The Crystal Habit Podcast: Episode 24

04 Dicembre 2013
Meagan Marie – Community Manager
William Kerslake – Senior designer presso Crystal Dynamics
Alisha Thayer – Associate designer

[ La trascrizione italiana di questo podcast non è attualmente disponibile. Contiamo d’inserirla prossimamente. Scusandoci per l’attesa, postiamo nel frattempo la trascrizione inglese. Qualora vogliate offrire la vostra collaborazione, vi preghiamo di contattarci via mail; il vostro supporto sarà molto apprezzato.]

[Musical interlude]

Segment 1: Intro

MEAGAN MARIE: Hello everyone! Happy November and thank you for tuning into episode 24 of the Crystal Habit Podcast! This episode we’re going to return to our “Breaking into the Game Industry” feature and tackle the semi-nebulous concept of game design. We’ll have two special guests on this episode, one is William Kerslake, a senior designer here at Crystal Dynamics, and the other is Alisha Thayer, an associate designer. So hang in there for just a minute and we’ll get to the interviews!

[Musical interlude]

Segment 2: Game Design

MEAGAN MARIE: Thank you everyone for tuning into episode 24 of the Crystal Habit Podcast. As promised we’re going to speak to a pair of talented game designers today. I have William Kerslake with me, who is a senior designer here. Hello William!


MEAGAN: And then we have Alisha Thayer, who is an associate designer at Crystal Dynamics.


MEAGAN: So, we’re going to start out by defining this nebulous concept to people who may be younger or in school or trying to figure out where they want to be in the industry. We have a lot of people who send emails saying “I have a great idea for a game,” or “I want to make games,” and it’s a sort of nebulous statement. But it seems for the most part that they are talking about either writing for games or game design. That’s kind of where they envision themselves. So what in your mind and your experience does game design encompass?

ALISHA: Do you want to start?

WILLIAM: Sure. So, there are three major focal points for designers. You have narrative designers who do that writing thing you were talking about and focus on stories and characters and what world you’re going to be in. Then you have your level designers, who are much more structural and break down what sort of space the characters are going to be in, and what they are going to do in that space. And then your final group is your system designers. They are more along the lines of what weapons actually do, and what moves the character will have. Can they jump in this game? Is it automatic? Does health regenerate? What resources do I have to collect? And those are the three major buckets.

ALISHA: I would say so. My experience this far in my career is that the term is very nebulous. My first job was at Rockstar Games down in San Diego, and I was a designer there, but that actually meant I was a scripter. So I was a little mini-programmer, and I actually didn’t do any layout at all. Or work in any 3D software, at all. I had the text editor, and I had the game, and that’s what I did. And my title was “Designer.” My duties here as a designer are significantly different. So it’s a tough word to define, and every company defines it in a different way depending on the needs of the types of games they make and what their culture is.

MEAGAN: Okay, let’s take a step back and we’ll talk about exactly what you do designing here at Crystal in a little bit. What sort of education and training have you received in order to get to this point?

ALISHA: Oh, this is really funny, because we come from completely different backgrounds.

MEAGAN: Well, that’s good. I like to illustrate multiple paths to the same destination.

ALISHA: Well, I decided I wanted to work in games when I was around 12 years old. I was super into adventure games when I was a kid. I remember having this epiphany when I was really young, that these games came from somewhere, and that there were people out there that made them. It was very profound for someone my age. I was like “Oh my god, people make these!” And I’d always wanted to do something sort of artsy. I loved to draw as a kid, and once we got a computer in the house I got really into computers and screwing around in programming. And always, always playing games. So from there I tailored my education around that.

I was very fortunate that when I graduated high school – I come from Chico California, which is up in Northern California – and when I graduated from high school, the university in our town, California State University Chico, had a computer graphics and game design program. It wasn’t there at the time, but my academic advisor said, “Hey, if you stick around for a year we’re going to have this and you can switch majors.” So I declared as a comp-sci major and started that whole path. I decided I wanted to do a bit more schooling, so I stayed for a masters and ended up doing a production-oriented masters degree, so I directed over a course of a year and a half a group of 54 students in an Unreal Tournament total conversion project. So my whole education was tailored towards being here basically. And that’s kind of my background. And after I finished my masters I started working for Rockstar and after three and a half years there I ended up here.

