Hello again, everyone! This week I'll answer one of the most common questions I get in various forms -- how do you go into game UX design from some tangentially-related field?

Dear Caryn:

I'm a graphic designer at a web company but I've always loved games, and I love UX. I'd really like to get into game UX design but I don't know what skills I need to learn to do that coming from a different field like mine. Any advice?

I've gotten this question in various forms over the years, with people wanting to know how to get into game UX design from graphic design, programming, art and illustration, you name it. Usually the person is in a field that isn't in games and might be kind of related to UX design, and they want to move into games for sure. 

What's interesting about this question is that the difficult part is actually not what you need to learn for UX design, but how to get into the game industry -- that's the part most people just don't know how to do. So let's talk about both: getting into the game industry, and getting into UX design within the game industry. 

The game industry part

To make games, you have to make games. What I mean by that is this: no one ever got hired at a game company by just talking about the game ideas that live in their head; they got hired because they made an actual game. I started my life in the game industry in 1999 (oh God, that's so very long ago), when, if you wanted to do something related to game-making, you downloaded the source code for something like Quake and you made a mod, or you downloaded a level editor for your favorite game and you made levels. The people that did this back in the day (oh no, did I just use that phrase?!) became mod makers or level designers in the community, and if they were good they got noticed by game companies and they got hired, and they then became professional game developers.

Nowadays it's so, so, so much easier to get this same kind of experience -- free game making packages abound, like Unity or Construct or even Unreal, and every tutorial is merely a Google search away. If you have a game idea, it's never been easier to get started making it literally right now. 

"But Caryn," I hear you say, "What about getting a degree in game design?"

Yes, you can do that these days, too -- this wasn't a thing you could do Back In My Day. But whether you're self-taught or you've gotten a degree in game design, companies look for one thing: have you actually tried making any games, even in your degree program? If the answer is "no" then you're going to need to start making games on your own before you think about getting into the game industry. 

The user experience design part

The best thing about being able to make games in your spare time to get the experience you need is that it kills two birds with one stone: it not only allows you to get experience actually making games (which is kind of valuable, you know, if you want to get into the game industry), but it allows you to create a portfolio that demonstrates your UX design skills, or lets you practice developing them if you're still in the process of learning UX design. Because to make a game, even on your own as the sole creator, you have to design your game's user experience. 

Here's a practical example: I've been working on a little game in Unity about a flying alpaca that picks up gems as he flies through the air. I'm doing this because

  • (a) I love programming but I never get to do it, and I'm a novice programmer so this gives me a chance to build those muscles in the safety of my own home project instead of the Very Important Project At Work That Under No Circumstances Should I Ever Try To Do Any Programming In;
  • (b) it gives me a chance to do UX design unfettered and only limited by my own game design;
  • (c) come on guys, a flying alpaca. It sells itself.

If I were looking to learn UX design, this game would be my own personal UX design laboratory. And if I were a smart person, I'd be documenting the entire development and design process to put into my portfolio, demonstrating what I've learned, and what failed and what succeeded. 

In this particular question, the asker has some graphic design skill and wants to know how to translate that into UX design. It's not really about translating it into UX design, but more about figuring out what holes in your knowledge and experience you need to fill in. Graphic design will give you the ability to visually communicate your UX designs well; the holes in your knowledge will likely be in the areas of user research, prototyping, and user testing. Come up with a game idea, download something like Unity or Unreal (or something like Construct if you really want to avoid a lot of the need to do any programming), do the design work (both the game design work and the user experience design work), and make your game. Even if it's rough and unpolished, if you can speak to the UX design work in it, you'll have demonstrated both your interest and ability to make a game, even a simple one, and your ability to do UX design.

It sounds like a lot of work -- and it is -- but when has something great that you wanted to do ever been really easy? You'll get back in education far more than what you put into it.

Thanks for sending in your question to "This UX Thing"! Remember, if you have a question yourself, send it my way and I'm happy to address it. Thanks!