Last year, I gave a speech in my daughter Rachel's class. Her teacher was interested in having parents talk about what they did and it turned out that one of their assignments (for the American Revolution) was to make a game. So I came in and talked about the basics of game design. That talk turned into a two-part column called "Ten Things Every Game Needs" (combined here).
This year, I did another speaking engagement at Rachel's school (this time at her new middle school). It was Career Day and I was one of forty parents who volunteered to come and talk about their careers. As my last column based on one of my speeches to Rachel's class went well, I figured I'd try it again.
Mark Rosewater at school Career Day, 2012
My assignment was very straightforward. I had forty minutes to talk about what I did, how I came to do it, and what kids could do if they wanted a similar career. That wasn't enough for me, though. I wanted to have a message bigger than just that—this is the life of a game designer. After much thought, I decided my theme was going to be "How To Get Your Dream Job."
I didn't just want to talk to the kids about my job, but rather about what my job represented to me. I wanted to explain the holy grail of the job search. I hoped to instill in the kids that, when planning your future, you should aim high.
When adapting this to a column, I realized there was one small issue. I've told my "how I got a job at Wizards" story in bits and pieces over the years. (My introduction to Magic—"Once Upon a Time," my trip to Gen Con and the first World Championship, my decision to take that first trip, and my trip to Seattle that led to my getting my job.) To keep from repeating any of those columns, I decided my goal in this column is to walk through the thought processes and decisions—rather than the circumstances—that led to my job. Focus on what I did, on what decisions I made, rather than just what happened. There will still be some overlap but I hope this column will be a different take on the story.
Also, while I talked in my speech about how one could become a game designer, I felt Doug Beyer did a good enough job of this in a recent article that I'd just link you to that if you want to know how to get a job at Wizards.
With all that out of the way—let's begin.
- To Dream the Impossible Dream
I have a dream job. What does that mean exactly? It means I have a job where I am excited to go to work every day. It's a job I love doing. It's a job I excel at. It's a job that provides me with an income that allows me to live the way I want to live and provides for myself and my family. In short, I have a job that enhances my life in every way it can while providing me everything a job needs to provide.
So, how does one get a dream job? My goal today is to provide you with the tools to help you find one.
- Lesson #1: Understand What a Dream Job Is
I'm a big fan of words, but sometimes pictures can do a better job (I hope someone has figured out a picture-to-word-value ratio).
I found this graphic on a blog named "Green Eggs and Lam," written by a man named Sam Lam. This graphic really struck me because it does a great job of establishing what a dream job is. It is the intersection of three key things (each represented by a circle):
Stuff You Love To Do
To find the intersection of the three circles, you have to first find your place in each circle. This first circle is about finding what you love. Be aware, you don't choose what you love. You value things because something about them draws them to you. Each person has certain needs (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) and meeting these needs leads people to certain activities and subjects.
Finding your place in this circle is an introspective journey. You have to learn to identify what it is you love—where your passions lie. The best advice I can give here is that down deep, you instinctively know what you love. The key to finding it usually isn't about searching but acceptance. Embrace whatever it is that makes you happy (provided, of course, others aren't being harmed).
One of the greatest mistakes I believe people make in life is trading happiness for other things—money being the worst culprit. If you want to be happy, you have to learn to prioritize happiness. This might sound like silly advice, but it's shocking to me how often people don't prioritize their own happiness in their decision making.
Find the things you love in life—embrace them, prioritize them, understand them, and participate in them. That's what you need to do to fulfill the first circle.
Each step along the way, I'm going to walk you through how I did the thing I'm telling you to do.
My father is a game player. I was raised to enjoy games, which I did throughout my childhood and, thus far, all of my adult life. Games have always been one of my passions. Here, for example, are two bookcases in my den at home.
These aren't all my games. I have a giant shelving unit in my basement with more of my games. Then there are a bunch of games in storage in my garage. I'm a gamer. It's in my blood.
