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New York Film Academy Game Design
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Chris Swain, Chair of NYFA’s Game Design School, answers a variety of commonly asked questions about NYFA’s Game Design program and the Game Industry.

What is the first lesson to learn in becoming a successful game designer?
What do you wish you knew when you started your education in game design?
How do I get the most out of the Game program at NYFA?
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your professional career?
Which pieces of equipment do you find most effective in your field?
How do new people break into the Game Industry?
What are some ways I can get my student games noticed?
Who do you consider to be the most influential artists in the field?

Q. What is the first lesson to learn in becoming a successful game designer?

A. Games are playable systems. Successful game designers understand how to prototype, playtest, iterate, and collaborate to create compelling systems independent of software development. The only real way to learn the craft is to do it. A lot. NYFA Games students build multiple game prototypes each semester on paper (often as part of solving hard design problems for software projects). By building on paper to start students gain a deep understanding of the craft and have the foundation of knowledge that will allow them to build for any current or future technology platform—e.g. console, mobile, handheld, location-based, etc.
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Q. What do you wish you knew when you started your education in game design?

A. I wish I understood how important collaboration skills were to my success. Game development inherently requires multiple skill sets to do well. Students who get formal training in collaboration and understand how to get what they want with other people go the farthest.
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Q. How do I get the most out of the Game program at NYFA?

A. Each semester you will create a functioning digital game with classmates and an instructor who is an A-list professional game programmer. That means you get to run your own game studio each semester. When you graduate you will have worked with multiple combinations of students and multiple different instructors and you will have a portfolio of titles under your belt. To get the most out of the program we encourage students to post all of their work to personal portfolio websites where potential collaborators and employers can see and play your work.
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Q. What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your professional career?

A. The game business moves fast. Platforms, programming languages, and business models change each year. To be able to surf on something that changes this fast you need a foundation of knowledge that transcends any one technology. That’s why we stress playable system design independent of software. That’s also why we formally teach collaboration, Agile Development, and the business of games in parallel with our design courses.
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Q. Which pieces of equipment do you find the most effective in your field?

A. Having a laptop with a large screen enables you to bring your game studio and presentation station anywhere. It can be a Mac or Windows or dual-boot. Also putting all your work in a cloud-synced folder (such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive) means your work is always backed up and always at your fingertips via any device—e.g. phone, tablet, NYFA lab computer, etc. Software packages that we recommend for student laptops (and which you will get exposure to at NYFA) include Adobe Creative Suite and Maya. Where programming languages come and go quickly Adobe tools and Maya for 3D are timeless assets.
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Q. How do new people break into the Game Industry?

A. The game industry continues to grow as more and more people turn to interactive entertainment on their phones, tablets, handhelds, consoles, and PCs. The top grossing category in the Apple App Store and Google App Store is games. All this means that demand for great game designers is as high as ever and growing. That said, you still have to beat out tough competition to get the best jobs. Here are some best practices to differentiate you from others when breaking in.

Best Practice 1: Online Portfolio
The number one thing that will help you break into the game industry is proof that you can build good games. Showcase your projects on a portfolio website. With portfolio sites more is more. That means post your games, levels, mods, pictures of your paper prototypes, design notes, concept art, and anything else that shows that you are a real builder. The entire NYFA Game curriculum and faculty structure is geared to helping you build a great portfolio.

Pro Tip 1: Playable games count much more than concepts. If you can make your game play in the browser (versus as an EXE) more people will actually play it. Likewise providing game play videos of your projects will make it easy for prospective hires to see your work. Use a program like FRAPS to capture gameplay videos and post good ones to YouTube. Embed those into your portfolio along with the rest of your projects.

Pro Tip 2: The people who want to hire you are really busy and won’t play more than a few minutes of any one of your games. That means it is better to load the best stuff in your student games up front. Also it is better to make lots of short games rather than a few long games.

Best Practice: Hard Skills
The fact is people with hard computer skills have an easier time getting jobs than those who don’t. Examples of hard skills are Adobe Tools, Maya, programming languages, SCRUM master certifications, etc. The reason is that when companies are hiring for entry level jobs they want you to help them execute on their vision for a game. Later—once you are established in a company—you can be the one that comes up with the vision. In the meantime being able to show that you have hard skills—on your portfolio site—will differentiate you from the competition.

Best Practice: Network
Starting right after you read this page start a LinkedIn profile. Then add your portfolio site to it. It’s okay if you don’t have much work in it at first. Networking takes time. Next join a number of LinkedIn game groups and become an active participant. Finally go to Meetups, IGDA events, game conferences, and any other events where game developers congregate. If those things don’t exist in your town then start your own Meetup. If you can’t afford to get into a conference then contact the organizers about being a volunteer conference associate. However even getting a gig as a volunteer takes time and is competitive so look at the calendar of events for the coming year and start contacting people early. You can also lobby crash. Lobby crash means hanging out in the lobby of events and talking to people. You will find out about parties and other stuff going on. We post links to all the good game events happening in NYC and LA so students have the opportunity to meet the game community as early as possible. We also provide students access to an ever-evolving list of game company internship / job pages and we provide education about getting interviews and closing the deal.

Pro Tip 1: Get business cards printed that include the URL to your portfolio site. Do not get cheap paper. High quality cards are available at low cost from online printers. It’s economical to order small runs of cards—e.g. a box of 100 at a time. Check out,, and for prices and design templates.

Pro Tip 2: Every time you meet a game developer give her or him a business card and follow up with a LinkedIn request. I mean every single time. In short order you will have a legit network that you can call on for job recommendations, informational interviews, internships, etc.

Breaking into the industry involves a mix of doing good work and knowing people. The NYFA Game program is set up to provide you with both.
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Q. What are some ways I can get my student games noticed?

A. There are two basic ways to make an impression on game studios and other potential collaborators.

Option 1: Production Values
This means take a genre of game that works—such as FPS, RPG, platform scroller, racing game, etc.—and execute a very polished version of it. Big publishers are famous for this strategy (think: Call of Duty series, Halo series, Grand Theft Auto series, and anything made by Blizzard) but you can do a student version too. Focus on putting great art, sound, pacing, and presentation on top of “golden mechanics.” Golden mechanics means play mechanics that you know people love.

Option 2: Gameplay Innovation
This means consciously do not start with a known genre of game. Start by creating a type of game play that no one has seen before. The beauty of innovating via gameplay is that it does not cost anything in dollars. And once you have figured out a new playable system you don’t have to build a large amount of content nor execute at GTA-level production values in order to impress an audience. Early adopters will come because of the new mechanics and spread the word for you. Examples include: Narbular Drop (which was created by college students and became Portal), Flow (which was created by college students and became the hit on Playstation 3), and Threes (created by a college student and took the App Store and Google Play by storm).

The bottom line is that to win in games today you have to get noticed. Getting noticed means differentiating. For students the smart move is often to differentiate via gameplay innovation versus production values.
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Q. Who do you consider to be the most influential artists in the field?

A. Great artists in game design include Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, Sid Meier, Hideo Kojima, Peter Molyneux, Rob Pardo, Cliff Bleszinski, and many others. Those stars all got where they are with the help of teams of great collaborators – including visual artists, business people, engineers, composers, and writers. Great game studios—past and present—include: Valve, Riot Games, Blizzard, id Software, Maxis, thatgamecompany, Naughty Dog, and others.
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