How do you go about becoming a game designer?

edited in Questions and Answers
Howzit guys,

I wanted to find out from all you local game designers how you went about becoming game designers. I've read articles and interviews online but i wanted to get more of a local perspective as opposed to that of designers overseas.

Did you start out in programming? art? creative writing? or did you go straight for it somehow :P

And also how would you suggest someone go about becoming a game designer today and actually make a living of it?

In case you're wondering where I'm coming from: I've been studying programming for just over 20 months now tryin to find work (Mainly and SQL), and have dabbled in many many other subjects I found interesting along the way ;)


  • edited
    In my case (and that of my brothers too for that matter) I got started with modding. Started modding Doom and gradually moved to Quake 1-2, UT99, UT2004 and then UT3, where we entered the MSU competition.

    It helps if you really like what you're doing :)
  • Here is Game Maker

    Make games, post them here; get crits/feedback; refine and repost; repeat until you have something you can work with.

    One thing that I think is cool, and heard from Daniel Cook at GDC this year is the idea of working on multiple games at the same time. Chances are the idea isn't that great. You can make dozens of prototypes until you find a solid game.

    tl;dr just make lots of fucking games.
  • Well, I certainly wouldn't consider myself a "game designer", but it's one of those fields where I feel it is best to learn through pure experience as opposed to learning via theory. Similar to things like film direction, journalism or photography, you'll learn most by doing because it's just too different on paper.

    In my experience (and I think everybody has had this), many ideas sound fantastic in theory, but as soon as you try to implement them, you realise that sometimes they just don't work. To my dismay, this once happened with a 50+ page design document. Ouch.

    I've read a few books on the subject but I wouldn't really recommend them. The "thee and thou" of any kind of design has always seemed a bit wanky or pseudo-intellectual to me, and are no substitute for practice.

    I guess I'm just agreeing with the posts prior to this. Get something working ASAP and see if it's really fun to play or not. It'll save you time and sometimes heartache in the long run :P
  • I'm with Karuji on this one, Game Maker is a fantastic place to start. I've been using it for tinkering during the past few years, it's super easy to use and the community down at YoyoGames is eager to help. (Not that anyone here isn't. :P)
  • edited
    Imma go at this backwards, because that's usually quite useful:

    How does someone else call you a game designer?
    You've released a game they like that they can see elements of design (call that guided construction, systemic elegance, whatever) in.

    How do you release a game someone likes?
    You've spent the time building a game that manages to be fun for someone else. You've got the skills and funding to have made that game a reality.

    What are these skills and how do you get them?
    The skills depend on what you can naturally do because some contrast each other, but the basic skill is being good at communication, being good at listening, being a good problem solver and being great at working with people. Because, no matter what, a game is going to involve people... Even if you're super amazing and make the whole thing yourself, you still have to get it in front of the people that are going to play it. Maybe you're a coder and you need to work with amazing artists, maybe it's the other way around - the key thing a game designer does is communicate systems and goals. The only way to get good at this sort of thing is experience.

    How do you get this magical experience?
    Killing monsters, duh... Actually you build games. You read everything anyone ever has to say about design to absorb their experience and see how well it ties to your own. You ask other people for ways to be a better designer. You tailor all your other experiences towards helping you become a better designer - be that taking writing classes at university when you're actually a chemistry major, or forcing yourself to code when all you'd rather do is make 3D models, just so that you can TALK to the people doing those jobs with you later. But most of all, you make games. You can't stop yourself making games, no matter how hard you try.

    How do you make games?
    You start. Then you keep going. Then you keep going some more. Then, when you give up, you see what you can learn from what you just did. Then you start over, but smaller this time. If every time you "fail", you remove one barrier to completing a game, then making a game is simply a matter of perseverance. Which is good practice, because you're going to need to make a lot of games to get the experience you need in order to produce something that someone else likes... Let's say you start by forcing yourself to learn C++ and that's hard so you sorta manage to make something move on screen but then you get another idea so you give up and work on that instead. A game designer is going to figure out how to make the new idea with less work, instead of deciding that the reason they failed before was because they didn't go hardcore enough.

