Real Lives

12th February 2006


In a previous post entitled Why I Play FPS Games I posted a response to a comment where I mentioned different types of people who could design levels for games. It got me thinking about designer’s lives outside the gaming world.

Career Paths

Gaming is still a relatively new industry when compared to movies or books. Only in the last few years have people moved from school to university to game studio/freelance. Previously I presume they changed careers as more and more jobs became available. Now, people are specifically working towards dedicated careers within the game industry. I accept that the above is a generalisation and is used for illustration purposes only.

One question I have is “Is this a good or bad thing?” It may seem obvious to you that of course it’s a good thing but experience in the outside world may be very important. I know a Gym manager of a very successful and well-known Health Club (in London) who only employs trainers who have either changed careers or have plenty of experience OUTSIDE the fitness industry. His argument is that when he tried employing newly qualified staff they lacked the ability to deal with people. They may have known the technical aspects of their job but not the people management. Now this example isn’t perfect but I feel the general principle is the same. Will only knowing about games be enough to create the next level of entertainment? What other worldly experience would be beneficial? A grounding in popular culture, psychology, history, art – the list goes on!

Other Jobs

As well as considering outside influences for game designers I began to consider what previous, or current, professions may make good level designers. Here are my thoughts:

  • Classical Music Composer
    I have long harboured the desire to research the structure of classical music (Mainly symphonies) and make a comparison with the overall balance/structure of levels within a game. Some readers may know that symphonies have quite restricted structures regarding the different movements etc. Patterns and themes occur in both symphonies and games and I think it would be interesting to see a composer balance the different types of SP levels etc. (If anybody is interested in working with me further on this please contact me)
  • Detective Novelist
    These types of novels can be very elaborate and lead the reader on a criss-crossing journey. The FPS games tend to have simpler stories because of the way the story is told but that doesn’t mean they have to be simple. Being able to convince the player that something is true only to have the opposite be true may be a valuable skill.
  • Architect
    Perhaps the most obvious career to consider but I’m sure there are disadvantages as well as advantages. Perhaps town planners may make better level designers. What do you think?
  • Soldier
    Who better to design a level in an FPS game than somebody who has been in a similar situation? Whether the level is good to play may depend on whether they you attacking or defending a position. This may be more valuable for Modern warfare games than Sci- Fi ones.
Thought Experiment

Time for a thought experiment. Lets collect a group of willing participants from varied professions and ask them to design some levels. Each participant would have a technical assistant to actually sit at the computer and use the editor. These designers would direct their assistant to physically create the design, unless they wanted to do it themselves. However this experiment is to see the quality of the design not the ability to actually build levels!

There would be three different groups:

  • Group 1
    This group has NO experience in gaming. They have never played a computer game until now.
  • Group 2
    This group has a little experience in gaming. They have played computer games for less than one year.
  • Group 3
    This group has extensive experience in gaming. They have played computer games for over one year but have NEVER designed a level.

Who do you think would produce the best levels? It’s unlikely that Group 1 would produce the best levels but what about between Group 2 and 3? I don’t know, I suspect that it is less to do with gaming experience than with creativity and imagination. Which brings me back to the first point at the beginning of this post. Can you be creative and imaginative without experience or some influence from outside?

Younger readers (No disrespect intended) may assume that creativity and imagination are independent of experience and to some degree they are but imagine a man who has lived all his life in a cave and has no experience of western society. Now ask him to create something for your game. It wouldn’t be impossible but without having knowledge and experience of society he would be lacking a key component in creativity, that of ADAPTATION.

A new work is in some way adapted from other, previous work. Is it possible that Gaming design is becoming incestuous due to a lack of outside influence? No of course not but it is important to have a wide experience of live as possible.

I’m making the situation sound much worse than it is but I feel the point is still valid. I believe that creativity unencumbered by limits and preconceptions is necessary but there has to be a balance between freedom to create and experience to adapt.


Perhaps I’ve tried to discuss two separate topics and confused them. I’m not convinced I have made my thoughts clear enough but no matter how many times I revise the draft it doesn’t seem to improve.

My final question to you is:
“Is the gaming industry missing out on an incredible wealth of talent and experience just because most applicants are fresh from college?” It’s much easier to teach people how to use an level editor than it is to teach them creativity. I’m certainly not suggesting that current level designers aren’t creative! I’m just wondering what’s the oldest professional level designer you have heard of?

