The job of video game designer is one of the most sought after (and on this site, most asked about) professions in the game development industry. People who are new to the workings of the game development industry are often confused about what designers actually do, what skills are required of them, and how they break into the profession.
"Many people dream of becoming game designers like the legendary Sid Meier, Will Wright, or Yu Suzuki. Game designers seem to have the fantasy industry job. They formulate cool ideas, and then devise their accomplishment," says Marc Mencher, president and search consultant at GameRecruiter.com, Inc. "Unfortunately," he adds, "the chances of a person coming up with a new idea, writing a game design, and selling it to a publisher is, say, one in a million."
The video game industry doesn't usually buy ideas. Instead, game development studios hire designers to work for them full time, and those designers are tasked with working on the game concepts, helping to see them through to a finished video game. Designers don't just sit around and come up with game concepts either. Usually, they spend the bulk of their time carrying out ideas that have already been given the go-ahead, or green-lighted, by company executives.
How do they do this? "The main duties a designer can have at a company include writing the design documentation, developing and maintaining the game database (charts and tables), occasionally writing dialogue, assisting in level creation, and testing, testing, testing to balance the game," explains Michael Moore, chair of the game department at DigiPen Institute of Technology.
Mencher says game designers also spend a lot of their time creating "massively detailed documents detailing every part of the game imaginable. This requires the ability to visualize the game you're designing. ... It's not enough to write, ‘Pressing the jump button makes the player jump.' You must be able to effectively describe to the programmer, via the document, how the player will jump. How fast? How high? Can the player perform actions during a jump? What happens in condition X? What happens in condition Y?"
Sometimes a project can have just one game designer, but often there are several who perform all these different tasks as a team. "For example, role-playing games or large MMOs tend to need larger design teams," Mencher notes.
Another misconception some people have about professional video game development is just how or why an idea gets a green light. For a video game idea to move forward into being a project in development, the game development studio usually wants to first find a publisher. The publisher funds the project; because games can be multi-million dollar ambitions, studios usually don't want to begin building a game until after the a contract is secured.
Although money is a major factor in determining whether a game idea will move into production, it's not the only one. "Not all game treatments can be executed due to current limits in technology, the goals of the game company, and the amount of time you have to accomplish those goals," Mencher says.
In other words, it's not the greatness of a game designer's idea that gets a video game project started. In fact it's possible for a game designer to play a minimal or even nonexistent role in this whole process, depending on the size and structure of the company. For example, licensed games, from movie spin-offs to professional sports, might be signed into development before a designer has had any interaction with the idea at all.
Very few people are hired off the bat as game designers. "Most earn their way into this position through another game industry job like tester, producer, or programmer," Mencher says. Game designers who have worked in another area of the field will be more thoroughly versed in the development process than those who haven't, which ties back into the notion that a game designer must know what's possible for a given game, technologically, financially, graphically, and so forth. Designers who have had hands-on experience with these components are more likely to have realistic expectations for what can and cannot be accomplished.
When trying to determine the skills needed by a game designer, Mencher likes to reference Will Wright, one of the few truly famous game designers out there. Wright, who currently works for Electronic Arts and is most known for his Sims franchise, believes the most sought after skill in a game designer is "the ability to visualize and construct a cohesive design. In other words, not only having the ability for idea creation, but also the ability for idea execution. To execute thoughts into reality is the game designer's function, and it requires highly developed English, writing, and verbal communication skills to accomplish the task."
Wright and Mencher's advice point in two directions: the cognitive and the practical. The practical skills are easy to explain because they are directly linked to software, namely a few major Microsoft applications, according to Mencher. "The most common tools used by a game designer are Microsoft Project, Word and Excel."