Not only have I always loved games, I've always enjoyed understanding how they tick. I've been designing games for fun for a long time. Back in the day, my intent was never to sell my games. I just made them for the joy of making them. When I lived in Los Angeles trying to make it as a television writer, I was also designing games in my spare time. For two games—Polyhedra, a dice-rolling game using the six gaming dice, and Time Duel, a two-person fighting card game between time travelers—I even did some research about how I could get them published.
Around the same time, I was going stir crazy in my apartment. Writing was another one of my passions (and still is) but being alone every day writing scripts to try and land a job was driving me a little nutty. I decided I needed to get a part-time job that got me interacting with people. As money at the time wasn't the driving factor (my staff job on you-know-what had provided me with some money), I took a job I thought I would enjoy—working in a game store.
Stuff You're Good At
This circle is the key to employment. To get a job, you need to have skills. The key to skills when you boil it down is time and attention. To get good at something you have to do it. A lot. A lot, a lot. The stat I've quoted before comes from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, he mentions the "10,000 Hour Rule." This rule states that to get really good at something you have to do it for at least 10,000 hours with constant feedback. Gladwell is talking about becoming a master of a skill, so you don't need 10,000 hours before you can land a job, but you do need to give the skills you're interested in attention. Want to get good at something? Do it. Then keep doing it. And then do it some more.
Here's the trick. Humans function better with focus. If there's a reason to do something, it's easier to stick with it. For example, I love to write. I know I'll become a better writer if I constantly write. One of the ways I helped make sure this was going to happen was to get myself into a situation—this column—that forces me to write every week. Having a deadline and a goal each week ensures that I keep at my writing.
Now let's go back in time and apply this to myself and game design. I enjoyed games. I recognized that I was interested in designing games. That meant that I needed to find ways to improve. How did I do that? First, I acquired knowledge about the topic. I read everything I could find on game design. Back then, there wasn't all that much. It's a little better now. If nothing else, you're at least reading this column.
Second, I just started designing games. There is no better teacher than experience. If you want to learn how to do something, just start doing it. Understand that you won't be good at first and that's okay. In order to get good at something, you have to first suck at it. But I knew if I wanted to design games I had to just take the plunge and start doing it.
Here's where the tip above comes into play. Game design, like any creative endeavor, can go on forever. There are always ways to improve what you're working on. To break this cycle, you have to give yourself a deadline, even if that deadline is only of your own creation. In Los Angeles, the main game I was working on was my dice game Polyhedra.
There was a game design conference in Las Vegas, so I signed up for it and made the decision I was going to finish my dice game so I could bring it with me. I didn't know how to break into game design but I figured I at least had to demonstrate to someone who mattered that I could design a game. Also, I was interested in possibly producing the game myself so I wanted to have a good prototype to show off.
Stuff Someone Will Pay You To Do
This is the stickiest wicket of the three circles. The first two allow you a lot of control. While you don't pick what you love, you have the ability to search within and discover it. And as I just explained, part of getting good at something is making the conscious decision to put in the time and attention to get better. This last circle, though, is about finding something completely outside of your control.
I'm being a little unfair. Knowledge of this last circle can help you shape what skills you focus on in the second circle. When deciding what skills to work on, you can first get a sense of which skills are more valuable in the marketplace. This is not the route I chose, but I don't want to imply that this last circle is just a roll of the dice.
The real lesson of this last circle for me is the importance of diversification. Part of learning skills is to try and create a broad base of talents that allow you some flexibility when searching for a job. Another important part of this circle is trying to figure out how to use the skills you do have to find the job you want. Once again, I'll use myself as an example.
Growing up, I decided to focus on the following skills: writing (and in a broader sense communication), storytelling, creative thinking, and problem solving. Coming out of college, I thought I was going to use these skills to create television series. Game design was just a hobby, but it was a different way to use these same skills. I knew that using these skills in any regard would be helpful and game design seemed like a fun diversion.
While my focus growing up wasn't to become a game designer, I managed to strengthen the skills I would need such that when the opportunity arose to get hired by Wizards (and not as a game designer, but I'll get to that in a bit) I was able to take it.
