Do you dream of turning your passion for gaming into a career? Want to know what it’s like to be a game designer and how to break into this exciting field?
We chatted with game industry veteran Jay Schneider, the founder of Fire Opal Games and instructor for the UW Certificate in Game Design. In this Q&A, Jay talks about his journey in the world of gaming, the career’s rewards and challenges, what it takes to succeed and predictions for the games of tomorrow.
Can you tell us about your career in game design?
I started work at the tender age of eight when I was a professional chess player. After telling my parents I wanted to retire, my next stint was setting up large live-action role-playing games like an early Chapter of N.E.R.O.
I later became a professional Magic: The Gathering player, but I was eventually better known for being a writer and theorist about the game. In the 1990s, I worked as a Magic: The Gathering judge and tournament organizer while studying wearable computing technologies in graduate school at the University of Oregon.
After earning my degree, I took a job with Wizards of the Coast as a game producer and a designer for Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers, a major hit. I eventually set up my own game design studio called Fire Opal Games.
What are career opportunities like for game designers?
Competition is incredibly fierce. I would recommend pursuing this career and field only if gaming is truly your passion. There are often long hours, and some positions may offer lower compensation.
What skills do you need to be successful in game design?
Communication and trade skills. Our program stresses both. Our students practice communicating with each other, whether in-person or with tools like Zoom, and we do a lot of presentations. Trade skills includes art, narrative design, applied statistics, audio and theater management. Game design is a multidisciplinary field. One day you might be writing a book, leading a software development team, putting together an art order, or building a dice roller with crazy probabilities.
Can you share how the UW Certificate in Game Design helps students gain these skills?
The first class, Fundamentals of Game Design, helps students find their muse and understand the game industry. In the second class, Game Mechanics & Systems Design, students apply the skills from the first class and learn how to make good games. The third class, Game Studio Roles & Development, is about methodologies in the game industry, such as production skills and using digital tools.
Who is the certificate program good for?
This program is excellent for someone who wants to pair their undergraduate degree, like English, mathematics or computer science, with game design. The program is also ideal for someone already in the game industry but wants to learn about other roles in the field.
What’s the next big thing in the game industry?
The game design industry is becoming more inclusive, but it is a work in progress.
Two technologies have significantly impacted the industry. As a game designer and a wearable computing researcher, I think devices like Meta’s Oculus are where the future of gaming will occur. Once wearable gaming devices get small, ubiquitous and stylish, they’ll be a big hit the same way earbuds have become popular.
The other big change is blockchain and NFTs (non-fungible tokens). These technologies have the potential to allow the unique digital objects that you’d build or earn while playing games to be sold at gaming markets or even shared between gaming companies.
How do you feel when a game you worked on is finally in the hands of a gamer?
Sheer panic and terror. I work a lot in final game design, which is like the editing stage of a book. After a game is released, customers point out the bugs to me, often in a very public and painful way.
The other side of me thinks, “Wow, I launched something that makes life hopefully a lot better for a lot of people.” For almost every large game I’ve published, a thousand people tell me that this game is the most important thing in their whole life. I’ve received letters from people in hospitals telling me that they spent the 200 days between their surgeries playing Duels of the Planeswalkers.
Any advice for an aspiring game designer?
The one thing that guarantees someone success is perseverance. You need to push through the challenging times and work tirelessly to improve your game. If you do that enough times, you’ll wind up with a great game that improves people's lives.