How to Get a Job as a Level Designer by Scott “Skarz” Blinn
|Ask Skarz – 03-18-2000|
Got a question for me? Or is that a banana in your pocket? Email me!
Most of the time I see these articles on “How to get a job in the game industry” they are pretty vague and geared towards programmers. I was hoping you could answer some specific questions on getting a job as a level designer.
For instance, do you recommend college? And if so what should I study?
Can you recommend any good web sites that list job openings?
Can you give any tips for a level designer’s resume?
Any other programs that are good to know? Like 3d Studio Max or is that a waste or time?
I see a lot that some job postings say it’s good to know a scripting language. What language would you recommend?
Can you recommend a good place begin?
Any words or wisdom would be greatly appreciated.
OK, here we go. Get ready to take notes because I am going to tell you exactly how to get a job as a level designer. Before I begin, please note that the following information only really applies if you have the talent to create great levels- if this is not the case yet then you need to keep practicing! This article isn’t about how to make a great level- I’ll assume your at that stage already. First let’s talk about what makes a level designer talented and ready to be hired.
Talent: The talent to create as near-professional quality levels as possible. What does this mean really? It means you pay attention to detail, you take your time doing advanced texturing and lighting on your levels, you look at the levels shipped with your favorite games and can do the same type of work yourself. You know there is a lot more to a level than making the areas look cool and can accomplish those tasks (good sound placement, scripted events, puzzles, ambushes, fun gameplay, mood setting, etc.). You also need to get honest feedback from others to help you improve your skills on a regular basis- you need to practice ALL the time.
Ok, now here is a list of things you need to have/know when applying to your average game company:
1) A professional quality resume. There are lots of books and resources on making a good resume- take advantage of it. Focus on any education/job experience that has to do with level design that you might have. Stick to the facts and don’t worry to much about your resume, it’s going to be your levels that is the important factor to getting a job. Check spelling. Also, make sure you have some good personal/business type references ready in case they are requested.
2) A short and to-the-point cover letter. Just be brief and personable. DO NOT use a generic cover letter to send to a bunch of people! Create each cover letter specifically for the company you are sending it to.
3) Portfolio of your work. Include great screenshots of your main levels. You may also have earlier levels you have done that are not all that great, but still may have a few good screenshots in them. I also recommend creating little levels (small areas) with various themes and taking some screenshots of them as well (like a medieval scene, sci-fi scene, etc.) Show that you are versatile and imaginative and could work on a game in any genre. Also include any other types of art you may have done, such as: textures, skins, hi-end 3D renders, traditional pencil/ink art, etc. Tip: Don’t include every piece of work you have done, just your best pieces.
4) Single Player Level. I know many of you have only ever made multiplayer levels- and some good ones at that. Well, that’s nothing compared to what you need to do to make a great single player level. There is a whole new set of skills needed to pull this off- and those skills are very important in the industry. Showing you can do a cool and inventive scripted event, scare the player by an ambush, puzzle, etc. takes a lot of thought and work, but will be well worth it. Showing a great single player level will give you HUGE bonus points with game companies and you should have one in your arsenal.
5) Multiplayer Level. Include a good old-school DM level (or maybe a CTF). Make it look cool, play fast, and just be fun in general. If it looks and plays like the DM levels that shipped with the game you should be all set. Tip: This applies to both Steps 4 and 5- make sure your levels have a good framerate! Cut some visual detail if you need to, but keep that framerate acceptable. No level is fun to play if the framerate is bad- I don’t care how good it looks.
6) Research the companies you are applying to and also make sure you fulfill any special requests they may have posted on their website for applicants. Show you can at least follow directions and care about the company you are applying to! A good example of this is right on my employer’s (Volition) “Job Board” at: http://www.volition-inc.com/
7) Website. This one is by all means optional, but does add a nice touch and help people remember you and easily access your information online. Take your resume and portfolio and create a nice website out of them. Use a free homepage service if needed. Include your level files for download (with screenshots showing the coolest parts and a small text description of the level), along with a printable (Word doc) version of your resume. In this case it is also ok to have a nice generic cover letter on the main page that just covers what your looking for and what you have to offer. Check spelling. Have fun with the site, but make sure it looks presentable and isn’t confusing in any way. You want people to be able to navigate the site easily and see all your work.
8) Follow up. If you apply to a company and don’t hear back from them after two weeks, follow up with a polite email asking if they had a chance to review your information and if they require anything else from you. Show your interest and enthusiasm for working with them.
Optional Items and Tips to help give you that extra edge to getting hired.
9) Become active in the online community by releasing maps and by even working on a Mod/TC if possible. Do things to get your name out there and maybe even get contacts in the industry.
10) Study level design and gameplay. Stop playing a game and saying “That was fun!” and start asking “WHY was that fun?” Learning about gameplay and what makes a certain game design fun is very valuable. Also, questions about gameplay is bound to come up in most interviews- you should have a clue as to what REALLY makes games fun.
11) College/University: Should you go? Well if you live in the USA I would say this is a personal choice. I wouldn’t say it effects you getting hired as a level designer if you don’t go as long as your levels show quality. If you have the talent, they will hire you. I would also say that going to an art school and studying either 3D modeling/animation, or Industrial Design would look good on your resume and provide some experience that will help your level design skills. If you DO NOT live inside the USA, then I would say it can be very important to go to University if all possible. The main reason for this is that most top game companies (especially in the FPS genre) are in the USA, and from what I hear it is much easier to get through immigration and get a work visa to come to the USA if you have been to (and finished) University. Something to keep in mind.
12) Learn other skills and become multi-talented. This is also a big bonus when looking at applicants. Learn scripting or even full-blown programming in C++. Learn to make cool textures for your levels (some companies require level designers to make their own textures). Learn to script for games such as Half-Life or Unreal.
13) Learn a 3D package! Knowing 3D Studio MAX in this industry is a Good Thing(tm). Much of the industry uses MAX in one way or another- some even use it as their level editor. Knowing MAX will give you another bonus point. LightWave is another great package to know if possible and it also seems that Maya is making quite the splash in the game industry these days.
14) Learn to make levels in Unreal/Unreal Tournament, Quake 3 or Half-Life. Why? These products are mainstream with wide support and lots of online information to help you out- and have some of the more advanced tools. Unreal and Half-Life offer you lot’s of single player potential (powerful scripting and other such features) while Quake 3 offers the chance to use some very advanced technologies where you can learn about things like curved surfaces and surface shaders. These games have the potential to give you the best visuals and most advanced gameplay options available “off the shelf” today to push your skills to the limits.
15) Try to get a job in Q/A (game tester) at a game company while building your skills. This offers two big advantages- a) You will be more likely to advance in the company from Q/A than some other guy applying from outside the company, and b) You will learn a TON about gameplay/game design and also how the industry works from the inside. You will also make some friends/contacts in the biz which is always good.
16) Just be knowledgeable about the game industry in general. Keep up on the gaming news and read a trade publication or two such as Game Developer and GameWeek (see links below). Knowledge is power and will give you tips on what developers are looking for in employees for tomorrow’s games. It’s also good to know where trends are heading in the industry and to be ready for them.
Well, I guess that should be enough info to get you all heading in the right direction. I hope this helps some of you out there! Below is a small list of references you should at least be aware of:
Game Industry Info:
— Scott “Skarz” Blinn