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What Game Designers Do (According to the Internet)
by Liz England on 06/26/14 03:53:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.

 

I used to wonder why so many people had totally wrong impressions of what a "game designer" was. I mean, I just assumed it was because there wasn't enough out there written about game design to help people and that they, in turn, weren't really seeking it out.

 

I was so, so wrong about that!

 

Below are a list of quotes from advice articles on game design. These were found by simply googling key terms like, "How to become a game designer", "How to make video games", "Getting a job making video games" and "What is a game designer". This is what I expect people to search for when they get the first inkling that maybe - just maybe! - they want to work in game development.

 

Unfortunately, there's a lot of content mills out there full of advertisements for for-profit schools offering degrees in "game design", and Google hasn't figured out how to deal with these yet. It took until about page 4 or 5 of the results to get any good articles from actual developers.

 

Exhibit 1: Digital Dreamer's "How to Become a Game Designer"

These companies want to hire someone who knows what makes a game good, and what makes a game bad. They want someone who knows good level design vs poor level design. The only way to do this is by playing, and playing AND playing video games over and over again.

Playing lots of games is not going to make you a good designer. Just because you can play games doesn't mean you can make them. I love to eat but that doesn't make me qualified as a chef.

 

Exhibit 2: Education Portal's "Game Designer: Job Info and Requirements"

Game designers have duties like designing characters, levels, puzzles, art and animation. They may also write code, using various computer programming languages. Depending on their career duties, they may also be responsible for project management tasks and testing early versions of video games.

This is a classic example of the "all people who make games are game designers!" myth.

  • Designers = levels and puzzles.
  • Artists = characters and art.
  • Animators = animation.
  • Programmers = code and computer programming languages.
  • Project Managers and/or Producers = project management.
  • Quality Assurance Testers = testing early versions of the game
  • Game Developer = all of the above

 

Exhibit 3: HowStuffWorks "How Becoming a Video Game Designer Works"

A video game designer must have a strong set of skills, including programming, video graphics and hardware essentials.

These are three different roles seemingly chosen at random.

 

Programming skills are for programmers. "Video graphics" skills are for graphics programmers, unless the author meant "art" in which case it falls firmly in the art department. "Hardware essentials" is bizarre but may refer to a console programmer or hardware engineer at, say, Sony or Microsoft developing the actual hardware. It may also refer to engine programmers, who help make the game run on a specific console or platform.

 

Exhibit 4: Study Magazine's "How To Become a Game Designer"

It can be helpful for you to have a degree in something such as graphic design or web page design. You don’t need anything specifically to start, just a lot of imagination and persistence as video game creation can be a long and at some times tedious job.

Web page design might have been a degree… in 1997. Graphic design isn't really a term we use in games - it refers more to developing 2D logos or websites or possibly UI artists (but they are usually called "UI artists").

 

There's a lot you specifically need to start a job as a game designer. Graphic design and web design aren't really among them.

 

They got "tedious" right though.

 

Exhibit 5: eHow's "How to Become a Video Game Designer"

Learn the terms and skills associated with video game related careers. Video game designers are also referred to as graphic designers.  Prospective video gamer designers must be familiar with photography, special effects, graphic design, and 3D animation.

The first sentence is so close! It's perfect! It's… followed up by a completely nonsensical statement. Video game designers are never referred to as graphic designers.

 

Game designers do not need to know anything about photography (no one does this), special effects (the role of the FX artists), graphic design (not really a thing), or 2D animation (the role of an animator, not a designer).

 

Exhibit 6: Shmoop's "Video Game Designer Qualifications"

You might also be surprised to learn that a fair number of video game designers have at least some graphic design or art experience, if not a full-fledged bachelor's degree. Think about it: you'll be creating outrageous sets, character costumes, and battle scenes.

Designers do not need graphic design or art experience, though it's not a bad skill to have.

 

Sets? Maybe they mean "levels"? If so that's true, but it's so vague and using the wrong terminology. "Character costumes" makes me thing this person knows about films and nothing about games - the correct term is "character art" or maybe "vanity" (to refer to clothing pieces), and both are the domain of a character artist, not a designer.

Finally, remember that real-world business experience will also help you excel in a video game designer job. You're overseeing budgets, timelines, and team members' work weeks.

Designers are never overseeing budgets, timelines, or work weeks. That's a producer or project manager's job. I have never, ever had any experience with financial figures in the game industry. I may know what a publisher is spending, total, on our game, but not clue how that breaks down. I have no control over the timeline - milestones are agreed upon by producers, studio upper management, and the publisher.

