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Becoming a Video Game Designer

A revealing guide to a career as a video game designer written by acclaimed journalist Daniel Noah Halpern and based on the real-life experiences of legendary designer Tom Cadwell of Riot Games—required reading for anyone considering a path to this profession.

Becoming a Video Game Designer takes you behind the scenes to find out what it’s really like, and what it really takes, to become a video game designer. Gaming is a $138 billion-dollar entertainment industry, and designers are the beating heart. Long-form journalist Daniel Noah Halpern shadows top video game designer Tom Cadwell to show how this dream job becomes a reality. Cadwell is head of design at Riot Games, the company behind award-winning blockbuster games like League of Legends, which has an active user base of 111 million players. Creating a massive multiplayer online game takes years of visionary R&D—it is a blend of art and science. It is also big business. Learn the ins and the outs of the job from Cadwell as well as other designers, including Brendon Chung, acclaimed founder of Blendo Games. Successful designers must be creative decision makers and also engineers and collaborators. Gain professional wisdom by following Tom’s path to prominence, from his start as a passionate gamer to becoming one of the most revered designers in the business.

Chapter 1: The Universe, Also Known as the Game 1 THE UNIVERSE, ALSO KNOWN AS THE GAME
Here are three moments, from three universes:

First: the Unkillable Demon King has taken the form of Orianna, the Lady of Clockwork, for battle. He knows they’ve won when he traps Kuro for his partner’s backdoor gank. It’s all over once they kill Baron and wipe the other team out of the top lane. Afterward, he eats a chocolate bar. This is 2016, or no time at all.

Then: Poncho jacks in after picking up the contract. Once she’s in the matrix, on the boat, she lowers the railing, deploys a launcher, launches herself to the airship. Three minutes through the door to do the job. At the elevator shaft she gets out the autocase, deck, and CCTV module, punches in “setpos 699-32-206” to aim the autocase, exits the aimbot, and enters the blink. The trunkline’s in the Psychocortical Practice Room, whatever that is; she connects the phone to the deck, downloads it, scrams. It’s only later, after she’s jumped back to the Farfig, that she realizes she’s forgotten to grab the autocase, left it behind. She’s getting older, a little tired. This is 1980, or no time at all.

And finally: 14.Bxe7 Qb6 15.Bc4 Nxc3 16.Bc5 Rfe8+ 17.Kf1 Be6!! That was, almost indisputably, 1956.

You are forgiven if you do not know where you are. Only with time will a universe teach you to navigate inside its borders.

The first universe you are observing is the world of Runeterra. Runeterra is the setting for League of Legends, which, in what is often referred to as the real world, is a tremendously popular free-to-play video game. League of Legends requires you to choose a “champion” as your digital proxy and then team up with four other players in order to kill five opponents, as well as avoid or defeat other murderous obstacles, all within a fantasy realm of dragons and swords and magic fireballs. This particular instant is split in two, half taking place in Runeterra and half back here on earth: the moment of victory by this world’s most famous professional League of Legends player, a young South Korean named Lee Sang-hyeok, also known as Faker, also known as the Unkillable Demon King, in the semifinals of the e-sports 2016 League of Legends World Championship.

The second universe begins in a place called Nuevos Aires and continues into a virtual reality within it. This is the video game Quadrilateral Cowboy, a cyberpunk hacking game that asks you to commit a series of heists on contract, using a computer you build to enter a matrix within the matrix—a digital world within its digital world. Your exploits begin on New Year’s Eve as 1979 recedes and the ’80s approach, somewhere within the early morning of cyberspace. You—as Poncho—get your assignment, case the job, log on with your portable deck and launcher and lantern, and enter the cyberspatial target. You have two friends and colleagues, Lou and Maisy; you have a square head and blue hair and a portable Vinylman to play your favorite records; you have three seconds to disarm the lasers and sneak in.

The third universe isn’t a universe at all, really. It’s chess. This is the moment a thirteen-year-old Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen to his opponent, Donald Byrne, then one of the top-rated adult players in the country, a shocking and brilliant move that led Fischer to victory and to the beginning of his legend.

That is the experience of beginning to play a new game: What is this place? How does it work? What is the language they speak here? Gank, blink, check. Oh! He took my pawn! Oh look, I can fly if I eat the green thing. Oh look, if I hit the space bar I jump up. Oh, see that, I—wait, how did I die?

The gods and minor divinities who make these universes have many names, but the ones who choose how the universe, also known as the game, will work are game designers. How does the rook move, can you launch yourself through space, and, wait, how do you stop? Do you remain invisible when you hide in the weeds, and can you try to jump out to kill another champion from behind? Game designers invent the things you can do in games, and they decide what you can’t. They decide whether you can castle your king and rook just to the left, or both to the left and the right; whether you can pick up a vase and break the window of a doorless room you’ve been stuck in for too long. They create and adjust the rules of a universe you’ve chosen to enter. They decide if you can fly or not. They decide if you can talk to your friends or if you float around deaf and mute. They decide that you must murder an innocent little girl if you want the slug that lives inside her and which will give you great power to defeat your enemies. They decide that you cannot pass, that you cannot understand, that you cannot know, that you must die here, in this place. But they also decide that you can—you can understand, you can know. They make a door just for you and refuse to let you enter by it. They make a hole for you to jump through. They’re the reason so many people come here to live. That is, to play.

It wasn’t so long ago that most adult Americans considered video games nothing more than toys for children, time-wasters. Many still do, perhaps. Mindless, worthless, silly. Marginal to culture, or even entirely outside it. Corrosions to the social fabric. Incitements to carnage, instructions for nihilism. Violent delights with violent ends.

While the country was trying to decide whether video games represented something utterly unimportant or instead the utter and total destruction of society, something happened. Video games began to leave other entertainments behind. They started to make money—more money than books, music, or movies. They became the most popular and lucrative entertainment category in the country. They started to innovate—to use the form and technology of games to do things that other entertainment had never done before. They became something new.

Creating a video game requires a variety of skills, and so this growth, and this innovation, has a host of authors. Founders, visionaries; programmers and artists and writers; marketers and salespeople and quality testers and so on. But the technology and the art, the storytelling and the coding, exist outside of games: in dishwashers and phones and thermostats, in museums and galleries, in books and television shows. What doesn’t exist outside of games are games. That is: how the game works; what makes it a game. Above all, perhaps, what a new game needs are rules. Structures. Goals and objectives. How will it work? What are you trying to do when you play it? Where are you trying to go? What’s stopping you? What’s helping you? How do you navigate?

A video game designer answers these questions. A designer might choose whether you get two seconds or two minutes to complete a task. Or choose whether the rules of quantum mechanics apply in this new universe. Is there gravity here? Does gravity work the same way here as in our world? Should you have more teammates than enemies? Should you be able to detonate a nuclear weapon? Should you be able to run faster than the speed of sound? How do you win? How do you lose? Should you turn into a green walrus if you eat the red chickens? Should you be a good goose or a bad goose?

What would be more fun? This—or that? That—or this?
Christina Lewis

Daniel Noah Halpern’s reporting and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, and many other magazines. He lives in New York City.

More books in this series: Masters at Work