Getting Started in Game Design: Expert Tips from Mike Rossi


Mike started his career 4 years ago as a graduate from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s in Media and Communication Technology and a specialization in Game Design. He initially set out on an entrepreneurial path and founded Adventure Club Games with some of his fellow MSU graduates. Two years later, Mike interviewed with Volition and landed the job of Interface Technical Artist. Today, he serves as the bridge between programmers and artists; his role is to help artists get their art into a game and help programmers expose their data to the artists.


Mike, let’s say I’m a beginner who wants to get into game design. I want to do it for fun initially and maybe go professional in the future. Is this still a smart choice today? In other words, doesn’t the world have enough game designers already?

  Haha, good question! Of course, there are a lot of game developers but the industry is still pretty small with many options to expand. The truth is, there is always a need for more skilled developers. At Volition, it’s common we’ll get an applicant and after reviewing their resume, it’s obvious they lack the necessary skills to do the job they are applying for. So it is always exciting to see a really skilled person that has already worked on a game - whether commercially or in their own free time. So the short answer is - yes, the industry needs more people with skills!
To me, passion and a creative streak are really the most important things to have.

If I’m at the start of my journey towards being a game designer, what prerequisites do I need before I get started? Is any special knowledge required?

  I am convinced that anybody can make a game, everybody has ideas. For the work I do, it’s useful to know a bit of graphic design, understand colors, fonts, layouts and how they work with your game, and it definitely helps to enjoy working with computers because you will be spending a lot of time with them! Also, keep in mind that this is a very team-focused industry so if you didn’t enjoy team work at school, you might have a hard time working at a studio. There is also a difference between whether you just want to get a job to get by or whether you are actually really passionate about your work - I am convinced that passion is a big prerequisite here. I personally feel it’s an awesome job to have and it always puts a smile on my face to say that I make games for a living. To me, passion and a creative streak are really the most important things to have. [caption id="attachment_159277" align="aligncenter" width="600"]2D Sprites from Mike's Unity Tutorial 2D Sprites from Mike's Unity Tutorial[/caption]

Alright, I want to be a game designer! I will obviously need to use software. What choices are on the market and what is your personal recommendation?

  There is a plenty of choices and Unreal is hands down the most widely used engine. But for me, Unity is awesome and my top pick for beginners! It was the first engine I was exposed to at school, as a company they are doing some awesome things and it’s really easy to get something up and running. It’s a great package supported by regular updates and new features. They have also added some free training tutorials so it’s really unbelievably easy how fast you can get from opening Unity to actually creating something and seeing it run. Plus, Unity and Unreal have a lot of similar concepts. With Art, 3ds Max and Maya are pretty standard for modeling. And Photoshop is a must for texture work. There are a few other tools like Mudbox, Motionbuilder, Illustrator, etc., that are also used a lot but learning those comes secondary to Max, Maya, and Photoshop. With programming, you don’t really need to know a specific tool, but the two main languages are C++ and Python. And knowing how to properly debug is a must. C# is a good starting point to get more into C++. If you want to get up to speed in C#, CG Cookie has a great C# Bootcamp Course and I recommend you check it out. A lot of studios are flexible with what you are bringing to the table - it’s good to know the standards, but the studio you end up in might let you use what you’re used to working with, so it is not hugely important to be totally proficient in a multitude of software. Plus a lot of software share similar shortcuts or methods to tackle the same problem. For instance, Blender has a lot of the same shortcuts as Maya and Gimp has lot of similar concepts as Photoshop. Some studios will ask you to learn their internal tools. At Volition, we use tools that are created internally but a lot of them are actually based on other programs. When new people join our team and already know Flash or Unreal, they are able to pick up our tools pretty quickly.

What learning resources do you recommend to get me up to speed in a minimum amount of time? Where can I look for inspiration?

  Well, CG Cookie, of course! It is my first choice and one I always recommend to people. CG Cookie offers some really great and useful tips and tricks. PixelProspector is more focused on the indie side and aggregates tons of information. It’s pretty much a one stop shop to point you to other websites. For more advanced Unity programming, I’m a big fan of Catlike Coding - he offers some really nice programing tutorials. I also like to browse Reddit for general discussions, there are tons of subreddits where you can see what people are working on like r/gamedev and r/Unity3D Polycount is good for art inspiration and discussions; it is constantly updated and people share their own creations that you can talk about, which is really cool. Behance is a great online portfolio that I like to check out for a lot of graphic design inspiration. I have hundreds of bookmarks but these are definitely my top picks!

So now that I know what software to use and where to look for training, how long will it take me before I can create my own game?