 

Exhibit 7: eHow's "Requirements to Become a Game Designer"

The idea of an entry-level game designer is a bit of a misnomer. There are entry-level graphic artists, programmers and even game musicians, but designers work as each one of these during their career.

Designers do not necessarily work as graphic artists (proper term: artist), programmers, or game musicians (proper term: composers or sound designers). Some, like me, entered directly into design. Others have previous experience in QA testing and were promoted up through there.

 

There is such a thing as an entry level design position, but it requires prior experience even if that experience is developed in your own free time. The same is true of an art or programming position - entry level jobs exist, but you need to be a good artist or programmer before you can get the job.

 

Exhibit 8: Creativepool's "Game Designer Job Description"

Games designers work around 35 hours a week

I feel like this one really doesn't even need a comment.

 

Caveat: they do mention possible overtime, and it is a UK-focused article so their labor laws may be a bit better than here in the US, but this still made me laugh.

 

Different companies have different policies about crunch, and that deserves a whole other article to do justice. The main takeaway is that game development is a work-hard, work-late, work-often career for the most part, though there are a handful of places that have avoided this.

 

Exhibit 9: Sokanu's "Video Game Designer" career page

Most designers will spend at least some of their time as testers, where they can experiment with coding and watch others’ mistakes firsthand.

Most designers do not spend time as testers. Some start off as testers and get promoted up through the ranks, but not all of them.

 

Testers do not get to experiment with coding. I'm not even sure what this would be referring to.

Lastly, an environmental designer is responsible for creating the different scenarios and environments of the game.

There is no such thing as an "environment designer". There are "level designers" which create the scenarios (better referred to as levels, missions, and gameplay). There are "environment artists" which create the environment art (duh) and work on the aesthetics and visuals of those levels.

 

Exhibit 10: How Do I Become A's "How To Become A Game Designer"

Computer programming language understanding is a must. There are several levels of video game design that want good idealists. Game production, game mechanics, level design, game asset reviewers, development analysis and more are all places where a good student can start depending on his skill level. Opportunities are open in specific areas of each game design project as well. Fresh out of school graduates could begin in combat systems design, game play design, economics director or even multi player game design.

Game asset reviewers? Economics director? Those are made up terms. I have no clue what "development analysis" means. The other terms are pretty inaccurate, too. This whole paragraph is a mess of terminology.

 

We don't want idealists. (Similarly, a lot of articles use the term "perfectionists" - that's also a lie). Game development is a lot of grunt work that is challenging and rewarding in its own way, but the process is far from perfect. It's nice to have some optimism, but idealists are going to have their hearts broken really quickly.

 

Meanwhile...

 

There's a really troubling trend of advice on these sites that contributes to an awful part of the game industry: predatory for-profit schools. Most of the advice articles are aimed at high school students or aspiring game designers and tell them, over and over again, that they NEED a degree in things like "Game Art & Design" or else they cannot get a job, but imply that if they get the degree there's so many 'limitless' jobs out there.

 

Exhibit 11: Game Design School's "How To Become A Game Designer"

In order to be a successful game designer you can’t only bank on your passion for video games. You need a solid education from a respected school to solidify your candidacy.

You actually do not need an education in game development from a school. I often recommend students to still get a 4-year bachelor's degree from a traditional school because that is essentially a requirement for any white collar job in the US, and since the vast majority of them will not get into the game industry a degree will help in the long run.

 

A game-focused degree program does not give you extra points on your resume, let alone treated as a necessity. A lot of these programs are really bad and do NOT provide students with the skills they need to actually enter the workforce professionally. Many of them have developed such a bad reputation among game developers that seeing them on your resume is a red flag.

 

Your portfolio is the key thing that will get you a job, and you do not need a school for it. Some schools can help you develop that portfolio. Most of them can't.

 

Exhibit 12: How To Become A Game Designer dot com

In order to become a game designer, you will need to attend either a two year or four year program at one of the many colleges and online universities across that nation that offer programs in either Game Design or Interactive Entertainment.

This is wrong. Wrong! This is an example of a website pretending to educate people about games but really acting as a marketing site for predatory 'universities'.

 

 

For game developers, if you ever wonder why there are so many students in bad programs teaching them wrong ideas about game development and game design, you have your answer. They spend so much money on marketing and recruiting, almost every top-ranked information article about getting into games is basically a paid advertisement.

 

For students, take a look at these sites and check out what schools are 'advertised' on them. If you are attending one of these schools, or contemplating attending one, you should think really hard about that. An advertisement on a crappy content-mill website is a huge red flag that the school isn't interested in quality education but in how many dollars students can bring to them in the form of tuition fees and student loans.