    I just always made games. I didn't realise it at the time, but that's what I did. Drawing mazes for kids at school? Drawing maps to secret treasures and then hiding things where the X was and leaving the map somewhere? Building toys of out Lego to share with my friends? Learning to program because I liked seeing what people did when my programs asked them questions? All game design... And I'm only comfortable calling myself a game designer now that someone else, who was writing me a paycheck, called me one first ;)

    TL;DR version: You figure out how to do stuff that's hard with less and less work, because it's fun watching someone else have fun.
  • At the risk of inflating your head Danny-san: Inspirational words :)

    I've always made games too, I drew consoles (some kind of super nintendo game gear) when I was 8, drew entire board games on giant bits of paper I walked all over, made actionscript 2 malakies, and now I'm going for something harder. Hopefully with less work :) But we all know that needs a few more monsters slayed.
  • edited
    @GlitchM The way you phrase the question makes me think that you are asking how to become a professional game designer in South Africa...

    Which in my mind anyway is slightly different from asking how to make your own games. I might be reading you wrong, but it sounds like you might be interested in finding employment as a game designer, as apposed to learning how to make great games for their own sake (though I imagine you're interested in both).

    Basically what Danny and others said I feel is exactly correct (for getting to the point you are any good at designing games). You've got to have a passion for creating fun experiences for others built into you, and I assume you do because you're asking this question. You've got to spend vast amounts of time making games, showing others, testing ideas and learning through practice. And what you're doing in studying programming seems to me like a smart move in enabling you to do this.

    I'd think it is a lot more difficult becoming a game designer from an artistic background (because of having to rely on programmers for implementation). But if you aren't visually inclined you've got to learn to team up with artists and speak their language and give them opportunities to express themselves. So practicing your art is a good idea as well if you want to create visually interesting games, and practicing creative writing is important if you want to tell interesting stories in your games or through your games. It's possible to just focus on abstract programmery games too, so I guess what I'm saying is what you study and what you find fascinating is likely going to be reflected in all your successes.

    Getting to the point of designing games professionally can be a long path. Or at least my path was.

    I quit everything I was doing and set off to make games in about 2007. I learnt C++ and made a game (among other things) and got a job as a games programmer in 2008. Which wasn't really that smart of a thing to do, I was miserable as a programmer (although working in Unity was way better than working in C++), but in working in that job I found other opportunities.

    I spent more time unemployed and practicing making games in 2009, and gradually got the experience I needed to be trusted with more design responsibilities. The first time I took on a big role in the design of a game while working in a team was in 2010, it was a 8 month project, and though everyone survived, and the game did get released, it was a terrifying experience. I was still very underprepared.

    I think it might be a bit easier becoming a professional game designer now than it was then. I think there are more people to ask for advice now and hopefully more possibilities for collaboration. I think participating here in this community will really help you.

    But getting to the point of being responsible for designing a game that gets released and makes money is a daunting task. These days I'm constantly terrified that my last success was a fluke and my current endeavors will fail. I'm not convinced that I'm a reliable game designer yet.

    It was only in 2011, after four years of constantly making games, that I got offered jobs as a "Game Designer". The thing about game design is that while everyone in a team contributes to the design of the game, the responsibility of filtering and choosing the right design is critical to the game's success. As such the people in charge of the game's design pretty much have to be senior members.

    On top of this, "Game Designer" is a coveted role. I think a lot of people who don't know much about game development see it as a godlike role where all your ideas become a reality. In truth a good game designer will take ideas from the team and evolve the game around both what the team will feel inspired to produce and also that for which there are available resources. But despite the substantial pressures and limitations that game designers have to manage it is still a role that very often the investors in the project want to fill themselves (for better or worse). I think everyone wants to work on what they see as their own games.

    So it is fairly likely that in order to be a professional game designer you will have to fund your own games. At least until you reach a position of seniority. As far as I am aware there are only 1 or 2 game designers in the country who do not own a substantial stake in the company they work for. But this number will hopefully increase as teams have success and grow and potential game designers accumulate more experience.

    I guess it boils down to that it'll probably be a few years of making games before you find yourself making a living as a "Game Designer". As everyone has said you will have to start by just making games, setting reasonable goals, learning, failing, meeting collaborators, sharing victories and jamming through the night, unveiling the mysteries of human experience, and finding your voice as a designer. It won't be quick, it won't be easy, but in my experience it will be a lot of fun.

    I look forward to seeing what you do, and wish you the best of luck.

  • It's interesting that cross industries, terms and expectations change. For example in marketing and advertising (I'm sure everyone knows what I mean) a designer - of any kind - is the grunt on the ground, while the "Game Designer" role is bestowed to the CD - Creative Director.

