How I got Into Game Design

Whenever I see an email with a question that I’m sure I’ve answered before, that’s a good time for a blog post. For example…

I am a big fan of the show and would credit it as one of the primary reasons I have gotten heavily interested in MtG again since quitting around 2001. I was wondering if there was a way I could correspond with Mr. Loucks regarding game design in general and careers in game design. I am currently a general surgeon in northern Michigan, however I have already decided to leave this career when my contract has expired and have been growing more increasingly interested in games and game design as a field as it has always been a great passion of mine. I would appreciate any opportunity to ask a few questions and get an idea of what actually working in the field is like, as I have minimal experience. Sorry to clutter the pocdast’s email with this but I wasn’t sure how to go about it otherwise.

So I dredged up my response to the last email I wrote on this topic, and edited it for the blog. It was emails like this that made me think “why am I sending this to just one person?” and led to the creation of this blog.

My Story

Game design is a weird field. Actually, I find all of games to be kinda weird. It’s an oddly small industry, in that a lot of people know each other, and people tend to get passed between companies without really leaving the machine. I thought it was just the small startups I started working at, but Microsoft and Amazon have been the same way, largely. It seems like every time we hire somebody (design, art, dev) they’ve worked with multiple people at the company, each at different companies. That might also just be the Seattle area, what with Microsoft, Wizards of the Coast, Popcap, etc. My point is that connections seem important. So how do you get in the door to begin with? I’ll tell you my story, because that’s all I know. It seems like everybody gets in their own way, and my story is the one I know, so here you are.

Magic was my “in”, in multiple ways. It gave me something relevant to the game industry that I could talk about and put on my resume. (I still spend a lot of resume real estate on MTG to this day.) Along with that came the actualknowledge it gave me – I started to understand games better. The tournament playing, deckbuilding, writing – that all gave me certain lens from which I could look at games. It gave me language I could use. Similarly, I read a lot of articles early in my MTG career – most importantly including Mark Rosewater’s column on dailymtg.com. I was rich with MTG knowledge.

Important Note: You should be reading Rosewater’s monday column on dailymtg.com if you want to do game design. It’s pretty insane. And probably listen to his podcast. I haven’t been keeping up with his material over the last year or so, but it was instrumental in giving me a base. I would not be where I am now if it wasn’t for Rosewater’s content.

So that’s where I was when I went to college – a magic playing building reading fiend. I started writing shortly after. (You should have seen how giddy I was when tcgplayer wanted me to write for them. It was super giddy.) Before school even started, during my orientation (for University of Washington), I was thinking of joining the honors program, so I went to a talk about it. (Lol honors program, I wasn’t even close, but at least I was interested.) It was a small talk in a classroom, more of an FAQ, and the guy mentioned “Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: the Gathering, is even teaching a class” as a cool example of the types of honors courses that existed at UW. SPIT-TAKE! I had no idea. It was hard to hid my erection in the crowded classroom as I asked for more information.

I immediately tracked down how to get into the class, and took it as soon as I could despite not being in the actual honors program. It was a small fun class. I’m sure I was a huge nerd fanboy the entire class. Noah Weil even showed up for a few lectures, for funzies. I got him to sign my Fireball! Anyway, Skaff Elias (Richard’s co-teacher and Magic co-founder, the creator of Organized Play, among other things) took a liking to me for whatever reason. (I thank god every day that I’m so damn cute.) When the class was over, I asked Skaff if there were any internships he knew about, because I’d love to start working on game design. He said he knew just the thing.

Skaff sent me over to his friend Tyler Bielman, who was working at a small startup creating a TCG about endangered animals. (Xeko – a beautifully designed game that taught me the importance of designing for an audience. It’s long gone, though there is rumor of a kickstarter.) I interviewed with Tyler, and I managed to get by almost exclusively on my Magic knowledge. (And the good looks.) He asked me some rules questions (more like “how should our game handle simultaneous triggers” type questions) and we played the game together at Starbucks. I got the job!

From there, it seems I was in. I worked under Tyler for a year until Xeko went under. Then I followed Tyler to Arcane Legions to work for Jordan Weisman (Mech Warrior, Shadowrun, etc, gaining a new and very valuable contact). Then when that game went under, I followed Tyler to Microsoft in Canada. (That was a harder job to get, both because of Microsoft and because of Canada, but I managed to make it.) Just as my contract at MSoft was coming up and I was missing Seattle, Skaff hooked me up with a friend of his at Amazon, and here I am. Somehow. Amazon has gained me another slew of awesome contacts. It took me about 3 or 4 years to go from intern to full-time non-contract game designer, though for part of that I was trudging through college.

These three people were invaluable in getting me to where I am now: Mark Rosewater. Tyler Bielman. Skaff Elias. I have yet to properly repay any of them.

Along the way there were failed job interviews and false starts, but somehow I managed to stay in the industry. I feel very comfortable now having worked at Microsoft and Amazon, gaining some great contacts along the way. I now feel confidant in my abilities.

So what can you take from my story? Opportunities come in strange places. For me, it was Magic + UW class + Fortuitous internship. Tyler got in through WOTC on a marketing contract, then went on to create the color pie or something. I worked with a girl Jessica that got into Jordan Weisman’s company by being a big player in I Love Bees, the big Halo ARG. (I hope I’m remembering that story correctly.) My boss at Amazon, Jonathan Tweet, was a big player in DnD and is now working on Social Games. It’s all very weird.

Playing games and playing them well might be your in. Lots of people say “do the job you want before you have it”, and that’s especially true of game design. Just start making games. (This is something I wish I did more – I spent all my time playing Magic. I need to work on my actual game-building craft.) Become active in a game community. (Gavin Verhey, Tom Lapelle – these guys did a good job of becoming active in MTG, then landed a job.)

One last thing: I’m amazed at how much mileage I’ve gotten out of the Great Designer Search 2. I’ve gotten a lot of contacts for jobs that start with “we saw your work in the GDS2 and…” Non-WOTC people really look at that – it’s weird. Not that I got those jobs, but there you go. I think “game design” is such a weird nebulous job that ANYTHING you can point to as evidence of your skill is valuable. For most people this is pointing to an actual game you designed.

There you go, my story and some advice. I’m happy to answer further questions on the topic. Otherwise, good luck!

-Jon Loucks

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