 

 

That's the end of this for now. I'll do a follow-up with misleading (and sometimes unintentionally hilarious) game development advertisements eventually but I think this article sums up the scale of bad information out there.

 

Reposted from: http://www.lizengland.com/blog/2014/06/what-game-designers-do-according-to-the-internet/


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Comments


Daniel Cook
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Over the years I've started to wonder if even the concept of 'game designer' is fundamentally alien to how a large portion of the population sees the world.

Systems thinking in particular requires a mix of abstract thinking, understanding cause and effect, and planning multiple steps into the future. As I interview people, run them through play tests, and look at psychological literature, there's evidence that these are skills and perspectives that a majority lack. They are very successful at navigating life using other techniques, be they social, emotional, or rote practice.

Systemic forms of thinking are thus not even *visible* without an extraordinary (and painful) twisting of their minds. Underdeveloped mental machinery for conceptual comprehension results in a sort of blindness.

Perhaps it is this limitation in seeing that ultimately leads to game design being regularly reduced to some familiar stereotype. For example, a non-systems thinker might find it comfortable to imagine that game designer is just a form of "artist", or "inspired genius, or "evil genius", or "foolish egghead", or "programmer", or "expert gamer", etc. These quick narratives map onto someone's favored mode of thought more easily than the whirring, interwoven mechanical reality of game design.

For example, many writers and film critics adore the idea of game designers as "artistic content authors" because it fits their regularly practiced and successful world view. Even if phrases like "engineering statistically reproducible procedural experiences" makes it past the conceptual filter, it fails to resonate emotionally and is dropped from discussion.

This point can come across as mildly dismissive, but it shouldn't be. It is an issue I've struggled with regularly in both my own games and when teaching new designers. How do you teach something that a student doesn't even see?

All the best and a lovely essay,
Danc.

Merc Hoffner
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Perhaps it's not as small a minority as you might imagine: systematic and methodical thinking and abstract conceptualisation are basically the standard mental demands of most competent scientists and engineers, and there are quite a few about. I suspect the apparent infrequency of suitable candidates from people with experience in these sectors is because, you know, they're busy being scientists and engineers.

More deeply, I expect that many people with a 'left-brained' mentality aren't particularly attracted to a 'right-brained' industry, even if they both enjoy the products and are aware of the demand for such thinkers. Rather, they may see a game development vocation as a waste of their time on this earth, or perhaps the incentives are better in other industries. Whatever the causes are, I suspect the social cross-over is minimal - and I do sometimes find it amusing how science and scientists are portrayed in video games, much as this article muses on the depiction of game developers in the wider world.

Having said that, I'd also suggest that perhaps methodical thinkers in other fields aren't as used to rapidly iterating solutions as in software development: When you have an inspired idea in most practical fields, it takes a significant amount of time to setup/build a prototype and experiment with it; then go back to the drawing board. Where a project may take days or months with a physical system (and comes with real material costs), another system with a similar mental complexity may take hours or minutes in software (and is basically free). When you're exposed to that kind of thinking on a frequent basis, perhaps the mind reorganises itself for the task. We know the brain is plastic afterall.

Camille Petain
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I finally crossed the line and created an account to post this ... Thank you for mentioning engineers and scientist Merc.

I recently graduated from one of the best generalist engineer school from France, a quite specific kind of school which is highly considered here and not very known abroad. We were trained to be scientist and to be managers. We were trained to see complex problems as a whole, systemic thinking is the heart of our classes, and most of all we were taught how to deal with people with different background and be able to grasp quickly things that we never encountered before and work in emergency situations. Which makes us average good at a lot of things, but not experts in one specific field.

Reading Gamasutra, I've seen several time people who plead for different training for their young employee, for different skills, and I recognized my training in their description. I've personally met with people from the industries who told us that our training was very interesting for the industry. Ubisoft was even there at our school's job event - but recruited no one.

Convinced that we could be useful in this industry, I and a few friends I know tried our luck and applied to several gaming company in and out of France, small and big, and we were rejected every time. Most reasons we were given felt wrong, because we were told we lacked the exact skills we had. Mostly, I heard "we are not used to recruit among your kind of people, I don't think your training could be useful to us". Every interview I had started with "I don't really get why you applied in our company, you don't have the usual profile". Once I wasn't accepted because "this job require a really analytical person".

