I decided to write this post because I get asked this question by so many people and I thought it would probably be easier to just send them a link to this blog post next time. I will try to be as exhaustive as I can, while still keeping it manageable. Please mind that this reflects the sum of my personal experiences with the subject, and different fellows of my trade might give you different, even opposing advice. But that's how life is. Just ask your friends what makes a man a man and you will know what I mean. So don't take any of this for the golden apple of wisdom, because it isn't. But it will help you get a good idea of what to expect if you want to pursue this profession.
What is a Game Designer?
A games designer does pretty much the same thing for games as a director does for a movie: he invents, guides and organizes the concepts behind a computer game. He develops the vision and ensures that the player receives the intended experience throughout the whole development process. Everything that works behind the scenes to glue artwork and code together is the work of a games designer.
What does a Games Designer do?
What your daily work will consist of depends on several factors. The first is obviously your level of seniority. If you are an intern or junior designer, you will most likely be documenting the current features in the design document. This may not sound very exciting, but it means you get to sit in all the important meetings and you will have a full overview of the game. As you progress, you will be given your own design work on a limited set of features or a certain area of the game, for example vehicle combat or the diplomacy system. As a senior designer, you will own a large chunk of the game, which can be as general as 'combat' or 'multiplayer'. Once you are a lead designer, you will form the core vision of the game and make sure that all the parts play well together. While that sounds like the best part, remember that lead jobs are mostly administrative and you will have little time for actual designing yourself.
Another factor is which part of the development cycle you are in. In the early stages of the game, when everything is still wild ideas and cloud castles, you will be having lots of meetings, exhilarating pie-in-the-sky watercooler conversations and all those passionate feature discussions which make working in a creative industry so amazing. Once these ideas consolidate, you will be writing proposals for your assigned area of design, and chat with coders about how feasible these ideas will be. Once implementation begins, you will be testing and tweaking your plans, discard and reconfigure as the game comes together. Finally, you will do the balancing and hammering out bugs in your design. Depending on the assets of the studio, you will be running tests with consumers, represent your product at conventions and interviews and pitch it to publishers at meetings.
Finally, your duties depend on the type of game you will be making. If you work on a racing game, the majority of your time will be spent playing the game to see if controls work well, levels are challenging and maybe do some hands-on editing work on the tracks. On a browser-based empire building game you might spend more time in front of Excel than your game's interface, spinning numbers and tweaking effect values. Just be sure that you find yourself in the right type of game for your personality, as an exceptional designer in one genre might be useless in the other.
Types of designers
Unlike the movie industry, which has been refining and streamlining its production for over a century, the games industry still has no clear cut common job definitions. Not long ago, there weren't even dedicated designers in companies, and design was done by whomever found time for it between two lines of code. Consequently, companies have very different ideas of what a designer should do. Still sometimes I come across a position for a game designer when the job description is actually more that of a producer or a programmer. The following titles are in my opinion generally accepted to be useable differentiations of game designers, and you will encounter them frequently in job ads. Unless you are extraordinarily gifted, you will find that your strengths lie more with one of these more than the others, and specialization (at least later on) is a good idea. Not all companies have all of these, it depends entirely on game type, studio size and of course its financial situation. It is entirely possible that on smaller games, you will be all of these at the same time.
This is the 'classical' game design role. System designers design the rule framework behind the action, whether it be autocannon damage values or medieval trading logistics. They come up with all the calculations that happen in the background every time a blow connects to a helmet, a new farmhouse is being built on fertile land or you do the high speed twirl to get the extra points on the latest dance simulation. With the number design behind it often comes the actual feature design, and this is the role that usually also means feature creation. System designers will be very busy throughout the game's cycle and even well past it: there is always tweaking to be done and values to be corrected. You will probably work more directly with the coders than other designer types, as you are directly involved in many of the game's calculations.
Would you like it If you love to work with numbers and if you are willing to spend a long time with testing values in various game situations then you should become a systems designer.
