me back or offhandedly dismissing me.

Your skills are only relevant to a single, unstable industry.
After I got out of the game industry I kept in touch with a lot of people that stayed in.  For years, I kept hearing about layoffs.  People that suddenly didn't have a job anymore.  A friend of Peter's was at his birthday party and we got to talking.  He was a designer.  He had just gotten laid off.  In his words, he was now working a "dead end job" somewhere.  Say he got another job at a game company.  How many years would he be able to stay before another lay off happened?

If you want my advice, work on building up a marketable skill first, then worry about design second.  When I started this path, not only did I not know how to code, I was lead to believe that I was bad at it.  I hear people that complain that such things are too hard for them.    There are a number of valid, useful skills that you can learn.  Programming, Art/Animation/Modeling, Business, Marketing, Community Management/Leadership, Music/SFX.

Now, I'm not saying that designers are bad, or that wanting to be a designer is bad.  Designers have a very important role to play in the game industry.  A great designer can turn a decent game into a great game.  But it's just not safe enough to rest all your hopes and dreams on it.

And say you get out of the game industry.  Say you go indie.  Indies wear many hats.  They need to do multiple things.  If you are a pure designer, who is going to want to join up with you?  Design is the easier of the hats to put on, so it's more likely that an artist and a programmer will team up to make something and do the design between them.