From Student to Designer: Part 6 – Entry Level Design Jobs

As usual, my advice is specific to design and to seeking a more traditional job in AAA development, as opposed to breaking in as an indie, but most of it can be applied elsewhere. And as always, this is just my personal advice!

Part 1: Websites & Resumes
Part 2: Portfolios
Part 3: Cover Letters
Part 4: Design Tests
Part 5: Interviews
> Part 6: Entry Level Design Jobs

There is a myth that there is no such thing as an entry-level position in design.

It really is a myth, and a hard one – it seems – to dispel. I run into this idea from aspiring designers and industry people alike and it always kind of stumps me. Back in the day (not really that long ago), I was a student , and I got an entry-level job on graduation. A bunch of other students with me did too. And I’ve since worked with a bunch of people that went straight from being students to entering design (and a few who skipped the student route and came in from various paths).

The point is: there ARE entry-level design jobs. Why do people keep saying there aren’t? I have a few ideas:

  • aspiring designers tend to rule out entry-level postings because they read them unforgivingly (such as reading preferred as required)
  • aspiring designers tend to rule out entry-level postings because they aren’t qualified (lack of side projects, modding work, personal games, etc.)
  • aspiring designers don’t know how to find these jobs
  • the game industry is kind of infamous for non-standard job titles, so “game designer” may be entry level at one place but equivalent to creative director somewhere else
  • there are about one open entry-level design job for every one hundred hungry aspiring designers (these are totally made up numbers! but you get the idea – competition is fierce!)
  • it is common for aspiring designers and recent graduates to spend a long time (more than a year) trying to land that entry-level job

 

What Kind of Design Job is Entry Level?

First I want to clear up what kinds of design jobs are entry level, and what type of design jobs are not. This seems to be where a lot of confusion comes from when asking for advice or looking for jobs. This is a general rule of thumb, not some kind of law.

Content vs. Systems

When some people talk about “game designers”, they are talking about designers who are focused on the rules, mechanics, and systems in a game. At smaller companies, this might essentially be the lead designer or creative director. On small mobile projects they may be the only designer on the game. This demands a lot of prior experience, practice, and expertise. These are not (normally) entry-level positions.

So if you hear someone say that “design is not an entry level job” they are usually referring to systems and lead roles.

When others talk about “game designers” they are referring to everyone in the design department. The other type of design opposite systems – if I were to split them up – would be the creation and implementation of content. Some common examples are levels, quests, missions, and puzzles. Content designers may not be involved in the overarching rules and mechanics, but rather use those mechanics as a palette to create the game. Not all games have lots of content that can be designed, especially procedurally generated environments or gameplay focused on systems (think roguelikes or match-three games). But most AAA games have a HUGE amount of content and an appropriately sized design team to handle that responsibility.

So if you hear someone say that “design is an entry level job” they are usually referring to content designers.

Now, that is not to say that systems are better than content. At many companies, content designers also own systems, and content is obviously EXTREMELY important. It just so happens that it’s easier to split off content and implementation-focused roles into entry level positions than it is for systems.

If you are a aspiring designer who does not have prior (paid) industry experience in design, I suggest preparing yourself for a content designer position. This is why I recommend students focus their free time or coursework on creating games and levels in various AAA toolsets: it’s all about implementation.

 

JOB EXAMPLES

So I want to debunk the, “There are no entry-level design jobs!” refrain right now.

To do so, I went around and collected a bunch of entry-level design positions currently available. Since these jobs may be taken down by the time anyone reads this, I’ve taken screenshots of them.

Please note: I am not advocating or endorsing any of these jobs. This is about giving you an idea of what an entry level job position reads like (so you can recognize them when you see them), and what kinds of work or qualification they expect from you. This is for illustrative purposes. It’s by no means an exhaustive collection – I only spent about an hour grabbing them.

Trends in Entry Level Positions

So I like data, and I realized after I collected the above job postings that I now have a whole lot of information about what different companies expect from junior designers! Luckily, there’s a lot of crossover in the content between all these jobs.

There are a few key elements that stick out as the most common responsibilities or requirements:

  • Great communication skills
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Work with all stakeholders in your work, across all departments
  • Write and maintain documentation

These are all mostly soft skills, and the only ones I think you can show off in a portfolio are documentation (this includes 2D level designs) and evidence of working with a team to create a game. I do want to reiterate: these are by far the most common requests on job postings, so if anyone thinks that game development is an antisocial activity then they are dead wrong.

After that, you start getting into the most important hard skills:

  • Experience in a game-editing program
  • Author and implement content (levels, quests, combat, puzzles, etc.)
  • Familiarity or working knowledge in scripting

Those are the most common ones. I don’t feel so bad now for my portfolio advice being so heavily biased in favor of implementing levels and gameplay in a 3D engine.

There’s lots and lots of other skills listed, with lots of one-offs (military experience? working with outsourcers?) that are specific to a single job and based on context. There’s just a few common or interesting details I found that I want to call out:

  • Degrees are usually preferred, not required, if they are listed at all. They often aren’t listed on the job posting at all.
  • Programming experience is very desirable, and a good portion of entry-level design jobs involve scripting.
  • Several entry-level jobs involve acting as support for more senior designers, who will rely on you to implement and iterate on their designs.
  • Many list a specific genre, game series, or gameplay mechanic that they wish applicants to be familiar with. This makes sense where, if you make FPS games, you would want a new member of the team already up to speed on FPS mechanics.
  •  At least one asks for evidence of major gamer cred (high level MMO character!) but I have seen similar requests in other places. This is unusual, but not unheard of.
  • Design skills are usually vaguely defined (“understanding of fun”) or as a long list (pacing, flow, systems, mechanics, etc.). The point here is that if you are applying to a design position, it’s just understood that you should be knowledgeable about all the elements of game design.
  • There really is a pretty big range of jobs, once you get passed general design skills, from mobile jobs with more business-related skills, to level or combat encounter design big AAA studios, to scripting-focused jobs that lean on programming knowledge.

The last thing I want to cover is “prior experience” since this is a sticking point for a lot of aspiring designers that I talk to. I get the feeling a lot of people opt out of applying to jobs if they ask for prior game development experience, without realizing that this totally includes side projects and other portfolio work. Prior game development experience, if it doesn’t reference a shipped game, means that experience you earn on your own (school, modding, side projects) still counts. This is something a lot of people get caught up on.

If a job posting asks for 1-2 years of experience in the industry, I personally tend to read these as entry-level. I encourage students to apply to them anyway, assuming you fit the other criteria, and instead read “in the industry” as “modding or large game projects”. Once you get a bit further, into 3-5 years, the jobs tend to be looking for people who are more traditionally experienced at companies.

If a job specifically asks for a shipped game, they generally mean traditionally shipped (such as a console or mobile title) and as part of a paid position at a company (not a side project, or game you made by yourself).  Remember how common communication and teamwork skills were? There’s a huge difference between working alone on a game and working as part of a team.

As always, there are all kinds of exceptions to what I’ve written above but, mostly, I’m hoping that some people feel a bit more comfortably finding and applying to entry level jobs, and if they don’t at least realize what skills they need to work on to break in. Please note that my examples I included and pulled from aren’t a real sample size – just what I could find in a short time period. There are lots of other entry-level jobs out there, and many of them have their own needs and idiosyncrasies.

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