In the end, we were a handful of passionate people from that school, and we were prepared to accept lesser working condition to work in the field we love - let's be honest, working as an engineer here is way better payed and you work less hours. Of course not any scientist or engineer is made to work in the game industry, but some are and wants to lend their talent to game companies. Some would make great programmers, some would be great producers and I know one who could be a valued designer. These people are out there, but tired to try to convince people to even give them a chance and being answered that it's weird for someone with their training to apply to these jobs. And yes, in the end, most finally give in to better incentive elsewhere.

Matt Robb
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"More deeply, I expect that many people with a 'left-brained' mentality aren't particularly attracted to a 'right-brained' industry..."

I rather think it has a lot to do with being balanced between the two. Scientific fields don't typically require artistic skills and artists don't generally require conscious analytic skills.

But once you get into game development, even typically one-sided fields start requiring at least some ability from the other hemisphere. A character artist building a 3D model has to think about the structure of the model so it can be properly animated as needed. A programmer needs to be cognizant of how the math/logic behind an ability will feel to the player in practice.

A (good) game designer needs a reasonable amount of strength in abilities related to both sides of the brain. They need to be concerned with both what emotions the ruined castle evokes in the player as well as the layout of the encounters contained within. I believe that's the major factor that contributes to the (apparent) scarcity of quality game designers. We as a society (at least in the US) tend to encourage people finding something they're good at and focusing on that one skill set, whereas Game Designer is a position that greatly benefits from a Jack of all Trades mentality.

John Maurer
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I wouldn't say programming skills are exclusively for programmers, a game designer should at least know how to script as well as have some AI basics, particularly when it comes to managing state.

Kenneth Blaney
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In the noble tradition of seeing a cloud and pointing at the silver lining around it:

No one said, "Game Designers are idea guys".

NICK LAING
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Hah! I didn't know there were so many expert sites on "how to become a thing"...

Here's a question, have we reached a point of sophistication that in most cases the term "Game Designer" is about as helpful as saying, "Programmer" or "Mechanic"?

I'm very frustrated with the state of standards around this profession (but don't get me started on "Producers") and I think it's partly due to the lack of accepted compartmentalization of a different designers responsibilities.
There is hardly a guarantee a good level designer can whip up great UI...

Sam Stephens
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I think the main reason why game design is often described and taught as programing is because programing is a more tangible concept to teach and understand. Game design is more abstract and conceptual. Only a few individuals are trying to break it down, so there isn't a universal way to talk about it yet. Another reason for the problem could be the common thinking about games in a physical sense. Games are information on a computer disc, pieces on a board, a deck of cards, and so on. However, these mediums only facilitate the playing of these games. Computer games are a little different because the computer upholds the rules, but the creation of those rules still exist outside of programing them into the software. Still, knowledge about programming is very useful for a video game designer. It allows them to understand what ideas are and are not particle to create.

John Maurer
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Or the fact that the archetype itself has been ill defined for years. There is definitely a craft behind the skill set, problem with that is most of its applications lie in pre-production. Once your scope is well defined the plethora of other skills required to develop a game come into play.

A game designer in its purest form can only monitor progress and keep efforts aligned with the vision. So many designers often pick-up supplemental skills they can apply during production whether it be scripting & art or project management.

Out of all of these I believe scripting to be the most useful, particularly when describing state in the game world and its actors as they can have an impact on designing mechanics.

It all boils down to one thing: Job Security. The high turn-around in the game industry triggers this symptom of letting go of people who are "non-essential", meaning that if your existing tasks don't have the perceived "immediate return" desired by producers/management, you may find yourself out of a job sooner rather than later.

Ideally, designers should be studying samples of their craft just as much as an engineer studies samples of new coding methodologies, language features and syntax. Although I'm sure this may be true in some places, it has never been the norm.

Sam Stephens
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@ John Maurer

"There is definitely a craft behind the skill set, problem with that is most of its applications lie in pre-production."

Not necessarily. Although conceptualization of the overall game and how it will play definitely comes in the pre-production phase of development, there are many smaller and more technical details designers are involved with during the actual making of the game. Studying the development history of Ocarina of Time reveals that the designers were very hands-on during production. Perfecting the targeting system, 3D hitboxes, controls, and the scale of the level design were all challenges the designers faced while the game was well into development. Of course, very few development teams have to solve the design problems that come with an ambitious game like Ocarina of Time, but designers are usually right there with the programers to ensure the actual execution of the ideas.

So designers do more than just conceptualize and plan out the game beforehand. They have to bring their ideas to fruition as well as making sure the game is functional and provides good feedback. All of this requires extensive work in all phases of production. There are very detailed and technical elements to what designers do.

