Characteristics of Successful Game Designers

By Lewis Pulsipher [12.23.08]  "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."
-- Mark Twain

"Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
-- Calvin Coolidge

Game designers must have a productive orientation in life. Game design is not something you turn on and turn off daily -- it's something that must be with you all the time, that you must make an effort to pursue. Persistence is more important than "creativity."

Many novelists write all their adult lives, even from childhood. Most game designers design games from an early age, just as most artists draw from an early age. But some come to it late and are still good at it. Most of the people who write novels or design published board and card games have another full-time job. For example, the once-prolific science-fiction and fantasy novelist Glen Cook never gave up his General Motors assembly line job. He wrote during his commute.

Moonlighting is much less common in the video game industry, which is where most full-time designers work for a particular game development studio.

But many people involved in publishing non-electronic games work part-time, relying on a "day job" for their living. Most game publishers, even in video games, originated as self-publishers, distributing the "dream game" of the people who founded the company.

General Education
"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't." Anatole France

If you read good advice about breaking into the game industry, that advice will include "read as much as you can" and "educate yourself as much as possible," even as the advisors suggest that a bachelor's degree is a good idea. For example, everyone interested in "breaking in" should read the wealth of advice on Tom Sloper's web site and his monthly IGDA column. I've used a book by Ernest Adams, Break into the Game Industry, now a bit long in the tooth (2002), but still available. His advice is well worth reading -- especially about getting a job and how to keep a job -- and amounts to the same as Sloper's.

In general, game designers must have an "educated" attitude, even if they have no more formal learning than a high school diploma. I'm not talking about the classic idea of the "well-educated" person, which relates to particular things like knowledge of the Classics. Let me hasten to say that "educated" refers to an attitude, not a degree earned.

Fortunately, the game industry does not yet have the "degree-itis" that is invading all walks of American life, as though the only way you can learn something is to get a degree in it. The video game industry is still a meritocracy, where you are valued and hired for what you can do and what you can create.

There are people with legitimate PhDs who could be called uneducated (though this is unlikely). There are certainly many people holding bachelor degrees who are essentially uneducated. And there are 17 and 18 and 19 year-olds who clearly are educated people, though they haven't had the time to accumulate a wealth of experience and knowledge that is associated with being educated.

So "educated" doesn't necessarily imply a specific academic degree. It implies a certain attitude toward life. It's this educated attitude that game companies want and need to succeed.

What makes someone "educated?" An educated person wants to know and will make an effort to find out things. An uneducated person tends not to bother. Here's a simple example. An educated person, confronted with a word he doesn't know, is likely to look it up. He wants to improve his understanding (of language, of the world). An uneducated person isn't going to bother.

Further, an educated person teaches himself or herself when necessary, from books or otherwise, rather than wait for a class. The uneducated ones will frequently whine, "I haven't been to training for that." Not surprisingly, educated people tend to read a lot, and uneducated ones don't.

In my classes I assign students the "task" of maintaining a notebook or other "data store" in which they record game-related ideas as they get them. It's a habit they should get into on their own, and I try to teach attitudes more than "facts." The "uneducated" attitudes surface quickly, with students asking, "How much do I have to include in this?" The student wants to know the minimum, rather than take the educated attitude that this is something he should do anyway, that is worth doing, and he should put some time into it.

Educated people like to use their brains in top gear; uneducated people prefer to run in idle or first gear. The old-fashioned "thirst for knowledge" is what I'm talking about. This is part of a productive orientation. Designers can't be people who "kill time," who do "just enough to get by." They must be people who want to be productive whenever they can, not whenever they are forced to be.

 Learning to Learn
What's important is what you know and what you can do, not what classes you took or what degrees you have. Good classes help you learn much quicker, as you take advantage of the experience of teachers and authors.

If I were to characterize what a game designer does in as few words as possible, it would come down to:
Think. The game designer needs to have his brain in gear all the time. When playing games, he should be thinking about what works, what doesn't, and why. He must keep his mind open to ideas at all times. He must think about how to improve his game even when (if) he enjoys playing it. The game can always be improved; we just come to a time when the improvement we can get isn't worth the time it will take (the law of diminishing returns).

Most important, the designer must think critically. Fanboys (or girls) will never make good game designers, as they typically praise a game or genre or company's work uncritically. Self-criticism is especially important. If you can't recognize that your favorite mechanic just doesn't fit or just isn't needed, then you won't design good games. Self-indulgence doesn't work in game design.

Communication is much more important for video game designers than for non-electronic game designers. Most video games require a team to produce. The game designer must communicate in writing and orally everything about his game in a manner that enables the artists and programmers to reproduce it. This is really hard to do!

Non-electronic game designers can make the prototypes and write the rules themselves, but still must communicate well with play testers to improve the game. Moreover, since the rules are not enforced by a computer, it's especially important to write rules that are clear, concise, and understandable.

Finally, if you haven't written it down, it doesn't count.

Innovate. While game design is "10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration," that 10 percent is important. It's not hard to "design" the next shooter clone. Finding that spark to make it more than a clone, more than just a shooter, separates the most successful designers from the rest. Too many designers design the game they want to play, which is almost exactly like some existing game that they love to play. "Think outside the box" applies here.

Game designers do not need to be control freaks, but they do need to carefully control everything in the design of the game. People who buy games want the designer to make every effort to produce an enjoyable game. They don't want to depend on random this or that unless the designer has decided that randomness will create the best game experience.

I once saw some of my students, who were making a form of "capture multiple flags" board game, literally just drop the flag markers on the board to create a random distribution. My jaw dropped.

If you're the professional designer, you should work out a set of excellent and interesting positions for the flags, rather than depend on chance placement. Why trust enjoyment of your game to unnecessary chance? Yes, it's more work for the designer, making up and recording the patterns of placement, play testing each one multiple times, but the result will be a fairer and better game.

Pro Player
Some aspiring game designers ask, "Do I have to be an outstanding player to be a game designer?"

Being a dynamite game player, whether it's in Halo 3 or a Super Mario Bros. game or Command & Conquer or Axis & Allies, does not translate to being a good game designer. The skills and points of view are very different.

On the other hand, if you have played tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses to British English speakers) and have not realized that it is always a draw when played optimally, you have a mountain to overcome, because you'll likely not see the optimal strategies in more complex games.

In other words, you'll help yourself a lot if you're a good enough game player to quickly see the best strategies and tactics in a game. You can avoid dominant strategies and other pitfalls that otherwise your play testers will have to reveal, at a cost of time and frustration.

You needn't be an outstanding player, but it helps to be a good player.

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, was described in an "Armchair General" online review as "one of the great titles in the world of games."

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