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The Game Designer Class - What skills does he use?
by Adriaan Jansen on 03/11/12 03:02:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This blogpost is written with great care and attention at Abbey Games.

A few weeks ago, I started with a series of blogposts about what it’s like and what it takes to be a game designer. Because we’re talking games here, I’m approaching these posts as an RPG character creation guide. The series consists of the following chapters:

  1. Role: What are the tasks of a game designer?
  2. Passive Abilities: What are favorable character traits?
  3. Powers: What are important skills? (This chapter!)
  4. Weaknesses: What are the biggest pitfalls?

This week’s subject is about skills. When I talk about skills I mean things that you can learn and develop by going to school, reading books, analyzing stuff etc. To be honest, it’s a though subject for me to talk about. The most important reason for that is that the skills you need to learn depend strongly of the kind of game you wish to make. The game designers from the Civilization series probably learned a good amount of history to enhance that feel of progressing through the ages. I don’t think that the game designer working on Mass Effect did the same. One thing, however, is certain: the world with all its information and possibilities is a massive pool of interesting perspectives and experiences. The more you see, do and learn, the more perspectives and experiences you gain. Being curious will certainly help you in making great games! Basically, I’m saying: “Do everything!”. But since that’s not feasible, I’ll just list the 3 things that I think will help you the most in general…with one side note. I think I hammered on communication enough by now, so I’m going to leave that one out. BUT IT’S THERE SO PRACTICE YOUR COMMUNICATION SKILLS!

Again, big thanks to Jesse SchellExtra Credits and Joost van Dongen. If you want to learn a lot of game design, I recommend to start with Jesse Schell's the art of game design. After you read this of course!


Game Knowledge

You know how often wise old man say: Game development has nothing to do with playing games! Well, that’s a lie! It’s propaganda from the elite to keep you, the fanatic gamer, from forming a competition for them! Ok, that’s not entirely true, but what is true, is that making games has a lot to do with playing games! If you have played a lot of (different) games, you are likely to have seen a lot of different mechanics. Be curious about how a game works. Why is it fun, or not fun at all? What’s the theme? How does everything reinforce that? What could be improved easily? If you like playing a more “long term” game, like an MMORPG or an arena game, try predicting the patches to get a hang of balance. Playing a lot of games, but also analyzing them, gives you the best possible pool of answers for the problems of your game. If you’re making a game that has similarities with another game, why fall for the same pitfalls? If you face a problem that is already well handled in another game, why re-invent the wheel? Progress is made faster and better, if you don’t ignore the progress others make.

Just remember that the experience you’re targeting with your game is probably different than that of the games you played. Don’t copy stuff you don’t need, and for the love of everything that is holy, don’t copy the experience! Making World of Warcraft, but better is, most of the time, just a bad idea. They have the name, they have the experience of the development and they have a good time advantage. (If they’re missing those though, especially the name, it might be a smart business move. Not very noble, but smart nonetheless) Pick apart the many games you’ve played, and use and modify their solutions to fit yours. Everyone does it (Who came up with the brilliant WASD?), and so should you.

Math & Computer Science

Want to be loved by the developers on your team? Learn some math and computer science! Math will help you in most game anyways, since most games have an economy and economies are partially mathematical models. The RPG’s and strategy games are obvious shots here. Any game that has balance in them, has a mathematical model in it, and having a good grasp on how these work will surely speed up your development progress. Another point not to forget is chance, often a fundamental part of games. Chance is pure math wizardry, but hey, we like magic so let’s use it. Knowing the basics of math will allow you to make balanced games faster and easier. So try to get a grasp on that. Math also helps with programming, which is awesome!

Because knowing how to script and program is very handy for a designer. You can tweak and change things easier and it gives more insight in the possibilities of your game. It also saves your programmer stress and time explaining how things can’t work this way and thinking what a moron you are. Remember that knowing what your team is doing is important for good pitches and discussions? Well big shock, your developer actually programs! Knowing how his job works speeds up the tweak loop, and betters communication, two big parts of the game designer’s life.