  As I mentioned earlier, if you are working with Unity, it’s a really short amount of time, which is great. But everybody learns differently, it’s not like you will be done in exactly 16 hours and have a game ready. If you have the passion and willpower to go and search for the answers to the questions you have, it’s gonna be quick. In Unity you can simply hit the play button and the game will run whether it’s done right or not. It really doesn’t take long. What I found is that the only thing that’s stopping you is you. People often contemplate a lot, thinking “Am I ready to do this? Do I know how to do this?”, but there are so many tools and resources available today. You really just need to do it, just dive in! There has never been a better time to learn than now. There are so many resources so really the best thing you can do is just get out there and start working. [caption id="attachment_159305" align="aligncenter" width="618"] Mike's Tutorial on Creating a Space Shooter Game[/caption]

Let’s fast forward...I now have some skills and experience under my belt and I am thinking of turning this hobby into a career choice. What specific things will I need for this?

  Definitely put together a portfolio. At Volition, when reviewing job applications, we expect to be able to go to a website and see some of your previous work. You say on your application that you have these skills and experience - alright, so prove it! Make sure your portfolio is focused on what you want to be doing. When we are looking at a new applicant and the portfolio doesn’t really say what they want to do - there’s a broad amount of things like having worked on movies, having done a little bit of games and advertising - we start thinking, “What is it that you actually want to do here?” You just need to show yourself in the best light for the position that you applied for. I understand that people want to showcase all the cool stuff they have done, but my advice is, make it easy for me to take a look and know right away what you want to do. That being said, the biggest thing is seeing that you are able to prove your knowledge and skills, and that you have completed a project from start to finish and understand the process of making a game.

How much experience do studios generally require?

  Like in any other industry, fresh graduates are faced with the dilemma: I won’t get hired without experience, and I can’t get experience if I don’t get hired! I remember myself stressing about all jobs requiring 3 years of experience. Let me tell you this: I’ve come to realize that most employers use this to limit the number of applicants, but it’s somewhat of a soft requirement. Most places are willing to look past it and give you a chance if you have less experience, but bring in the required skillset. Whenever I meet someone who wants to become a game developer, I always tell them: “go make a game!”. It’s as easy as that. You will gain a ton of experience along the way and again, when it comes to landing a job, it helps to have that experience under your belt, whether you created a game commercially or in your own free time. [caption id="attachment_159307" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Mike worked on "Saints Row IV" as a Technical Interface Artist. Mike worked on "Saints Row IV" as a Technical Interface Artist.[/caption]

Studio work versus freelancing. What is a better choice in your mind and what are the pitfalls and what can I expect from each?

  Well, just like anywhere else, there is definitely a higher risk in freelancing, but the industry can be pretty unstable in some studios too. You still need to have a focus, whether you are an artist, programer or a designer. It’s a bit more challenging to find freelance work for a designer; it’s easier for artists and programmers. You are probably better off if you are focused on one thing - there are always going to be contract jobs. There might be a ton that do not interest you but you will eventually come across one that will. I’m fortunate enough to work in a studio that allows me to do projects in my free time without any sort of stipulation. I really enjoy doing this, going home after a day at the studio and working on my own project afterwards or developing some of my skills further. It’s great to have opportunities like this and I get the best of both worlds.

A lot of people ask whether it is wiser to be a generalist, or focus on a specific skill. What is your take on this?

  This is a tough question. If you’re working in a big studio, the reality is that they are not looking for generalists because they already have plenty of people. In a small studio, however, generalists can come in handy because they can get a lot more done and be more useful for the whole team. I always recommend staying away from the pitfall of “jack of all trades, master of none”. It’s easy to understand a lot of stuff, but having a broad focus makes it difficult to develop proficiency in one specific field that you are really passionate about. Of course, keep an open mind and never stop learning about other disciplines as well, just make sure you are staying focused. This will allow you to talk to people in other disciplines and better understand how their work is related to yours. You can always learn something new and have a better understanding of the bigger picture.
My number one tip is this: make a game from start to finish! This will allow you to understand the whole process and teach you a ton.

Is there any other practical advice you want to share with aspiring game designers?

  My number one tip is make a game from start to finish. This will allow you to understand the whole process and teach you a ton! Never ever stop learning. The industry is always changing and new technologies are constantly developing. Finally, make sure you show passion, that goes a long way! When I applied to Volition, it was between me and one other guy and they later told me the reason I got hired was because I showed more passion and excitement than him. I think being passionate about anything you do is always a good thing and it’s not always strictly just about your technical skills. Your passion, teamwork and eagerness might open a lot of doors.
For more about Mike's projects and inspiration on how to present yourself and your work, check out Mike's portfolio at www.mikelikesgames.com

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  • menicus

    Very nice atricle. Its always good to hear what the people in the "field" are looking for when they are hiring new team members. Some excelent tips from Mike, that I think apply to almoste any field you want to work in.

  • crew
    Pavla Karon (pkaron)

    Thanks Christiaan, glad you enjoyed it!

  • Thomas Robb (captainrex)

    Thank you for posting this article. It has helped me in thinking about my options for work and how I need to improve my skills : )

    Cheers, Rex

  • dcrew
    david karon (dkaron)

    Thanks Rex!

  • tyoc213

    It would be great if we could also add blog post to favorites.

  • crew
    Pavla Karon (pkaron)

    Good idea! I will suggest that to the development team and see if it would be possible.

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