MEAGAN: So Rockstar was your first step out of school?


MEAGAN: That’s not a bad first step.

ALISHA: Yeah, I ended up completely by chance applying through their website and I just happened to have the right set of credentials as they were looking for a junior person, which is kind of rare from what I understand. So I got really lucky in that respect, and they were working on this cowboy game called Red Dead Redemption, and I had no idea what it was. And I was like “awesome!” and moved down to San Diego to work on that. So a very atypical start in the industry, a lot of right place at the right time.

MEAGAN: I loved that game, except for the cougars. Every time.

ALISHA: Weren’t they brutal?

MEAGAN: Every time I got on my horse.

ALISHA: [Laughing} I did some side quests, I wasn’t responsible for the cougars.

MEAGAN: It makes me afraid to go hiking in real life.

ALISHA: I love that though.

MEAGAN: Okay, how about you William? Where did you train yourself or educate yourself?

WILLIAM: So I joined the industry a little bit earlier, perhaps a lot earlier, and there wasn’t much in the way of schools that were dedicated to game design at that point. Similarly, though, I was teaching myself how to build games at home, even through high school, and I was building conversions in 3D, and Doom, and building those with other high school kids. And after that there was a small college here in Silicon Valley that was starting a program in 3D art, so I took that because it was the closest thing I could do that would get me near video game companies. And I grabbed everything I could. I was working as their Webmaster for a while on the side. And in that position I would see all these companies looking for junior people. And I would help friends get hired at various places, and they sort of pulled me into old Atari when I was in my second year of school. At that point I tried to continue school at night, but that doesn’t work so well with making games at the same time. And so at some point I just sort of abandoned school bits and have been making games for fifteen years.

MEAGAN: So now that we know where you guys were educated, what has been your career path so far?

WILLIAM: So for me it was Atari, and I worked with a bunch of guys mostly a bunch of students I knew from school, and shipped a bunch of games at Atari. And then I left with a group of them and we formed our own indie company called Light Speed, and we released a game only in Europe. It was sort of a tumultuous build a startup thing, so we got one game shipped and the core of that team all got hired by Maxis working on Sims titles. And from Maxis I left again to join the indie game world and form another startup, and that lasted a couple of years as startups do, sometimes they don’t necessarily work out, and then I came to work here.

MEAGAN: So, can you start out as a game designer in the industry? Looking at this from the perspective of today versus when you both started in the industry. Is this something you can start out as on day one, or do you need to get your foot in the door and then navigate to design through other fields. Is there a dedicated curriculum for game design at this point?

WILLIAM: So, there are a lot more schools that are doing it now. I’ve seen that the students coming from these schools have improved a lot from when the schools first started doing it. Today there are more positions, because teams are a lot bigger, there is room for junior designers to come in as a design position. But when I first started there weren’t many design positions so you needed to pick up other skills, whether it be programming or art. I still think there is a lot of value to having programming or art skills. We spend a lot of time playing in other people’s packages, and even if you don’t end up shipping any art or any code, being able to speak to the artists and programmers and knowing their language is a huge benefit.

ALISHA: Not only that, but it helps you prototype. You’re not at the mercy of people who make art assets and code. You can do a little bit of it yourself, so when you have an idea you can get it on screen very quickly and say “this is what I’m thinking.” And that is much easier to communicate than a handful of words.

MEAGAN: So from what you know of these programs, are they teaching each of the design buckets? Are they considered specialties? As in are they teaching level design and narrative design, or is it an overall design philosophy?

ALISHA: In my experience from my university we approached it as a very generalist point. We let people dabble in a little of everything including animation and 3D modeling and lighting, just to make sure they had a broad education. And then they specialized from there so you could choose to be an animator or a modeler or a designer. But they got a sampling of everything primarily in their freshman and sophomore years so that they could get an idea of what spoke to them the most, and so they had a foundation. In terms of other schools I’m not sure what they are doing.

