How to Become a Game Designer

One question everyone in the games industry hears a lot is “How do I break in?” Typically, these types of questions can be split into two categories:

  • How do I get a job making games?
  • How do I get to be a game designer?

A number of industry vets have written up pointers on the first question. However, the second question is trickier. The typical answer is that no one gets to start as a game designer; it’s simply too competitive of a field and requires too much experience.

Well, that’s a matter of perspective. Jonathan Mak certainly is starting his career as a game designer. If you’re not able to go it alone, however, I think the question of how to become a game designer deserves a real answer.

First, I need to ask a question: Have you ever made a game (mods, scenarios, and board/card games count)?

If you answered no, then you should ask yourself if you really have what it takes to be a game designer. Painters start drawing when they are young. Musicians learn to play instruments in grade school. Writers start to write. Actors act. Directors direct. Young game designers make games. If it’s a passion – and it has to be a passion for you to succeed – then designing games is something that you have to do, not just want to do.

Designing games is not the same thing as playing them. The group of people in the world who enjoy making games is much, much smaller than the group of people who enjoy playing them. Everyone has to get a job eventually, so if you think playing games is fun, then designing them must be a pretty cool career, right? Not if you don’t love making them enough to spend 2-3 years of your life perfecting a single game concept, and not if you aren’t strong enough to learn from all the criticism which will be heaped on your design ideas.

Having said all that, here are some general tips on how to become a game designer.

1. Learn to Program

Games are a very broad category, often encompassing multiple art forms at once (words, music, visuals, etc.) Some games have strong story elements. Some are almost pure abstractions. However, the one aspect they all share is that they are based on algorithms. Code is the language of games, and a designer who knows how to code is always going to attract more attention than one who does not. Further, coding will allow you to make your own mods and prototypes that you can trumpet on your cover letter. Prospective designers without technical abilities are just like anyone else who thinks they can design games, stuck in the endless loop of needing experience to get a job and vice-versa. It’s possible to make that work, but the odds are not in your favor.

2. Join a Mod Team

It’s a given that you will be making games yourself that you can show off to potential employers (here are three simple games that I made before getting my first job). The next step is to join a mod team, offering your talents and spare time to help as best you can. There are two big advantages to working with a team. First, companies value teamwork highly, so being able to show that you made positive contributions in a team environment is a big plus. It doesn’t even matter if you were a leader or a follower, just that you were able to collectively pursue a single vision. Second, the modding world is getting more and more competitive, so team-built mods have a much better chance of attracting notice in the wider gaming community. Fall from Heaven is the most popular Civ4 mod, and it’s wiki lists 14 major contributors. Game developers check out mods all the time; imagine your odds if the person reading your resume has actually played your mod!

3. Expand your Influences

Back in school, I used to dread writing. Writing the world’s millionth essay on fate, injustice and sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities felt more like drudgery than anything else. Now, of course, my attitude towards writing is much different – I am a blogger after all. It’s not necessarily that I now love to write, but I do love to write about game design. The trick is having something to write about. The same is true for game design. Games don’t exist in a vacuum; they need to share a historical or fictional context with their audience. Sid often says that all of his games are inspired by picture books he read when he was young, books on pirates or railroads or Civil War battles. I was truly inspired to work on Civ because of my love for history, and I am sure that I would have been far less successful as a designer if I started working in a context that interested me little (like, say, car racing). Your games can only be interesting if you have interests. Thus, expose yourself to as much of the world as possible. Read the Economist. Watch Casablanca. Travel to Japan. Play Settlers of Catan. Go to the Met. Join a soccer team. Study psychology. Listen to Kind of Blue. Video games alone will not be enough.

4. Work on Interface or AI

Assuming you can get your foot into the door at a game company (and do whatever it takes – Beyond the Sword co-designer Jon Shafer got his start at Firaxis because he just started documenting our Civ4 Python code on his own), getting to be an actual game designer is still not an easy task. However, there are two areas of game development that are not strictly thought of as “game design” but actually are: AI and interface. Personally, my path into game design came from working as an AI programmer on Civ3 . Because artificial intelligence – controlling the behavior of non-human agents in the game world – is so inseparable from gameplay, it is impossible to work on AI without having daily interaction with the designers. If you do a good job and make it clear that you are ready to accept extra responsibilities, it’s just a matter of time before you start working on the game rules themselves. This relation is even more true for interface work, which is on the very forefront of the user’s experience. Simply put, interface design is game design. The best part of the “interface track” to game design is that very few game developers want to work on the interface. Experienced programmers and artists often view interface work as being beneath them and only suitable for junior developers. Use this prejudice to your advantage and volunteer for the job. I guarantee there are a multitude of development houses right now looking for developers excited to work on interface design.

