game designer Brian Upton
Group of game designers working on devices. Image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Going freelance? Veteran game designer Brian Upton has some advice for you

19 Jan 2017

A veteran of the video game design industry, Brian Upton decided to go it alone in the risky world of freelance. Now he plans to offer advice to fledgling game developers in Galway on 23 January.

Last November, experienced video game developer Brian Upton decided that after decades of working with some of the biggest names in the industry, it was time to enter the world of freelancing.

You could argue that it was a tough decision to make for someone so ingrained within the corporate side of video games, but much like his fellow veterans John and Brenda Romero, he felt that the freedom of going it alone offered some new opportunities.

A much more specialised industry

While now based in Los Angeles, Upton rose to fame as the creative director of a company called Red Storm Entertainment, where he was also the lead designer on the very first Rainbow Six game that has since become one of the most famous first-person tactical shooter series on the market.

Not only that, but his recent role of 14 years was at none other than Sony’s Santa Monica Studio where many of PlayStation’s titles were born, including the hit indie exploration game Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which Upton was a senior designer on.

With all this experience – and a new freelancing career underway – Upton spoke with ahead of his talk at the Video Games Seminar in the Galway Film Centre on 23 January.

Brian Upton

Image: Brian Upton

Given the rapidly changing pace of not only the gaming hardware, but trends as well, I was curious to hear what exactly had changed since he started off in an industry before the mass adoption of online gaming, for example.

“Game design has become much more specialised in the 20 years I’ve been in the industry,” he said.

“Teams were smaller then and designers had to handle a wider variety of tasks, so the same person might be designing levels, AI behaviours and combat mechanics, as well as writing code.

“It used to be much harder to be a designer if you weren’t a coder yourself because scripting tools were much less common.”

The power of the Tom Clancy name

Yet not everything has changed so dramatically, at least in the publisher side of the business. Upton admits that while they have gotten a little bit better at predicting a future hit, the bottom line remains the same: can a game make it money?

“Publishers have never been keen to take on adventurous titles!” he said.

“Risk management has always been a big part of game publishing, it’s just that publishers have gotten better at assessing risk and the budgets are higher now, and so failure is more dangerous.

“My first professional game only got funded because Tom Clancy’s name was in the title, which mitigated the risk of us being a young, inexperienced team.”

Golden age for gaming, terrible time for making money

But with game developers having more access than ever to more affordable, open-source development tools, logic would surely point to it being easier for complete beginners to pitch a game on the open market?

Even for those not treating game design as a hobby, it is possible to create a whole new game – or a heavily modified version of the game – just by chipping away at it during some downtime.

“It’s a golden age for making games, and it’s a terrible time for making money with games,” Upton admitted. “Cheap tools and digital marketplaces make it easier than ever for someone to make a game and sell it. But those same factors mean that discovery is very, very difficult.”

Having a clear message

Offering some advice to newcomers, he said that much like any freelancing gig, building a network of people and getting both your face and work out there offers a far greater chance of getting that important call or email, rather than just cold-calling.

Also, in the beginning, it is important to establish a clear brand and sell that as your strength.

“Identify one big thing that you do really well and make that your message. You might take other work as well, but it helps to be known for one thing in particular.”

Sometime after this, you might have formulated an idea for a video game that you think could surpass the overnight success story that was Pokémon Go.

Think of your game financially

The only thing stepping in the way of that is the dreaded pitch, where you will have to face at least one executive who will give it a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’.

When it comes to pitches, Upton has two key points that developers need to learn quickly: do you think the game will sell, and can the publisher build it using its resources?

“I’ve been through so, so many bad ones,” he admits.

“Don’t just tell the publisher what your game is; explain why the audience will want it, and remember that you’re selling your own competence as much as you’re selling the game itself.”

Brian Upton will speak about how to pitch video games at his talk on 23 January at the Galway Film Centre. He published his latest book about game design in 2015, The Aesthetic of Play.

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Colm Gorey
By Colm Gorey

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic. He joined in January 2014 and covered AI, IoT, science and anything that will get us to Mars quicker. When not trying to get his hands on the latest gaming release, he can be found lost in a sea of Wikipedia articles on obscure historic battles and countries that don't exist any more, or watching classic Simpsons episodes far too many times to count.

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