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What It Takes to Be a Video Game Designer | Travis Day | #10

Funsmith Fireside Chats Episode #10

Guest: Travis Day

[This is the last interview with my colleague Travis Day before he passed away. This episode is dedicated to his memory]

As a two decade game design veteran, Travis Day has a unique perspective on game systems! Known as “The Items Guy” for the extensive catalog of items he created for World of Warcraft, Travis has some stories that will surprise you with how much drama an item drop system can cause!

Travis Day is a lifelong gamer who chose to turn his passion into a career. He has been making video games since 2005, when he started working at Blizzard. After a long term there, Travis began working as a game designer at Phoenix Labs, and eventually moved on to Tencent, where he is currently a senior systems designer.

In this episode Travis dives into what it takes to work in the video game industry. We’ll go over topics such as

  • What he looks for when interviewing potential hires
  • Advice on how to become a strong team player
  • And life lessons that can aid you throughout your game design/dev career
  • Etc.

Watch or Listen to The Full Episode

Audio:

Podcast Platforms:

gds podcast listen apple podcasts min

gds podcast listen spotify min

gds podcast listen overcast min

Referenced Links & Resources

Connect with Travis Day:

Wowpedia

Connect with Rob Pardo:

Wikipedia

Connect with Alex:

Twitter

Connect with Ari:

Instagram | TikTok

Mentioned Resources:

Gloomhaven

D&D’s campaign

D&D’s wizards

World of Warcraft

Blizzard

Free Game Design Learning Resource:

What is Video Game Mechanics (Beginner’s Guide)

How to Become a Video Game Designer

Functional Game Design Document Examples, Templates, and Instructions

Game Design Portfolio, with Examples (Guide)

Episode Chapters (with Timestamp)

0:00 – Introduction to the topic and guests

1:11 – Greetings and welcomes

1:27 – What is GloomHaven

22:30 – What Travis was looking for in his career

22:42 – What’s within Blizzard culture

24:31 – Why is self awareness need by a game designer

30:09 – How can unrefined ideas help in design brainstorming

31:20 – Important mechanics of game

35:20 – Open world format of games

53:18 – Why is badge system created

57:04 – Reward in Progression System

62:28 – Advice to aspiring game designers

63:07 – Way to make sure that game designer is working in same direction

1:18:00 – Traits needed to grow better

1:20:47 – Final advice from Travis

More Guest Quotes From This Episode

“GloomHaven is a D&D’s campaign in a box. It’s very hefty and if you don’t house rule a couple of roles immediately, you will have a very bad first time experience.” — Travis Day

“It put off people because there are a lot of rules about not having an alpha player that are built into the game, making it less co-op friendly.” — Travis Day

“When I decided I’m just going to leave like this, this is what I want to do. My brother and I have talked about it our whole lives, like we grew up gaming, had computers next to each other, and played games for years. So I was kind of just chasing my dreams.” — Travis Day

“It was the most arbitrary thing I’ve ever seen as my first sort of insight into human psychology, of rewards and progression, and positive reinforcement. People like things just because they’re rare.” — Travis Day

“It very much takes a bit of mad science, you need that spark of just doing something crazy to be an encounter designer.” — Travis Day

“If you can put yourself in the brains of influencers, being a vocal part of the community for the alpha testing, beta testing the games, making videos, makes people know who we were.” — Travis Day

“What I personally look for has evolved over the years. It is my sort of understanding of what it means to be a designer and co-worker, and a human being has evolved, so the things I look for before, are not the things I necessarily look for now.” — Travis Day

“Within the Blizzard culture, it was a lot of wanting to see passion about Blizzard, wanting to see people want to be here and not just do a job. I want you to be here because you’re passionate and it drives you.” — Travis Day

“A lot of design is at its core, it’s collaboration and iteration. When you’re sitting in a room with a lot of people, you have to understand that these people may represent different types of games and experiences.” — Travis Day

“Whether or not the person seems like they can grow or challenge their own assumptions, a somewhat level of self-awareness is necessary especially to be a designer.” — Travis Day

“You would have to analog the climbing system of the game, but in a way that feels thematically cool and different if possible. You need to be able to build in limitations, to restrict where the user can access.” — Travis Day

“During design brainstorming, throwing out really bad ideas that are unrefined can spark other ideas or potential refinement from people.” — Travis Day

“You design to have clear intent all the time, or like to serve some niche function. Just make cool things and people believe that they are whatever you’re trying to make them.” — Travis Day

“I love asymmetry, I love games where you can get the most different experience possible by playing it in all its different varieties, somy mind would want to be there.” — Travis Day

“In an open world format, you’re not really directing the player from point a to point b to point c in a linear path. It’s kind of free form, letting the players decide how they want to experience that.” — Travis Day

“You need to introduce weaknesses and trade-offs, making it a compelling experience, but still just not feeling like it’s an overpowered or watered-down version of what you think, or what direction you want to take.” — Travis Day

“A badge system has been created where every time you kill stuff, you get currencies, have vendors, and have a deterministic reward structure and end up making badges of justice, badges of valor, etc. until there’s like 87 different badge types. Every piece of content has its own tier badge and put it on a vendor to get good stuff while also getting upgrades and loot.” — Travis Day

“What people don’t like is that the thrill of the experience is focused around the grinding rather than grinding just being something that you do while following your own goals.” — Travis Day

“It’s such that reward and progression systems are so nuanced and the answers are so specifically dependent on what your game is, what is the emotional experience you want the users to view, what are the engagement patterns or replay patterns to look like and all other sorts.” — Travis Day

“When you always felt like you were willing to do the work of walking out of your office designers on other teams, we’re receptive to hear you and it’s a core value to making things work because the people who aren’t sitting in the fray often bring perspectives. They’re professional designers, they’re thinking about these problems and they will just crack something you’ve been stuck on.” — Travis Day

“Appreciate and deeply just take the heart and learn.” — Travis Day

“For starters, we need to be able to talk about ideas without anyone’s feelings getting hurt, so try to set aside emotional connections to ideas.” — Travis Day

“To get designers aligned and working in the same direction is to start from discussing what we want to accomplish, what’s the goal that you want the idea to improve, where’s the problem feedback is coming from, and then talk about how we could alleviate and improve that problem.” — Travis Day

“A really admirable trait is curiosity and realizing you don’t know anything you think you know, and being humble and open to the possibility of being wrong or being taught something that seems strange to you, and going like it’s how people grow. That’s how you become better and make better life choices.” — Travis Day

“It’s important to move communities too, you need to take the person you are now and meet new people and get a reset on where you’re at too because then it lets you know where you need to grow and what you’ve done.” — Travis Day

“You should experience new things and new people, and expand your horizons because if you stay in one place, you stagnate sometimes.” — Travis Day

What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

By the way, whenever you’re ready, here are 3 ways to help you start or level-up your game design career:

1. First Principles of Game Design: Skill Development Program: Join game devs who got hired or promoted across 51 AAA and Indie game studios including Riot, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and etc.

Improve player retention and word of mouth by learning to accurately diagnose why the players are losing interest in any game and how to adjust accordingly – one of the main skills studios hire for.

2. Game Design Mentorship – Get access to live weekly video calls and chat feedback support directly from veteran game designer with 25 years of industry experience (see example sessions).

3. Game Design Career Goal Strategy Workshop: A live workshop to help you figure out exact action steps to reach your goal, whether you aim to

  • Break into the video game industry
  • Get promoted (or pivot) from your current position
  • Ship a successful Indie game

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EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan