How do I become a games designer?
It’s easier than ever to create your own games, but starting a career and becoming a professional designer can be tricky. Where do you start? Where do you go? How do you meet people? To answer these questions, we contacted a few of the South West’s leading games designers to find out their advice on finding one’s feet in the industry.
Getting into development
“Games design and development is something you can start at any age or time of your career,” says Ben Trewhella of Bristol-based Opposable Games. “While you can go to university or take a course, the best way to learn the ropes is by picking up the tools, reading online tutorials, and trying to build a game yourself.”
“Make something. Qualifications and CVs are all good, but, as an employer, I want to see what you can do”
Ben recommends tools such as Unity and Unreal Engine, which have free editions and come with tutorials and supportive communities. “Once you’ve set yourself some basic game designs, you’ll be able to work out what areas of games development interest you, what your specialities might be, and who you might want to partner up with.”
Ben Trewhella: Opposable Games
For James Carroll of Evil Twin Artworks, the advice is simple: “Make something. Qualifications and CVs are all good, but, as an employer, I want to see what you can do. Even if it’s a test project, it’s good to see applied knowledge. It’s also good to see someone with the drive to be practising and trying things in their spare time.”
Nick Dymond of Force of Habit, says: “There’s nothing wrong with treating games design and development as a hobby in the same way that people do with music and art.
“Ultimately there isn’t really much of a substitute for passion and application, and if you don’t enjoy the fundamental act of executing your craft then forget it”
“In terms of a professional career, as far as I can tell there isn’t really any single approach; everyone I know who works in games has got here through different means. Ultimately, there isn’t really much of a substitute for passion and application, and if you don’t enjoy the fundamental act of executing your craft then forget it.”
Starting on a project
With all the tools at your disposal, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start. Will you be ready to create a game right off the bat?
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“Once you’ve got the hang of the development tools, the next step is to join in a games jam,” advises Ben. “These are events where groups of people get together to create a game in a short amount of time under a common theme.”
In the South West, the Bristol Games Hub is the best place for this – they host a few game jams a year, as well as ‘knowledge shares’, which are informal seminars on key topics. In 2014, they also hosted the Global Game Jam.
Ben continues: “It’s great for finding people who can complement your game (you will usually need to have programming, art, design and audio skills, so it’s often best to work in teams), and is usually very exciting to see a game shape up with little time and a lot of hacking.
“We usually begin a game with either an interesting problem or some specific goal”
“After you’ve tried out a few game jams you will quite likely have a good basis to start creating your own game, and probably all the connections you need to make it happen!”
James Carroll: Evil Twin Artworks
Force of Habit start with new projects by setting themselves challenges. Nick comments: “We usually begin a game with either an interesting problem or some specific goal. For instance, with Toast Time it was to create a single input game with interesting player movement, while for Friendship Club we wanted to make an accessible local multiplayer game with a very high skill ceiling for advanced players.
“We tend to prototype quite heavily, starting with the most critical elements of our idea. Throughout this process we’re also looking for aesthetics that will match the game experience and provide both the inspiration and limitations necessary to create something coherent.
“You’re looking to create a grammar, mechanically, visually and sonically, and once you have that then everything suddenly gets much easier.”
Best places for funding
Funding is often the trickiest stage for games designers, as it is for many start-up businesses. Opposable Games offer a consultancy service, and you can get in touch for advice on funding streams, tax breaks and loans, but Ben has some general tips to help you get started: “Funding in the games industry traditionally comes from publishers, who will take a look at your game demo and decide if they think they can get a return on it on mobile, PC, console, or all three.
“On console, it’s possible to approach platform holders such as Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo for funding, although they will usually only work with developers who’ve released a number of titles. If you have a unique concept, you can use one of many crowdfunding sites.”
Companies such as Disney and Games Workshop look for teams to help expand their existing IPs, but only if you can pitch them a good plan for development, marketing and monetisation. The UK government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, are always on the lookout for game designers to solve industry challenges. Ben also recommends companies like Wellcome Trust and Creative England, who offer small grants and funds.
“Once you’ve got the hang of the development tools, the next step is to join in a games jam”
“I am a fan of Creative England for support,” agrees James Carroll. “The Games Lab fund seems to be tailored to what games companies need. I have encountered a lot of funds where they have clearly got the film fund and just swapped the word ‘film’ for ‘game’ and just hope that I can make use of it!”
Force of Habit, going the indie route, have found things a little tougher. “We haven’t had particularly good experiences of funding, to be honest,” reveals Nick. “The publishing industry seem reluctant to part with much cash and other funding avenues tend to result in more paperwork and obligations than are worth it. We offer third-party sound design and programming work for other studios and businesses to ensure enough cashflow to make our games.”
How to network
Networking is a vital part of games development, for pooling talent, finding partners and creating professional links.
“Bristol Games Hub is a great place to start,” says Opposable Games’ Ben. “This is a not-for-profit community which offers help and advice for games developers in the region. It also provides office space for over 40 games designers, most of whom are always happy to help out people coming into the industry.
Nick Dymond: Force of Habit
“You can join in the Bristol Games Hub Facebook group or mailing list to get up-to-date information about conferences and events in the region, or come along to one of many social events run at the Hub in Stokes Croft.”
James recommends industry networking events. “Go to TIGA/UKIE events for like-minded people; it’s probably the most cost effective way of getting to know everyone,” he suggests. “The games industry is pretty friendly and supportive overall. I have had a lot of doors opened by people who, in other industries, might be seen as competitors, but with games we’re all in it together!”
“Game jams are always a good source for meeting co-conspirators”
You can also embrace the indie spirit. “We don’t really have any partners as such, but creative collaborators and friends,” says Nick. “Local meetups, expos, talks, social gatherings, games clubs, forums, Twitter—there’s communities at all levels. Having said that, we’ve only ever worked professionally with people we’ve met in person – it counts for a huge amount.
“Game jams are always a good source for meeting co-conspirators. Again, if there’s nothing happening in your area then be pro-active and organise something yourself. It doesn’t have to be big.”
So what are you waiting for? If you want to become a games designer, get stuck in. Passion should be your drive, and it will help if you find like-minded collaborators at games jams and networking events. There are plenty of resources out there!
Many thanks to Ben Trewhella of Opposable Games (@opposablegames), James Carroll of Evil Twin Artworks (@ievilgames), and Nick Dymond of Force of Habit (@forcehabit) for taking the time to speak with us. Remember, you can contact Opposable Games here for professional advice.
[Image credit: JD Hancock on Flickr (cropped), under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.]
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Also, to see innovative gaming and other tech projects which originate in the West of England, why not check out Venturefest Bristol & Bath on 9 June.