John Maurer
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None of which are beyond playtesting or scripting, you'd need both to do what the Ocarina of Time designers did, and both bleed over into other skill trees (QA & Scripting). Everything else you mention entails maintaining the vision, as I said in previous statement.

Understand that I'm not belittling the job, in fact its the most important one, system architect is more akin to this position in the business world, and that's an awesome gig.

Without people like that, there is no product.

Sam Stephens
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"None of which are beyond playtesting or scripting, you'd need both to do what the Ocarina of Time designers did, and both bleed over into other skill trees (QA & Scripting)."

Regardless if these elements fit one prescribed job description or another, they are elements of the game design and whoever is involved with them creatively, be it a programmer or a designer, is involved with the design process of the game.

John Maurer
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We're going around in circles here, my point being that by virtue of being a designer/architect it helps/is desirable to have some degree of competency in multiple disciplines in order to excel, hence the ambiguity of the job and its variable description, which is what this article is all about.

Matt Robb
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@Sam Stephens
It's also likely because being able to code to a minimal level enables one to express their designs in a tangible, playable fashion. It certainly helps if, especially in solo/small team indie development or in educational settings, you can slap together a prototype of your idea.

Sam Stephens
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@ Matt Robb

Very true

John Maurer
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Yes, particularly when it comes to conditional logic and state information. Being able to explain such ideas in a programmatic way is only going to speed up the digestion of an idea.

A designer doesn't have to be an engineer too, but both of the concepts I mention can be described in diagrams. I wouldn't dismiss the concepts as "easy" but they are definitely learn-able.

Kenneth Barber
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All creative endeavors require a medium to capture and relay the creative work. To really describe what a game designer does it is helpful to distill the act of design/rules creation with respect to games from the associated crafts that define the games medium and narrative. In games the medium can be rocks, marbles, cardboard, wood, ink and most often as of now code, bitmaps and audio files. The act of mentally creating/defining a games rules of play and limits is the same as its been since man started making games.

IMHO "game design" is about defining rules, and providing context/limits to produce an environment where interesting and meaningful decisions can or must be made. A game designer is the person who is doing the definition, and iterating over the limits, mechanics, and potential outcome conditions. There will be graphic art, possibly music and you will probably need to organize production but without the game designers specification and vision you wont have a game.

brian stgeorge
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are you open to discussing opportunity with startup?

Kenneth Barber
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see above

Kenneth Barber
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see above

Tim Benitez
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This article has made me somewhat happy. I actually happen to be one of the students of a University and pursuing a Game Design degree. I really like to think of it as a computer arts degree though. I had taken a couple programming courses and I have always been hopeful that programming would be minimal part of a design career. By working with game programming it has helped me figure out how to design things. While reading here that an education in game development isn't what will get me a job seems kind of discouraging, the part about having a good strong portfolio makes perfect sense. I can see why having a portfolio shows some experience in the industry.

Daniel Pang
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Suggestions for your portfolio: make a game.

Any game.

Showing you can shepherd and execute a project from idea to game is far more important than whether or not you have a game design degree.

Curtiss Murphy
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And learn to program. A backup skill that also lets you take direct control over of the early prototyping phase. In reality, most designs on paper don't translate well in reality. To follow the legends of our industry, Will Wright, Jonathan Blow, or Jenova Chen, you'll need to code.

And yes, build games. Lots of games. Start today, and NEVER stop.

John Maurer
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I wouldn't say "learn how to program", I'd say "learn how to script". Believe it or not the distinction does matter.

http://stackoverflow.com/questions/17253545/scripting-language-vs
-programming-language

Evan Van Zelfden
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"game asset reviewers" is, at worst, a guy with Perforce. At best, it's the build master. Can you imagine if development studios hired out-of-work game journalists to say: "I give this texture an 8.5"

Leo Kihlman
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Game Designers are people who guide others (or themselves) towards a finished product/feature that they see in their heads. They usually can "play" the game in their heads before it is made to help guide the development. At least that's what I do ;)

Game designers are problem solvers (many times solving problems of their own creation)
I start with a vision of what I want and then I try to make it alone or with a team. In my opinion they are closest to a Writer/Director in a movie. The movie might be very small (a feature), or huge (whole game) but the work is the same.

And yes, you NEED to have played games to be a game designer! You need to learn the ingredients to be a master chef and learn, learn from your own mistakes/successes as well as others. (usually I don't play when I'm doing a game, because I already do that at work, but I play a lot in between products)

Chris Proctor
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Hilarious stuff :)

On schooling, there are a few institutions which have strong industry ties and are well-respected; I've worked with a bunch of graduates of game design programs who really know their stuff. It's worth noting that some of these are Masters programs (i.e. you need to have a Bachelor's degree in something first) and are hilariously expensive. Still, the ETC at CMU and the Guildhall at SMU produce good, multi-skilled designers in my experience and are worth considering.

