Game Designer Interview: What Do Game Designers Do?
Maybe you know you've wanted to be one since you were younger, or maybe you realized it later and are on the nontraditional path to becoming a video game designer. Regardless of how you do it, you may get to a point where you've completed the necessary coursework to start a game design career, but then what? What's the daily life of a video game designer like? What does a career as a game designer entail?
Video game design is a field that fosters creativity and rewards attention to detail and alternative thinking, and it's these elements that structure a game designer's workweek. Schools.com spoke with Kurt Tillmanns, a game designer at Iron Galaxy Studios — a prominent game development studio that has produced games like Divekick and Wreckateer — about what the daily life of a game designer is like.
Q&A about the daily life of a game designer, featuring Kurt Tillmanns
Q. Kurt, how did you get your start with game design?
A. I've been playing games since I was a kid, starting with Nintendo and Game Boy. I started building PCs when I was 12 to keep up with the latest games.
Q. How did this turn into a career of game development and design?
A. I was interested enough in games to go to school for 3D modeling and animation, and get my bachelor's. Back then, we didn't have as many resources online to get real insight into game development, so even after school the industry was a mystery. This led me to go after a quality assurance (QA) job within it, because I knew that it was a good foot-in-the-door position and I really wanted to know more about how the industry worked before I put my stake in a particular discipline. I worked hard in QA for 4 years, and became a QA Lead at Midway Games. It was the design staff at Midway that gave me my shot and hired me out of QA.
Q. When you take a daily break from video game development, how do you like to pass the time?
A. I play lots of games! Board games like Dominion, Descent, Cutthroat Caverns … and of course I play a ton of video games — I try to keep as up to date as possible with releases. As far as non-game activities, I read books and comic books, I have 2 dogs and a cat that keep me plenty busy, and I do some woodworking in the summer months. Really anything that exercises my mind I'm thrilled to do.
Q. What are the differences between video game development and video game design? How do you interact with each project differently?
A. It's really two very different worlds. In the early stages of design everything is very creative and free, you are in the 'there are no bad ideas' zone, and everyone is just trying to think of the coolest system possible to accomplish the game's goals. Game development from a production and engineering perspective is much more structured and logic based. As a designer let's say I come up with a system to be implemented — almost all my interaction from a development standpoint is poking holes in it and solving problems that are hard to know about earlier, during the creative process. Maybe a part of that system conflicts with another system, maybe it's going to take more work than we thought and we need to make cuts to it … things like that.
"Sometimes a situation may be out of your control that prevents you from working, like waiting for hardware, but that's rare and doesn't last long."
Q. How do your experiences or days differ depending on if you're working on an in-house project or completing work for another studio's game?
A. They don't — or at least, they shouldn't. When your name goes on something, you always work your hardest to make the product amazing — it doesn't matter if it's an in-house project or not. Even if your name isn't going on a product, you will be working with people in the other studio, and they'll be working really hard, so you'll feel crummy for giving anything less than your all. The industry is really very close like that: It's all about shared experiences. Sometimes a situation may be out of your control that prevents you from working, like waiting for hardware, but that's rare and doesn't last long.
Q. Compared to where you were in your career 3 to 5 years ago, how have your daily activities changed?
A. For me personally, I've become more of a technical design lead over the years. I've taught myself C++ and scripting, and I've made a hobby of digging into other engines and learning their systems, especially Unreal [Unreal Engine, a type of game engine, or software framework for the creation and development of video games], and so my tasks have become much more technical. A lot of my day-to-day work depends on what the company needs from me: The nature of Iron Galaxy has been that every project could demand something very different from you.
Q. What is the most productive part of your day? Why do you think that is?
A. The deep-afternoon hours are usually when I focus most on my high-priority tasks. All meetings have finished by that time, and if something really needs to get done that day, like implementing feedback on a particular system, you should know by the time all of your meetings are done.
Q. What is your work environment like? Have you customized your workspace in any particular way you'd like to share?
A. Oh man! The first thing you would notice is a wall of board games, followed by my D&D dice strewn all over the place! But that stuff is for after work — I don't really have photos or trinkets at my desk, since my brain is pretty much completely focused on work while I'm here. I can even forget the outside world exists, and I'm late for everything on weeknights.
Q. Over the years, you've worked on many games and projects. Which one has been your favorite so far?
A. This is like picking your favorite song — can't be done. Blitz: The League II for Midway Games was my first project as QA Lead, and that's where I met almost all the original Iron Galaxy engineers. I remember when we were submitting that project, and I had pulled a 27-hour shift. I went to Target to buy fresh clothes and everything they had was size XL, so I looked like a crazy person. It also happened to be Dave Lang's last day at Midway. He was the studio Tech Director during Blitz II but I hadn't spoken to him much. I remember he walked in to the QA lab and shook my hand, said "It's been nice working with you", and left. I wouldn't be at Iron Galaxy without that project, so if I had to pick, that's the one.
"Start with small ideas and small games. I think the thing I see that deters people [from pursuing a career in video game design] the most is they bit off way more than they can chew."
Q. What advice would you give to a prospective video game designer or developer?
A. Take things a little bit at a time. Start with small ideas and small games. If you think it's too small, make it smaller. I think the thing I see that deters people the most is they bit off way more than they can chew. Big ideas are amazing — they are the best ideas. But you need a foundation first, and you will find that if you are willing to take baby steps and really focus on finishing things, even really tiny games, you will learn much more, much quicker.
Q. Can you describe what exactly makes up the "Lang Zone"?
A. This is a tough one. The Lang Zone is the effect that occurs when you are in the vicinity of Dave Lang. It is not always present, but it is always anticipated. You cannot prompt it, but you also cannot stop it.
1. Kurt Tillmanns, interviewed by the author on April 14, 2015
2. "What is Unreal Engine 4," Epic Games, Inc., www.unrealengine.com/what-is-unreal-engine-4