Note: Ghostcrawler (Lead Systems Designer for World of Warcraft) saw this thread, and had a few thoughts to share on the subject with all those interested in pursuing a career in game design at Blizzard:
Peratryn offers some great advice, and I can elaborate on it. I do know a ton about what the different game teams here look for, and I'm happy to share.
Most everything that follows is relevant to game design specifically. If your son (or anyone reading this) is interested in a career as a game programmer or artist, the path may be slightly different. Above all, know that this is a relatively young career, and people take a lot of different paths to get here. The bad news is it can be fairly competitive. It's a great job and there are a lot of gamers out there who are dying to break into it. The good news is that the industry continues to grow, so there are new opportunities available and by the time your son is old enough to get a job, there should be even more, economy willing.
I'll talk first about education. At this point in time, there are a few college degrees in game development. Most of these programs are still fairly young and I don't know many professional designers with those degrees. Yet. This is not at all to disparage those programs (personally I think it's awesome to watch them grow), but to point out you don't need a game design degree and most designers don't have them. In fact, there isn't a "wrong" college degree to pursue for game design. We have several designers who have computer science degrees, but it varies enormously. We have designers with backgrounds in art, economics, writing, math, law and of course science. The only common thread is that communication skills are really important in game design, because a big part of the job is explaining your designs and otherwise collaborating with a team.
Next comes experience. You need some kind of experience to get a job in game design. Playing a lot of games does count as experience, but it's the kind of thing that's hard for us to test. You're better off playing a lot of games and doing something else as well. Career experience as a professional game designer is of course the most desirable. Blizzard is in a position where we can afford to be really picky about who we hire so we often look for prior experience. I will quickly add that plenty of our designers didn't have any, but it helps a lot. Less established companies are more likely to give a beginner a shot, and once you have some experience, you'll have a lot more options. If you can't get a job as a game designer, you can try to get a job in a game company and hope to move sideways into game design. We have several designers who worked in quality assurance and customer service. You just have to get your foot in the door.
If you can't get a job in the game industry there are still several options. The first is to be a very good, perhaps even professional, game player, but that can be even harder than getting into game development in the first place. Not all great game players are great designers, but it's the kind of thing that may score you an interview. The second is to design your own game. That is easier than ever in this day of mobile devices, but still not a trivial feat you can throw together on a weekend. This next part is important: we like to see completed games because it shows you can finish something. One of the dark secrets of game design is that good ideas are cheap. Nobody gets hired because they had a great idea for a class ability or a raid encounter let alone a great idea for a game. They get hired because they can take those ideas to the next level, foresee problems, come up with solutions, and otherwise put in all of the hard implementation work long after the shininess has worn off of the original idea. If you can't build an actual game, then the third thing you can try is to create an add-on, level or some other additional content for an existing game. Finishing that project isn't as impressive as finishing an actual game, but it can still work. (This is how I got my foot in the door – I designed a scenario for Age of Empires that was eventually included in a shipping product.) Fourth is to be involved in the game community. You can host an awesome fansite, write a gaming blog, or make your own podcast. It might not illustrate your design cred, but it can get you noticed. If all else fails, try to be involved in beta testing. It's tricky but possible to detect a good design sense from beta feedback. In all of these cases, what you're trying to do is to develop a portfolio – something you can send to a company to show your chops. Artists can show their art. Programmers can submit sample code. A designer needs to somehow prove that he or she can design.
If you want to be a game designer, you'll do more than just make games – you will be a member of the game-making industry. Try and keep up with industry news. Understand the upcoming platforms and the hot new genres and technology everyone is talking about. This is much easier in the internet age than it was a dozen years ago. It's not always feasible, but attending game conventions can help. Companies often use those events for recruiting and you can ask a lot of questions and get a lot of information once you're talking to someone face-to-face. Advice I give for anyone in any industry to get a job is networking. We are much more likely to go to bat for a candidate we know, especially if we have some idea of their design skills. This doesn't mean cold-calling or emailing folks in the industry – that risks just annoying them. It's not easy to get to know people, but it can open doors. Here is where being a game journalist, famous player, or website designer can come into play.
Keep in mind that game studios are businesses. They have budgets and headcounts like any company. To get a job, you're generally going to be applying for an existing open position. It takes the truly one-in-a-million candidate that can get a position created for them. Don't blanket email companies; I don't think I've ever seen that tactic work. Apply for specific positions, and if none are available, consider contacting the company HR representative to inquire if some might open in the future. That HR rep can be your greatest advocate, so don't badger him or her. We have hired people who had off-and-on email conversations with our human resources team members for years before the right position came along.
That's the hard part. The fun part is playing a lot of games. Don't just play them though – devour them. Understand why they're fun. Think about what you'd change if you designed the game. One question we frequently ask in interviews is: what is the worst part of your favorite game and how would you fix it? One of the quickest ways to fail an interview for the WoW team is when we ask "What would you change about WoW?" to answer "Gee, I hadn't really thought about that before."
I'll close this monologue by talking about some of the traits that Blizzard looks for in game designers; other companies may place values on different traits.
- A good design sense. Analyze systems as a game designer, not just a player. A player might look for the most efficient way to progress through a game or search for the most powerful choices for their character. A designer understands why a certain way is more powerful or efficient and if that's even a good thing for the game (and again, how to fix it).
- Creativity. This is less important than a lot of folks outside the industry think, but it's still important. Creative problem solving is often more important than creativity in naming creatures or coming up with good stories.Implementation. We spend 5% of our time brainstorming and 95% of the time sitting at a keyboard trying to get things to work. (We use our own proprietary tools, but also a lot of Photoshop, Excel and Visio.) We want people who can handle bugs, manage their time, solve roadblocks, survive pressure, handle critical feedback, know when to quit and when to soldier on, and overall just not get distracted. This is one reason why seeing finished work in a resume is so valuable.
- Communication. As I said, we talk to each other, other members on the team, other people at Blizzard, and the community of players. Constantly. Designers need to be able to think on their feet, criticize ideas without causing hurt feelings, accept feedback, and understand what other people are saying. The best designers make you feel like you are being heard. We do have introverts on our staff, but it's probably more challenging for them.
- Passion. This is probably the easiest one. It's important though. You need to love games to do this job. I'm not sure what the most surefire career is for making millions, but this isn't it. You'll be asked to work long hours. You'll be asked to playtest a game long after you're sick of it. You'll be expected to play new games as they come out to see what you can learn from them. You'll be asked to cut your favorite feature. Passion for games is the reason most people want to get into the industry in the first place though, so you're probably fine here.
I hope that's helpful. It's a good gig if you can get it. I walked away from a previous career in another field and never looked back. The biggest challenge for folks breaking into the industry is making themselves stand out. Saying "I love games" is important, but it's not enough, because thousands of players will say the same thing. You have to demonstrate that you love games *and* know how to make them without actually being able to talk to anyone, because you haven't gotten the interview yet. I invite anyone who makes it to let me know so I can personally congratulate them. It's hard and it's worth it.