Presumably some of the other high profile programs are good too, but I hesitate to name them without personal experience.

melanie costin
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I'm more than a little annoyed and concerned to be reading this article having been working to set myself up as the generalist these websites have been repeatedly advocating (graphic design, multimedia, digital art, animation).

It seems that instead of a qualification all I really have is a notebook full of random ideas, concepts and mechanics and a few partially constructed games like every other aspiring games designer...or, worse, have I gone and over-qualified myself for the average but widespread skills that I have.

So, the problem has been identified, what sort of solutions are there...

I suppose naming the flaged schools would be slanderous but people need to be aware of the true value of a course before they accrue tens of thousands of dollars in debt getting a degree. Could this all be linked back to false advertising?

I'm not a games designer (yet) so I'm inviting and/or encouraging someone who is to write an article- or four if required- and set the record straight.... What skills do games designers really need to bring to the team? How does an aspiring games designer aproach a studio and advertise/demonstrate their expertise and/or skills?

Liz England
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I've been writing (and continue to write) on this topic because I don't think there's enough good information out there - this post obviously shows the bad. I've written some articles for students/aspiring designers if you check my blog, but haven't really covered the "what skills do designers need?" (my portfolio advice is the closest to real actionable info, might give you an idea of how close or far you are right now - http://www.lizengland.com/blog/2014/06/from-student-to-designer-p
art-2/).

Daniel Pang
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See above. Make a game.

During the process figure out what is most important.

Specialize in those elements that through experience you have discovered are most important and figure out how you do the job better or differently than others.

Add game to your portfolio.

Don't worry about the "jack of all trades" thing; smaller projects usually don't have the money to hire large amounts of staff and will therefore usually require people they bring on board to be good or at least marginally competent in a whole bunch of stuff.

Curtiss Murphy
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Make games. Lots of them. Which means, learning to code. This is your two-pronged approach to creating a portfolio, which MAY get you hired. Remember that long before they were legends of game design, Will Wright, Jenova Chen, and Jonathan Blow were programmers.

(1) Learn to program. (2) Build LOTS of SMALL games. ... (3) Get hired.

Michael Pianta
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Isn't part of the issue simply that the term has two different meanings? A technical meaning, used within the industry, and a general colloquial meaning? Because in common parlance, Jon Blow and Ed McMillen and Ken Levine and Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto and Cliff Bleszinski and Tim Schafer and many many others are all simply referred as "designers".

And I think people outside the industry (including myself, I'm only a hobbyist with very limited knowledge of how the industry proper really works) imagine that these people are not directly involved in the nitty gritty of making any particular aspect of the game, but are instead guiding the overall project. The character designers design the characters, and Kojima or whoever gives them feedback and steers the overall design "No, no, more this, less that - I like this one better - hmm we want to emphasize the physical strength of this character, make the shoulders broader, etc" And then they go down the hall to check out the latest build of the sewer level. "Hmm, this hallway is too long and nothing happens - try to break it up or make it shorter in some way. But I like this bit here with the jumping - perhaps more of that, etc." and so on through all the different departments, making sure it's all coming together artistically into some kind of cohesive, coherent final product. Thus they are over seeing the development of the game itself - they are the "game designer".

I think this is the kind of job people are wanting when they look up "How to be a game designer" on google. It's not clear to me that such jobs really exist though. But even if some people do have jobs like that, there are clearly some misconceptions that need clearing up.

James Margaris
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It seems oddly egocentric to think that the general public should understand what a game designer is exactly. (See especially Danc's response)

People unfamiliar with TV don't know what a showrunner is or how to become one - why should they? How many Gamasutra readers could accurately describe how the head vet at a zoo spends their day or what exactly a linguistic anthropologist does?

People in the general public don't understand exactly what most specialized jobs entail. That's completely normal.

Daniel Pang
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However, it becomes a problem when people plan their lives around a future career in games development without a clear picture of what it actually entails.

Compounding this is the entire spate of colleges and universities offering shady "game design degrees" with absolutely no credentials to back up whether or not a degree in game design will help you land a job.

Everyone should know this old TV ad. It advertises Westwood College offering courses on how to be a game tester.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRWvfMLl4ho

I suppose it's the same in every creative industry; people go in with, or are sold, a very loose idea of what it's meant to be and come away disillusioned and disappointed. I work as a writer in toys. I've had many friends and people I know just light up when they hear about what I do. The reality of the job is so far removed from people's perception of what the job entails that it's hard not to laugh.

