Working in the gaming industry is not all fun and games, according to Sydney Adams, a Senior Game Designer in Seattle. “It has not been an easy process by any stretch of the imagination,” she says.
Sydney, 29, got her start in gaming as an intern at Wizards of the Coast, where she worked on games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. In 2022, she got hired as a Senior Game Designer at Take-Two Interactive, a game publishing company that puts out hit games like NBA 2K and Grand Theft Auto. She’s currently building the game Kerbal Space Program 2 under the sub-labels Private Division and Intercept Games.
Like many kids, Sydney grew up playing games and developed a passion for them at a young age. “My mother was the one who introduced me to games — she’s been a gamer since the jump,” she says. Her mother would play the original Legend of Zelda on the old school console Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and host lively Scrabble nights with friends.
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It wasn’t until Sydney graduated from college that she realized making video games could be a viable career: “I always enjoyed games and play, but I didn’t actually think I was gonna become a Game Designer,” Sydney says.
A Game Designer is sort of like the conductor of an orchestra, Sydney says. While a Game Designer might not be “playing all the instruments,” they have to understand the overarching vision of a game and what needs to happen to build it. “As a Game Designer, I’ve been in charge of creating stories and characters, building the world out, creating missions, giving characters motivation, writing dialogue,” Sydney says. “You can pretty much do anything or be asked to do anything.”
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Here’s how Sydney learned the skills to become a Game Designer, how she broke into the gaming industry, and her advice for aspiring Game Developers and Designers.
What got me interested in the job
“I went to Stony Brook University, and I got an English degree. I thought I was going to do law, because I like logic puzzles. I remember having to read tort law for like a good month, and I could just feel my resolve crumbling — I was like, I can’t do this forever. I took a gap year and explored my options.
It didn’t occur to me that I could do game design until I started working with kids during my gap year and realized how much games impacted them. I was a Community Habilitation worker for kids with special needs. We worked on things like life skills and play therapy.
When you’re dealing with small children who are very impressionable, their behavior can fundamentally change depending on the games they play. If they’re playing games that teach you to eat with a fork, then they’re going to ask for a fork the next time they eat. I thought, I wonder if it is possible to create games that can positively influence future generations?”
How I got in the door
“I went to Parsons School of Design and got a design technology graduate degree. Grades alone are often not enough to break into an industry. I got a quick reality check realizing that in order to get to the next level, I really need to beef up my resume with things that matter.
I had to support myself, so I had multiple jobs, some of them less glamorous, like serving, but I also got to work as a Game Master at an escape room and I got a job as a Unity tutor. I was like, How can I get as close to doing what I want to do as possible? Working in the escape room was interesting, because I got to get a bird’s eye view of watching how people interact with puzzles.
I was volunteering for as many projects that I could outside of work. There was this arcade in New York called Babycastles that supported students and other end users in the area by giving them a space to display their games. I made a physical analog game called Magic Girl Mecha, where we combined Sailor Moon and Gundam tropes. I was able to put on a resume that I got a game in an arcade, people played it, and I had enough footage showing whether or not it worked.
I had been applying to jobs at like 30 places a day, because I wanted to be super aggressive about it. I finally got an opportunity to do a 2-month paid internship in Washington in R&D for Magic: The Gathering, which was a turning point. I was a little bit familiar with MTG, but I wasn’t super entrenched in it. I was like, I will become a guru as soon as possible. I was playing as much as I could, really trying to internalize and learn the different segments, and really polish it. I had a fundamental understanding of game design, and that helped me.
After the two months, I think I proved myself, my ability, and willingness to learn enough that Wizards of the Coast signed me on as a contractor. So that’s when I officially took my suitcase and I moved to Washington. Over the course of four or so years, I eventually got promoted to full Game Designer at Wizards of the Coast. It was definitely a grind.”
What I actually do every day
“When you’re working at an indie [independent video game], you’re always going to have your head down, because you’re often going to be wearing several hats at a time. Now that I work in a AAA company, they’re larger, they have more capital, so they function more like a typical job with roles that are segmented into teams that are dedicated to things, and people who have oversight and structure.
A typical day for me is usually working on whatever assignments I have for my sprint, which could be creating missions or quests, giving feedback on things that are in the game, or trying to debug things that may have gotten knocked out of place. I use C# and a set of custom tools.
If you’re at the beginning of the project versus the end of the project, it makes a huge difference in your day to day. I am currently on a project that is towards the end of its cycle. Back when I was on earlier [stage] projects there would be a lot more meetings, getting everybody on the same page, figuring out what the pillars of the project are, talking about world-building, and divvying up tasks.”
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Achieving this level of success in the gaming industry has been the “journey of my life,” Sydney says, but it’s come with a fair share of mental hurdles. “When I first started I think I was very nervous about being myself — I wanted to fit in, I wanted my opinions to be valued,” she says.
Game development is a male-dominated industry — 71% of Game Developers are men, 24% are women, and 3% are non-binary, according to global data from the International Game Developers Association. Data on race and ethnicity shows that 2% of Game Developers are Black while 69% identify as white.
While it’s common to feel impostor syndrome in a new job, those feelings are compounded for women, people of color, or individuals with non-traditional educational backgrounds. “There is a level of mental fortitude that is required when there is no one else like you in an environment and you have to prove value,” Sydney says.
If you’re interested in a career in gaming but don’t know where to start, consider taking our free beginner-friendly course Introduction to Game Development. You’ll learn about different types of games and the technical tools that Game Designers use to bring them to life.
In addition to learning the programming languages and game engines for game development and crafting a portfolio, it’s also important to network and “immerse yourself in the environment,” Sydney says. Go to gaming conferences, participate in game jams, and find small opportunities to participate in building games in any way you can, she says.
And finally, don’t stop playing different games, particularly ones that are outside of your comfort zone. “If you’re someone who wants to be in games, some of the best things you can do is keep playing many different types of games,” Sydney says. “What game design really is is designing for an audience — and that audience may not be you.”