Designer Advice: A Beginner's Guide

By Jill Duffy [02.07.08]

 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. 

Skill Sets
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."


 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 GameCareerGuide.com.

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