Now math & computer science are arguably the “least important” of the 3 things I’m listing here as most useful in general. Don’t get discouraged if you’re a disaster at math. But I mention it for one important reason: If you know some scripting or programming, you can’t pull the “eeeeh, but I don’t know how to make a computer program!”-excuse on yourself. It’s the worst thing that could happen to an aspiring game developer, because you know what’s the most important for being a game designer…?

10 000 hours

Maybe you know this rule set up by Malcolm Gladwell: Put 10 000 hours of practice in something, and you become an expert in it. I’m not going to discuss the rule in general, but for game design, it’s spot on. Game design is a vast area that keeps growing with every experience a human creates or goes through. There are so many perspectives, problems and people to work with. There is no way that studying any theory will get you even half way of using your full potential game design powers. I know, “practice” isn’t really a skill, but game design is to broad to be captured in 3 skills, so I’m going to cheat it into this list anyway!

So just make games! Make loads of them. Make any kind of them. If you can’t make art or write a program, learn their basics or go make a board/card game. You will learn patterns in mechanics, pitfalls in design and what kind of people you can communicate with quickly. You will also learn which other skills seem more useful for the type of games you want to make. Maybe it’s biology or history. You will surely get more insight in what skills are required for you to progress your game design. I don’t even know why you’re reading all this crap if you could be making a game. Go make one right now!

Want even more skills? Try psychology, economics, visual art, animation or technical writing. Next time: Pitfalls! Scary stuff man!

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Colin Bryant
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This is great info, thank you!

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Basic maths & probabilities are critical for any designer involved with gameplay, way more important than programming skills in my book. I know producers who wont hire a game designer who can't answer basic math & probabilities questions. There is a *lot* of numbers-tuning involved in designinga game, and you need to understand how to change the numbers to get the result you want. I love designers who can tune a curve by themselves...

Jesse Tucker
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My programming background has helped me immensely as a designer. Designers will most likely be scripting in some capacity, and programming teaches problem solving, patience, and gives a lot of perspective to someone who works with programmers on a regular basis. People with a programming background can generally adapt to in-house tools as well.
Obviously a designer should know something about numbers, especially if they're working on balance or working with data. However, I wouldn't hire someone for a design position unless they had some minor experience in programming.

Terry Matthes
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Cool article. Cute visuals :)

Greg Bemis
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"Game development has nothing to do with playing games! "

I'm guilty of saying this to my game design students. And you are correct that it's not really true. What I try to get them to focus on are the many, many different kinds of games that are out there. So I tell them the fact they play video games doesn't automatically make them experts of game development. Many budding young game designers come in having only played lots and lots of CoD or WoW or some Bioware RPG. I want them to game far out of their comfort zone. Stop playing the same thing!!!! Play a sports game. Play a JRPG. Play a crap ton of classic arcade games. Play some board games dammit!!! Soak up all those cool mechanics and see how you might iterate.

Anyway. Thanks for the posts. I love these!

Bart Stewart
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I agree -- good stuff. A few addenda:

1. Play games you normally wouldn't. Playing only shooters may help you learn what works in shooters, but no one game type is an adequate foundation in game design.

2. Some math matters more than others. Boolean logic is useful to understand general programming. Calculus/DiffE is only useful if you're designing hardcore simulations. But as noted above, statistics/probability is useful in a lot of ways. And linear algebra is valuable if you want a better handle on designing 3D games.

3. Knowing assignment, conditionals and looping will get you through most programming -- if you get those things, you know enough to speak Programmer. But if you really want to be appreciated, find some way to take a Data Structures class. Understanding how best to store different kinds of information is the key to delivering it in a way that's satisfying because it works well. (This is true for any kind of software.)

Any other practical tips?

Adriaan Jansen
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Thanks for the comments and suggestions!

Mathieu MarquisBolduc & Jesse Tucker: I agree with both, that's why I listed them both :D.

Greg Bemis: I very much agree with you. I also think people who only play a specific type of game also tend to come in with the wrong mentality, wanting to make the game they love so much only better.

Bart Stewart: All very true :) Great additions!