Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"My friend wants to be a Game Designer"

" Hey Chris, could you tell me what type of degree you had to get into this type of career, and what company it is you work for? A friend of mine is wanting to get into video game design, and would love this info."

I get this question pretty regularly so I figured I'd blog my response for others to read.

I have been at Epic Games since 2005. You can read the story about getting my Stormtrooper foot in the door below, or at

In my experience, there are three different kinds of people who make games: Designers, Artists, and Programmers. Everyone wants to be a designer, each company has very few. Epic only has about 2 or 3 designers. These are the people who come up with the ideas for gameplay. They can be from either the Artist or Programmer background, it doesn't matter - what matters is only that they consistently have ideas to make better games. They've usually been around a while, are well known in the company for past accomplishments, etc. It's typically a position you work up toward. What your friend needs to decide first is whether he wants to start as an artist or a programmer, which are two very different crowds.

I'm an artist. I actually majored in graphic design, and eventually found a spot at Epic as a graphic designer, an artist who designs heads-up displays, user interfaces, game environment pieces like posters, holograms, etc. I've since added texture artist and prop designer to my duties. Something I absolutely love. Other artists at Epic went to standard art school and studied all kinds of digital art: 3d modeling, animation, effects, etc.

We have regular playtests where you play the games and find bugs, figure out what is fun, what's not, and what could be better. Being outspoken with good gameplay ideas or improvements in these playtests will get you invited to more playtests and establish your reputation. The way to develop this strength is to be an avid gamer. Play all types of games and bring ideas from a wide range of experience. Things like, "I liked how Unreal Tournament had an alternate fire on the rocket launcher that shot three spinning rockets. Maybe we could do that with a cannon mounted on a vehicle and when they hit a rock face, the rockets drill a spiral tunnel into the building where you can drive the jeep through."

If you're lucky enough to get a job at a studio like Epic, you'll be asked to share your ideas for new games that your studio will be creating in the future. I've done this and it was a lot of fun. Basically, simplify your game idea to an "elevator pitch". In other words, imagine you're in an elevator with CliffyB and he asks what kind of game you'd like to see. You should be able to articulate your idea in the amount of time it takes to get between 4 floors.

1) Concept:
"It's like Gilligan's Island mixed with Flatout" or
"Gears of War mixed with Lord of the Rings" or
"It's like a zombie circus version of Portal"

2) Art Direction:
"It looks like it's set in 300AD, but with curious weapons and technology." or
"The bad guys look like armored lizard men and the good guys look like skinny skateboarders with football padding"

3) The Technology Hook
"You can deform the environment using weapons" or
"Destructable beasts can be shot apart into smaller half-animals that you can ride"

You can be a Game Designer on your own. Take a copy of the Unreal Engine (it comes with any PC version of Unreal Tournament III or Gears of War) and modify the game elements in the engine to make new games. See YouTube for an awesome Snowboard mod for UTIII. Use these to present in your portfolio. If you can do this, you're already a Game Designer, but to be one at a studio it will take a few years before you can reach actual Studio Game Designer status. It takes a lot of fun work in the trenches to get there. Personally, I love what I'm doing as an artist and enjoy any chance to share ideas.

Hope that helps!
- Chris
[Trooper TK409]

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Getting a Job as a Stormtrooper

My own story of getting in the door at Epic Games, reprinted from July, 2005

WARNING! I cannot be held responsible for any physical, emotional or mental injury incurred while participating in this activity. Do so at your own risk.

Me in the Stormtrooper costume I builtRecently I landed a great job at a video game company. On the surface, putting on a helmet and storming into a 6-floor office building carrying a very large, weapon wouldn't seem like the most appropriate way to be considered for a job. Putting that aside, here's what I did...
When I submitted my portfolio and phoned the company, the receptionist said,
" I'm sorry, we have over 200 resumes of artists we're going through. We'll call you when we get to yours."

200? How the heck can I make a dent in that? I could go in and as my mild-mannered self, smile and say, "Hi, I'm Chris. Won't you consider me for this position?" Now where would that get me? How much of an impression would that really make? I'd just look like every other 30-something teenager who's dying to work at a video game company.

So, I thought... this sounds like a job for TK409.

I asked my wife about it and she was very uneasy about the idea, for exactly the reason I mentioned in the first paragraph. I decided I would, but first, I needed something for the receptionist to remember me by - something to pass along. So, I took one of my Sandtrooper figures, glued him to a plastic base (like a trophy) and wrote in silver pen on the base, my name and the url to my portfolio website. This would be my "leave-behind."

When I got to the location that Friday afternoon, I found a remote section of the parking lot and hid behind my car to suit up. I had a sore throat, so my voice was unearthly low and raspy - very Boba Fett-like. I was very nervous. Would security guards throw me out of the building? Would the game company think I was psychotic? Probably, but I had to try.

