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The Real Poop

Have you heard the urban legend about Dwight, the video game designer? Everybody says there's rock-solid proof on this one. Seems Dwight worked for a small design company in Iowa, just a few guys who had been turning out killer work for several years. Anyway, Dwight's skills with the ladies were basically non-existent, so he invented the perfect virtual woman so he wouldn't be so lonely. Then Dwight designed a game around her.

This woman was drop-dead gorgeous and very charming, the kind of lady any guy would want to take home to his mother. However, she also had a dark side, something you just couldn't put your finger on...lots of unanswered questions and contradictions in her story. Dwight seemed to think her dual personality was part of her appeal. He created multiple levels for his game, making his virtual vixen more and more complex as the game grew more challenging. His coworkers said he had never been more animated, more engaged in a game—that he had never seemed happier.

And then something very strange happened. One morning, Dwight's team member Josh came in early to work on an action sequence. Josh saw Dwight's car in the lot, saw his cubicle light on and his coffee cup on the work table. However, Dwight was nowhere to be found. Josh knew there couldn't have been a burglary or other crime, since the building was alarmed.

Josh crept cautiously into Dwight's cubicle, not wanting to disturb anything. Suddenly, Josh saw something that sent chills down his spine, causing him to back up and rush headlong into the hall. Josh retreated to the parking lot, deciding to wait until someone else came in. He just didn't want to be alone in that office, not after seeing that computer screen image that burned into his mind. There was Vonna, smiling devilishly at the screen, beckoning with her arm in an endless loop. “Come with me...come with me...come with me....

They never found him.

While we can't provide any insight on Dwight's fate, there were some elements of truth in the back story. A video game designer works at the forefront of the popular video game industry, which continues to expand as users play games on their smartphones. Let's spend a few minutes talking about how incredibly huge the video game industry really is.

First, let's compare really big simulated apples to other huge digital fruit. Take the movie industry, for example. Every week, we're bombarded with news about A-list actors signing on for new movies, multiple movies in production, and several new releases making their way to theaters. Clearly, the movie industry covers a lot of real and virtual real estate...or so you would think. In fact, the video game industry is roughly five times larger than the entire movie industry. To put this into a perspective you actually care about, World of Warcraft's last edition raked in more profits than the whole movie industry lumped together.

What does all this mean in cold, hard cash? First, realize that there were about 210 million gamers in the United States in September 2012. Yep, we counted every one of them...door to door...when we could tear them away from their consoles. Let's also assume that each gamer forked out between $50 and $60 for the game they're currently addicted to. Except…do you really think a hardcore gamer only buys one game at a time?

From the video game makers' perspective, a white-hot video game can rake in a billion dollars...yes, that's with a big "B." That probably doesn't take into account the additional marketing dollars from T-shirts and other game-related memorabilia. Somebody's marketing genius has paid off big-time. In 50 years, the video game industry will be a marketing case study.

Finally, let's not forget the free games, like Facebook's Farmville. We're turning into a nation of farm-obsessed digital zombies, furtively manipulating crops and livestock while we wait out flight delays and suffer through boring meetings. We hear from long-lost friends who are excited that they've gotten into farming...until we figure out they've gotten hooked on Farmville. We also hear that Farmville's attraction is multi-generational; meaning that kids, parents, and grandparents alike have put on their virtual overalls and picked up a pitchfork. This takes the term "family recreational activity" to an entirely new level.

Okay, let's get back to the video game designers. Game designers work on a game design and development team, and may actually juggle several jobs at once. Designers typically create the game's characters, conjure up a plot, design different levels of play, and figure out how players will score.

On a small game development team, a game designer might also perform coding and programming functions. If that's not enough, the designer might be responsible for project management, which means they keep everyone's tasks on track (sort of like herding cats). Finally, designers might get to perform some early-version testing to work out some of the inevitable bugs.

However, let's say we have a larger design and development team, which means we have several types of designers. The lead designer (sometimes known as a senior designer) oversees the experienced and junior designers on his team (see "herding cats" above). In addition, a lead designer often shapes the game's actual framework, creating the rules, levels, and other structural elements that give the game its identity. In some cases, the lead designer may have actually invented the game.

Next, we have the level designers, who handle the functional aspects of each level of play. Level designers create the physical setting and enemy's antics that help define that level. These designers also utilize the game elements and mechanisms provided by lead designers, and determine the skill levels the players will need. Keep in mind that level designers might focus on one game genre, which means they've got considerable expertise in that style of play.

You might also find a user interface designer on a larger design team. This guy can make or break the game. If the user has to perform headstands, yoga contortions, and perfect swan dives every time he wants to make a move, that player will check out real soon. Word will get out, and that game will be toast. So give this guy the respect he deserves.

Now let's talk about your work environment. On a small team, you might be crammed into a microscopic office; cue the power cords, monitors, and coffee cups scattered on every horizontal surface. On a larger team, you'll probably work in a normal office environment, with individual cubicles and perhaps a conference room for your team's frequent meetings (you do like meetings, don't you?).

At this point, you've probably got a good idea of a video game designer's day-to-day routine. You might wonder about the skills and personality traits you'll need to make this gig work. First, you've got to have good coding and programming skills, utilizing the languages common to the video game industry. You'll need some artistic background so you can create game graphics and animation if you're required to perform those tasks. Because you're working on timelines and deadlines, you'll need excellent time management skills and personal discipline. Finally, you must be able to work both independently and as part of a cohesive team. Translated: You must be able to play well with others.

Okay, let's say the video game industry intrigues you, but you're not sure you want the heavy-duty responsibility that comes with a game designer title. You might also think about working as a level designer, which means you can pretty much do the same thing but with a more limited focus. Script writers create dialogue, perform voice-overs, and work with designers on the game's balance and pacing. You could also perform quality assurance testing to make sure the game doesn't go haywire for the user (which means you need to play the game repeatedly and get paid for it... sweet). Perhaps a production assistant or marketing role would appeal to your organizational or social butterfly side.

Finally, remember that good programmers make video games work. If computer programming floats your boat, and you've got the specific skills and discipline to pull it off, you might find plenty of opportunities in the video game industry. Come to think of it, you can apply computer programming skills in lots of other fields as well.