Get to Know a Game Designer: An Interview with Abby Friesen

BY Kat Shanahan
Last week a student from Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School in Sun Prairie reached out to us as part of a school project. He was interested in pursuing a career in game design and had some very thoughtful questions for a game designer at our studio. We were so impressed with his ambition and his questions that we wanted to share the interview with you!

Abby Friesen, Game Designer, acted as his interview subject. Abby has been a game designer at Filament Games for the past four years. She has designed more than 20 different games teaching everything from kindergarten verbs to middle school biology and civics to college age contract law and submarine sonar. Her game Reach for the Sun has won multiple awards and is available on Steam. She has experience designing systems, AI, puzzle mechanics, multiplayer, simulations, quest-driven games, and much more.

What does someone that works at your studio do on a daily basis at work?

Abby: Designers come up with game pitches, write game design documents (and pretty much everything else that requires writing), create storyboards, make levels, balance the games, lead teams, create narrative and dialog, write up tasks for all the features in the game, and make lots and lots of spreadsheets. Most of my day is spent making sure everything is implemented in the game correctly and making content for it if needed (such as level design). We have to know everything about the game we’re working on and be able to problem-solve as issues arise. If our game is for an outside client we’ll maintain contact with them too. Most of the designers work on more than one game at a time.

We have a core team of one programmer, one illustrator, and one interface artist for every game. They make all the things you can see and do in the game. A producer manages each project, working out schedules, workloads for everyone, and such. Filament has a sound guy named Josh who composes and creates the music and SFX for every game, including recording voice-overs. We have an entire QA team devoted to testing every feature and build, office managers, directors, sales, marketing, and customer service team members.

If you have one, what is your favorite part of your day?

Abby: My favorite part of the day when I have no meetings to go to and I can get hands-on with whatever game I’m working on. I’m currently working on a Unity game so I’ve been in there making levels and balancing gameplay, which is a lot more fun than looking at documents and spreadsheets.

Why did you chose to make video games as a living?

Abby: I’m a creative person and I love making new things. I also love having a large amount of control in the things I work on, which fits perfectly with the role of being a designer. Getting to design games allows me to be creative every day, which was my rule for deciding on a career path.

Do you have a busiest or slowest time of the year?

Abby: The busiest times for me are whenever a new project starts, which can happen at any point. In the beginning you’re just figuring out what a game is, creating storyboards for it, writing up that initial game design document draft, meeting with the team to bounce ideas around, and generally being in “full designer mode”. Usually this dies down as a project nears completion, since by then I will have solved most of the problems and the team is just chugging away at the rest of the features. Depending on how hands-on a game requires me to personally be, I may end up working right alongside the team til the very end.

What is the most important thing to know if I want to be a video game designer?

Abby: The most important things are being able to communicate perfectly and clearly in writing, and also with visuals like flowcharts and diagrams to get your point across. We turn down many potential designers who are probably great at designing but their documents are torturous to read. A good designer also is familiar with all aspects of game design. I would suggest dabbling in some basic programming and game-making in Unity, Flash, or game design programs like Stencyl and Game Maker. You need to know what can actually be made in a game if you want to design one or solve a problem that arises.

You can start becoming a designer now, actually! Design games on your own, even if they’re card games or board games, it’s almost all the same process. Generate ideas and practice writing them all out as though you were going to hand your written game pitch to a programmer and they were going to make it based off what you wrote. Attend local game jams and hone your skills now because every game you attempt to make will bring you a big step closer to achieving your dream. Make all your mistakes now so that when you get to high school and college you will be prepared!

A special thank you to the student that submitted these questions! If you have questions for Filament Games or want to get to know our team, feel free to reach out - we are always excited to hear from aspiring game design students!