Lead Game Designer
Every avid gamer thinks he or she is sitting on a surefire idea guaranteed to revolutionize the industry—not many ever get the chance to prove that genius to the world. Game designers are the rare breed with an all-consuming passion for playing games, but also the practical and theoretical expertise to create a product that is both entertaining and technically sound. These uncommon individuals see the big picture, but have an obsessive eye for detail.
The lead game designer takes nebulous concepts jotted down in brainstorming sessions and fashions them into clear, concise design documentation for game locations, characters, rules, story, objects, interface, and modes. This person works closely with artists, programmers to methodically map out each integral element during preproduction. The lead game designer is supervised by the creative director, and oversees a larger design staff consisting of specialists who concentrate on one area: levels, missions, combat, cinematics, and systems. After each department head has been given marching orders to start production, the lead designer will regularly follow up to ensure development is on schedule, advise alterations as necessary, and consult with quality assurance during play testing.
A day in the life of a lead game designer usually consists of exchanging email and returning phone calls for the better part of the morning, then sketching out new ideas, revising documentation, and preparing for presentations. The afternoon drives this person from one meeting to the next to discuss combat sequences with the animators, work out mode transition and weapon selection with the programmers, or read new pages for cut scenes with the writing staff. Before the day is over, he or she must catch up the creative director on recent changes and give the suits a status update on milestones. From vision to finished product, the lead game designer has his or her hand in every stage of the project. This person will also collaborate with marketing and publicity departments to design posters, merchandising, and packaging.
Skills & Education
It is becoming more common for developers to require (or strongly prefer) a college degree. Majors in game art or design are favored; education in graphic design and computer science is also valuable in this role. A game designer must be a creative visionary, have a solid knowledge of next generation platforms, and have a strong foundation in 2-D and 3-D illustration software. At least some drawing ability is required, as are basic skills in programming—at least at the scripting level. You should familiarize yourself with Python, PERL, and C++ languages, as well as 3D Studio Max and Maya. Excellent written and verbal communication skills are a must, as is time management and effective leadership.
What to Expect
To reach this senior-level position, you will need at least five years of industry experience in design and two shipped titles. The lead game designer plays the middle between every department and may have to put out fires when the animators and artists are at odds over how the main character should carry his rifle. Remain respectful, diplomatic, and cooperative. Always be willing to compromise on ego, but never on quality. Pressure and stress can pile on quickly when deadlines are looming and the bigwigs are breathing down your neck; at the end of the day it will be passion and pure adrenaline that push you forward through the long days and missed weekends. Experience as a lead game designer and a résumé of successful shipped titles can lead to a gig as a creative director—the big chair.
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