As a young designer, I am always curious about the role of design in the ever-evolving landscape of games. While the resources on this subject matter are lacking, it is something that I think certain key designers are attempting to change.
In the pursuit of answers, I was fortunate enough to have talked to seven designers and artists who come from all over the game industry. From working at indie game studios to mobile and PC, I asked them about their experience in games, how it compared to working outside of games, and what keeps them going today.
What makes the games industry unique?
There are nuances to every industry that help define their experiences accordingly.
John Treviranus, a game designer behind Duelyst at Counterplay Games, says one of the biggest differences that helps the game industry stand out is the large media focus. Many forms of secondary content have popped up around games, such as the growing stage for e-Sports, forums and sites dedicated to game content, and media coverage specifically for game releases.
On the other hand, Twitch UX Designer Sang Lee says that a major contributing factor is the customer that you’re serving. “Gamers as a demographic are more technical and detail-oriented,” he explained. “They get really invested in a particular niche and have a lot more passion.”
“Gamers as a demographic are more technical and detail-oriented,” he explained. “They get really invested in a particular niche and have a lot more passion.”
Gamers in the world that have invested hundreds of hours in playtime — developing guides and techniques to conquer content — demonstrate this very well. Often times, because of their constant proximity and interaction with the product, the player ends up gaining more familiarity with it than some of its creators.
But what about working for the industry as an employee? I discussed four key aspects of work with the designers: culture, process, priorities, and the network.
Unsurprisingly, culture was the biggest point of discussion. The most pointed-to benefit of working in the game industry (as someone who identifies as a gamer) was being around other people who play games. These days, it’s rare to find someone working at companies like Riot or Blizzard that does not share some form of appreciation for them.
Alicia Loring, UX Designer at Riot Games, explained that they build a very specific culture. Riot seeks to actively hire people who are both passionate about games and are core gamers, which she defines as people who intentionally make time to play games. As a result, people bond over shared experiences, a common ground that guarantees having memories of playing similar titles and facing the same problems.
One of the memorable highlights from my interviews involved Sean Chang from Pocket Gems explaining the story of having moved from Taiwan to work in America. He observed that working at an earlier Google-funded start-up, topics of conversation ranged from government and politics to TV dramas. After switching to work in the game industry, he was able to geek out with people who had played the same games as him, discussing game milestones and experiences. Having this common interest helped him feel significantly less isolated.
Christina Nguyen, previously a designer for Blizzard Entertainment and Twitch, said that being surrounded by people who play games just makes you feel more comfortable in general. “It’s nice to have everyone have a shared passion. It’s a true, discernible difference,” she said. Not only does it help motivate you with your work, being able to align with people on common goals makes it easier to work together. This shared, unified vision is important towards getting everyone’s buy-in for the final product.
John shared that when working for indie studios like Counterplay, each person participates in the process and is a game designer. Their creative agency empowers their work ownership, a huge point of satisfaction with the release of the final product.
Additionally, there is more room for creative freedom overall. “I came from a place where people might find the products something they have to use to get something done. And that makes sense. But it’s nice to know that you’re designing something where you’re bringing the delight. It’s not just a service, it’s something they truly enjoy,” Christina said.
Sang added that because games are a form of entertainment, working in the industry also means being around a lot of personalities. These fun interactions filter down through the company, whether in chats or meetings. As a designer, you are encouraged to polish the creative details in your work — small things like hiding memes in the source code for people to find. Whereas most businesses just want the product to work, the designer focuses on creating the delight within the product that players ultimately stick around for.
The Work Process
Every company has their specific work process, so no studio operates exactly the same. Christina explained that on her old team at Blizzard, they relied on the traditional waterfall approach which evolves as different stakeholders become involved. Much of the user testing and user experience design is left to the team’s discretion. On the other hand, she said companies like Twitch operate in an agile environment, relying on iterative design processes and user testing to inform much of their work.
Similarly, Riot also works in an agile environment as this is common to most modern software development teams. Alicia shared that the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the work creates the challenge of utilizing all of the different team players involved, and their talents. While the more granular processes are left up to each respective discipline, Riot operates in a way that allows them to pivot and move forward with speed.
“We care about and obsess over every part of the player experience. From your first game to your thousandth win, from installation to player support to esports broadcasts — every interaction point matters.” — Riot Manifesto
At Counterplay, John explained that the high level workflow involves a weekly stand-up where everyone checks in with what they’ve done and what they will do. This allows for productive meetings and room for autonomy, making work life balance great for him personally. He caveated this saying that although this structure benefits independent people, it is worse for junior designers who might need more guidance.
