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So, I attended the first few days of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. I talked to a LOT of industry veterans and asked as many as I could how to break in.

Posted by cesig on Mar 12th, 2010

Tips from the professionals on how to get into the Video Games industry

(tl;dr: scroll to the bottom)

Moscone Center, San Francisco

So, I attended the first few days of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. I just got back last night, and I wanted to share my experiences while they were fresh. Note that I'm not in the industry, and went only as a student.

I got a tutorials and summits pass, which gets me into a fraction of the content GDC has to offer. But the All-Access passes are way more than I can (convince anyone else to) spend.

I sat in on a seminar called "Level Design in a Day." It was a panel of lead level designers from various game companies, all talking about various aspects of level design, from pre-production, to cover systems, to using gestalt in games. Facinating stuff.

Even more facinating is how this group of level designers got together at a bar afterwards and hung out to talk to folks. I had good conversations with Joel Burgess, Level Design Lead for Fallout 3 from Bethesda, and Ed Byrne, Lead Level Designer at Zipper Interactive (, makers of MAG.

Joel Burgess, Bethesda Softworks,
Lead Level Designer for Fallout 3

Joel Burgess talked about gestalt in games. Gestalt isn't an easy thing to describe, but basicallly it has to do with how humans interpret things. He showed a section in Fallout 3 to illustrate what he meant. The player, while in the wastes, picks up a distress call saying to the effect of: "Please help. My son is very sick. We are in a nearby bunker." When the player gets to the bunker, they find two adult skeletons and a radio looping the message the player heard. The son's skeleton is nowhere in the bunker. (You can see the video here:

How the player interprets that scene is gestalt. It's the act of the observer filling in the story for this scene. Where is the son? How long have these people been dead?

I asked him how he got into the industry. I don't remember if he'd been modding before (I assume so), but he did say that he sent out over 200 resumes before he got a job. And the first job he got was something like this:

Joel: "Hi, I'm Joel."

Producer: "Hi Joel, I'm your boss. Here's your computer, which is sitting on a folding table. Here is the level design tool you will be using. We've got 30 dungeons we need you to build for us. You have two weeks. Oh, and we're +2 today."

Joel: "+2?"

Producer: "That means 2 extra hours of work today."

...And that was his first day in the industry. It's absolutely chilling.

During his talk he mentioned how Bethesda is a "crunch-free" studio. The fact that "crunch-free" is something to be lauded in this industry is simply sad. Makes me realize how new it still really is. But he also mentioned that he got to his position as lead level designer for Fallout 3 in about 6 years. That's pretty amazing. Almost as good as this.

Ed Byrne, Zipper Interactive,
Lead Level Designer for MAG

Ed's talk was about level design pre-production. He went into a lot of detail about process and how to help the level design process go smoothly from beginning to end. I won't go into a ton of detail because a lot of it was meant for those already in the industry trying to tweak their company's workflow. But there were some good tips for modders as well. Here's the most relevant part from my notes:

For best results:

  • 3-6 months is ideal
  • use a dedicated space
  • use a cross-discipline team
  • have a defined output
  • have frequent reviews (but not milestones)
  • make sure team knows what the requirements are
  • have a war room with all the notes on the wall
  • helpful to keep notes mobile (he prefers post-its on foam-core)
  • leave no idea behind

Raw Materials:

  • Story
  • Player Metrics
  • Core mechanics
  • concepts/art
  • flow model


  • 4-10 people
  • have a moderator
  • have a note taker (not the same as the moderator, if possible)
  • 2-hour sessions are best
  • giant post-its are great for this
  • Goal: Create Level Abstracts

Level Abstracts contain:

  • concepts
  • story position (what is going on in the world during this level?)
  • environment (is this level a space ship? A forest? etc.)
  • the level start
  • the level end
  • the goal of the level
  • challenges
  • rewards
  • failure-recovery
  • Goal: Enough detail to describe the level


  • Create as many ideas as possible
  • can be combat, a vista, a scripted sequence, etc. It's really any major standout moment for that level.

