Arts and Culture

How to get my job: Video game level designer

There are many jobs in this world. Some are so bizarre you probably don't know they exist; some you might have had no idea people actually make a living at. In an effort to highlight some of these jobs we've started a new series detailing the origins of people actually working in the field. This week we've tapped local video game level designer Tyler Chiocchio, who works for NetDevil, to help us better understand how one makes a living making levels. Until today, and totally based on Inception, we just assumed you were randomly tapped on the shoulder and told to start getting inside people's heads. Find out what it's really like after the jump.

Westword: Tell us a little about your history as a game designer. Tyler Chiocchio: I graduated with a bachelor's degree in Game Art and Design from the Art Institute of Phoenix back in 2001. After many unanswered emails and phone calls, I finally had my breakthrough when I got a job as a QA (quality and assurance) Tester at Red Storm in North Carolina working on Ghost Recon 2. It was a lot of fun and I learned to hone my technical writing skills and critical thinking to track and hunt down issues. I got my first design job at Neversoft in Los Angeles. Since then, I've worked on five Tony Hawk games, a WWII game called Saboteur, and now I'm here in Colorado working on one of the biggest and most impressive titles of my career.

WW: Why did you want to become a game designer and when did you know it was what you wanted to do? TC: I played some Nintendo when I was younger and loved it, but at the time it didn't occur to me I could make games for a living. It wasn't until I was in my early twenties when I watched as some people played a game of Madden. I was amazed at how the game created a new and powerful social environment with the people playing. It instantly occurred to me that video games were the most powerful art form of my generation. It pushes technology, art and narrative in new ways. At the time, it was a discipline that was discovering itself and I knew I had to be a part of that exploration.

WW: How would you recommend someone get started in the field? TC: Having a bachelor's degree is very important. It's not critical the degree is in the video game field; I have many industry friends that have degrees in history, psychology, and philosophy for example. That said, there are many great schools out there that do focus on video games, Carnegie Mellon, The Guild Hall, and Full Sail to name a few. Once you have your schooling, apply and apply some more. Most of the jobs you'll get in your career will be from knowing someone in the industry, so be social and vocal and try to make connections. It may not pay well, but landing a QA job is an excellent way to get in the industry.

WW: How do you feel about the state of the industry today, and where do you see it heading in the future? TC: While games aren't as recession proof as was once thought, it's a vibrant industry with lots of potential. Success isn't just for working on big budget games -- there are millions to be made working on smaller platforms like iPhone and Facebook. It's an exciting time to get into the art of making a compelling game.

WW: What's the best part of your job? TC: Being creative every day and working alongside some of the smartest and most talented people are the best parts of the job. This type of work attracts the eccentrics, the critical thinkers, and the type of people that simply refuse to give up their sense of awe at the world.

WW: How about the biggest misconception? TC: The common thought is that a game developer is someone that just hangs out and plays games all day. That's like saying a painter is someone who just looks at pictures all day or a director just watches movies all day. Creating a game is the act of making a complete experience out of nothing. Having teams of over a hundred people share in a vision of an intangible something and working in a coordinated fashion to make it as real as possible for the end user is the hard work of the job.

WW: Can you describe an average day at the job, perhaps both at the beginning of a project and toward the end? TC: Beginning of projects and end of projects are two separate animals. The beginning is largely about defining what the game is and what tools are required to make that experience happen. Things to consider are: How long would it take to develop such-and-such tool? How much will it add to the game and in what ways can the tool be expanded on to deliver even more content? What types of mechanics need to be developed and how are they going to integrate into the maps? These and thousands more questions will come up by forethought or spring randomly out of previous decisions made.

Once the game is in full production and timelines demand new work come to an end, it's all about bug fixing and polish. The QA department has more control over the development than they could ever realize as bugs they find are our permission slip to make a change in the game.

WW: What is your current project? TC: I am Lead Level Designer on LEGO Universe. It's a MMO, a Massively Multiplayer Online game. Much like the popular World of Warcraft, our game is a shared virtual space where people can play together, fight creatures, build all kinds of objects out of digital LEGO's and more.

WW: With a MMO, how much work do you do after launch? TC: An MMO's work is never done. Once the title goes live, there is a team that is focused on reacting to player comments and working to make the game that is out even better. There is another team that continues to make the new content that will come out further down the line. The new content will expand on the fiction, the gameplay, and continue to develop the fun and value of the game.

WW: How is working on a MMO geared more for a younger crowd different than one for an older crowd? TC: As anyone with a margin of computer savvy could imagine, creating a public virtual environment that is completely safe for kids to play in is a very difficult task. Working closely with LEGO, a safe environment is the top concern. Aside from putting in layers of protection to make sure the kids aren't exposed to any nefarious content, there are other challenges that come with making a kid's game. Finding the right balance of how much text a mission can have before they lose interest, when are we giving the player too much guidance, when is it not enough? These questions and more find their answers in the many tests we do onsite with kids, and research done on the data we get from players. As we get more information of what kids and adults both enjoy about the game, the better the game will continue to develop.