Recently, I had the good fortune to be part of the Savage Round Table held in the luxurious super-secret Preston Suite at Origins. It's a yearly tradition of Ron and Veronica Blessing for their highly entertaining The Game's The Thing podcast series.
There's a few things you need to know. First, if Ron says that you're not really going to have to talk, he may be lying to you. I suppose all the energy that you and I would put into growing hair, he must be putting into gleeful recording malice. Second, if you're not prepared to be talking, you're likely to say something stupid.
Now, in general, I'm content enough with my limited speaking part in the Savage Round Table, and I'm still a little giddy to be included in such august (for gaming, mind you) company. But one answer in particular still bugs me, and I think leaving it alone could do a disservice to people who might've genuinely been interested in the truth.
When asked how I came to work with Pinnacle, my fairly flip answer was along the lines of, "Well, I was unemployed and they needed someone." Pure luck is not really a path that others who might be honestly interested in getting into the graphic and print production side of gaming can get any value out of. While I've not yet heard the edited podcast, I'm fine with however everything else turns out, but I really feel the need to set this particular record straight for anyone it might help.
This step is actually optional. We weren't really rolling around in cash as a kid, so I always remember playing games of some sort. Card games, board games, and the stupid games kids can come up with when left alone were all big. Later on, the neighbor kid* got the early red box version of Dungeons and Dragons. He went on to mutilate a whole host of my elves, and it went from there. I continued playing RPGs, cards, box games, and even got sucked into the later advances of CCGs and LARPs. I'm pushing at three decades of being a gamer goob.
If you want to do graphic design in gaming, you really have to learn graphic design. This, like so many areas of my life, was an unexpected but fortuitous turn. I ended up with a secretarial job at a large corporation's benefits department. One of the things we had to do was review the benefits booklets that came back from our internal print service. Word by word. Every single time. Every single version. This is as exciting as sorting M&Ms by color in the dark after you've injected your hands with novacaine, and we were doing it a lot. Not satisfied with this state of affairs, I figured out how we could do the layout ourselves with the high-tech, cutting-edge, corporate-branded version of WordPerfect 5.0 that we had. That's pre-tables and post-formatted for those of you who remotely understand how close to stone knives and bearskins we were.
Again, not so satisfied, I kept trying to figure out how to do more and do it better. Keeping at it, I managed, with the help and support of one of my best bosses ever*, to turn into a reasonably well-qualified designer. Then there was some years of repetition and practice, which helps immensely.
So, in short, no, you don't necessarily have to go off to design school. If you're interested and it makes sense to you, graphic design is something you can actually get pretty good at from a self-taught start with practice, ongoing learning, and good feedback (that you have to be willing to accept). For some jobs, a lack of a specific degree or training program might leave you ineligible to apply, but most opportunities will really be based off samples of your prior work.
Personally, I've found this to be invaluable in life. I've never felt that I had to know everything as long as I knew someone who knew what I need to know now. Same goes for skills: if I ever have to counterfeit medieval Russian icons, I know exactly who could handle that* for me, even though I couldn't paint or gild my way out of a flaming paper bag.
The same goes for opportunity. The more people you know, the wider your net is cast, even when you're not actually doing anything yourself about it. That's sort of how I really got hooked up with Pinnacle.
I got to know some guys* who ran one of our local game shops. In turn, I got to know the game shop owner*. In turn, I got to know the guys* involved in a local convention, where I ended up doing some graphic design work for them. After that, I did some work for a local gaming concern*, and then all the internal ads for a short-lived magazine* (which may or may not be a big resume claim, there). Since there's really only so many people in the gaming industry, that meant I also got to know the folks who would eventually be Studio 2 Publishing.
After nearly fifteen years, my time in corporate America was quickly coming to a close. My job was shipped overseas, and my nice former corporate overlords gave me a small pile of money to go away. I was okay with that. I was not at all surprised to discover that I was not one of those people who goes crazy with nothing to do.
After frittering away the small pile of money on a year of leisure, relaxation, cheap travel, and an unexpected canning binge (just ask me about my pickled grapes), it was time for me to start looking for work. It was also time for Pinnacle Entertainment to have more graphic design and print production support. After all that came before, this is the part where my short "I was unemployed, and they needed someone" answer really came into play.
So, I started working with Studio 2 Publishing with an eye toward supporting the Pinnacle Entertainment needs. That's now the largest part of what I do on a day-to-day basis, to the point that Shane announced me as the Pinnacle Print Manager. Giddy with power, I let my guard down enough that Ron ambushed me, and here we are.
Well, if you're interested in breaking into the game industry, you can follow largely the same path. Pick something in gaming you want to do. Learn to do it. Generally, I'd think that everything in gaming could (at least in theory) be self-taught. Get to know people. Get their input, and learn from it.
If you can
then there's no reason you can't do nearly anything in gaming you're interested in. Good luck, and let me know how it goes.
*While I'm willing to dispense with my dignity at a moment's notice at my own direction, I can't guarantee everyone else is in the same boat. While I'm not necessarily trying to protect the innocent, I don't feel it's appropriate to name names unless I know how they feel about it. After all, one of these fine folks might live next to you right now...