    So a game designer, in my mind, is a CD, for games.
  • edited
    Well, to be fair, I have seen job ads for "junior" game design positions. These exist in teams where there's a whole game design team, with a game design producer and management... none of which currently exist in South Africa. What they do from what I can remember is more to do with taking existing mechanics and systems, and tweaking the numbers/spreadsheets, populating databases with items, and so on. These are still important for having a great-feeling game, but don't require as much "outside" knowledge (art, programming, audio, etc.). Design is certainly vital, and arguably the most important of game-dev pillars, but the game industry's got its share of "grunt" designer jobs too...

    (...Even if they don't really exist in SA. And actually, might that be something we should look at offering? I think you can learn so much by being able to play with numbers and see how they affect your system, see how things "feel", observe what improves experiences, without necessarily having to be an "ideas" person. I mean, personally, that's the hardest thing to do - the idea/concept/fundamental mechanic - but is only one of the many things game designers design.)
  • Well, if there's anything I've learned from thinking "seriously" about making a game, is that an "idea" is really not worth so much until you populate it with said spreadsheets, numbers, databases with items, flesh out balancing, systems, mechanics, interactions, etc etc etc :)

    So I TOTALLY understand that role. Just as in without designers, art directors, copywriters, CDs are pretty much FUCKED. Well, things still get done, but until bloody 10pm every bloody day :)
  • edited
    Oh, absolutely. :D All of it matters; I just mean that it's not necessarily this rockstar role that requires you to know the ins-and-outs of all of the other departments and call shots. (Even though that knowledge can only help.) There's grunt work regardless of which of the departments you're in. Kind of different to a CD imo. I mean, I've heard of "Junior Art Directors", but I honestly have no idea how the hell that works. :P
  • edited
    Thanks for the feedback guys, awesome stuff :D

    Way back in high school, before I really started programming, I was of the old school gaming sort (Tabletop dungeons and dragons). Been planning campaigns, adventures, characters, stories, worlds since high school. Now trying to use all that in the context of digital gaming :) I loved making those games for my mates and now want to really push for the digital gaming. Also used to design tons of maps/levels for Arcanum, Warcraft 2, Command & Conquer etc. Wish I hadn't lost that stuff :P

    @Tuism - I get ya, worked in a creative studio as copywriter so you make complete sense there. Kinda how I envisioned a game dev studio would operate but with programmers included and better tech ;)

    @dislekcia @BlackShipsFilltheSky - Thanks for the insights, have always enjoyed learning from the experience of those who came before me ;)

    I also agree with making tons of games being a good thing. Works for "analogue" gaming, dont see why that would change for digital.

    So my next question (and let me now if we should start a new thread) is:
    What should a prototype be able to demonstrate in your opinion? I know i could look this up online but a would rather get your/local opinions :D
  • edited
    I think everyone here feel similarly about prototypes.

    What is most useful for a person in @GlitchM 's position is that other people play his games and give him feedback. So a prototype should be able to test the idea that you are interested in, but importantly it should be able to demonstrate that idea to strangers. You need their feedback because you probably need to refine your understanding of how others feel about your ideas. So post it here!!

    What @Karuji and @Dislekcia have said is especially important. Start really small, and if you don't succeed then next time start even smaller. When you do succeed then try be more ambitious next time. The faster you can test your ideas the better.

  • It's difficult to top something like the Gamasutra article on prototyping in under 7 days, but I don't think there's essentially that much to it.

    Simplicity is golden and the more bare you can keep a prototype while still demonstrating the core gameplay, the better. However, I think in your case you need to be extra-careful not to overcomplicate things if you're interested in tabletop style games like RPGs. Because there's so much to them, I think it's best you strip down that sort of gameplay into layers... kinda like an onion! And then, iteratively work on each one, as in, only prototyping the bare essentials and adding on to them as they unravel themselves. After all, if the fundamentals aren't working, no amount of cool storyline / skills / spells / etc. will help.

  • Thanks guys :)

    Just had an idea, wanted to find out what you think. I have an idea for a game i'd like to create but like you said (ref: @Jdog, @BlackShipsFilltheSky) I'd like to keep things simple for now. I do tend to overthink some of my gaming ideas, especially coming from RPG, so i think forcing myself to focus on one thing at a time would be a good thing :)

    So what if I take one tiny idea, gameplay mechanic, detail etc. and create a small prototype game focused completely on that element. Then create a series of these prototypes and then using the exploration of these ideas incoroporate them into bigger projects and finally into a finished product of awesomeness (some time down the line). Also dont have alot of free time on my hands at the mo :P so thinking this could work. Thoughts?

  • I think you'll probably find that one or two of those prototypes on the way evolve into their own games without all the rest of the stuff that you reckon will make it part of the cohesive whole you imagine right now ;)
Sign In or Register to comment.