Sunday, July 30, 2006

Will Wright = Jenna Jameson

The reality of being a videogame designer

You remember that part in Boogie Nights where Don Cheadle says, "I'm not a pornographer. I'm an actor." That is exactly how I feel some days.

I’ve been a videogame designer for going on 6 years now and I’ve slowly started to realize that I now have a skillset that cannot be applied to anything else in life, much like being in porn.

Let me elaborate a little more on why being a designer is akin to being in the porn industry. You know how in the porn industry there are a handful of really famous porn stars that make a ton of money and get to dictate which movies/scenes they are doing? On the other hand there are a ton of girls doing some downright nasty things for barely any money thinking that one day they might be the next Jenna Jameson?

In the videogame design world you have Miyamoto, Kojima, Will Wright, David Jaffe, and a handful of others that have risen to the top that have a little more control of their future. Then you have the other faceless designers that no one knows working on games doing some downright nasty things that I’m sure their mothers do not want to hear.

I love my job and I love doing what I do but when I look to the future and think about if I ever decide to leave the videogame industry I’m going to be like Buck.

“If there's something I didn't fill out correctly on this...or if there is something I left out...or something maybe you want me to write on there...just tell me what to write.”

I read somewhere that the lifespan of a videogame designer is only 5 years. I can only imagine the lifespan of a girl in porn is around the same. I imagine the lifespan of a designer is a little bit longer simply because games take so damn long to make. But being a designer is a young man’s game and promotes a very non-balanced lifestyle. At least I haven’t figured out how to balance it yet.

I don’t want this to come off super negative because I’m not complaining about my job at all – more like an observation of the videogame industry as a whole. A designer that I barely know posted on a forum about how he left the industry and it was the healthiest thing he has done. There has to be a better solution and I believe one is out there. The industry as a whole is young and we are still going through our growing pains. Design as an actual profession is even younger than videogames and we are still trying to figure out our career path. It will be a rocky road but I have faith that we will figure something out.

To continue with the analogy David Jaffe is totally Tera Patrick. <3


reno said...

If it makes you feel any better, I'd wack off to your games.

Stephanie said...


ohhhhh ... i was totally gonna say that.

it makes me happy to know there is someone else in this world as sick as i am.

i can't help but still be jealous of your career. the idea of being in this budding industry that can still go anywhere makes me foam at the mouth with excitement.

plus i work best creatively under extreme pressure and time crunches. the things that i have been able to pull out of my ass and execute in just a few hours have been pretty damn impressive.

doesn't mean i could handle being a designer, but the idea of it all still gets me giddy.

Anonymous said...

Hey Derek,

You probably know by now that your blog entry appeared on Joystiq.

There's always the path of moving to some producer type role... or starting a game company on your own, be the Chief Creative Director, and be the camera whore like some Jenna Jameson leveled designers. :)

- Hyun

Simon said...

I'm sure this is TOTALLY the wrong place to ask this, but would you happen to know what happened to Jaffe's typepad?

Jon Noel said...

i m in a simil "position" as you, i m in graphic design (not a webmaster but real design.. print, identity, commmunication... web)
As a creative employee it s always hard to be the superhero... once you "settle" it's over. That's all I can say... although from your porn anal-ogy, there is a personal line in the sand to be drawn

keep lookin that s all

Jon Noel said...

unsatisfied... etc..

remember that pornstars are only pretending to be satisfied

Derek Daniels said...

Hyun - Wowsers, Joystiq linked me today and all hell broke loose. Wasn't expecting that one. haha

Simon: I have no idea whats up with Jaffe's blog. Should still be up I guess? shrug

Maybe I didn't convey my point very well when I originally wrote this but I was trying to say that a lot of designers get into the industry thinking they will be the next Jaffe, Cliffy B, Jason Jones, Warren Spector, etc and it's simply not the case. Those guys all worked super hard to get where they are and unfortunately the industry is stacked against you to achieve that position regardless of how hard you work.

What I see happen is people are all wide eyed to enter the industry and once they get here they are used up within X years because they have been working 100 hour weeks and none of the companies appreciate them.

If you are a programmer or an artist you have an actual 'hard' skill that you can show to people. For a designer it's a much more vague skillset and i've heard more than once that, 'Anyone on the team could be a designer'.

So my analogy was to say that much like porn where there are tons of girls getting used and abused - the same is going on with designers in the industry. Sure there are always exceptions but they are just that, exceptions.

Anonymous said...

I've worked in the games industry for 12 years as a artist and as a bit of a designer.

One thing I've noticed is that people new to the industry tend to think that they'll become *game* designers reather than *level* designers.

I've never really met a full-on game designer. Someone might get titled "Senior Designer" in the credits, but they don't sit around designing all day - they're usually managers or producers of some sort.

Given that a typcal game takes approx 2 years to develop, what would you expect a game designer to be doing all that time? The only person who's lucky enough to decide what games the employees make is usually the guy who founded the company.

gizmus said...

Gamers and porn stars are some lucky bastards! Why can't I get a job like this? Screw or play games for a living...WTF?

Cooler stuff at

David Jaffe said...

Derek...who the fuck is Tera Patrick? I was gonna do a Google Search but then I'm like: is that a porn star? Am I gonna get port all over my machine at work?!?!

Write me back! Tell me!


ps. As you have seen from my posts on the message board you are refering to, I am struggling with the SAME THING as you. I love the biz and making games but yeah, there is something odd about it in that you get to a point where it's like: am I gonna be doing this at 50?!?!

FunkyJ said...

If game designers are porn stars, does that mean us testers are "fluffers"?

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking something similar recently. 3 years as design and 2 years before that in testing. I hope to never leave the industry, but if I do, what is there that my skills will be good for? Cell phone testing, maybe free lance writing?