WILLIAM: Yeah, I think that most schools start with that as a starting place, because they are trying to create a better rounded individual. And part of that is that as teams grow, like on Tomb Raider, where you’ve got a large team working in different parts, you’re going to start specializing in things you’re going to do very very well. Whereas in a smaller team with digital titles or iPhone titles, you’re going to end up taking on a variety of different roles. So with Indie titles there are a lot more people that need to be generalists. So there are so many different aspects depending on what you really want to get into.

MEAGAN: So, playing off of that. What are your specialties? What is your focus on the team and what are you working on? [Laughs] Keep that generally speaking; don’t actually say what you’re working on. What kind of stuff are you doing on the day-to-day level at Crystal when it comes to designing?

ALISHA: I focus on world interactivity. So I do lightweight systems design. I’m a little all over the place, actually. I’ve been doing player mechanics, I’ve been working on traversal, and I’ve been working on set pieces. I even do my own little animations. So yeah, I’m all over the place, but if I had to say I have a focus I’d say it’s world interactivity.

MEAGAN: Can you define that a bit?

ALISHA: Yeah, so that means things you can touch in the game. Things you can blow up in the game. Things you can directly interact with. Things like that.

WILLIAM: With a leadership role, there is some getting my hands into doing those things, which I prefer doing, it’s fun to build the stuff that is on screen. But mostly it’s lots of running around and finding out when all of those things are actually going to get done! And presenting all of those pieces.

MEAGAN: Okay, so what is one of your favorite design parts when you’re able to get in the thick of it?

WILLIAM: Well, because of coming from a background of working with much smaller teams, I really enjoy being forced to do some of everything. And I originally started, my first job, was as a 3D modeler. I don’t do much of that anymore, but if I can build some things or code some pieces, It’s just fun to really dig into those pieces.

MEAGAN: So whom are you collaborating most with as designers? It seems you’re able to dabble into a bit of everything, but what’s the team structure like? Do you work in core teams with someone from every specialty? Or are you working with other designers?

WILLIAM: There are two major pieces. Very early on in a project designers tend to work together to try and establish a direction that things are headed, and make sure that all of their systems and all of their pieces are heading in the same general direction. But post that, you become a focal point for everyone else. The animations come to you, the art comes to you, the programmers are building stuff that you’re going to end up utilizing, and you sort of end up becoming the guy that brings all those bits together.

ALISHA: Yeah, so you end up working with everyone. Animators, concept artists, modelers, programmers, because you are getting the content they are generating into the game and on screen.

MEAGAN: Breaking this down further, what’s the day-to-day like at Crystal?

WILLIAM: Um, I mean there are a decent amount of meetings. Luckily, the teams that we’re working with right now are all fairly senior and so we’re able to run really quickly and don’t have to talk a lot in formal settings. But we do spend a lot of time at each other’s desk seeing how we can make something a little bit better, or how we can speed up building some of these things.

ALISHA: Yeah, day-to-day is pretty fluid. One of the things that is really great about this job is that I don’t do the same thing everyday. I generally do the same sorts of things, but what I’m doing is going to change, whom I’m working with is going to change, and so on. So my day to day is very volatile in that respect. Sometimes I go meet with people to see something on screen and play it and talk about it, sometimes I’ll work on something on my own, getting it in the game and testing it myself. And some days we’re working on presentations, or preparing builds, or preparing a playtest. But usually Will and I are very involved in that, being the primary design force in the game that we’re working on. There really isn’t a typical day.

MEAGAN: That’s actually fairly common whenever I talk to anyone in the studio, even with my job; the day to day is always different.

ALISHA: Yes, I see it as a perk.

MEAGAN: I know this is going to vary drastically dependent on what you’re working on, but are there any standard tools you use as designers that you could recommend learning?

WILLIAM: It definitely changes depending on your focus. Level designers use white boards and pens and paper even. But it depends on what you want to do, and your engine, and proprietary tools you have to build your levels. As a system designer you spend a lot of time in Excel, frankly. Because most of a game can be broken down into spreadsheets eventually.