5. Design an Expansion Pack

Another nice side path into game design is working on expansion packs. The stakes are inevitably lower for these products, and your company’s official designers are probably already planning the Next Big Thing. Expansion packs are great opportunities to step forward and declare you ambition to be a designer. Companies want to see their employees develop into designers as these positions are usually the hardest to fill via hiring; expansion packs provide great, low-risk opportunities to train them internally. (I am surprised at how common it is for companies to farm out expansion packs to external developers; if a company has no junior developers itching for a chance to prove themselves as game designers, perhaps it has been hiring the wrong kind of people?) Working on the design for an expansion pack also has a huge benefit for you. Namely, you won’t be dealing with the challenge of “finding the fun” from a blank slate, which can create crippling pressure for a new designer hoping to prove herself. Instead, you can simply keep iterating the design, applying lessons learned from the game now being in the hands of of thousands and thousands of players.

6. Focus on Feeback

Game design is part talent and part skill. Noah Falstein has postulated that a disproportionate number of designers are INTJ’s, which suggests that some personalities are better suited to game design than others. (I too am an INTJ, especially strong on the N and J…) However, talent won’t get you all the way there; you’ll need to develop your design skills, and there is only one way to do that: listening to user feedback. My design education didn’t really begin until October 30, 2001, the day Civ3 was released, when many of my assumptions about how the game played out were proven completely false. A game is not an inert set of algorithms, it is a shared experience existing somewhere between the developers and the players. Unless you are constantly exposing your game to an audience, your game design is only theory. Push for your game to have private pre-alpha testing as much as possible – your design skills will only grow stronger with each successive exposure.

7. Study Primary Materials

Game design is a new field, and our universities are just beginning to grapple with how it should be taught. For the moment, the best option is to access as much primary material as possible. Sign up for Google Reader and subscribe to all the developer blogs as you can find. (You can start with Raph Koster’s blog and just work recursively.) Volunteer to work at GDC and then sit in on developer sessions. Listen to the audio commentary on the Orange Box. Read as many designer interviews as you can find; Richard Rouse III’s Game Design: Theory and Practice has excellent, lengthy interviews with Sid Meier, Will Wright, Doug Church, Steve Meretzky, Ed Logg, Jordan Mechner, and Chris Crawford. Speaking of Chris, his 1982 book The Art of Computer Game Design is, remarkably, still relevant today. (However, I would recommend starting with his more recent book, Chris Crawford on Game Design.)

8. Be Humble

This final suggestion is more of a philosophical one, especially as a number of, shall we say, counter-examples exist. However, I strong believe that personal humility is a key attribute for success in today’s game industry. A designer must accept that a majority of his ideas are not going to work. Further, game designers are always going to be bombarded with suggestions from the rest of the development team, some being gems and some not so much. Your job as a game designer is not to follow your muse or your ego to make the game “your way.” Your job is to choose a vision but also to let your team guide you there. Designers need to be humble listeners, not persuasive orators. Here’s a simple rule-of-thumb: if you ever find yourself explaining to someone why a prototyped game mechanic is fun, then your game might be in big trouble. Designers still need to be assertive and confident – or else no one will ever take your ideas seriously – but humility will give you the clarity to see things as they are, not how you wish them to be.

18 thoughts on “How to Become a Game Designer

  1. Great info Soren! A lot of great tips.

    Might I also suggest, not just work on mods, but submit them to competitions.

  2. Yeah, a very solid writeup.

    I’ll emphasize the AI point here. While I’ve done quite a bit of conceptual work on Civ4 and expansions, a few tweaks to the AI I made stand out. I made a few AI tweaks for the BTS patch – took me long enough to figure the code out – and I feel those gave me more design insight than anything else. Deciding whether the AI doing X is good and then changing the code so that it does do X is complex and exciting – and that’s while I only made minor changes.

    I hadn’t heard of those four-letter acronyms before (hmmm) but INTJ sounds scarily like me.

  3. A small word of warning about the Mod Team suggestion. Game modding is a terrific way to get your hands dirty and understand game development, but I’d be very hesitant to suggest that diving right into a mod team is necessarily a great path. I’ve been in three different mod groups/would-be-professional teams over the past five years or so, and none have managed to deliver on their main goals (though the most recent group is still in progress). If it weren’t for me releasing my own work, of my own initiative, the great majority of my work would be unreleased and untested, part of abandoned projects.

    Now, I have to admit, I’m an artist, and not a designer. For some games though, artists and designers aren’t in radically different situations. Most of my modding experience has been in Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2, for example, and it’s entirely plausible that a single author can release his own adventure (it happened all the time with NWN1). With first-person shooters of course, map-making is a big designer skill, and it’s definitely feasible that a single author can create his own map.

    The big thing to be wary of in mod teams is feature creep, or otherwise unrealistic goals. It’s probably the doom of over 90% of these groups, and it really eats at your time. That’s what’s so dangerous — you keep pouring your time in, but project completion never gets closer, and your morale slowly erodes. These are hours of your life which might be better spent producing your own, smaller releases.