The point of this first lesson is that getting a dream job requires a lot of work on your part. You have to figure out what it is you love. You have to work on skills that play into that area. And then, you have to do the research to understand what jobs exist with those skills. As I like to say, if you're not taking the steps to make your dream happen, you are allowing it to not happen.
- Lesson #2—You Have to Keep Working Toward Your Dream Job (Even if You Don't Know What it is Yet)
I love being head designer of Magic. It isn't where I started. In fact, my journey from Magic enthusiast to Magic Head Designer was a long journey. Last I left, I was doing game design on the side for fun. I took a part-time job at a game store to get out of my apartment and mingle with humans. The job was what alerted me to Magic's existence and once I finally got a copy of the game (at a Los Angeles game convention in August of 1993) I quickly got hooked.
The next important moment was the day I purchased the very first The
My idea was a puzzle column where readers were put into a game of Magic midgame and had to solve whatever the puzzle asked of them (usually win that turn) with the cards they had available. Once I got the idea, I then set out to make a few puzzles to demonstrate what I was talking about. Another good rule to learn is that most people cannot see potential. If you want someone to understand something, you have to create a version that closely approximates it. This, by the way, is also true for Magic design. If, for example, I have a cool idea for a mechanic, I have to design a few cards with the mechanic for people to playtest and see.
Once I had the puzzles made, the next step was figuring out how to get them to the people who made The Duelist. Luckily, at another Los Angeles game convention, members of Wizards of the Coast were attending. I ended up talking to Steve Bishop (the man originally in charge of organized play for Wizards, called events at the time) who gave me the name of The
A few months went by and I never heard from Kathryn. Finally, out of pure frustration, I called her. When I inquired about the state of the puzzles, she informed me they liked them very much. So much so that the puzzles were being published in The Duelist 1½ that was coming out the next month. (For history buffs, The
Note that every action I took so far was about me pursuing a passion. At no point was I trying to get a job. I was just trying to do something I loved and that unto itself was rewarding. You'll see as this story plays out that I was laying the groundwork for my ultimate dream job even though I was completely unaware at the time that it was my dream job.
My point for this lesson is that part of moving toward your dream job is always taking steps that advance you closer, even if you haven't figured out what that dream job is yet. How do you do that? By pursuing your passions. Remember circle number one up above? Let that guide you. Also, actively working toward things you love will get you the experience you need to get better at circle number two. I knew I loved games and I was trying to use my skills to involve myself in the game I loved. I wasn't sitting idly as my life passed me by; I was filling in my circles .
- Lesson #3—You Have To Be Willing To Take Risks
The greatest risk in life is never taking a risk. Interestingly, that's also true about Magic design. Almost every major accomplishment I've had as a Magic designer involved me doing something that somebody thought was a bad idea. Split cards, a tribal theme, a guild block structure, a "land set," a horror block, double-faced cards—if I had listened to certain people, I would have given up on each.
I bring up risk because while it's great to keep moving toward your goal, there will come a time where you have to step out of your comfort zone and make something happen. Why? Because life seldom gives you exactly what you need. Life gives you opportunities, but you have to take advantage of them. And sometimes, you have to make the opportunities happen. Case in point...
My puzzle column ended up being called "Magic: The Puzzling" and it turned out to be a great success. It quickly became the highest-rated section in the magazine. I soon started an answer column where I got a chance to show off my writing chops. In between explaining the answers, I told wild stories—many involving my evil twin.
It was at this point that I decided I wanted more. I was really enjoying Magic and it felt great to be involved on the other side. I wanted to increase my involvement. The biggest problem was how. And then one day I got fired from the game store. To this day, I don't know why I got fired. The previous month I had been the top-selling salesman in the district—and I worked part time! The new manager wanted new blood and for some reason I was out. (My theory has to do with my maverick streak and my unwillingness to wear shoes that hurt my feet.)