What it takes: Experience with game systems are obviously key. Non-digital games (such as pen-and-paper RPGs and board games) are often the best base to gain good understanding. It helps to make Excel a good friend of yours, even if you hate him. System design also will put a heavy strain on your patience, so better acquire lots of it.
Level design is the most hands-on part of the design role: you actually get to build stuff. Using various editors and scripting tools, level designers build the world the players play in. Depending on the type of game you work on, you will be placing barricades and enemies in a first-person-shooter, scripting quests and building dungeons in a role-playing game or creating maps for a strategy game. While you usually have little say in the design of actual features, your knowledge of the use of these features needs to be much more ingenious. The feature designers might make a cool and fun mechanic, but you will have to find ways to make its application new and exciting! That means your link with the players is much more direct and thus more rewarding. You rarely hear a games say: 'Man, that melee mechanic really rocks!', but 'That level was just friggin' awesome!' is something a good level designer will hear often.
Would you like it: If you like working with editors and love to go into detail, then level design will be good for you. It's a good balance between conceptual design and artistic expression, so if you like to be visually involved but still be on the design side, this is the way to go.
What it takes: Experience with various game editors (such as UnrealEd) is usually required. Knowledge of 3D software (Max, Maya) and scripting knowledge (e.g. LUA) is helpful. Knowledge of storytelling can also prove useful.
Rarely spoken about, but always needed, the interface designer usually makes the difference between a good and an excellent product. A game without good interface design will feel clunky and even annoying to use, reminding the player that he's merely handling a piece of software rather than enjoying a uniquely immersive experience. To fully appreciate the impact of good interface design, compare the manual for a VCR from the 80's to that of an iPhone; it makes all the difference. You will work a lot with artists, but the job is much more than graphics. You will need to be on the tail of every single feature in the game, making sure the interaction with is simple, efficient and fun. You will also conduct usability tests with focus groups and help apply the conclusions to the core design.
Would you like it: If you have a passion for making things easier to use and love to work on the graphical side of things while still being involved in the whole game. It is, however, one of those silent workhorse roles and if you are hunting for glory you might be disappointed. The benefit of that is that there aren't many interface designers, and you should have an easy time getting a well-paid job.
What it takes: Knowledge of interaction theories and graphical skills are a must. A proactive attitude and persistence comes in handy, as most developers tend to start thinking about interfaces last.
A game system without content is like a football game without players. The content designer's job is to fill the world with interesting encounters. More general than the level designer, content designers invent enemy types, landscapes and lore of a game world. In an MMORPG, for example, a content designer would create large overarching storylines, quest or settings. He is usually not concerned with the application of systems and features, but rather to provide engaging non-system content. He usually works closely with level designers who will physically implement his ideas. I have sometimes seen content designer used interchangeably with senior level designer, but that will depend on the company.
Would you like it: Content designers usually have more free reign on what they produce, as it tends to be independent from the game systems. On the other hand, you will have little involvement in the actual game system.
What it takes: Now this is a more tricky one. A good content designer is a jack of all trades. He will need to have experience in level design, narrative design and have a good knowledge of the overall workings of the game. This is usually a relatively senior position, requiring around 3-5 years of experience in previous design roles.
Somewhere between a coder and a designer, for most studios this just is a designer with more 'technical' skills. Usually work will cover workflow organization between design and coding department (such as scripting needs), produce more demanding scripts and prototypes and even script AI behaviours.
Would you like it: Whether you are a designer at heart who likes to get very close to the code action or a programmer who loves to design, this is the place to be. Both types are rare, so job opportunities are usually good.
What it takes: Apart from superior scripting/coding skills, a very good knowledge of work pipelines and code/design interfaces is important. Good skills in communicating complex issues to people who lack the same amount of technical understanding.
