How to Become a Better Game Designer

This subject came up while conducting an interview with a fairly successful (but still medium sized) development studio, so I might as well share some insights. Specifically, the debate was about gaming and education: those who want to become better video game designers, can’t really grasp how to educate themselves. Now, in my experience there are excellent schools in America, I’ve also visited one in Germany, and it was nice to see progress. But not many can afford to go to school while already working on a game, and many countries still don’t teach basic principles of good game design. The solution is obviously autodidacticism, but you should always take every learning material with a grain of salt. I’ve worked as an information manager, I know how difficult is to identify useful knowledge.

Where does one start?

Extra Credits did an excellent video on the subject (So You Want To Be A Game Designer), but I recommend their other videos as well. They argue that video game designers need to have knowledge in practically every area, but their main job is to have a vision. To have an overview of the product, to be precise. Game designers should know what they want and willing to toss out ideas that don’t work. And willing to fight for ideas that might change their game for the better.

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That’s the tricky part: usually the best designers aren’t in charge, in this case their work might be overlooked. Communication and power play are tricky for them, because anybody can have brilliant ideas, insights, knowledge, but all that will be useless if you can’t communicate them effectively. Yes, I know that being assertive is a major pain in the ass for the quiet, creative types, but it’s an essential quality here. If somebody on the team pressures everyone else with bad ideas, they will be implemented instead of the good ones.

So start by getting better at communicating your ideas. Learn how to pitch an idea with a short, effective tease. Learn how to make a great presentation. Learn how to use social media effectively. Build contacts, make yourself known. Talk about everything, maybe blog about games. Frictional Games have this blog called “In the Games of Madness“, which is a perfect example how to show everyone what your company is about, and where it stands. So there’s your first step: open up, embrace the world.

Read some books, play some games

You should often read and play your favorite genre to gain a deep knowledge of it, but you should challenge your boundaries by reading and playing outside your comfort zone as well. You’re designing an RPG? See what you can learn from a sports game! Find balance in what you seek and what you do, but no matter what, manage your time well. That is the most important. Be critical, be fast in learning, know everything what’s happening in the industry, don’t be late. And try to figure out “where the puck is gonna be”. Don’t be afraid to communicate radical ideas or to revive old ones.

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Try not to be hooked on lousy gaming magazines and blogs (such as ours), be prepared to dive into academic qualities. Recently I have found a very nice book, called “Beyond Game Design“, I’ve also read some more, such as “Video Game PR and Marketing” , “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” or “Video Gamers“… you’ll find plenty of really good materials, read these books regularly. Make sure you’ll learn a bit of psychology, a bit of creative writing (check out the Writing Excuses podcast, it’s mainly about writing genre fiction, but you will learn nonetheless, every episode is just 15 minutes, you can listen to a set while jogging), and other thing just to deepen your knowledge.

Also, check out some fine documentaries related to gaming: http://www.gog.com/movies

Choose your role models

If you like games from a developer, or a great designer… study their lives. Want to become a cinematic director like Hideo Kojima? Want to achieve career heights like Amy Hennig? Or you want to become a cult hit indie star like Edmund McMillen? Read everything about them, watch interviews.

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But now comes the tricky part: don’t try to imitate them. Instead, try to identify the hidden factors of their success. You’ll most likely find passion, extreme work morale, the willingness to keep doing it against all odds. Try to observe what inspired them. Learn from your role models, but walk your own path. Success comes from authentic, new ideas.

Look further

A game designer doesn’t deal with useful, immediate problems like code, graphics or sound. Game designers should determine something very hard to grasp: what would the game feel like? Usually, when you think of your favorite games, you can’t exactly tell, why you liked them. Was it the graphics? The story? A game designer should know the basic psychology behind every game. Skyrim works because of our need for exploration, awe and self-reliance. For some, that doesn’t mean anything. Some people might like feeling anxious, closed in, being in constant danger. They’ll like good horror games. What worked in the original Thief that didn’t in the new one? A good game designer should know the difference.

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Consider all the players you don’t share an interest with. Consider achievement hunters, music lovers, art geeks, casual gamers, hardcore gamers, console players, PC purists. Everyone should find something in your game that they’ll like, but not to a point where it breaks your game. You need experience, insight and a bit of luck as well.

Make sure your heart is in the right place

As a game designer, you have a responsibility. Make sure you make your choices for the right reasons. I mean… the best example I can come up with is people who go to science sites to piss off religious people, and not because they admire scientific achievements. That sort of thing happens with bad designers as well. You should work on a game because you have a clear vision of what that game should be and who its audience will be. Don’t add or remove features because you’re trying to convince people you don’t agree with. Focus on being passionate and not frustrated.

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Also, be willing to sacrifice. Don’t get into game development just to make money or to become famous. Quite the opposite: if you want to make a great game, you’ll probably lose money, lose time, destroy your relationships. It’s possible to maintain a healthy life and developing a game, but don’t expect it to be easy.

Sell the game with the game

Ultimately, the product must speak for itself. In the first five minutes of a game it should be clear, why it’s original, why it’s fun to play, why it’s worth playing more. John Romero once said, that you should design your first level last, because at the end of the development cycle, you’ll know everything about your game. Plant some foreshadowing. Get the gamers hooked and never let them go. A really witty dialogue, an intense action scene (played, not watched!), incredible set pieces, great music, a piece of mystery… use EVERYTHING you can. It will take some time to learn to compose a great hook that’s fun and informative, but you’ll get there. Don’t let a brilliant game go to waste because its first moments are a bit slow or uninteresting. Just compare the beginning of Uncharted and Uncharted 2. Or analyze other games. Observe, take notes. What works? Why? Be really great at just observing, and implement anything that you find effective.

So, there you go! Become a better game designer!

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