Cell Diagrams (sort of like flowcharts):

  • Create cell diagrams to stitch encounters together in the proper order they'll appear in the game
  • draft of level flow
  • exposes inital concerns
  • ensures consistency of experience (incomplete or under-filled levels will stand out at this stage and can be re-examined, enhanced)

Optional: Acquire Imagery

  • use google or something to pull an image that represents that level.
  • use one image per level
  • get feedback:

Pitch level(s) to key players:

  • don't brainstorm here.
  • collect feedback.
  • walk people through the levels verbally.
  • make cuts here if necessary. This is the easiest and least painful time to make cuts.
  • go back to drawing board if necessary to round out slim or sparse levels


  • Story of player experiences
  • has most elements in detail
  • shows empts/sparse parts of your game
  • you can use the following encounter models as useful visual aids for your level while you're walking people through it.

Encounter Models (ways to physically represent encounters in your level)

manipulative (making something 3d):

  • can use legos.
  • is spatial
  • is tactile
  • not easy to save or share
  • must be simplified compared to level
  • can be hard for others to interpret ("Wait, this airplane is made of multicolored bricks and has a knight's lance for a laser gun. WTF."

technical (a 2d drawing of a level)

  • 2d, scalable, easy to save, reproduceable
  • not tactile
  • not good for representing level scale (I can definitely attest to this)
  • can show detail
  • easy to overcomplicate

illustrative: (photo or video)

  • not abstract (can be hard to know which elements from the video are relevant to the game experience, and which are not)

interactive (level prototypes)

  • rough visuals can be off-putting to others (again, hard to know which elements are directly related to the experience and which are just rough edges)

    Mattias Worch, Viceral Games,
    Lead Level Designer for Dead Space

    This talk was about environments in games, and how they can't help but tell stories. It was similar, I guess, in a lot of ways to Joel Burgess' talk about gestalt. Unfortunately, he was right in the middle of an 8-hour block of talks, so it's kind of mushy in my head.
    Mattias' talk focused on both process and design. He talked about how the level designer enables play.
    He talked about the "physical properties" of the level. What can a person learn about the world from the environment?
    He built a small level with only 10 brushes (in UnrealEd) and deconstructed it into its individual parts (power up, choke point, hallway, high-ground, etc.) and talked about how the gameplay emerges from the interplay of the parts, and the influences those component parts have on the players.
    He talked about the "ecology" (his term) of the levels. The ecology, he says, is all of the non-world-geometry stuff. Power-ups, enemies, props, etc. These all have measurable effects on the gameplay.

    He (and several others on the panel) also talked a lot about "whiteboxing," which was generally defined as roughing in a level. Worch literally uses untextured brushes to build and test the gameplay of the levels he creates. Jim Brown from Epic Games, however, adds a little more detail with very basic texturing, and extremely rough interpretations of large landmarks.

Scott Miller, Co-Owner
Apogee Games/3d Realms

This was crazy. So, I'm officially done with GDC, and I'm on the plane. And this guy is next to me going on about his iPhone and my wo-worker's Nexus One (He and I each got one free at the conference because I signed up for a mobile dev track--it's killer). And we talk about GDC and ask if he had attended, and he laughs or sighs a little and says "No, I'm in the games industry but I was there for a different reason."

When I ask what that reason is, he says "Well, I started a few companies and I was down here for that."

"What's the name of the company?" I ask.

"Apogee Games and 3d Realms," he says.

So, Scott Miller, my co-worker, and I ended up talking about mobile phones (especially Google maps on iPhone and Android), Duke 3d ports to XBox Live and iPhone, people who have survived horrifying brain damage, planes exploding in outer space, and, most importantly for everyone here, his advice for getting into the industry.

Scott is an executive, and so his advice, in my opinion, was much less about living in the trenches and trying to do good work to get noticed. It's listed in the section below.

Scott also mentioned some interesting things about 3D Realms and his other company, Radar. If anyone is interested, I can talk about that in another post.
He also spent about half the flight playing Plants vs. Zombies on his iPhone.

He also got my name wrong. :(

Tips from the Experts

  1. Make a mod -- Everyone
  2. A degree is only helpful in showing that you are a good communicator, not that you are a good designer. -- Ed Byrne
  3. Show that you can think in ways that provide interesting and useful solutions to gameplay problems. Show your process work, concept art, rough ideas. Show how you can take an idea, identify a problem with it, and solve that problem. That is critical to being a good designer, so it goes a long way if you can show a company that you can do that. --Ed Byrne
  4. Your mod doesn't have to be long. It just has to be good. -- Ed Byrne
  5. Lead level designers that are evaluating your work will quit your level and disqualify you in five minutes if they're bored with your work. Hook them IMMEDIATELY. -- Jean Simonet (Bethesda Softworks)
  6. Start at a small firm that's making small games. Larger firms have more money and can afford to hire industry veterans with higher salary requirements and lots of experience. -- Scott Miller
  7. Level designers are in a unique position to make a lot of talented people look really incompetent. The entire game is experienced through the work of the level designer. If an art asset or a sound is implemented poorly it makes the creator look bad. -- Jim Brown, Epic Games

The presentation slides are now available from Joel Burgess' blog (towards the bottom):

If this is helpful to you, please use the super bookmark at the top of the article to share it, or click here and digg it up. Thanks!

