Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Johnny Chu - Interview on Game Design

For EGaDS, as part of my industry officer position I have undertaken a project that involves interviewing the guest speakers that come in to talk to the group. The purpose of this project is twofold - one, to compile enough information to be able to create a sort of booklet or article or something on "getting into the video game industry" at the end of the year, and two, to let these people speak more fully on their own experience in the video game industry. I'll be posting the full interviews here as they come.

The first is from Johnny Chu. Chu works as a Designer at Total Immersion, and has worked at other notable companies previously.

For this interview, I asked him questions specific to Game Design and becoming a Game Designer. For those of you not in EGaDS, keep in mind that they're from the perspective of somebody going to the University of Texas with an eye towards getting into the video game industry. Here are his answers, un-edited.

Me: I like video games, so I want to make video games as a career! What’s my first step?

Chu: First, decide what you want to do in the industry (programming, design, art, animation, sound, production). Make sure it's something that you'll enjoy doing even if games weren't involved at all (this is easier with everything except design). Then hone your skillset through classes, mod-making, and other experiments on your own. The goal is to become familiar with basic and common tools and concepts.

Tools for the various roles:

Programming - Languages like C++, C#, Java, etc. as well as scripting languages like ActionScript and Lua
Design - Office, 3D level editors like UnrealEditor, 3D modeling software like Maya and 3DSMax, Adobe Illustrator, scripting languages like ActionScript and Lua
Art / Animation - 3D modeling software such as Maya and 3DSMax, Adobe Photoshop, Flash
Sound - SoundForge, FMod
Production - Office, Project, and brush up on both Waterfall and Agile development structures

How did you become a game designer?

I went to UT and got a BS in Computer Science. I joke that my diploma is sitting fallow seeing no use as a designer, but that isn't really true. What is true is that I'm lowering the collective average of CS graduates everywhere. :P

I knew early on that I did not have the interest, and more importantly, the drive, to be a programmer, but I was too far down the hole to start over. Plus, my Asian parents would've killed me. During my 5th year at UT, I was lucky enough to get an internship at Edge of Reality as a scripter, which (depending on the company) is like half-junior programmer, half-junior designer. After graduation, I started there full time and became a junior designer. I rose up the ranks and eventually became a senior designer, leading a few of the port projects Edge did. I later moved on to SOE, and am currently at Total Immersion.

What knowledge or experience is invaluable for a game designer?

The game development process as a whole is important to know, from pre-production through beta and RTM (release to manufacturing), and not just what the designer's responsibilities are. Knowing what the coders and artists are doing is helpful as well, if anything to be able to compromise when inevitable requests get shot down.

It's also mandatory to keep up with current games, regardless of genre, or even quality. Every game can have some nugget that you could reform into something usable for the project you're currently working on. Original ideas are actually very rare, because most good ideas work for a reason and are copied and morphed to fit into other games. Don't be afraid to steal something because it's good.

One more thing, it's very rare to work on games that you would actually play at any point in your career, let alone just getting into the industry. This is another reason to be familiar with all genres. Very, very few people have the resume and resources to be able to only work on games they want to, and even then, moving from company to company can take a toll on your endurance and your (prospective) family.

As an aspiring game designer with no art or programming experience, what can I do to flex my skills for my future in the industry?

Make mods of levels on your own, even in games that you don't necessarily want to work on professionally. Think Warcraft 3, Neverwinter Nights, Half-Life, etc. At it's very base, a graduate in any major with a few mods or small personally-developed games will be hired over a new "game design" graduate with only a diploma. Experience is much more important, which is why so much game curriculum at universities focus on projects and level design rather than theoretical design.

What are a few things every game designer knows how to do?

Bitch. A lot. :P

Good game designers know the basic rules of game design. In my opinion, the most important rule is to design for the game and not for yourself. That means knowing what your target audience wants and being able to cut something from the game that might be your favorite part but doesn't fit thematically or mechanically.

Bad: "... but that's how I want to play it."
Good: "That's how I want to play it, but..."

I’m a freshman in college and I want to be a video game designer. What kind of classes should I take now? What would be the smartest major to take?

A vast number of game designers have backgrounds in either art or programming. Because "fun" is so subjective, it's very hard to quantify what to teach designers. This is another reason why majors (and even masters!) in game design often don't mean jack unless there are specific projects and tangible evidence of experience.

A degree in art or animation will give you experience in building models, rigs, environments and levels. A degree in programming will give you experience in different languages and give you a background in logic. Either is recommended, depending on what you are more interested in. Lately, more and more designers are scripting their own encounters and levels, so the programming background might currently be more utilized.

Personally, I also recommend the class, Interpersonal Communications. The game industry is full of people that basically never grew up, so there are a lot of big egos that can't take constructive criticism. Learn to not become one of these people, and also learn how to compromise with them.

In addition to design skills, are art and programming skills valuable for designers as well? What kind?

See #6 above.

More specifically, both 2D and 3D art will help as you'll get familiar with level layouts, environments, and even modeling. There aren't too many overlaps with animation.

With programming, you'll learn the basics of programming and scripting languages (once you learn a couple, every subsequent language is easy to learn), and also lessons in logic and efficiency.

How difficult is it to get a job as a designer as compared to a programmer or an artist?

The problem with getting respect as a game designer is that many people believe anyone can be a designer. It's true that artists and coders have specific skills that can be evaluated much easier. Plus, most people that want to make games, but don't really know how games are made, often default to wanting to be designers. So there are a lot of resumes that go around for design positions. The good thing is, most of them suck. Horribly. So really, it's up to the company to be able to sniff through the bullshit and non-team players. As long as you have the drive, a good work ethic, and some demonstrable experience, it really isn't as hard as any other job.

Anything else to add?

I mentioned this earlier, but I truly believe that a designer's personality is almost as important as his creativity and skill. Few people have the time and resources to make a game on their own, so you will most likely have to work in a team, whether a team of designers or a team with programmers and artists. Remember, this entire industry is subjective, so never settle that your idea is best. Always try to see arguments from the other side, as that will also help you figure out what exactly the other person really wants (which can be really hard when all you get is "I don't like this").


More to come!

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