Interview

"Game design isn’t all about grand ideas and blue-sky visions of exciting new games"

"Game design isn’t all about grand ideas and blue-sky visions of exciting new games"

The games industry plays host to an excellent cast of colourful and diverse individuals, from artists and coders to narrative designers and studio heads.

The skills to pull off these roles, however, are complex and differing. With each position requiring mastery in its field. As such, seeing a game come together is a beautiful thing akin to a puzzle as an overall picture becomes whole.

To highlight some of the brilliant work that goes on behind the screen, and help others who may be keen to dive in, PocketGamer.biz has decided to reach out to the individuals who make up the games industry with our Jobs in Games series.

This time we spoke with Wargaming Mobile head of design Greg Hanefeld.

PocketGamer.biz: Can you tell us about your current role and what it entails?

Greg Hanefeld: I’m currently the head of game design at Wargaming Mobile and that means I wear many hats. I work with designers and product managers across many of our games to help them create the highest quality game features experiences.

That includes things like writing feature specs, working up creative briefs for artists to concept, creating spreadsheets for tuning and balancing, as well as working with product managers to define live operations plans for our titles.

I learned a tonne about how games are built during my years in QA and it got my mind racing about things I wanted to design myself.
Greg Hanefeld

How did you first get into games and how did you progress into the role?

I’ve been working in or near games since I was in high school. When I was 18, I got a retail job at the local game store (now Gamestop) and a recruiter came in looking for game testers. Shortly after I excitedly began work in the trenches as a contract QA tester.

I learned a tonne about how games are built during my years in QA and it got my mind racing about things I wanted to design myself. I got the first job as a designer on a little MMORPG called Pirates of the Burning Sea and I’ve been designing ever since.

In the intervening years, I worked across multiple genres of PC games before finally settling in mobile games. When the opportunity came to join Wargaming and help them start a new mobile group, I jumped at the chance!

Is it something you ever imagined yourself doing?

My very first game console was a silver Game Boy Pocket, with my first game being Link’s Awakening. I put an incredible number of hours into that Game Boy.

As a kid, I always fantasised about working at Nintendo. It hasn’t happened yet. But I couldn’t have imagined how cool and challenging game making really is, nor would I have dreamed that I would have met so many talented creative people over the course of my career.

What did you study (if anything) to get your role? What courses would you advise for aspiring professionals in the area?

I’ve learned a tonne over the years - teaching myself how something works or taking apart games and their mechanics to figure out how they’re constructed. The best way to learn is to tinker; you learn a lot about your ideas and your creative process by creating things bit by bit.

Hanefeld's first game was Link's Awakening on the Game Boy Pocket. The title is being recreated for the Nintendo Switch and is set to launch later this month.

Fortunately, this is the best time to learn to build things. Access to professional-grade toolsets like GameMaker Studio and Unity wasn't something that was readily available when I was younger.

Now there is a wealth of knowledge and deep communities about these programs to pull from. Learning to use these tools is also a huge benefit to getting a job in the industry and will help you realise your game ideas that much faster.

What part of your role do you find most fulfilling?

By far the most fun and satisfying part of my job is standing at the whiteboard, collaborating over design with a game team.

Tossing out ideas, drawing flow diagrams and UIs, working through solutions to tough problems, coming out of the room as a group excited about the thing you’re going to make. That’s the beating heart of game development for me.

It’s easy to get stuck when designing alone and getting new perspectives and fresh eyes from your team, your friends or your peers is invaluable.
Greg Hanefeld

Do you think there are any misconceptions, public or professional, surrounding your area of expertise?

Game design isn’t all about grand ideas and blue-sky visions of exciting new games. A lot of it is spending time agonising over the nuts and bolts of the game and connecting all the various features and gameplay types into something cohesive and compelling.

The devil is in the details, and designing games to a high level of quality is an enormous amount of effort, though it is incredibly rewarding when a plan comes together.

Is there anything about the job/industry you wish you would have known when first joining?

I wish someone would have told me that I would spend years of my life staring at spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel.

In all seriousness though, one of the biggest things I wish I would have learned earlier in my career was the value of collaborating and sharing your ideas with a group. It’s easy to get stuck when designing alone and getting new perspectives and fresh eyes from your team, your friends or your peers is invaluable.

What other advice do you have for someone looking for a job in this profession?

Becoming a game designer may seem daunting, but the easiest way to start (and most important skill) is to learn to think critically about games you’re playing. Analyse them, break them apart, write down your experiences, and ask yourself lots of questions while playing.

Was there an interaction, a battle, a character, or a mechanic that really made you excited, or even that you really hated? Why was it so cool or so awful? What steps in the game built up to that moment in time? What kinds of ideas does it bring to your mind when thinking about it now?

This kind of analysis is supremely useful and helps you get perspective on how games are put together, but also how you might use similar construction pieces to build your own games and create your own experiences.

Recently we spoke with Wargaming Nexus head Mike Belton about how the studio intends to find the next Fortnite on mobile. 

Staff Writer

Matthew Forde is a freelance writer from Yorkshire, who's work has been published for Tech Radar, Nintendo Life, Kotaku UK and more. He regularly attends Smash Bros. tournaments, while trying to keep up-to-date on everything pop culture related - particularly superheroes. You can find him on Twitter @Forde999.

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