Furthest from the actual game mechanics, the narrative designer is essentially a master of interactive fiction. While he still has to take mechanics into account, it is mainly to estimate how they can be used to create drama. That means a narrative designer cannot just be a writer, he needs to be aware of all possibilities that the game offers to serve his story. The work can range from providing background story and dialogue to coming up with completely new mechanics to enhance the player's own story experience.
Would you like it: If you come from a writing background and interactive storytelling is your thing, then it's probably one of the most rewarding jobs to get.
What it takes: You need to be a good writer and storyteller, obviously. Bear in mind however, that game storytelling is very different from simple writing and that it will be expected of you not only to provide text content but to be savvy in traditional game design as well. It's the player's story after all.
Consultant designers (sometimes known as external designers or design analysts) do not work for a specific studio, but rather for a publisher. They travel around the different studios to scrutinize the design of the individual projects and report back to the publisher with an analysis and (hopefully) improvement suggestions. Usually present in all pitch meetings, consultant designers often influence project outcomes heavily, even if they do not design directly. Some of them work freelance and are hired as firefighters when a project is in danger of sinking.
Would you like it: If you like extended traveling, swapping projects often and not being particularly well liked by the studios you visit, this is an interesting position as you get to see lots of different games and can have great impact.
What it takes: You will have to have gathered a very solid amount of experience to be even considered for this position, usually around 5 or more years working in the industry.
What makes a good Games Designer?
People have written lengthy articles about this, but I believe that there are a few core skills that make a good designer.
Good Communication Skills
This is one of the key design skills, and the bigger your team is, the more important it will become. A design that is not well understood will cause all sorts of problems in all departments, so a design document must never be sloppy or unprecise. The same goes for verbal communication. Not only do you have to watch your every word carefully to not be misunderstood, you will also have to deal with a lot of special personalities, from egomaniacal artists to introverted programmers, who will test your conversation skills and patience. If you frequently find that people don't understand your visions or explanations you will have to work on that to become a successful designer.
Write a ruleset for a small boardgame (self-made or otherwise) and give it to a friend. See if he will be able to play the game without asking questions using your notes.
Most game designers become game designers because they love to play games. I'd take a bet that you are one of them. If you compare game production with racing, you are a master driver and you love your car. The problem is, however, that once you are a designer you are no longer a driver, you are an engineer. Your job is not to shop for the newest underbody lights or fluff dice to hang from your rear mirror. Your job is to find out what the car needs to drive steadily, safely and enjoyably. Or in other words, you have to take the game apart and make it work well, not add more features on a whim. Failing on that is probably one of the most common design mistakes, and stems from the lack of ability (or, in some cases, willingness) to step back and look at the mechanics piece by piece to find out where adding and taking away makes sense.
Looking at your favourite games and write down all the little things that make them great or they could do without is a good start. Find a post-mortem (an analysis of a game's ups and downs after its release) of the game if you can, and see if the developers would agree with your notes.
Target Group Knowledge
Every designer wants to make the perfect game...for himself. The ways of the working world are however at odds with this desire and most people find themselves working on a game that they do not particularly fancy themselves. Especially when you are starting you might find yourself working on a game that is not your favourite, but later circumstances, such as kids or language barriers might force you to accept jobs on projects that you think are not particularly cool. This divergence might be as great as going from online shooters to pony games for girls. Suddenly you find yourself making entertainment products for someone entirely different than yourself, and to make a good game you will need to know them. Some designers don't care about their target group and consequently make games that sell little. A game like Farmville could only be so successful because their designers had a very good look at who they made their game for and what these people wanted. A good designer can make a game for everyone.
Next time you sit in a bus, think about every single person you see riding in it with you and try to come up with what's important to them and what kind of game they would like to play. Or why not come up with an idea for a game your dad would like to play and see if he likes it?