I would also like to thank the following people for taking the time to talk to me:
  • Jeremy Bennet, Valve
  • Matthew Russell, Valve
  • Matt Wright, Valve
  • Katie Engel, Valve
  • Jean Simonet, Bethesda Softworks
  • Neil Alphonso, Splash Damage
Post comment Comments
stoopdapoop Mar 12 2010, 5:44pm says:

excellent read. I really wish I could afford to get into GDC.

+3 votes     reply to comment
cesig Author
cesig Mar 13 2010, 12:45pm replied:

I'm glad my article has been so helpful to everyone.

Yeah its expensive. They have one in Austin,TX in September if that one is easier to get to.

Getting the expo pass might be a good compromise sometime. Its cheaper but usually you can still talk to actual studio employees about their jobs.

+1 vote   reply to comment
finaldebt0 Mar 12 2010, 5:52pm says:

nice man thanks for the info:) good article too.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Jokerme Mar 12 2010, 7:03pm says:

Copy - Paste to Notepad - Save - Thanks :)

+1 vote     reply to comment
Icedecknight Mar 12 2010, 7:08pm says:

TYVM I really excited to start a company soon and this helped me out thanks.

+1 vote     reply to comment
wazanator Mar 12 2010, 9:04pm says:

Very good article bookmarked it and saved it in word for future reference :)

+1 vote     reply to comment
Chain_the_Warforged Mar 13 2010, 3:15am says:

Thanks a lot for the article! Extremely helpful general advise!

+1 vote     reply to comment
Pyroinflames Mar 13 2010, 8:44am says:

thx ... I got really good thoughts and ideas while reading this - its really worth to read :D

+1 vote     reply to comment
scubahunter Mar 13 2010, 11:49am says:

Thanks SOOO much for that. I really wanted to go to GDC but its too freaking expensive. Thanks a ton man!

+1 vote     reply to comment
awesomepossum Mar 13 2010, 2:48pm says:

Great article, some very useful advise from the industry pros.

+1 vote     reply to comment
fizzysaucers Mar 13 2010, 4:55pm says:

informative, entertaining and thoroughly eye-opening - many thanks for sharing this with the world. This has become my unofficial game development bible! Stellar work, mate.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Tokoya Mar 14 2010, 5:17pm says:

Great read, thank you for the info

+1 vote     reply to comment
Worldwideweb Mar 15 2010, 12:57pm says:

excellent job, your mod seems to be a special one too, after having so much learned about mapping and so on......thanks that you let us know the things you've heard, for many the way to a GDC is a bit far^^

+2 votes     reply to comment
cesig Author
cesig Mar 15 2010, 3:31pm replied:

Thanks for the compliments.

And I learned so much and talked to so many talented people that I couldn't NOT share. Joel Burgess' talk in particular was super cool.

The panel put the presentation slides online but I didn't copy down the URL.

+1 vote   reply to comment
Rareform Mar 16 2010, 8:07pm says:

Interesting but long read.

I actually gave up on trying to get into the industry a long time ago - and I tried to get into it for years. I was a decent artist specializing in 2D art, texture painting and prop modelling.

However, no one was ever interested or wanted to give me a chance and any and all mods that I ever worked on always died. I also tried networking, and made many friends at Relic/Blackbox/Ubisoft/EA (all in Vancouver). However, none of them could help let alone even mention my name because I was told that most of the time HR doesn't give a **** what their employees say about potential hires.

Anyways, I have since become a Police Officer - kudos to anyone who makes it into the industry.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Icedecknight Mar 24 2010, 9:26pm replied:

This is actually really short. Try reading a book about starting a company lol. A bit different.

+1 vote     reply to comment
Roland_Shaw Mar 17 2010, 11:27am says:

great read, thanks!

+1 vote     reply to comment
GamerWolfOps Jan 16 2011, 5:53am says:

Great article thanks alot :)
The advises are great and i have saved them.

+1 vote     reply to comment
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