Confessions of a Video-Game Designer

video game designerGrowing a career up through the computer games business as a video-game designer has been 23 years of fun and hard work for me. Whenever people ask me what I do for a living, I cringe a bit before I respond. It's not that I don't love what I do, it's just that everyone on the planet imagines it to be glamorous, fun and easy. The frequent response is either you must have lucked out to get into that industry, or you must play games all day, every day.

The reality is that, just like all other jobs, making computer games, coin-operated games, cell-phone games, Web games and console games is actually work. And some of the work requires long hours, hard thought, frustrating testing, reading really badly documented technical information and/or better yet, being a guinea pig for things that have no documentation.

A rarity in the field

I am a 48-year-old woman. That makes me a rarity in the computer game male-centric world. Better yet, I have actual hands-on design, implementation and art-creation experience. Given my age and the time I joined the industry, to still be working at it makes me about as rare as hen's teeth. If we created a "good ole gals" club of those still active in the industry on the creative side from when I joined, the membership would likely be less than 30. Most have left it as a younger person's passion and moved on.

Video Game Designer

Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, software programmers -- the broader occupational category that encompasses video game designers -- held about 65,200 jobs in 2008. Job growth and opportunities for software programmers are expected to be excellent.

Companies Hiring Designers

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$36,895: Median annual earnings for video game designers according to CBSalary. Video game programmers make slightly more, averaging $44,669 per year.

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I joined the industry in 1987 with Strategic Simulations, to design and draw art for the now famous gold box Advanced Dungeons and Dragons games. I was one of two women working in their research and development department and I was the only one that stayed. I was hired because I knew the tools they were using to create the Commodore C64 art. Not because I had been studying art at De Anza College or was pioneering a degree in computer graphic arts, a then-unheard-of occupation.

I had never drawn all day every day for 8 to 10 hours until I took the job. I frequently went home with a banging headache. The other thing I wasn't ready for was the critique by non-artists from all over the company. Anyone can look at art and supply an opinion. It makes artists grow a thick skin or wither and leave. I resolved to add skills, study other computer games to see how those artists had gotten the best out of the machine, and work, work, work.

The Toilet of Radiance

My favorite story of that time is the final graphic for their flagship product, The Pool of Radiance. It had been described to me by the designer as a bowl of water on an altar. It was the final scene and we actually put three-stage animation into the graphics. So I drew a swirling bowl of water, on a heavily draped table flanked by skull candle holders. It wasn't until the product had shipped and we were converting art for the IBM PC when Chuck Krogel, the VP of R&D at Strategic Simulations, came up behind me one day as I was converting that final piece of art and animating it. He said, "That looks like a toilet." I was shocked and horrified. And then I sat back and laughed. The designer, the test team and the art director had all seen the same graphic, but only Chuck saw that it indeed looked like a mundane object in the real world. I still laugh when I tell that story. That altar toilet, as the final scene in the game, shipped in every version. If you were lucky enough to finish the game you got to visit the "Toilet of Radiance."

I was a rarity at Strategic Simulations because I had extensive prior management experience, from working San Jose Parks and Recreation for many years at their Happy Hollow Park in San Jose, Calif. While there I managed as many as 35 employees, running their schedules, doing the cash out and consolidating the books. Those skills came to the forefront at Strategic Situations as we organized the art team to do multiple types of artwork and ready it for conversion into another computer-game platform. We had to be meticulous with naming conventions, file storage and transfers.

Inspiration -- and perspiration

From Strategic Simulations, I moved to Electronic Arts to become their first-ever project manager for internally developed games. It was an exciting time. Electronic Arts was just gearing up to release its first Sega Genesis games. We were a powerhouse of development teams. Artists, engineers, designers and producers worked day and night. Breakfast, lunch and dinner at the office was a reality for many. It was not uncommon to see someone asleep on a couch in a conference room or under their desk. When you are strongly drawn to creative pursuits, it's hard to put it down.

My first husband, John Manley, also worked for the company and we collaborated on several games together for Electronic Arts -- most notably Jungle Strike and Urban Strike. We wrote the story for the opening movie for Jungle Strike in the shower one morning, hopping out to put it to yellow notepad and later on a primitive storyboard for the art team to devour and flesh out. Jungle Strike was EA's first 16-megabit game on the Sega Genesis and I had encouraged John to use some of that space for an opening movie. I had managed a computer-game store in the early 1980s and knew that as a retailer we liked to put on things with interesting demo modes and movies. It attracted more customers to the display and sold many more units. And that is exactly what happened with Jungle Strike, which surprised the company with its sales figures.

We created that product without a producer; as the project manager, I was the balancing agent that juggled time and quality for the team. That made me the producer by merit, even if the credit did go to Scott Berfield, who was hired when we were entering Alpha. He told me at the time he had no issues with what we did. He hepled get the comany to support us with testing, and he looked at the final product with a critical eye. It was that experience that whetted my appetite to become a producer. Scott was a great mentor.

Multi-player pioneer

From Electronic Arts I moved on and joined the team at Imagination Network, to become a producer at one of the first online computer-game places to offer play with multiple people. It was an exciting time in games and an exciting time in computing. The world was just really getting its first large-scale taste of the Internet. Multi-player games over the Internet were just becoming mainstream. Imagination Network had just been bought by AT&T when I joined them. A short time later AT&T sold us to America Online. What may sound wonderful was actually a creative disaster. We had been gearing up for a standalone service with disks full of graphically intensive games distributed to a specific audience. All of a sudden we were in a different business model, with a different type of audience and a completely different set of business objectives. It required a redesign of all that had gone before, from the ground up. Extensive technical and creative discussions with the AOL games team were held. As it turned out, AOL lifted the server technology and the simple card and board games and left most of the rest of the development. The people that were a part of it were laid off.

At that point, I took a two-year "vacation" from the industry. I started a horse-tack company with two of my horse trainers and kept my business skills sharp. But the gaming industry beckoned. I was invited to help finish up the Barbie Sports game with Mattel interactive. I later joined as a consultant and then consulted at a string of small development companies doing design, which needed business acumen and an expert hand.

I still end up doing graphics for almost every venture I join. It's hard to sit back and explain what you are looking for when many times it's just easier to "do it." I still end up thick in the design and implementation. They go hand and hand with making something good. In the world of computer games, there really is no formula. There are certain ways to talk about the game, to quantify the mechanics that give a simple overview of the play. But there is nothing like doing it. You have to play it to know if it's right. Just like a chef who samples and tastes and smells the food and examines every ingredient, preparation step and tool, the video-game designer wants to know what has gone in at every juncture and then nudge it to be the best that it can be.

Susan Manley is a 23-year veteran of the interactive entertainment market. Her work can be found in published products from Strategic Simulations, Electronic Arts, World Play, Mattel Interactive and Expresso Fitness.

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