That day, as I was driving home, I realized that being fired meant I would be free to go to Gen Con. For those who don't know what Gen Con is, it's the largest non-electronic gaming convention in the United States. At the time, it was held in Milwaukee. My aunt and uncle lived in Milwaukee. I knew I could stay at their house. Still, the airplane ticket would be a little steep and my money was starting to dry up. (And remember, I had just lost my only job.)
Why did I want to go to Gen Con? Because I knew Kathryn Haines, the editor-in-chief of The Duelist, was going to be there. I felt confident that if I met her in person, I could convince her to let me write more articles. Turns out, I was correct. Kathryn and I hit it off. She told me that if I pitched her good article ideas, she'd let me write them. On the spot, I came up with the idea of covering Gen Con from a Magic player's perspective and transcribing the finals of the very first Magic World Championship. You can see the first here and the second here.
Mark Rosewater at the first Magic World Championship, Gencon 1994
I flew myself to Gen Con on my own dime and before the weekend was out, I was the main person covering the finals of the very first World Championship. I strongly believe if I hadn't taken that risk, odds are I wouldn't be head designer right now. Don't fear the risks, fear the path where you never take them.
- Lesson #4—Take Advantage of Every Opportunity
One of the themes I want to hit today is that getting your dream job is not a passive activity. You don't just sit around and wait for it to happen. You have to help make it happen. One of the ways to do this is to take advantage of opportunities. I'll use my story once again as an example.
My trip to Gen Con had been successful and I was now a regular contributor to The Duelist. Never one to settle, I made sure to do three things. One, I did my best work. I gave every assignment the time and attention it needed to do the best possible job. Two, I always turned everything in on time. There is no faster way to crash and burn than proving to be unreliable. Three, I always pushed for more opportunities.
I would pitch story idea after story idea. I asked if any section of the magazine needed help. I built a good rapport with every Wizards employee I came in contact with. The net result of all this work was a few things. I wrote a lot of articles for The Duelist. I believe there was even one issue where I provided twenty percent of the content in the issue. In addition, word got out at Wizards—I was a strong writer who understood Magic and hit deadlines.
You have to understand that this was early 1995 and Magic was growing at a crazy rate. There was more work to be done than there were employees to do it. That led to a lot of freelance work, some of which went my way. Much of this work wasn't all that interesting, but I understood that the more I did, the more engrained I got at Wizards and the more engrained I got with Magic. I took every opportunity offered me to work more on Magic. In the end, I did freelance projects for, I believe, ten different sections of the company.
It's very easy to look at what I'll call the splashy moments of this story, but this section of freelance work, while far from sexy, was one of the things that allowed what was about to happen to happen. Had I not taken every opportunity once again, I don't think I would be here right now.
- Lesson #5—Your Big Break Most Likely Won't Come When You Expect It, But When It Does Grab It
One of the things that's clear as you look back at your life is that most moments that defined your life surprised you. I'm kind of shocked that I first kissed my wife when I did. I had no idea when I picked up my first comic book what it would mean to me. I remember crystal clear the day the doctor used the words "two birth sacs." My hiring at Wizards falls right in line.
While most of my freelance work was done at my home, from time to time I would be flown up to Wizards corporate headquarters in Renton, Washington, to do some work. During these trips, I got to know a bunch of different Wizards employees, including many of the Ramp;D members. During one of these trips, I was sitting in that version of the Pit listening to Mike Davis, then the vice president of Ramp;D, talk about how they needed to hire more people for Ramp;D.
Now, you have to understand that I had already figured out my dream job. I was going to create television shows. I was at the time having some bumps, but that was what I had set out to do. I never contemplated working for a game company, but I had had a great time doing freelance for Wizards and I loved the game of Magic. So when I said the words "I'd be willing to move to Seattle," no one was more shocked than me.
I remember this moment very clearly. Mike turned toward me and said, "How soon could you start?"