One of the truths of any creative trade, albeit the one people dislike to hear the most, is that all ideas are ultimately derivative. Inspiration always comes from somewhere, and the arts change in evolutions not revolutions. That doesn't mean there is no innovation, or that you can't have great new ideas. But it means that in many cases when you have a problem or an idea someone has already had the same problem or idea, and there is no shame in taking a look on how they fared with that. You don't need to reinvent the wheel when other people's wheels roll just fine. Keeping up to date with competing products and their design ideas is paramount for any designer, lest he wastes time, money and effort in recreating already existing solutions. Often these solutions can be found in different genres than the one you work in. To give you an example, systems commonly known from roleplaying games have been continually invading first person shooters in the recent years to provide for more individual playing styles.
A good exercise is to play similar games than the ones you enjoy and see if you can spot certain features that work better in one title than the other.
In interviews, you will often be confronted with the question: "What makes a good games designer?". My (not necessarily your) answer usually is: "To be able to work well within constraints." These constraints are usually time, budget and technology. You should know them well. Game designers who can't judge how many features each of these constraints will allow will deliver bad games, full of bugs and broken mechanics, not to even speak of bad balancing. The games industry is very tough in terms of time and budget issues and as the person who makes the most expensive choices you as a designer have full responsibility for judging what can be done with what you have, and at maximum quality. Some modicum of technical knowledge is also important. Some designers don't talk enough about their plans with coders and are flabbergasted once they discover that they will not get the 400 attacking stormtroopers on one screen that their amazing final survival fight calls for. Constraint knowledge also means you'll need to have rough ideas about what and how much your teams can do. Sometimes a producer will help you handle that, but he might not be aware of scope and feasibility of your designs, so getting up from your chair and having a chat with those involved is still best practice.
Try making a game about a castle siege in 2 days, whether digital or nor, but write a design document beforehand. See how much of it you got done (including all assets) when the second day is over.
This is probably the most elusive skill of all. Most people who want to be designers assume they are creative. After all, you have all these great ideas all the time, right? Once you work in a creative profession for a while you will find that creativity is not a given. Whether you call it writer's block, burnout or The Void it tends to happen to everyone once in a while. Or you might find that after all your great ideas you have collected over years were used up in one single project and you can't seem to get new ones quick enough. Creativity is an animal that needs constant food, a food called inspiration. Many books have been written about this subject, and I don't want to go into depth. I'm sure you'll find your own ways of keeping your brain on its toes. My personal recipe is one of life philosophy: all experiences are worth making. Fill your life with non-game stuff.
Go on a three day hike through the woods. Learn to play an instrument. Visit the national museum or a contemporary gallery. Have a chat with the old lady next door about her life. Not only will you learn a lot about life in general, but your brain will be fed with new ideas, perspectives and inspirations it needs to provide you with material.
How do I become a Games Designer?
Breaking into the industry is not easy, but it's not as hard as some people make it out to be. There are several ways commonly considered to get you in a games designer position, see which one you deem best.
If you have no actual experience designing games or have no current ambitions to become a system designer, then aiming to become a level designer is a good way of getting into the game design faculty. Creating mods and levels for your favourite games is fun and builds up your portfolio for any design job at the same time. The best way is to join known community projects, as they are less likely to disintegrate after a month. Level designers are usually in demand somewhere and from there you have good chances of getting into different areas of design.
Quality Assurance (QA)
I hear often that people recommend working in QA and then apply for designer jobs once you have some experience in the company. I don't want to completely deny that, but I want to give you a word of caution. QA is a brilliant place to get stuck in. Yes, there is people who make it to producers and artists and designers from QA. Some after very short time, and some after a very very long time. I've met quite a few guys who tried for years and finally gave up, having wasted a good chunk of their life tracking bugs and getting bad pay. Having said that, there is quite some stuff you can learn in QA about design, and if you think you will be proactive enough to make it, godspeed!
