The cheesy part that I absolutely believe
Don't view becoming a designer as a goal. Just be a designer.
If you get that studio job you wanted, great, but be a designer either way.
This applies to many things far outside design, but act of constantly wanting to be some specific thing or hit some specific goal as a singular focus often hurts more than helps. It will make you miserable for every step along the way that doesn't seem to get you closer. It will turn that goal into a thing that can literally never be achieved, because even if you get there, it will never meet all of the expectations you've piled upon it.
Instead, just be the thing you want to be and constantly strive forward. Be a shitty designer and enjoy it. Then be a kind-of-okay designer and enjoy it. Then be a good designer, and someone might recognize it in you. But that way, all along, you're learning and becoming better and people will start to look to you rather than you looking to them. From there, you will have already found success, and getting the job will be both less challenging as less critical to your identity.
Failure is necessary. Failure makes you better. It makes you stronger. The act of being a person who pushes on through failures is the essence of what will make you great.
That practical part that you might actually be looking for
I break getting a design job down to 2 parts.
- Get noticed. (read: get the interview!)
- Prove your value. (read: get the job!)
This is all about standing out from the competition, and trust me, there's a lot of competition. There are many ways to do that, and often the more uniquely you do it, the better it works. There is no miracle solution to this. It all involves work, so you're best off playing to what you're best at or what you're most passionate about.
Here are some ways that previous designers got themselves noticed:
- Building an addon that was widely used by the community, and proved knowledge relevant to the job.
- Being a constant, active member in a major forum community for the game. Contributing regular, constructive, well-thought-out posts over a long period.
- Working on a hugely successful mod for another game that people recognize.
- Working in a more approachable section of the company and earning a reputation for being knowledgeable and competent about the game while there.
- Working at other small studios accumulating a resume of relevant work.
- Attending a reputable game design school, building up a portfolio of relevant projects in the process, and then applying for an internship.
- Working extensively on side projects while doing their day job, then making a good impression with an experienced designer they met.
- Meeting a developer at a recruitment mixer and talking smart design there (requires you can already talk smart design, and don't risk being that person that burns bridges by being too pushy)
Some of those approaches have the advantage of helping you develop yourself for the second step at the same time: proving you have the head for the job. Again, you don't necessarily need to do any of these things, but you should be thinking about how you're going to learn to talk about design intelligently AND how you're going to stand out from a crowd when you apply. The common answers are by their very nature not as strong as the unique methods you come up with yourself.
But if in doubt, pick up a tool and starting making games. Step by step, if you keep slowly expanding your knowledge and find others that are doing the same, this has a way of naturally leading you to the right communities to eventually get noticed.
Prove your value
Typically, there's only one way you're going to be able to do this, and that's by already being a smart designer. That doesn't necessarily mean 10 years of professional experience, or shipping AAA games, or having the #1 mod in the world, but it DOES mean that you need to have already been designing in some form. Here are a few ideas where you might start:
1) Running a D&D campaign teaches you about constructing story and gameplay experiences for other players. It also lets you cheat out of bad designs by changing them on the fly. That's awesome in a way, but do make sure you take the opportunity to learn how players are reacting to things and get better at steering them without them noticing they're being steered. That's a valuable art.
2) Make mods or maps. There are a variety of great map editors worth working with. Starcraft 2. Neverwinter. Skyrim. Many others if you search. Pick something you can get excited about, and try to get through the entire process of learning the tools, creating things, and publishing them to a community. Actually hearing player feedback is critical to becoming a stronger designer.
3) Learn a free tool and make games! Game Maker, Unity, Unreal, and several other engines/tools are freely available these days to make games. Learn one and make things. I would recommend starting with Game Maker or Unity and aiming at the simplest concepts you can get excited about first. Going through the whole process on something small and building from there is way more valuable than getting bogged down in something huge you'll never finish. And I promise you, everything takes way longer than you think it will. Don't worry about commercial success, just learn, get better, and try to find communities you can get involved in to help you get feedback and ideas.
