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  • Designer Advice: A Beginner's Guide

    - Jill Duffy

  •  Wright has also expounded the importance of Excel, noting that it is the basis for all prototyping simulations done for the Sims line. The program allows the team to change one condition and watch how the rest of the simulation reacts. Wright says his team also uses Excel for metric analysis and game tuning.

    Mike Moore points out that many of the basic skills required by game designers, especially for entry-level positions, are contingent on the specific type of designer. "There is a whole branch of design called level design that requires either 3D graphics skills, scripting, or C++ coding skills, or the ability to use professional level editors such as Epic Game's Unreal Engine or the Valve Hammer Editor. The ability to design and build fun 3D levels is a talent most game companies want, so learning to use a professional level editor allows you to showcase your talent in a way accessible to industry."

    Mencher agrees that programming skills, particularly scripting, are beneficial for entry-level candidates. "A total understanding of programming is also essential especially in order to write custom scripts for character or unit behaviors, level scenarios (depending on the game genre), and to tweak controls.

    "Having an understanding of user interface design, game player psychology, and other intuitive subtleties come in handy as well. And, to construct game levels, it certainly doesn't hurt to be experienced with 3D modeling software either," Mencher says.

    Although aspiring game designers can learn and practice their skills on commercially available level editors, often the tools they will be using once employed will be proprietary and thus can't be learned on the outside. However, aspiring game designers can make up for this by honing some of their soft skills to a degree that will make them stand out from the pack.

    "Obviously, a designer should have the ability to write well, communicate with others, and still understand the basics of how a game is put together -- and learning all these skills can take years," Moore says.

    These kinds of skills are the ones that even the youngest aspiring game designers can focus on improving right now. They require any special technology, and they are already at one's fingertips in school subjects like language arts, art history, and courses within the humanities and social sciences.

    "To be a successful game designer you should be exposed to the major art, literature, philosophy, and history movements," Mencher says. "Even the study of psychology bears relevance on game design. Games are made to be played by people. Studying the mind and how people react or interact provides valuable insight for good game design." 

    Other soft skills that all game designers need to succeed include a vivid imagination, creative problem solving skills, and organizational skills.

    Keep Playing
    As game industry novices, once you've developed a firm grasp of these basics, you can revel in the fact that another vital part of becoming a game designer is playing video games. Most industry experts recommend that you play widely, even if you don't always play to completion. Furthermore, how you play is as important as what you play (see James Portnow's "Playing to Learn" for more).

    "In good games, bad games, old games, and new games, you will often discover that the answer to a design problem has been dealt with before," Mencher says. "It makes more sense to tackle a design issue knowing how others tried to handle the same or similar issue rather than re-walking the same path."

    Finally, at some point, an aspiring game designer will have to start making games before landing his or her first job. (Luckily, this web site is full of advice and information about how to make that next leap.) "Getting into the game industry has its own catch-22: You can't get into a game company until you have industry experience and you can't get industry experience until you get a job in a company." This is the crux of most aspiring game designers' problems. What they need to break into the industry isn't necessarily more education -- it's a proven ability to design games, says Moore. "Once you take your game designs to completion, your knowledge is tempered with a maturity that allows you to better understand theoretical aspects."

    For more information about the job of video game designer, see "Game Design, An Introduction."

    Jill Duffy is editor of


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