Game Design Degree
Studying game design is not as straightforward a way into the industry as it may seem. Firstly, most designers have no academic experience and most academics are not designers, making education quality somewhat hit and miss. Secondly, especially in the design department your actual industry value has little to do with what you learn in a game design course and consequently many companies are very reluctant to base any job considerations on your grades. Finally you will loose some years studying when you could be working, gathering actual field experience. In interviews you will find that most studios will mention your studies very briefly and then ask you "what else have you done?". Don't misunderstand, a game design education is a bonus, but don't make the mistake of thinking that it will get you a job. Be prepared to do lots of personal projects on the side while you study, because that will be what people will be looking at.
While obviously the logical answer, I find that many prospective designers completely omit this point. To be a good designer, you need to make games. If you cannot create them digitally, don't despair. Everyone can handle scissors and a piece of paper, which is all you need to make a game. Good designers know that good design is independent of platform. No potential employer is going to reject you because you apply with a card game or a pen and paper RPG instead of a digital program. It shows you know how to craft systems, test them and that you are independent and proactive. The downside is that you almost need to be physically present, but since that is a good idea anyway, head to the nearest game fair (you can usually get a exhibitor's pass by working for free there for a couple of days) and approach developers directly. Don't be shy, they're (usually) all nice chaps and in the worst case they will tell you how to improve your application.
The Twilight Path of Desillusion
As you will have already noticed, the ideas people have about what a games designer does and what actually is doing can differ greatly. Some of these ideas are quite persistent, so I want to make sure that they do no continue to live in you after reading this article.
The job of a game designer is to have great ideas
This is the most dreaded sentence in the field of game design. Mention it in an interview and you are almost guaranteed to not get the job. Another unpleasant truth about creative work is that good ideas are actually a dime a dozen. Programmers and artist will have great design ideas too, maybe even better than yours on occasion. The quality of a designer lies in his ability to select just the right ideas, and no more, and put them together in a way that achieves the goal of the product. Everyone has ideas about what could be done, but a designer has to know what can be done, and what the game needs. Usually you find yourself cutting more than you're adding, and just like in a garden you have to know what to cut to achieve perfection.
The game designer gets to decide what happens in the game
Yes. And no. Many designers enter the field thinking they will be dictating the course of the game. But they usually learn quickly that many other people have a say in their decisions. There is the publisher, who will want to change or add certain concepts because they feel they might not be well suited for how they perceive the target market. These folks give you the money, so arguing tends to be futile. Depending on the type of game, other departments might have a stronger say in the design than usual. If the game makes money of microtransactions or if it's very art-heavy, it might mean that the economic department or the art team can force you to modify design decisions heavily.
Game designers are highly paid
Considering the industry's revenues, you would think that. Reality is though that designers do not get paid well at all. In most countries, their salaries are below the national averages. There are several reasons for that, one of them being that because it's a "cool" job, many people want it so desperately they will work for less than you do. Other factors, such as the difficult measurability of design impact on the game's financial performance also play a role. That there is no real union or interest group to fight for developer rights probably does not help. Salaries vary wildly from place to place. Salaries can be as low as 15000 £ annually for a junior designer in South England, and reach little more than 35000£ for a senior position (2011). Things look similar in Germany, where 45000 Euro is a good salary for an established designer. As in any creative job, there is also a chance that you will get totally overpaid (there's rumours of 280000 $ and more) as well, but you shouldn't bet on that.
Game design is a talent
It's actually very much a craft. People who have 'talent' for it are people who play a lot and who have started creating things early in their life. Anyone can learn what makes good game design, and there is no secret genius at work. The difference emerges from your creative workout (see 'what makes a good games designer' above), from your willingness to learn and of course your ambition. I encounter many young designers who believe that they are superiorly creative and that others are not. Do not make that mistake. You are creative because your interests have made you, not because you were born with a magical talent. You'd be surprised how fast people around you can catch up once they are over this "Oh, I'm not really creative" - nonsense. Use your head start, but don't rest on it.
I hope this has given you enough information about what being a game designer is all about and how to achieve becoming one. If you have any more questions or comments feel free to use send me a message or use the comment function.