Some of these thought processes stem from the fact that I’m over forty and am disappointed I’m not working within the industry. (Although I haven’t tried) If there are people my age, and plenty older, that play games why can’t we make them?

As always I’m interested to hear your thoughts and comments.


  1. Kartones

    It’s very possible that “group 2 people” could make better levels or content once they adapt to the system.

    I’m noticing something similar in my current project at work. We have to make some components with two different programming languages (Java and .NET) but this components should be very similar if not equal.
    So by having almost daily meetings and talking with the “java side”, the “.NET side” are getting some very interesting design ideas, and viceversa.

    I think same can be applied to game industry. Someone who works as a psychologist may be a very valuable asset for an online MMORPG, or a floorplan designer may do quite good FPS interior levels.

    At least, they have an “outside point of view”, and sometimes that is more valuable or can give the answer to some problems.

  2. I agree, group 2 may yield the best results, pity it can’t be tested.

  3. Senator33

    Phillip, if you are patterning after the symphonic form, which is a very good idea, Beethoven might be your best guide – as he was the original composer of the “scherzo” form.

    Mahler’s 5-movement symphonies also might be a good guide.

  4. I’m sure there are plenty on interesting comparisons to be made with Classical music. It’s probably quite a big project that may produce some interesting “rules”.

    Perhaps the music used in ballets would also be worth looking at? They tell a story in a way other classical music doesn’t.

  5. Volcano

    Rather than bring in traditionally non-gaming professions as level designers, I believe it is more likely they will be used in a consultative role: quicker to pay a fee for a historical architects advice on 15C Florence than to get him to learn the technical side of level design.

    Why do you need experience of the outside world when you can just buy it from those who have been there and possess the T-shirt?

  6. There’s no doubt you can bring in outside consultants on certain projects (didn’t they do that on COD?) but you can’t do it for everything.

    If you are looking to actually reproduce certain historical features, as you yourself mentioned, then it could be the perfect solution.

    “Why do you need experience of the outside world when you can just buy it from those who have been there and possess the T-shirt?”

    There could be a number of reasons. I don’t believe you can buy Experience only Advice” and whilst that may sound like little difference I think it’s very big.

    A guy brought in to answer questions and check details is a big difference from them actually sitting down and creating something themselves.

    In the short term it’s cheaper to bring them in as consultants but what about the longer term? There could be thousands of talented level/game designers out there that don’t know they can make their own games because they are not exposed to gaming.

    I’ve no doubt there are just as many younger level/game designers waiting for their chance to impress, the difference is they are not neglected.

  7. Carolyn

    I fit intoGroup 3. I know what I like, what works for me and what sucks. I think the biggest obstacle is the logistics of getting any of those groups” input into the gaming industry. No one has ever asked me, and as an older woman FPS player, I’m such an oddity that I strongly suspect I’m not in anyone’s demographics. Like all facets of our society, gaming simply does not include older people as being significant participants. And gaming, likewise like all facets of our society, is geared to tap into the interests, resourses and input of the young. Gaming has the added aspect of catering to males.

    Each group has its strong points. Group 1 has not been jaded. It’s sort of like Star Wars. The first one was brilliant and inspired. Each successive movie deteriorated in innovation because of the money industry growing up around it and everyone having their finger in the piel It became an industry instead of a creative venture. It is known that most great scientific breakthroughs happen before the discoverers are much past 30. The impetuous brashness of inexperience…
    Group 2 has enough experience to understand the basic challenges of interface and would not fall into the trap like the PhD in math trying to teach 8th graders who don’t know basic equations. The more knowledge you have, the more you forget what it’s like to not know. Group 2 is still new enough to remember what it is to be lost, and what it is to go thru the thrill of new experiences .
    Group 3, like me, has a really good idea of what works and what doesn’t work. As an older gamer I also understand what it is to burn out on a game because it requires a 20 year old nervous system to play, or is asking me to identify with characters that are specifically of interest to the young or to guys.

    I like your selections of former professions. It might work to combine the various aspecst of those professions; the ability to see a whole, divided into movements; the intrigue of mystery, complex story, and unexpected turns; an elegant synthesis of holistic game architecture, and the credibility a seasoned soldier would bring to the action and reactions of the characters. What about a think tank comprised of people who could think like this, maybe just from educated imaginations?

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