If my months of research, quantum physics knowledge, Excel spreadsheets and wild assumptions are correct, then most of the people who read this blog are modders with a passing interest in level design. Some of you enjoy it as a hobby, others are paid for it as a job, some are trying to get from one to the other, and one or two have clearly been tricked into coming here. Either way, you’re here now. Ha!
Everyone knows that a good modding background helps get you a good job in (or at least a foot in the door of) the games biz. That’s how I’ve got here, and that’s pretty much how Valve and a number of other developers were created - by employing only the best hobbyist modders on the planet. That’s not to say the traditional “do a degree, show us a CV” approach doesn’t work, but these days more and more employers expect to see some amount of experience with a number of engines and practises from potential employees.
This doesn’t always just mean, “the ability to make deathmatch AND CTF maps” nor does it always mean “the ability to make a map in both a Quake engine and Unreal.” It means they’re looking for someone who has particular skills in an area of game design, along with the supporting and surrounding knowledge they needed to hone them. Simply being a good level designer is rarely enough without also being able to produce textures, code, models, sounds or any other supporting assets.
The ability to switch between skillsets is important. At the very minimum, the ability to put in placeholder content is essential.
If I were the employer (as if!) I’d expect potential employees to be excellent at one thing, fairly good at another, and understanding of pretty much everything else. So you might be an excellent programmer with some sound creation/modification skills and enough knowledge of art, level design and modelling to understand the bigger picture and produce custom content when needed.
As modders, we have a huge advantage over traditional entrants. Good mods require everything, and the only way we can really get everything done it is to do it ourselves. Even if it isn’t very good or professional, for a mod it isn’t so much the quality, but the ability to do it. Technical knowledge is very useful.
Take ETC as an example. It taught me around the Half-Life engine, as well as giving me basic texturing (if you look closely), modelling (fat Barney) and sound skills (fat Barney’s farts), although few people would have noticed them since the level design was the primary feature. ETC2 had level design, coding (basic physics for crates by an explosion in the opening level, and a respawn entity because I’m lazy), plus models (Gordon’s head on scientist body), sounds (custom speech) and textures (somewhere…) None of the supporting content was outstanding by any margin, and few people would have noticed it, but it was necessary and exceptionally useful. Basic things like that are valuable.
However, being equally skilled at everything rarely works. That makes you a dogsbody, average at everything with no particular title. Always try to excel at a particular aspect (presumably level design!) unless you’re the 1 in 6.5 billion who really is a master designer, coder, artist, modeller, sound engineer and musician all rolled into one. You’ll know if you are because you’re probably earning millions already.
So if you want to be employable in the games biz (especially if you haven’t been in it before), at least be prepared to get to grips with some other aspects of game design and content creation. You don’t need to be a master at any of them, just enough to get by and understand how they all link together. It will often mean the difference between an employer tossing your CV in the bin or giving you a call…