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Artificial Intelligence and the Job Market

Lead Game Designer

Geoffrey “GZ” Zatkin, cofounder and chief operating officer (COO) of XSG, a startup company working in the games industry, took his passion for gaming and turned it into a career. Zatkin went from playing fantasy games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Cyberpunk, Car Wars, and Magic: The Gathering to creating them. He often bought games just for the chance to deconstruct them. When Zatkin was in college, he was playing and programming MUDs (text-based multiplayer games) that were the precursors to the multiplayer (MMO) games that are now popular. “I started in 1997 as a level designer for the small team developing the multiplayer game EverQuest, at 989 Studios. As the team expanded, I moved from my level design position to be one of the first game designers on the team.”

After working on EverQuest through its launch, Zatkin worked on EverQuest's sequel game, EverQuest II. He was subsequently picked as the senior designer on another MMO game, Sovereign, and has since worked for Sony Online Entertainment and Monolith Productions.

Zatkin described his work as similar to that of the screenwriter for a motion picture. Game designers generate hundreds of pages of documentation, known as the design document, that set the game's guidelines. The design document covers all of the game's aspects, whether they are extremely broad (genre, setting, player goals) or specific (control scheme and logic), and helps control every character's ability.

Skills and Requirements

According to Zatkin, lead designers need to have prior experience working on a variety of games, as well as effective management skills. If you compare the design of a computer game to a major film, the lead designer is the lead scriptwriter and movie director. In addition to his or her design duties, the lead designer is responsible for assigning tasks, getting the design team to follow a rigid schedule, and seeing the project through according to the constraints of time and the budget. Lead designers also work with designers from other departments, including art, engineering, management, and testing. This work usually involves explaining key game concepts, receiving feedback on the design, and scheduling. The lead designer is responsible for making sure that his or her entire team is operating efficiently and that all departments have the information they need.

AI is found in just about every video game available across all platforms. It is used commonly in pathfinding, which is the ability of AI entities, non-player characters (NPCs), to successfully navigate their way through the game world. Zatkin said, “Oftentimes, this is not just a single entity moving, and in extreme cases, can involve hundreds or thousands of AI entities moving in formations over extremely complicated virtual terrain. Depending upon the type of game, [AI] could [influence] anything from enemy soldiers, race cars, a self-guided missile seeking its target, or a football wide receiver trying to outrun your avatar to the football.”

AI is written into the computer programs for most of today's games. For example, in a racing game, AI controls the other cars, while in a combat or sports game, AI controls the opponents' tactical decisions, directing them to move, shoot, or jump. In a strategy game, AI controls the enemies, manages their resources, and decides when they should attack.

Zatkin graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology, but unlike many with AI careers, he has no master's degree. “Psychology was a good major for me,” he said, “because psychology is about understanding how people think and how/why they behave as they do in certain circumstances. This is surprisingly relevant to video game design.”

For those wishing to follow in Zatkin's footsteps, he stressed that a designer working in AI will need to possess strong logic skills. Being able to program in languages such as C and C++ is a major requirement. “As an AI engineer, a computer science degree is very handy, as are courses in cognitive psychology. Many programmers in the games industry are more interested in your skill and past experience than where you went to school. That being said, if you don't have an impressive résumé to back you up, a degree is a very good starting point.”

He did note, though, that the video game design field is surprisingly narrow. As a result, when people wish to move and can't find another company, they drift into other fields. Engineers and computer artists have a much easier time finding non-video game work, as there is almost always a demand for highly trained people who know how to program or produce computer art. For beginning designers, Zatkin added, annual salaries can start at $25,000, with experienced designers topping out in excess of $100,000. The average salary is in the $40,000–$65,000 range. “However,” Zatkin warned, “don't go into video games for the money. Most game industry people work extremely long hours in very stressful environments.”

As new generations of hardware with more processing power become less expensive, the use of AI in video gaming will become even more realistic. With that in mind, Zatkin urged prospective designers to study their craft. “Quite often, the games industry is a meritocracy. Those with superior skill are more highly acknowledged than those without. One of the hardest parts of getting into the games industry is actually getting in. Once you have worked on a game or two, moving between companies is easy and commonly done.” As for final advice, Zatkin urged teenagers who are interested in AI to build demos and mods (modifications of games), learn the computer language Java, and have the ability to show your work in source code.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCool Science CareersArtificial Intelligence and the Job Market - Lead Game Designer, Engineer, Engineer Director, A Career With Options, Computer Scientist, Education Programs