What does it take to get an education in game design? UW Bothell student Kaylin Norman-Slack has been figuring that out for years—and he has some advice to offer other students looking to do the same.

Kaylin is a student in the Interactive Media Design program at UW Bothell, and an intern game designer and composer at UWB’s Digital Future Lab. Most recently he has been working on Voyage, the DFL’s flagship point-and-click adventure game. Voyage is a first for UW Bothell: a completely student-created game with marketable potential, set for release in 2014. It tells the story of an alien race trying to flee their dying planet. The player must guide the aliens through a series of puzzles to help them reactivate their spacecraft and get off-world.

It’s an exciting time for the students involved in producing Voyage. For many of them it will be the first time they’ve completed and shipped a game.

Kaylin was involved in the puzzle design and sound design for Voyage. In doing sound design, he had to think about all the ways the player interacts with the game—for example, dragging a log—and assign sounds to those actions. He also composed an original score for the game.

I sat down with him at the DFL’s showcase recently to talk to him about his journey from high school to UW Bothell’s Interactive Media Design program.

Kaylin Norman at the Digital Future Lab. Photo courtesy of UW Bothell.

Kaylin Norman-Slack at the Digital Future Lab. Photo courtesy of UW Bothell.

What really drew you to game design?

Initially when I was younger, my parents bought me a Super Nintendo and Super Mario All-Stars. When I first picked up the controller and began to play, I became immersed within Mario’s world. That initial experience sparked my passion for making games. As I learned more about what it took to make games, my passion shifted from simply trying to emulate the experience I had as a child to a deeper reasoning.
I was fascinated by the idea of creating worlds for others to play in. I loved the idea of creating stories for users that would teach them how to get through the harder parts of life. This ultimately changed as I got older and learned more about game design, but it was that initial spark of wanting to create worlds and fascinating games for others to play.

So game design isn’t just a hobby.

It’s something that I really want to do. And it’s something I really want to work towards. In high school, I really put the pedal to the metal on being a game designer. Up until that point I was just saying I wanted to be a game designer, but I didn’t know what to do first.

During high school I had a bit of a falling out with my counselor, who asked me “What do you want to do with your life?” and I said “I want to be a game designer. I want to go out and design games and work for companies,” and she was like “You know, that’s not practical. You’re never gonna be a game designer because that’s just not practical.”

So you didn’t have any support from the school at all?

No support. And then I got into community college and the same thing happened there. I had a gentleman give me the same speech: “That’s just not practical. There’s nothing in the system that can support you. I can’t support you.” So I ended up applying for classes that I thought could go toward my career, again.

One of the things I love about game design is how it has all these other topics pulled into it—the storytelling, the engineering, the coding, etc. It’s so interdisciplinary. Are there any particular topics that you focused on when you were picking and choosing classes?

When I was in high school and community college there weren’t any classes that talked about mechanical systems or anything like that. At the time I didn’t have a mentor who said, “this is what you need to take.” All I had to rely on was the internet. I would talk to various designers and developers and, based on their standpoint, figure out what I should do and where I should go, and what it would take to get to my goal.

I would ask as many designers as I could find, and I would take the most common answer and say okay, that’s where I should go. And the most common answer I got back then was, “designers need to know how to draw, for drawing concepts.” So I said okay, and I took a few art classes. “Game designers need to tell a good story,” so I took a couple literature classes. “Game designers need to know how to orate, and speak, and debate,” so I took public speaking.

Game designers have to do all these things so it’s like, what can I take to get me as close to this as possible? Because within the traditional system there is no game design class.

Would you have liked to find a mentor at a younger age?

Yes, actually. It would’ve alleviated a lot of the situations that I had faced as a young person trying to become a game designer. But unfortunately back then, I had also tried to get a mentor. And unfortunately back then, as it is now, there aren’t many game designers who are willing to be a mentor, because everyone’s busy making games and meeting deadlines. There are services that I have found, like there’s this one called GameMentorOnline.

Would you recommend it to young people looking for mentors?

Yes, though with caution, because  it can be challenging to find one. It’s getting easier though, which is good! A good place to talk to people about mentorship is the International Game Developers Association. I’ve met a number of industry friends through it, as well as through game jams. They’re great places to meet people, ask questions and even find mentors.I had met a person who ran a small company and ask him to be my mentor, and he obliged. I began telling him about TRACED—a brainchild of mine I was working on at the time with a team of 4-5 people. I showed him a version of my resume that another professional had helped me with. He told me that it was the worst resume he had ever seen and that he wouldn’t hire someone with a resume like that. This was all over the phone of course.

So which of them was right?

Exactly! And that’s something that I’ve faced over time as I’ve gone deeper into this whole thing. Everyone has opinions and methodologies for doing things, and you can’t really ask just one person for advice.

My mentorship with the guy ended, just like that. It crushed me really, I cried for a bit. But I bucked up and tried again after a while. The next person I met was a woman who works as a level designer. I showed her my work and told her about TRACED and she said “I like what you’ve done.” So she started giving me points on organizing my resume to best reflect my skills, guiding my thinking about game mechanics and how the design process works, and answering my questions about game design and how to get from point A to point B.

What do you think about the fact that there are counselors in high school discouraging kids from going into the game industry?

I think it’s terrible actually. Everyone should have an equal chance at success and I definitely think that if a system can’t support you then they should at least try to point you in the right direction. Everybody is different, and everyone has different things they have to deal with. I was lucky. Not everyone is as lucky as having financial aid from the government. Not everyone is as lucky to have a supporting family, and parents who are loving you and rooting for you. Not everybody has that support network. And not everyone gets that obsessive-compulsive kick that drives you toward a goal. But none of that should limit you from being able to do what you want to do and no one, no matter how official, should hold you back from doing what you want to do.

What advice would you give to someone on the same path as you?

Know that the only person who can stop you is you. There’s a lot of authoritative-sounding people in this industry, but know at the heart of it, the only person who can stop you is you.

There’s a lot of books out there that teach and discuss game design. There’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses  by Jesse Schell, which has been around for a bit. That’s a good place to start framing  your thinking. Start learning while you’re still young.

Familiarize yourself with the process of game development. Something that I had recently learned is that in design there’s a point where development kind of takes over (after a concept has been green lit) and designers serve more as administrative types—facilitating the process and answering questions developers have. That doesn’t mean “go take and administration class,” but simply keep in contact with the project—don’t just drop it.

Play indie games! Something that has attracted me to the indie movement is the ease of access to the creators of the content. Also, you get to learn about interesting ways to pursue choices.

Network! Talk to people in the industry. I only have one perspective on how the industry works. There are thousands of others who have different perspectives on it. Some think it’s amazing, others think it’s terrible. It’s not what you know, it’s often who you know. And better yet, it’s who likes you!

Another thing that I learned just through my life is, “only through frustration can improvement begin.” And what that means to me is that when you’re getting frustrated with something, keep going. Keep getting frustrated. Because eventually you’re going to have that moment where everything makes sense.

That happened recently with level design for Voyage. I had developed another level, an ice level. I was in bed, I was reading a book on advanced game mechanics and theory, and it just clicked. I had that moment and I just wrote down the level, and everything made sense. And I developed that level during class and showed it to the rest of the design team, and they were like “we really like this level,” and I said “now I get it.” So, only through frustration can your improvement begin.

Simone de Rochefort

Simone de Rochefort

Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin's Gaming With the Moms podcast. With Pixelkin she produces video content and devotes herself to Skylanders with terrifying abandon.