MEAGAN: That’s so interesting. I don’t think people envision it that way.

ALISHA: No, it’s not glamorous.

WILLIAM: No, it’s not the sexy version of game design.

ALISHA: But, if you’re really into that, it is very gratifying. Getting all those numbers to work out is really awesome.

MEAGAN: Anything in addition to those mentioned that you use, Alisha?

ALISHA: I use photo editing software, and 3D modeling software, and I use proprietary in-game engine stuff, and a lot of excel.

MEAGAN: So even if you don’t have access to some of those specific programs like the 3D modeling software, getting to know the ins and outs of even office suite is helpful.

ALISHA: So, here’s the thing about that. I’m pretty active on my University’s Facebook page and one of the very common.they get into these hilarious little flame wars about using the right software. And I always step in and say, “okay guys, that’s silly.” It’s not which piece of software you’re learning, necessarily, it’s that you have fundamentals. If you want to learn to 3D model, learn how to 3D model. You’ll be able to take those skills and ideas and find the buttons in any piece of software to do what you need to do. Right? What’s important is that you learn how to do that before you go a pick up a new piece of software. Or you find your favorite. Fundamentals first. So if you can’t learn anything but Lightwave, use it.

MEAGAN: So don’t wait around for the perfect tool, get a start?

ALISHA: Exactly.

MEAGAN: So what other sort of skills should you work on developing to cohesively work with others in a studio setting? I always like to ask this because working in a game studio is so collaborative.

ALISHA: If we’re talking about fundamental stuff, learn to work with people. You’ll be working with people every day so you need to learn how to communicate clearly, how to be patient, how to accept other people’s ideas, how to take critique. That’s a big one. When I’m working with students, particularly freshman, they come up with that one idea and that idea is their baby, and you say one thing negative about that idea and they get very defensive. And that’s a big hurdle for anyone to get over. This is going to be a day-to-day thing. You’ll come up with ideas, those ideas are going to be critiqued, and sometimes they will be kept, and sometimes they will get thrown away. Those are big things. If you can’t get over that hurdle, then you’re going to have a hard time.

MEAGAN: That’s a good thing to go into this process knowing.

WILLIAM: Yes. Ideally you’re killing a whole bunch of your ideas before you get to that point. But the first time you go through stuff it isn’t going to be any good. And that’s okay! You have to be willing to get rid of bad versions of a thing before you get to the good ones. And it will be constant iteration for you to get to that point. You need to be able to look at your own stuff and say “this isn’t good enough” and when someone says the same thing, to be able to listen to that and say, “you’re right, I should probably modify it this way.” Good ideas also don’t always have to come from the designers. They can come from anyone that has something that resonates.

ALISHA: The other thing I really like to stress is learning how to learn. And I know that sounds a little elementary, but one thing you’ll never stop doing, particularly as a beginner, is learning. Will and I are always picking up new skills, and saying, “huh, I’ve never tried it like that before, but sure, we can try!” We’re constantly absorbing new ideas, and new techniques, and playing new games, and trying to find new ways to solve old problems. So identifying early your learning process and how you learn. Getting those things nailed down will be very beneficial.

MEAGAN: So don’t be stuck in your ways, either.

ALISHA: No, be open to the idea of change. We create cutting edge games. That’s our job.

WILLIAM: The industry is always changing.

MEAGAN: Once you get used to something, it’s time for something else. So what do you think is the best part of being a game designer, and what is the most challenging aspect?

WILLIAM: You do get to really drive where a game goes, and that level of ownership in saying “hey, I built this thing, and people played this thing, and people had a really good time” is great. Especially if you can make games that are multiplayer and you can see people interacting with each other. Honestly one of the most gratifying moments is those initial playtests. They are terrifying because you’re like “oh my god, that’s not supposed to work that way, please don’t do that anymore!” But then you see them smile and laughing and joking about what they are playing. All that time and effort that you put into this is so that that person can sit in front of the screen and have a really good time. That feels fantastic when you do it right.