Of all the decisions I've ever made in my life, I consider this one to be the most important (okay, tied with asking my wife to marry me). It was a very scary decision because I was fighting a lot of choices I had made about how my life was going to play out. I was rewriting what my life was going to be and that was intimidating. Although, through it all, I never doubted my decision. I knew it was the right thing to do and I grabbed it with all my might.
- Lesson #6—A Dream Job is The End Goal Not The Immediate One
I wasn't hired to be a designer. No, Ramp;D had vacancies for developers. Mike and I did a walk and talk around the building where I explained that I thought my skills laid in design, but Mike informed me that Ramp;D didn't need a designer. They had Richard Garfield. So I took a developer job.
Why would I do that if what I really wanted to do was design? Because I was playing the long game. I wanted to be a game designer. Getting a job at a game company is a great start. Hell, I was even getting a job in the research amp; development department. I was getting closer to my dream job—very close, in fact—and that was good enough. I didn't need to get my dream job in one fell swoop. I had to be patient and work toward it.
I made it very clear to everyone that I wanted to be a designer some day. And whenever I saw an opportunity I leapt at it. My first big break would be one I instigated. I knew there wasn't a design team lined up for the set the year after (what you all know as Tempest). Because I knew that my inexperience was my biggest handicap, I talked Richard Garfield into being on my design team. He hadn't designed a Magic set since Arabian Nights but he was eager to get his feet wet again. I capitalized on this and went to the then-head designer with a pitch for a design team led by me with Richard on it.
My gamble paid off and I was given the reins to Tempest. I handpicked my team (Richard, Mike Elliott, Charlie Catino, and myself) and then poured my heart and soul into it. The set was well received and I had shifted my role in Ramp;D. People started thinking of me as a designer. I took every design project I could on any game I could. I still did development but I was slowly building my design résumé within Ramp;D.
It took nine years, but eventually I got the call one day when Randy Buehler asked me into my office. For a while, Bill Rose had been both VP of Ramp;D and Magic head designer, but it was proving to be too much. Magic needed a dedicated head designer. Did I want the job?
The importance of this last lesson is that a dream job is not something that gets handed to you. It's something you earn. It's something that requires a lot of dedication and focus. The key is always keeping your eyes on the prize and constantly taking steps, even if they're just baby steps toward that goal.
I did and I couldn't be happier.
- Dream a Little Dream
And that is what I talked about at Career Day. I hope today's column both gave you a little insight into how I got where I am and perhaps might give you a thought or two about where you are on your own path. This column is a very personal one for me, so I'm very eager for any feedback through all my normal channels (email, Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+, or this column's thread).
The lesson I hope you all walk away from is that a dream job is not beyond your reach, but it requires a lot of work and focus. You have to figure out your role in the three circles. You have to figure out how to pursue what you love and you have to step up and take the opportunities as they come. You also have to accept that sometimes you will have to take risks and make your own opportunities. But if you do, there's a wonderful payoff.
That's all for today. Join me next week when the previews keep a-comin', this time Magic 2013.
Until then, may your dreams inspire you to greater heights.
- Takes on a Plane
Nate Holt is a longtime Magic player. One day, he realized the Pro Tour was coming to his city (PT Philadelphia back in September of 2011). Nate is a performer and his friend Shawn Kornhauser is a videographer. The two of them had worked together making various videos. Nate convinced Shawn that they should make a video about Pro Tour Philadelphia. The result was very well received. So much so that the two decided to put together a Kickstarter to do another video for the World Championships at San Francisco last December.
The Worlds video went so well that Nate and Shawn were asked to start doing official videos for Wizards of the Coast. This series is called Walking The Planes. In part 1, the duo went to Grand Prix Seattle/Tacoma. Part 2 had them visiting a local game store in Seattle. Well, part 3 just came out and Walking the Planes went to Barcelona for Pro Tour Avacyn Restored.
For those of you who liked the video they did with me at Worlds, you'll be happy to know I was at Pro Tour Avacyn Restored, so Nate, Shawn, and I cooked up something fun you'll be able to see in this video. Enjoy!