1. You must love video games.
Spend some time playing video games, learn how they work, and deconstruct their inner workings. I don't need to tell you that the more games you play, the more you start to realize that there are some really bad games out there. We can tell they are bad pretty quickly. A game designer needs to be the type who analyzes why they are bad and can talk about how to make them better. This means you need at least a cursory understanding of all of the aspects involved in building a game—from animation to programming. Being motivated by a love of gaming can get you a long way, but you still need to gain some skills and knowledge to work in the field.
2. Start your game design education as soon as you can.
Figure 6.2 "Little Timmy was upset when he realized that the Xbox 360 wouldn't be invented for another 47 years."
There are a lot of high school classes that will be beneficial to a video game career. Whether you are more interested in the visually creative side or the technical side of gaming, you should be taking every math and computer science class that you can. Traditional art skills will help you develop an eye for composition and aesthetics. Creative writing and communication classes will help you be an effective communicator who is comfortable and confident when talking to people. If your high school doesn't have a lot to offer technically, you can learn a lot just downloading the software, experimenting with it, and consulting online forums at home.
3. College is a time to master software and other tools.
Video games are designed on computers. However, there are several paths you can follow when choosing your courses and intended degree. This is of course dependent upon which aspect of gaming you wish to focus. Programmers need to study programming languages like C++, and artists/animators need to be able to use programs like Photoshop, 3D Studio Max, Soft Image, and Maya. Colleges with video game degrees will have the various career paths mapped out for you, giving you an overview of the kinds of things you will need in each area of focus. Take advantage of this time to start building your portfolio, networking with peers, and experimenting with building your own games. A college degree means nothing if you don't have the skills to back it up.
4. Internships are a good way to get your foot in the door.
Real world experience is a valuable thing. Colleges with game design programs will almost always offer or even require some sort of internship because they know that such an experience can be very beneficial to a design student. It's a way for you to see how a game company works. It's a chance for you to put your education to the test in the real world. More than anything, it will show you what you didn't learn in college. A lot of internships are paid positions these days, but the company is going to expect that you work hard, and show some initiative. They don't want to be a babysitter, but generally speaking, they do want to help you to succeed.
5. Your portfolio is your game design resume.
Quality over quantity is the key in presenting a game design portfolio. It is better to have an awesome ten-second animation or one great piece of artwork than a large amount of sub-par examples of your work. Show your best work and don't try to pad your portfolio. If you have one good piece and a bunch of mediocre crap, the employer is going to remember the mediocrity. Talk with your peers, look at their portfolios, show them your work, and ask for advice. Most portfolios are presented online via a link in your resume. Remember that your online presence and the contents of your portfolio website or YouTube channel are a representation of yourself. Don't put anything online you wouldn't want a future employer to see.
6. Time to get a job and make all of that work pay off.
It is important that you put your best effort into a job interview. If you've made it through the application process and scored an interview, it probably means that you've made it into the finals. The employer liked your application and portfolio, and they just want to check you out. They want to see if you'll fit in their company, whatever that might entail. You should definitely come to an interview having recently bathed and dressed nicely. Brush your teeth. Make eye contact. Try to show your enthusiasm for what they are offering, and demonstrate your expertise.
7. Your drive and talent will decide your success.
Figure 6.3 "As the jam melted into blood before her very eyes, Janey realized that maybe she had been playing too many video games."
Nobody is going to get you there but you. Don't expect to get a lead position right away; you need to work your way up from the bottom. Be a self-starter who is willing to learn and be a part of a team. Remember, a job is a job. If the only job you can find involves modeling background props, making small budget games or mobile apps, it's a place to start. Learn what you can and keep working your way up. That being said, many employers don't like seeing a resume with a lot of short (under a year) stints. It looks like you are indecisive or lazy; it looks like maybe you are the type who jumps ship when the going gets tough.
Other Ways to Become a Game Designer
Technical schools. If the idea of attending a traditional two- or four-year college bachelor's program doesn't appeal to you. There are a number of shorter, more condensed and intensive technical school-type programs that might be a possibility. Online classes are another option, if you want the flexibility of working from home.
Do it yourself. The biggest hurdle to figuring it out on your own is going to be the major investment that you will have to make in computers and software; programs like 3D Studio Max can cost over three thousand dollars. A college student can usually get the software at a reduced price or even free for educational purposes. Once you have the software, go through the tutorials, read the manual, and participate in online forums. If you're a computer-oriented person, it won't be long before you are are designing mods for Unreal or Half-Life 2. If your mod is any good, people will notice, and it might be just the thing you need for a successful portfolio.