MEAGAN: And what about challenging? Is play testing both the most rewarding and the toughest? I did play testing early on Tomb Raider and everyone was just sitting and watching me in a dark room, and I felt so much pressure! I was like “I’m going the wrong way!” And they were all taking notes quietly, like they were judging me because I didn’t know how to game. It’s got to be really frustrating if you’re like “no, go that way!”

WILLIAM: Yeah, it’s frustrating because you want to jump in there and help them and tell them were to go.

ALISHA: But we can’t ship with the game!

MEAGAN: [Laughs] Pre-order bonus. A Crystal Dynamics employee with every game!

ALISHA: [Laughs] Exactly!

MEAGAN: So how about for you then?

ALISHA: For me it is two things. I’m super into problem solving and in particular collaborative problem solving. And I get to do that every day in my job. So I’m perma-happy. And that to me is one of the biggest perks of being a game designer. That you are always presented with new problems, and you’ve got these people and these tools, and you’re told, “go!” And there are no rules, really. You’re told to just go fix it. And the other thing is that like I said, I’ve wanted to do this since I was young, and I feel that game designers create these worlds that we either want to play in or escape in and being able to bring those experience to other people is very gratifying to me.

MEAGAN: And how about challenge, then?

ALISHA: Deadlines are challenging. The creative industry is really hard, right? For one thing you’re going to be sitting there and polish, polish, polish, and it’s never going to feel done, right? You have to be done at some point, though. So for me that’s the hardest and most frustrating thing is that you run out of time eventually. And you may ship a product, and it may have bugs in it, and those bugs were your fault. I’ve got a few that I can point to and say, “that was me!” It’s not so bad, but it is hard.

MEAGAN: It’s tough especially if you’re a perfectionist, and you want the best possible version delivered. But I’ve heard this a million times, you could polish forever. You’ll never finish.

ALISHA: But it’s so painful to see something on screen that you know is your fault, and you know how to fix it, but you can’t. It’s not a mystery as to why it’s happening.

MEAGAN: What’s the potential advancement as a game designer, and how do your responsibilities scale up as you become more senior?

WILLIAM: Sure, a starting game designer or junior guy is given a limited set. “Here is a small problem, and we want you to solve this small problem.” And then when we see that she got these fifteen problems done without any oversight, then you’re able to tackle larger and larger problems. So if you’re a level designer perhaps it starts as an encounter in a level, and then it’s a level that you own, and then it’s a set of levels or a part of the game you own. And then as you gain more and more responsibility, it’s perhaps this whole section of the game, the opening act. And as you move more into creative direction, perhaps you own what the whole next game is going to be about. And it’s a different because then you might not actually make any of that. It becomes less about specific design challenges, and more about “Do I have the right people to solve these problems? Am I applying the right skill sets of the team of people for the challenges that we have?” And so it becomes more about people management. But you have to be able to recognize those right game design skills.

MEAGAN: So as you move up in a game designer role you’re doing more of that management and less of the hands-on building?

WILLIAM: It depends on the size of the team. With an AAA project like on Tomb Raider you don’t have time. There are so many things that need to be built and you need to be out ahead of the rest of the team because you’ve got this steamroller behind you, this huge team of people that are trying to get stuff done, and you need to plan out the next problems that we need to tackle or it will slow everyone down.

MEAGAN: What would you find in an impressive game designer’s portfolio? What would resonate most with a recruiter looking for a game designer?

ALISHA: Did you make some games? That’s the biggest one. And it doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary. Did you make a little iPhone game? Were you working in Unity? Did you make a little side scroller, and what role did you have in that?

MEAGAN: So as a designer, should everything in your portfolio be a finished, polished project?

ALISHA: It doesn’t have to be a polished product. I mean, those are fine too, but did you work on a prototype? Have you been getting your hands dirty making content? Have you been making levels if you want o be a level designer? And you can do that with Unreal you know. Were you working in Hammer? Did you make some TF2 levels? Game designer is hard, because ultimately we’re going to sit you down and talk to you about your problem solving skills. But for a portfolio itself, you can even put up your paper design, sketches, if you made a world. If that’s your thing and you want to be a world designer, show us the world you made. Here’s some sketches, some designs, and here is a prototype of it.