I highly recommend this youtube series by Tom Francis on GameMaker:
If the idea of doing these things on the side isn't exciting
If you find that you can't get excited about doing any of these things, then STOP HERE. SERIOUSLY, STOP. Take a step back and ask yourself if you're heading in the right direction. Being a designer is difficult, creative work, and you won't survive at any good studio or on any meaningful indie project if you're not passionate about it. Ask yourself if there's another type of design you can do that you would get more excited about. Board games? Social systems? Economic structures? If so, find a way to educate yourself and build experience in those areas. I'm not the person to go to for advice on those.
If you can't find a type of design you're excited about doing, then ask yourself if you're more interested in other aspects of game development. Production? Coding? Business intelligence? Testing? Investigate those.
If none of those things apply, then it's entirely possible that you may just love playing games, not making them, and that's fine. It's just important that you're honest with yourself about this, because becoming a game developer is extremely competitive. Don't waste your time if you're not pretty damn sure.
Talking a good game
If you're taking design tests or participating in an interview, your goal is to show the people on the other end of the table that you are intelligent and creative in all of the ways they are looking for.
Step 1: Know what they're looking for.
Any given studio will have visible design philosophies if you pay attention to how they make their games. Bioware typically puts a lot of attention to character and story, utilizing choices in dialogue and cinematic moments to punctuate their games. Bethesda typically likes making large open world experiences that reward exploration and leave room for the player to construct a fantasy about their character. Some studios will be so generous as to post their design philosophies publicly. Study up.
When you're looking for a design position at a big studio, you're declaring that you want to be a designer that makes games the way that studio makes games. Think about how you would push those design philosophies forward in that studio's existing games. Think about how you would apply that studio's design philosophies to other games, or think about other games with systems that match those philosophies that you might point out as good examples to bring forward for inspiration.
Step 2: Show an aptitude for critical thought
Any good designer should be able to look at something and break it apart, illustrating how it works, and be able to identify what trade-offs were made when that system was incorporated. This isn't about tearing into a product and listing flaw after flaw so much as it's about having a deep understanding of what makes a game function. Your job here isn't to be the negative forum troll who makes the other designers feel shitty about their ideas, it's to impress them by showing a thorough understanding of their designs and identifying valid areas for improvement, and doing it in a constructive way that doesn't tear them down in the process. Communication skills are critical for designers.
Step 3: Improve on it!
Being able to tear things apart is only useful if you have the ability to improve on the previous designs. Suggest new things that might work more effectively. Point out similar systems in other games that met with success and might act as stronger alternatives. Or at the very least, show the ability to brainstorm a series of options that might be constructive routes for the design to take, representing thorough thought about any new issues that might be introduced in the process.
Step 4: Take risks
There are many industries where the art of giving an interview is all about playing it safe - don't be wrong, don't raise any red flags, seem confident and well put together and they may hire you. That said, "playing it safe" in a design interview can sometimes be a great way to NOT get the job. To show that you have a creative mind, you have to put your ideas out there, and that means taking risks. Your ideas might have holes poked in them, they might lead down roads you didn't anticipate, and you need to be experienced and intelligent enough to respond to that. Put your ideas out there, talk them out thoroughly. Recognize shortcomings if they exist and brainstorm solutions. Back off of an idea if it doesn't seem to be working and point in some other directions that might be stronger. Be ready for it to be a conversation, not just a presentation.
You're trying to show the people on the other end of the table that you can think like a designer. Sometimes that means admitting the weaknesses of an idea once they become apparent. Sometimes that means improvising on something you were entirely unprepared for. Either way, at least in my experience, going for the easy and obvious answers proves nothing and often means you won't get hired.
I'll stop there. Hopefully some of that advice helps. I'm happy to try to answer questions on this subject if you have any.
[My thoughts and opinions are my own. They are not those of Blizzard Entertainment, and they do not necessarily represent Blizzard design philosophies.]