The industry is growing, hopefully soon there will be places that want game designers that have experience and wont keep us working 80 to 100 hours a week.


Great post, got my brain bubbling! Verbosity to follow...

Been in games for 9 years. 5 as a World Artist, among many other things, 4 now as a senior level designer, Scarface being the most recent project to roll off of.

Career-wise, I think 3D, scripting, and aesthetics stuff are transferable; writing as well, esp. to other entertainment mediums.

Game Design as a descriptor of a career discipline seems to progressively be less accurate by the day. Game Design is a very general term that is not sufficiently specific to what cats actually do, though true, designers often wear a diversity of hats.

When I started in games there were junior producer types that slung documents out from beneath closed doors expecting some sort of game to manifest from their often ill-conceived, non-contextual drivel. Artists and the rest of the grunts I'd been crewed with had to disturbingly often step up and fill in many, many gaps left by vague or inconsistent design documentation. That situation is likely what shaped my career path into what I do for wage today.

Like Combat Design, Level Design has emerged as a discipline into and unto itself, and crews are beginning to appreciate that. Level Design is also stratifying, art versus script versus document design versus map making versus the inevitable producer & interdisciplinary liaison. The more of those aspects you can manage, the more versatile you are, the more indispensable you become, and consequently, the more jaded, as you transcend designers who fling documents at you from under closed doors to dealing with producers or publishers that might still have similar attitudes. I've been lucky to have good producers of late, and to work with a production studio that keeps the management layer fairly slim, further that generally buffers / filters knee-jerk publisher input well. Thank god.

Sure, games don't pay as well as film work (unless you're a stake holder or producer or senior lead), however the hours aren't nearly as grueling as film, at least not as bad as the on-set hours. And where else, from the level design standpoint, do you get to have a hand in creating an interactive experience for an audience? Emphasis on interactive. Passive experience rules apply as well, like story telling and aesthetics, but interactivity adds a whole realm of additional challenge, risk, and experience.

My point? I believe that for a passive medium, porn is potentially the most interactive, more than horror films you can yell at or comedies you can laugh at or tragedies to get your cheeks moist. And porn is extremely mental, your imagination has to fill in a lot of gaps, no pun intended. Games perhaps pick up where porn leaves off, the good ones twisting your brain; soliciting investment, choices, tripping animal reflexes and demanding more and more input all the time. Harder! Faster! Give! Spend! Submit and be assimilated! Something like that.

To put out for game design, to do this whole-heartedly, is to give more of your mind than your loins; sort of relates to the difference between bad sex and rape. One is just lame and embarrassing, the other a vulgar display of power, weakness opposing. Passionate game designers invest themselves far more than the average sod to their gigs; sometimes physically, definitely mentally. They take personal stake in what they do, the good ones, and their passion shows through their work as well as Van Gogh's fevered dementia through his three inch thick fields of oils careening across his canvasses.

As the potential of games increases exponential to technology and to diversification of access for wunderkind garage designers, so too does the competition for triple A budgets, resources, etc. which inevitably entail situations where so many chefs are involved, so many opinions, so many knee-jerk reactions or publisher demands or reactive me-too whatnots to fend off that the burn rate increases exponentially as well.

Burnout, then, for the invested ones, the passionate ones, the ones that care enough to leave no door closed, no design left orphaned on some collaborator's doorstep; burnout might well be simply a natural and inevitable risk. Still, frankly, like porn stars or professional athletes (same difference, perhaps), a good five year raging output is likely better than fifteen year of dull, unrewarding toils or an endless, plodding grind any time.

Thanks for reading!

Zodiak said...

as I said to Cory, Dave is definately Ron Jeremy. Now google THAT Daveo lol.

btw, as long as Twisted Metal 35 is out and you're 50, I think everything will be fine ;)

Derek Daniels said...

This is the gist of my whole post, whether or not I conveyed it.

When you first enter into the industry you realize that you are going to have to put your time in. Everyone knows this and accepts it. What happens is that even after you have put your time in - things rarely change. Even for 'superstar' designers I've seen them work as many hours as I have which has been a lot, trust me.

So you get into the 'industry' (the fact that everyone refers to it as the industry bothers the hell out of me) thinking it will be the greatest thing ever. Then once you realize things may never change for the better it's been X number of years. Now you have spent X number of years developing a skillset that is hard to explain or show people. It's a soft skillset and not a hard skillset such a programming/art. It just becomes harder finding a job outside of the industry when your resume looks like it does.

Zodiac - have some respect.

Gus said...

Sup Derek. Came accross your blog the other day... surprised how many of my ol GoW teammates have them :)
I totally agree with you and have been struggling with the same issue lately.
We are extremely specialized in our profession, and are only valuable to game companies. I often wonder how much my salary would drop if I tried to get a job in some other, more stable (life-wise) profession. I'm guessing it would drop by 1/2, at least.
I do love working in games, but often dream of working a 9to5 type job... especially concidering that my wife and I just had a baby. I would sure miss the excitement though.
Anyways, my hope is that our industry gets more organized and mature. And as a result, brutal crunch times would become a thing of the past (yeah right!).
Anyways, hope all is good,

Anonymous said...

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TMIV said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Adam said...

Hey Derek,

I enjoyed your post. Does every game company work their employees on crazy schedules? Are people compensated well for their time?

I've been working in various writing/producing roles over the past couple of years (for internet media mostly), and I've recently been considering applying to some game companies. I'm trying to do as much research as I can. Is it possible to work in this industry, have a family and not hate your life?



Charley said...

Well talking about Jenna Jameson and not getting to see anything hotter was least expected by me. Actually I was simply searching for her which led me to this page. No wonder she has made me a loyal fan of her and I am always looking to get to see her online presence in whichever form it maybe.

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