MEAGAN: So process is important?

ALISHA: Yes, process is so important.

WILLIAM: Those are big pieces, but another piece is that there are so many tools out there now that allow you to start building content on your own. And now with all these schools that are generating a large number of graduates, you can’t have just built your school projects, because everyone else will have built their school projects too. There are going to be a handful of people that went outside of that, and they competed in one of these game design challenges, or they built something for Ludum Dare, or they built something in Unity with their friends for an iPhone game. Those are the sorts of things I want to see, that you’ve solved those problems, because there are tons of things you learn while trying to make a game, and there is a massive amount more than you learn in that last ten percent when you close a game out. And that is the biggest chunk. Because it’s one of those things where you put in ninety percent of the effort and then the last ten percent is another ninety percent of your effort. Just that last piece is huge. So even if it is a tiny school project that you took a little bit further to wrap up, completing lots of small things is a lot more impressive as a new candidate looking to come in than “Hey I started this massive MMO with two of my friends and we got nowhere into it.” Everybody has huge ideas. And I’d much rather see “I wanted to make a game about a ball that bounces on platforms, and that was it, and I finished it.” And that is much more impressive.

MEAGAN: That’s great advice, I love very specific advice like that. Speaking of advice, my final question is do you have any last piece of advice for people who are attempting to enter game design. Advice from your own past, things to avoid, anything along those lines?

WILLIAM: More along that particular line, just build some things. There are too many tools out there to not do it. I wish I had all those tools when I was still in college and had the free time to do some of these things. And then, separate from that, you need to find things to explore that aren’t the same sci-fi movies as all of your current friends are watching, because we all have these same cultural touchstones. We all love Aliens and Terminator and so you end up seeing all the same influences on game design. Stuff that really stands out is when someone looks at Ayn Rand and they try to tweak that and you get a Bioshock, and it feels fundamentally different because it’s from a different source material. So search entirely outside the standard game design world, and the sorts of things that usually appeal to those who are really into games. Explore something because you’re really into flowers, or really interested in birds. You can bring something then into the game space that comes from a perspective that is new and fresh.

MEAGAN: So take inspiration from everywhere.

WILLIAM: Take a week off from digital entirely. And go find something that appeals to you, and how can you bring that back into the game work.

ALISHA: Probably the biggest piece of advice I have is to not be afraid of failure. Learn from your failure, and expect to fail over and over and over again. As you’re getting started, I remember when I opened my first 3D modeling program and made a misshapen eggplant thing, I was like “yeah!” but it was really hard and complicated. There are a lot of bells and whistles in the software you’re using, and even your fundamental skills or trying to work in Unity, they all have a very high barrier to entry. You have to learn how to code a little bit, and learn how to model a little bit, and all of those things take time. So be prepared to mess it up a few times over. And in the same vein of that advice, keep it very simple. I used to teach freshman game design when I was a grad student, and all the freshman would come in to make their first game. And I’d always start with a paper prototype, and these guys would tell me they wanted to make a big open world MMO. And I’d be like “We’re going to make Battleship.” As you’re learning, stick you what you know. If it feels too small, it’s probably the right size for you as you’re getting started. And then you can build on that as time goes on. The last thing you want is to be inundated with features you can’t finish. Whereas you could have focused on one specific thing like getting a ball to jump, and then you would have had your game. Ambition is great and shoot for the stars certainly, but as you are learning try to keep it as simple as possible.

MEAGAN: I think that is fantastic advice from both of you! Thank you both for being on the podcast. If people have any further questions they can email me at and I can follow up with them. Thank you guys for being on the show!

WILLIAM: Thanks!

ALISHA: Thanks!

MEAGAN: And that is it for this episode of the Crystal Habit Podcast. I hope you guys found that as handy and insightful as I did. As I said if you have any follow-up questions or question for a future episode when we tackle a different vocation within the gaming industry feel free to send them Until next time!

[musical outro]