I've never gotten a degree in toy design, actually. I'm not quite sure how it'd help. My team is comprised of a bunch of illustrators, a few mechanical designers, a creative director and a project manager. Not one of them has degrees even remotely related to toy design, instead specializing in industrial design, fine arts, engineering...

You shouldn't expect regular viewers of TV to know what a showrunner is, unless they want to be a showrunner. The same is true for veterinarians or linguistic anthropologists. There is a lack of transparency in the field of games development as to what roles and skills are actually needed; this directly affects both the quality of new hires and the availability of skills that are in demand.

I suppose it's kind of a moot point considering that many of those both in and outside the games industry seem to want to redefine "game" itself. At which point I figure the term "game designer" would become moot and we'd just call them designers.

Liz England
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It's not about the idea that the general public SHOULD know what a game designer does.

It's about the fact that if the general public WANTS to know what a game designer does, they have to sift through so much information that ranges from "wildly inaccurate" to "absolutely terrible".

It's even worse if the person who wants to know about game design is a high school student who wants to make games for a living - most of these sites are geared towards selling them on a for-profit education. The misinformation, at that point, is actually harmful.

Nick Harris
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So, what does a Game Designer do? I read your article twice and you never said.

Liz England
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I have written on the topic if you look. See "Types of Designers" posted here on Gamasutra or on my blog, for example.

Joe McGinn
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Really liked this article, posted it to my FB so, even though still no one will no what I actually do, they will have a better idea what I do not. ;-)

Nils Pihl
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Where is Shokrizade saying that game designers abuse children?

Christian Nutt
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Apparently not on the first five pages of Google. Guess our SEO sucks. =)

Carlos Contreras Peinado
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I still remember the moment when I traveled 200 miles to a meeting in one of the best known centers in video game production formation here in Spain. The man who talked us said that the most important thing a game designer needs is... knowing how to perfectly animate a 3D model.

Still laughing.

Thomas Lachowsky
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A game designer is someone who wants to make video games, but doesn't have any actual skills.

David Paris
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When I first read that I found myself thinking "wow, people outside the industry really have no clue what game design..." but then I caught myself and realized that a more painfully truth is that people _within_ the industry seem to have very little clear understanding of how 'game design' fits into the overall product development picture.

I can remember getting into game making because I was bursting with ideas and cool stuff that I wanted to make. I wrote tons of my own games (mostly Unix because um, older than dirt, yeah) and loved the ability to take a concept and build it into something amazing. That was what game design was all about. I wasn't working for a game company at the time, I was working a 9-5 software dev management job, and obsessively making games as a second career outside that. Back then, it was pretty clear to me what game design was.

Then I decided working two jobs at once was a bit much and switched to working into the gaming industry full time. I said "I want to be a game designer!" because that's where my passion was. I had made a ton of genre-defining titles, built crazy stuff, and generally thought game design was the bomb. Sorry they said, but it turns out game design is something they just do for a couple months at the start of the project and it pays peanuts. Usually there's a manager who is the guy actually in charge of making the key decisions, and a bunch of people make the game from there. The 'designer' is a garbage job that you should avoid like the plague. But hey no worries, I see you can code...

So I coded, and then went on to produce (because usually the real designer turned out to be the product vision keeper, who tended to be a producer rather than a 'designer'), while the 'designers' did level creation, and quests, and tutorials, and a bunch of content generation which while fine, wasn't really the core of what made the game fun.

It actually turned out that the model there wasn't atypical. "game design" as a job title usually meant "level design", and it is frequently one of the lowest paid and least stable roles in a poorly paying unstable industry. Real design power can land anywhere in the corporate structure, with design mandates coming from marketing, random execs, an empowered producer, or even some 'lead designer' who struggles all the time to try to keep his ideas in play.

This doesn't even take into account the fact that the industry is usually chock full of smart, knowledgeable people who play and love games, and have a ton of good ideas to put into them. Sure, you may be a 3D modeller, but that doesn't mean you haven't come up with some awesome idea for improving our next platformer. In a reasonable world, this input would get drawn upon and used by the people who are actually in charge of making the game (you know, that theoretical "game designer"), but there are a whole lot of places where you are very much discouraged from meddling outside your role.

So yeah, that information is garbage. But I don't think it is just the people outside the industry who are confused about how game design is supposed to get done. We seem to have no lack of corporate structures that are just as screwed up about it.

