A few times each year, a friend of a friend will ask for advice about becoming a game designer. It's usually someone who works a completely unrelated job, or it's a student realizing their major isn't what they had hoped. But that's completely normal – most game designers start out doing something else – animation, writing, engineering, and so on. Very few go through game design programs (although that’s becoming more common).
Regardless of who it is looking to become a game designer, I find myself giving much of the same advice time and again, so I've decided to post that advice here.
1. Make a Game!
This is by far the most important because it's the best way to get an understanding of what game design is really about, and it's also the most useful for showing an interviewer what you are capable of.
Or don't use a computer at all – make a card game or a board game. Print it yourself or use a service like Game Crafter. Plenty of designers draw inspiration from a host of board games and design them in their spare time. Plenty of my lunches have been spent playing board game prototypes my friends have designed (and sometimes they end up published).
So: Brainstorm for ideas. Pick one you like. Write a design for it. If the idea is simple (like it should be for your first games) then the design should be quick to write. Then implement it. Play it. Test it with others. Polish the hell out of it until every interaction feels super-satisfying. Iterate until both the second-to-second play is fun, and the long-term game loops are compelling – or go back to the drawing board. But do not give up. It will take a while. Finish a full slice of the experience. Doing just this will set you apart from other aspiring designers.
I will say it again: a complete, fun game is the best thing you can bring to an interview (or a complete slice of one). Don’t hesitate to bring your failures to an interview as well, as long as you can articulate what your intentions were, why the ideas didn't work, and what you learned from it as a designer.
2. Ideas are a Dime a Dozen. Strong Execution is the Rarity.
So if you want to become a game designer, you cannot rely only on your list of game ideas. This is why you need to make a game first (see #1). On top of that, you must also understand the myriad other responsibilities that designers typically have when working with a team:
3. Consider a School with Game Development Programs
Undergraduate Schools for Game Design:
Graduate Schools for Game Design:
Or, if you're already in a regular school, take whatever game courses they offer. You may quickly learn that you love it or hate it. When I was a sophomore in college, I took a game programming course, and that's when I knew that making video games for a living wasn’t just a dream, but a very real possibility.
4. Develop a Parallel Skill
Designers pull inspiration from all walks of life. Designers with parallel skills often find an easier time thinking about design problems from unique angles.
Also, having a parallel skill helps you...
5. Join as an Artist, Engineer, Producer, or Writer
Many start as artists, producers, or writers. Some designers even work their way up from being a game tester, though that's harder (if you are embedded with the team, you have a better chance; many testing departments are so large they're separate).
Also, don't be afraid to take an internship. I graduated with a master’s degree, but I started working as an intern because it was all that was available at the studio I wanted to join: Maxis. Use an internship to impress your team and prove you’re worth keeping. And if you don’t interview particularly well, but you’ve got the skills, then an internship is an easier way to get in the door.
6. Be Able to Talk Intelligently about the Designs of Published Games.
I usually ask candidates to list some of their favorite games, and then I dig into one or two of them.
Portal? Why is Portal a well-designed game? The levels. Tell me more about that. Is it how the minimalist style helps convey story and contrast the dirty, hidden back chambers that the player stumbles across, which creates a sense of unease? Is it how each level teaches the player a new way to use the portal gun or a new combination of previously-learned skills, which makes for a wonderfully fluid and appropriately-challenging experience? Or is it the ingenious use of space to create puzzles of momentum that have never been seen before? What else? Tell me more about each one.
Be as specific as possible. The biggest indicator of an unskilled designer is the inability to be specific. This is just the beginning. Be able to speak this way about most aspects of the games you've played.
In order to build this discussion ability in the first place, you need to...
7. Know What Makes a Good Game
There are plenty of ways to start building a wealth of this knowledge: