How to Become a Game Designer
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: These are my own views and not necessarily those of my employer.
Either my first article was a massive success and you’ve scored a job at a games company and now you’re looking to get into game design - or you’ve decided to just prance right into a design gig without any prior experience in the industry. Either way, welcome back!
Game Designers are a strange breed. We’re all crazy. And we’re all different. I have only loose ideas about what Game Design is like at other companies, so take all my tips with a grain a salt and a shot of root beer.
Tips start now, so I presume you have your salted root beer ready to go!
Tip #1: Understand what a Game Designer actually does
If you think a Game Designer says “Someone make me a game where you have a jetpack and twin bazookas and you turn into a werewolf during real-world nighttime and the character’s face looks like the player’s actual face and it works on oculus” then you do NOT understand what a Game Designer does. A Game Designer doesn’t even come up with her own ideas a lot of the time - she recognizes the good ideas of others, and champions them. The best teams work collaboratively; Programmers and artists and producers feel empowered to help guide the design of a game, and designers help foster that feeling of empowerment.
Read Liz England’s description of what a Game Designer does for some great insight on what being a designer is like. Actually you should read a lot of her stuff, it’s much better than the thing you’re currently reading.
Tip #2: Learn to debate without pissing people off
Imagine this scenario: You think that your game should have grenades, but your boss thinks grenades are everything that is wrong with video games. If you think that grenades make the game better, you need to present your case in a way that doesn’t piss your boss off, even if you need to do it passionately. These kinds of discussions can make the game better, or at least give you some insight as to why grenades aren’t as good as you think. You’ll end up a more well-rounded designer. Here’s the tough thing - you also need to know when to give up the debate! These are actually critical skills applicable to your whole life.
(If you know me and are reading this you are laughing right now because you know I suck at this. I try real hard, though!)
Tip #3: Be the kind of person designers like to jam with
Early on in my design career my boss came up to me and said “Hey what if we do this crazy thing?!” and I said “That won’t work because of X and Y,” and he said, “Ok, I am going to stop coming to you with ideas.” I realized two things that day: Nobody likes a Negative Ned, and in game design, bad ideas are GOOD. Ideas have to come from somewhere, and often bad ideas make the best springboards into actual good ideas. People who spitball interesting “starter” ideas are awesome people to jam with. One good way to generate ideas for a jam session is to play the improv game: “Yes, And”. Imagine someone proposes a new “YOU SUCK” emote that costs a real-world dollar each time you use it. A bad designer might say “bro, that idea is shit.” (ok, so might a good designer.) A great designer says “Yes, and what if the dollar is given to the player they emote at?” Or “Yes, and maybe instead of a dollar your hero takes 1 damage?” Ok, so maybe none of those “and” ideas are any good, but they’re better than the original idea. “Yes-and-ers” are awesome.
Tip #4: Be a Programmer
Making fun games is really hard. Until you actually play a game, it’s really hard to determine if it will be fun or not. Usually it isn’t, and only through constant iteration does it resemble something that might be related to fun. If you have the power to do your own iteration, you are basically unstoppable. You’ll get to the fun a lot quicker. Also, a lot of design is in the technical details. Trying to design a game system as a programmer-designer team means there are rounds of review in between each iteration. When you can do it yourself, you’re constantly reviewing how it feels and you can iterate like crazy. (If I was writing this blog for programmers, I’d write “Be A Designer” as a tip, for this same reason.) Not every designer needs to be technical, but if you’re looking to stand out, this is a super rad way to do it.
Tip #5: Get some design experience
I don’t want to hire a person who might someday be a good designer. I want to hire a good designer today! You can practice at home, too! Some games come with map editors. Unity3d is a free game engine - and it’s really easy to use. I had literally never programmed in C#, but three months after I downloaded Unity I had created an iOS game and also used my newfound skills to help out with client engineering at work.
Tip #6: Don’t be lazy
I give this advice all the time. People ask me “how do I become a game designer” and I tell them “go make games in your free time” and they say “ok great I totally will do that”, and they do NOTHING. If you don’t spend your free time being a game designer then you are not really serious about it and you should stop wasting my time. (omg, harsh bro.) You can even make board games if you are stubborn about learning a programming language. THERE IS NO EXCUSE.
That’s it! I hope at least one of those tips was helpful. I hope while you were reading that tip, your jaw dropped and you cried a single tear and thought “oh my goodness, I’ve been doing it all wrong and from this day forward I will be super amazing at everything. Thank you, Ben Brode. Thank you oh so much.”
You are welcome and if you feel like you really must pay me back in some small way, I will accept a milkshake.