Joe Program
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Great article - what a fun read! While a game designer's job can be defined much more clearly, I think its hard to understand what a designer's job is without trying it. When I switched my career from programming to design, it wasn't until I had run into enough brick walls that it really clicked for me.

Benjy Davo
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Part of the problem of defining a designers role is that there are different types and also the role changes drastically depending on what type of company you work for as well. For example if you are an indy guy like say Mike Bithell you really are coming up with new game design and you are also certainly going to have to be able to do a lot of the technical jobs as well which likely means you will have to be at least and artist and a programmer and probably both. As you simply don't have the luxury of passing that task on to someone else.

Contrast that with say the designer of the next iteration of Assassin's creed, COD, FIFA, NFS etc. All of the real design work is already in previous incarnations. You might if you are lucky get to iterate say one piece of design improving I dunno the stealth system or whatever marginally. Likely too is a slightly different UI system. But there is no huge grandiose sweep in the overall game design. So in these types of teams you have lots of level designers and a producer who is actually more powerful than the creative director. Then in the case of Ubi the story is written by a centralised group of writers who work separately from the main team.

Then there is the middle ranged guys like Valve, insomniac, Naughty Dog. I was reading an interesting piece maybe even on here where an artist from Ubisoft moved to Naughty Dog. He was amazed to find that unlike Ubi where he just did one task day after day he was actually expected as an artist to build out levels himself as a level designer. This is also true at Valve where people all wear multiple hats and nobody is "just a designer" and when you consider these to be some of the most critically and commercially revered companies maybe there is something to this method.

Judy Tyrer
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In one studio, all the designers knew how to script and spent their days scripting. In another studio the designers went for long lunches and hung out in the dev mgr's office so much that they had the reputation of doing absolutely nothing and I have no evidence that this was not the case. And in a third, there were no designers only programmers.

What cracked me up about this article was the matter-of-fact way in which the author asserted what is NOT a game designer when half of those assertions go against 10 years of personal experience in the industry. Let's be honest, even we can't say "This is what it takes to be a good designer" because there are too many variables and one cannot lay them all down.

Kenneth Barber
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I was thinking this morning that systems engineer is a near analogous job title. Same types of activities minus (arguable) the required creative slant....

Kent Engel
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This is a really interesting article that has a lot of truth in it, and even a few parts that made myself laugh as well. Though I did agree with much of the article, some parts troubled me a bit including the part about some schools being a deterrence for some studios. I am one of the many college graduates of this year fighting for a job in the industry, and I was hoping you could clarify a bit.

I graduated from a traditional 4-year school (Ohio University) with a Bachelors in Communications, although the program was for game design. The program, like you said, was nothing great at all and was really all about the time and effort that each individual put into it. Thankfully I found this out relatively early, so I was able to make good use of my time there, but since going to GDC this year I realized how much I want to become a producer and that it is really the job for me. That being said, I sort of wish now that I would have obtained a degree in business or something management related, although I did learn a lot about game design in my 4 years of school.

So what schools exactly are the ones that draw red flags; schools that advertise a lot like you said and are all about the dollar? Should I consider going back to school for a business degree, or tough it out and apply to as many QA jobs that I can with the goal of moving up? OR should I try to work my contacts and get a local media job (un-related to games) and work my way up to leadership to show SOME professional/creative leadership experience?

Thank you so much for any help that anyone can give me.

Ben Newbon
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It shocks me that even in the knowledgeable and mostly accurate descriptions of what a game designer is, even in this here comments section, no one has once mentioned documentation. If many of the aspiring games designers out there knew how much writing they'd have to do, they'd likely be totally turned off. Pitch docs, concept docs, GDDs... no one ever talks about the endless hours typing innane drivel to present to the money men who have no idea about games but need to be convinced to invest in 'your ideas'.

And then there's the whole thing of 'become a games designer and bring you ideas to life' thing! Yeah, that might be true after 20 years in the industry and becoming a creative director or struggling around on the ground as a solo indie but for the most part, if you want to be game designer, you're going to be designing other people's ideas.

This is where the whole 'creative problem solving' stuff comes in. How do you make a game based on snakes and ladders a fun interactive video game (THAT PEOPLE WILL SPEND REAL MONEY ON)? If the owners of the Peppa Pig IP wanted to make a kids game using the characters with relevant minigames and plot, how would you design that? Only a few dozen very lucky and experienced folk ever get the resources and opportunities to design their own ideas.

Morgan Ramsay
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"Testers do not get to experiment with coding."

Well, there's white box testing and test automation.


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