I got done and marched across the parking lot to the structure, in full, weathered Sandtrooper gear, backpack and Lewis Gun, I was really sweating this idea: I needed to just get in, stay in-character, make a small impression with the probably-unappreciative-receptionist and leave my mini-me with her to give to someone important - all before someone had me thrown out. This would be like a game in itself.

I entered the first floor lobby and headed straight for the elevators. Then there was the wait for the doors... "open, open, open..." I pleaded under my breath. Finally I entered the empty car unnoticed, because the large, sculptured-glass lobby was empty. I later learned that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (yes, that FBI) has an office in the building and I had marched right past their windows... twice!

So much for homeland security.

I rode to the 6th floor and the doors opened. An Epic Games employee stood there, mouth agape. My trooper voice said, "'Scuse me sir, ~click-shht~," and I headed down the nearest hall, looking for any open office door. Another employee appeared and the trooper asked, "Which way to Epic Games." It wasn't a question. I was telling him to direct me. Because by now the sweat from my forehead brought on by the humid 95 degree weather was stinging my eyes and I needed to get this done. With a big smile he asks, "Oh cool! Are you here for the meeting?!"

The meeting? OK, right now a couple thoughts go through my head: Either I say, "Yes sir" and march myself to the head of a conference room in front of an entire company and play like I have a presentation until I reveal I'm just there to give them my portfolio... and they have me thrown out. Which would be painful on several levels. OR, I be honest and see where that gets me.
I was honest, sorry. Looking back I could have gone with the first option and it would have been fantastic, but you know, hindsight.

I told him I was there to deliver a portfolio for Chris Bartlett. You see I wasn't Chris Bartlett anymore. I was Trooper TK409 on a very important mission. I talked about Mr. Bartlett in the third person. It seemed like a good idea, but sounds kind of geeky now that I write that. He said, "OH, You should talk to our Creative Director! He's right down here, let me introduce you." So the CD was just coming down the hall coincidentally and I shook his hand, to which he said, "This is... awesome." I told him I was there to deliver a portfolio for Chris Bartlett and I thrust the tiny trooper with the web address at him.

He says, "Oh, Chris Bartlett, yes I know his work, he's a graphic designer and animator, yeah, I like his work." Then he thought for a second and said..."Are you... Chris Bartlett?"
Again, uncomfortable? Yes. But honesty is, after all, the best policy. I paused to consider the ramifications of being revealed as the world's biggest nerd. And then I confessed, "Yes........ clik-chht."

He was thrilled. But... keeping with my mission, I said goodbye and turned to head for the elevators. When I turned I saw that several people had filled the hallway of the sixth floor, all looking at me. Thankfully, many of them were smiling. Some even wanted photos! Then, this pair of 20-something guys walked up and said, "AWESOME, MAN! What are you doing here?" I told them of my mission of portfolio delivery and one said, pointing to the other, "Well, this is the CEO."

Now, having been previously poked fun of by people with self-importance issues at various events or conventions, had thickened my skin a little. I dismissed his apparent joke and said, "Yeah, thanks..." and I turned for the elevator. Behind me I hear him say, "No really!" Unconvinced, I calmly turned around and said, "This isn't a Jedi-mind trick ... is it?" They laughed and said, "Nope!" So I shook his hand, said it was a pleasure to meet him, and gave him the web address.

I turned to answer a couple questions and then made my exit into the elevator car, where I had to hold the doors open 5 times while people crowded through to ask me questions. Finally the doors closed and I sank with relief.

Little Trooper on Jerry O'Flaherty's deskLittle did I know that the entire company was heading into a meeting where, if I had been just a few minutes later, I would have missed everyone - no one would have been available to share in my giant display of dorkery. I later learned that the trooper was the talk of the meeting. Some had thought I was from LucasArts to make some big announcement. They told me that everyone was talking about me and my website and the guts it took to make an appearance like that.

Remember, I only thought I'd be able to meet with the receptionist. I was very pleased with this outcome.

When I returned home, there was an email from the CD saying how much I impressed the folks there and he said, "Huge points to you for showing up like that. That's the type of creativity we're looking for."

So, they tell me I moved to the top of the pile from that point on. 25 interviews later (this place is like Fort Knox) I was offered the position, and today was my first day at work. My first assignment? "Play these two particular games as much as possible and become familiar with every inch of them."
Um... that sounds... doable. Pass the free donuts and OJ. I'm going to be here a while!
Now, I don't think this would work for like, a banking job or a position at Intel. This formula will probably mostly work for creative companies who employ 20-30-something, video-game playing, sci-fi freaks.

If you try it, good luck! But don't come crying to me if it doesn't work. I warned you.

- Chris
Gamer Tag: Trooper TK409