From a design perspective, there is not as much room for UX in games yet since the traditional game development approach relies on all team members to collectively contribute to the user experience, regardless of their role. As game companies continue to grow, I hope to see more weight on defined UX roles.
Regardless of the method, these game companies are seeking the same thing: deliver what the users want. In these environments, employees must balance the encouragement for innovation and the clash of their visions defined in the name of the player. Because every employee has a hand in the experience and is a gamer themselves, teamwork and collaboration are the pillars for progression.
Designers spoke to many different aspects of their work when it came down to the focus. But across the board, designer or artist, everyone seeks to make the end-product fun and enjoyable.
Christina explained that factoring in a sense of delight matters in the industry. Players have built up certain expectations regarding the tone of gaming products. Little recognizable references to other game experiences go a long way. A couple great examples include products like Discord or Twitch— they inject personality into the tiny details that players are so fond of.
Blizzard and Riot incorporate this in their game development as well, making sure to spend extra time thinking through the little interactions and gearing up for major events like April Fool’s.
For the Pocket Gem designers, a huge focus is on great ideas and responding to feedback. Senior Concept Artist Kinman Chan attributed Pocket Gems’ success to their ability to respond well to player feedback and rapidly incorporate it into their games. He highlights that for them, teamwork is of utmost importance, and some of that collaboration comes from users. Sean added that that was how Pocket Gems eventually evolved their games into unique experiences, by constantly listening to the community and having great community managers to moderate the conversation.
For John, the timeline is important because of their live servers. This means he works with a content release pipeline with a defined time cycle that then resets. In that four week time period, his job is to think through what new content can be added to the game that players will enjoy. He considers mechanics and the high-level aesthetic vision, but most importantly concentrates on the story of the experience, visualizing how a player will react after the first and following impressions. In designing new content, the goal is to get every person at Counterplay to share the same vision.
In such a competitive industry, networking is crucial. Pocket Gems UI Designer Cecilia Peng said, “Networking is very important because the community is very small.” To some extent everyone knows each other, which is why internal referrals are the most common way roles are filled.
On a positive note, Christina said that for people trying to learn more about the industry, gamers are generally friendly towards outreach. Much of it has to do with the subject matter. Because people are passionate about games, it’s easy to connect with others and talk about what they enjoy.
The games industry also hosts a ton of events, one of the most well-known being the Game Developer’s Conference. “It’s really cool to hear all of the things people are working on and how other studios do things,” Alicia commented.
Games as Work
In speaking to all of these designers, one takeaway was certain — working in games has been a truly fun experience for them. Not only that, being able to care about the products on a personal level and empathizing well with the end-user go a long way towards building great experiences. Working with other gamers in the industry means geeking out with them and sharing experiences outside of work.
But the darker side is that it’s true working in games is extremely competitive. The industry is littered with people who are truly passionate and care about their products. Game studios build world-class teams to create experiences that become hallmarks in game history. That means people are working around the clock to deliver quality on time. The amount of polish that goes into these products is no joke, and this often means going into overtime.
Alicia gave a last bit of great advice for designers seeking entrance into the world of games in general that I want to pass on:
- Don’t let the tools define you. You define the tools. Use what you’re comfortable with, and learn to adapt when necessary. Take the time to prioritize what skills you will need for the job, how best to tackle it, and pivot when necessary. Don’t be overly concerned with what you’re using to get there, but how.
- If you’re just starting out, follow your passion but reject the notion that anyone has to specialize in anything. Try everything out, see what works for you. While you’re young and have time, it’s better to be flexible and open-minded to new opportunities. Oftentimes the best fit for you can be elusive simply because you never knew of its existence.
- Find great people to work with. To optimize for growth no matter who you are, try landing a job where you can be surrounded by people who are better than you. Whether that means more experience or better talent, working with colleagues that know their stuff will seriously impact your professional growth. You might get a bad case of impostor syndrome, but it’s worth it!
In terms of design growth, there has been increasing dedication to user experiences within games or around game-centered products. One of my personal hopes is to see more dedicated UX roles being defined at game studios, and more female faces in the largely male-dominated tech industry.
Being able to discuss the industry as a whole with these amazingly talented designers has only affirmed my love for it even more. If you’d like to contribute your own thoughts on the matter, feel free to reach out to me at t firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to grow the amount of resources out there for young designers looking into games.
Get to know the names behind games:
Below you can find more information on the talented people I interviewed.
Cecilia Peng, UI Designer at Pocket Gems
Sean Chang, UI Designer at Pocket Gems