    Don’t get me wrong — the team experience is great, especially if you’re fortunate enough to work alongside somebody more talented than you. Do value your own time though. Never hesitate to ask yourself if what you’re doing is the best path toward your goals.

    Oh, and here’s another nice thing about releasing your own, smaller modifications: you get feedback. If the game has a strong community, you can get a lots of direct, specific feedback.

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  5. That was an awesome and inspiring note Soren! Something that is always interesting to be read about.
    By the way, I wonder if you ware asked something about soccer while you’ve been here in Brazil. (I’ve just thought about that because you mentioned on join a soccer team.) About this visit, will you share some “what and about” of how was the trip? I know that this ain’t the focus of the blog but I’ve just got curious.
    And finally thanks again for the job tip that you gave me, about were to go!

  6. Neat notes. I wonder what happens if you simply want to stay as an AI programmer though ;)

    (PS: I guess you mean “Feedback” not “Feeback” for point 6).

  7. Cory:

    It was involvement in creating mods for Call to Power 2 that got me noticed for Civ4. Now, I’ve had two mods published in Civ4 and BtS, and participated in 5 games.

    You mentioned that some mod groups you joined dispersed partway through. I think the key is picking what game to mod in to get noticed. Any game that fulfills a number of key elements is sure to get your mods noticed. I think for any up-and-coming designer there are a number of key things you want to look for in a game:

    1. Popularity – there’s no point investing 6-12 months in a mod in a game that no one is playing when it’s released. This is the key to mod groups continuing through to completion rather than disappearing.
    2. Ease of modding the engine – this is the key that will be different for everybody. Some folks will be able to look at game engines such as Civ4 which require an understanding of not just level building in the editor, but also manual map creation, scripting, coding, XML files and complex assets. Other folks will not be able to utilise these elements and can look at games with engines such as the Crytek ones (Far Cry & Crysis) which have fully developed editors and GUI asset formation/manipulation.
    3. You MUST totally believe the game ROCKS – this is the crucial key in my mind. If you do not have the passion for the game, then you will never have the passion to comprehend how to fully utilise its moddability or the commitment to stick it out till the end.
    4. Developer involvement in the community – this is pretty obvious. If the developer has no involvement in the fan community, then there’s a fair chance your mod will not be seen by them.

  8. Dale:

    For me at least, it’s never been a problem of not being noticed. I don’t want to sit here and toot my own horn, but when Bioware started spotlighting their community members, I was fortunate enough to be one of the first they highlighted, and I’ve been involved with a couple of big-name community efforts (in their respective communities) since, one of which later segued into an opportunity for a ‘premium module’ (but was cancelled before its time).

    It brings to mind an interesting point though. I don’t know if you were actually approached by the Firaxis guys, but I’ve never been approached with a job offer. A further bit of advice for people starting their job quest then, would be not to expect a job to come to you. If it never comes, don’t let it discourage you, as it may be nothing more than a matter of studio policy. Some developers actively seek out promising community members and try to bring them onboard (Valve is an easy example), but others simply haven’t made it a habit.

  9. Good point. Therefore it’s crucial to apply for these jobs if you want them. While most developers won’t approach community members directly, they do remember who these active community members are. For Civ4, there was a bunch of external folks working on the game, and the developers surely remember us. So, anyone who’s passionate should actively apply.

    I really like what Valve is doing. These guys don’t mess around. If they see someone they like with good potential, they just hire the guys. Good stuff.

  10. Totally agree. “Grab the bull by the balls” as we Aussies say. :D

    BTW, I thought Valve contracted those guys, not hired them?!?! Anyways. :)

  11. This is a well written article. The expanding your influences section is a little over the top, but overall I believe the points to be valid and accurate. The demand for these jobs continues to grow as gaming becomes more popular for all age groups. If you are interested in a career in gaming check out http://www.GameJobHunter.com/ where you can post your info for free and get connected to video game companies of all sizes.

    Andy Williams | Biz Dev
    GameJobHunter, Inc.

  12. At least as far as the Portal team goes, those guys have been hired by Valve. I also believe that most of the people behind the original Counter-Strike and Team Fortress had been hired by Valve.

  13. I went to an IGDA talk a couple years ago and remember hearing that a large percentage of Valve employees come directly from the mod community. (I want to say 40%, but my memory is a bit fuzzy.)

  14. Hello Soren,

    First time reader of your blog. Very good stuff on here. In regards to your AI section of designing, the game that got me interested in game design are the God of War games. I’ve done a bit of online research and it seems the Combat Designers are major influences of those games obviously and well respected. Now, I’m wondering, how does one become a Combat Designer? And specifically, is that a viable career choice? Thing is, I have a passion for playing and deconstructing action adventure combat games and would love to design combat.

    Thanks for your time,

    John

  15. I really liked your tips but the thing is I really want to go into creating the story of a game would you have any pointers for that.

    Thank you.

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