Career Spotlight: What I Do As A Game Designer

Designing a video game sounds like a dream job: getting paid to live in your imagination and think of new worlds that other will people will experience with glee. But there’s a lot of difficult work required to convert those ideas into a finished product.

Pictured above: Horn, a game developed at Phosphor Studios.

To learn a little about what it’s like to be a game designer, we spoke with Steve Bowler of Phosphor Games. Steve has been working in various entertainment fields for twenty years and is now lead designer at Phosphor, a studio in Chicago the focuses primarily on mobile development. Steve was kind enough to take time out of his day and play along with our questions.

Tell us a little about yourself and your experience.

My name is Steve Bowler. I’ve been working in entertainment industries (television, film, and video-games) since 1995 in various animation and design roles. My current title and position is Lead Designer at Phosphor Games, and on some titles (mostly our small mobile ones) I take on a Creative Director role.

What drove you to choose your career path?

A love of art and a bit of fate got this path kicked off. I graduated from college with a degree in illustration (and in 1994 that means all traditional media; I took the first Photoshop class NIU ever offered, second semester of my final year), so my choices were limited. I lucked out when I found my way into traditional television animation (I can draw! I love animation! I have a degree in drawing!) and from there pushed myself further when I found a position at Midway doing motion capture on their titles. Throughout everything was always an inner drive to challenge myself to do more complex and more difficult things, so at Midway I taught myself how to do animation scripting with the help of a mentor there, and from that point on the design path became the new challenge.

How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?

To do design for video games all we want to see is a good sense of design principles, and the ability to do hard work. We have guys here with design degrees from DePaul, and guys in design who worked their way up through QA [quality assurance]. I would take a new entry level designer with no degree or “equivalent experience” who showed their work in creating their own game over someone with a degree who couldn’t show their work in a heart-beat.

Did you need any certifications?

It all depends on the individual and studios being applied to. We just want to see an ability to do the work. Some studios have bigger hoops you have to jump through. With the most popular (and most used) game engines now free or very low cost (such as GameMaker, Unity, and Unreal Engine 4), there’s no excuse to not know how to use an engine before you apply. Download it. Do the tutorials. Make something. Then be proud about it and show it off!

What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?

What I think most people think is that we just do something once or twice and it works great! It’s just a matter of adding content, or maybe the “right” content. What actually happens is we iterate on something 100 times before it’s right. Even if we’ve done it before. Last night I worked on making an AI animate properly as it dropped off a ledge. It took me five hours and I had to reach out to two people for help thinking through the problem.

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

That it’s all fun and games. Make no mistake, I really enjoy the challenges of making games. It’s one of the most mentally stimulating and rewarding fields I’ve ever worked in. It’s also caused me the most anxiety and stress. We work very, very hard making the stuff you love. Sometimes we even have the unfortunate circumstance with making the stuff you don’t love, and we worked hard to make that, too.

What are your average work hours?

I want to point out that my hours are not typical in our office, and aren’t typical for the industry. I have a particular hangup where I can’t let something go if I know I can make it better, so I work a lot. Honestly I stopped tracking my hours because it becomes depressing to think about. I bet if I counted an “easy” week for me (some nights I get to watch a DVD or a show or play a game I’m not working on) would be a 60-hour week. Most weeks I bet I do 80 hours at a minimum. I’m frequently stealing hours on the weekend to work on my laptop polishing things in the game or writing up a new RFP [request for proposal] or a pitch deck for an upcoming project, and most nights I wind up opening up the editor and working ’til midnight or 1AM.

What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?

Learning to fail faster and approaching each problem as a unique challenge has helped a lot. Even when you’re making a sequel to something you’ve already made once, there are always new challenges that have to be solved for and I don’t like leaning on old crutches. In our business it feels like often there are no shortcuts, so personal experience and problem solving are often the best tools of the trade.

What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession?

Most designers I work with have been designers their entire career. I come from animated television and film, and then after that motion capture animation, and my degree is in flat traditional art, so I have a very broad “T” at the top of my work experience profile. I’m actually not a very good “traditional” designer in the sense that I don’t do visual scripting or level design better than any of my co-workers. What I can do is lean on what I’ve learned getting here and help craft entire systems and characters and tie them all together.

What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?

I think the worst part of the job is the hours and the stress. If you’re going to be effective at this level you have to care a lot about what you do, which takes away from your family time and that hurts sometimes. OK, it hurts all the time when you’re not with your family. The only solution I have so far for it is to try and be as focused as you can on what you’re doing. If you’re at work, work. Make it as good as you can and don’t waste the time away from your family making garbage if you can help it. Then when you’re with your wife and kids, focus on them and make that time as great as you can.

What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?

The very best part of this job is hearing from someone that they liked what you did. Any stranger saying “You worked on that? I loved that!” will always make my day. Someone finding importance in your work, no matter how little and no matter what you do, I think helps make everything worth it.

What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?

Gamasutra has a really great industry salary guide that is fairly accurate across all game dev disciplines (design, art, programming, and production) that they update every year.

How do you move up in your field?

Doing great work, being dependable, and show a capacity or a yearning to take on more responsibility always works.

What do your customers under/over value?

Customers I think never value the work or effort it took to get the product into their hands, and I understand that. Nobody thinks about the labourers in China who made their iPhones, so it’s unreasonable for me to ask them to think about the work that went into the game that’s running on their iPhone. But it would be great if there was a bit more understanding. Nobody looks at a giant building and says “Oh my god what is this CRAP???” if one small cosmetic thing is wrong with one corner of the building, because they understand the amount of effort that goes into making something that big. People even seem to get how much work movies are because they can see humans there on the screen and mentally project how much time it would take to make that with a subconscious mental comparison of shooting a home movie. But games? Most people don’t make games, they just consume them. So they typically only evaluate them as a consumer.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?

Make games, write code, make art, every single day. If you’re not doing it for your job, do it for yourself on your days off. You don’t get to be the best by taking a single class or earning a degree or even landing a single job. You have to constantly challenge yourself. The entire process is a journey and if you’re not constantly striving to improve yourself and your craft, you’re falling behind everyone else who is. And don’t force it! If you feel like it’s work and it isn’t natural to do those things, you should probably find something else that you love doing every day! But most importantly, don’t go into making games because you love playing games. You will only kill your hobby. You have to enjoy the challenge of creating this problem of a game that didn’t exist, and then fix that problem by creating that out of nothing.

Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.

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