Breaking into Game Design
Updated: May 3, 2021
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.
You don't have to make a colossal game with 3D graphics and online multiplayer. Don’t try that. Start as simple as possible. If you know how to code, or are willing to learn, make a simple puzzle game or platformer with a few levels. If coding isn't your thing, try a program like Game Maker or Game Salad which don't require you to write code. If you like to code, Unity is a powerful engine that has quickly become one of the industry leaders alongside Unreal Engine.
Unity is my personal favorite. It has excellent forums, tons of tutorials, and a massive asset store for everything from art to entire game packages.
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.
Actually, ideas a nickel a dozen. (A baker’s dozen at that.) Everybody and their aunt has a game idea. Ideas are plentiful. Usually, designers have scores of fantastic ideas that will never see the light of day because there isn't enough time to make them. It's the clever execution of one of those ideas and the successful solving of thousands of problems that come up along the way that counts.
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:
Summoning a holistic vision from the depths of your creative consciousness and communicating it to the team
Understanding what features are possible with the team that you have
Articulating features in crisp detail within design docs
Developing prototypes to test game ideas and features
Mocking up UI
Writing game story and text
Leading design meetings to explain features to animators, modelers, engineers, UI designers, the audio team, and producers
Working with these same people on a daily basis to see features through to a satisfying completion
Answering thousands of questions and making hundreds of compromises
Scoping all designs to fit within the given schedule
Endlessly polishing all interactive elements, visuals, level flows, interfaces, etc
Running playtests to figure out and fix problem areas
Working with marketing to define media campaigns
Finding & fixing bugs (and deciding which ones not to fix)
Working in tools and spreadsheets to mathematically determine optimal game balance, as well as balancing through instinct and feel
After you look at this (incomprehensive) list, you should begin to realize why it not only helps to make a game before trying to break into the industry, but also to make a game with other people if you can. Find an engineer, an artist, and an audio expert, and develop something together. It doesn’t have to take over your life. Game Jams are a great way to hook up with other people and get a quick feel for making games, and these relationships and games can lead to longer-term indy projects.
3. Consider a School with Game Development Programs
If you're still looking for the right university (or if you want to go back), there are a handful of great programs designed to give you the skills you need to excel at game design. Here are the top undergraduate schools according to the Princeton Review, along with the top graduate schools:
Undergraduate Schools for Game Design:
Graduate Schools for Game Design:
I attended CMU's Entertainment Technology Center for the two-year Master of Entertainment Technology graduate degree. It was a fantastic program as many of the others are. The great programs like these team you up with students from other disciplines to work on game projects so you build the interdisciplinary skills that will set you up to excel in the industry. In addition, many of these schools have great relations with some of the biggest companies, which makes it easier to get interviews, co-ops, and internships. Lastly, these programs typically make you part of an extended network of connections that will be great to have later. 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
Nurture another ability you have, or develop a new ability. Learn to program. Start modeling or drawing concept art. Write short stories. Compose music. Join an improv troupe. Delve into architecture. 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
It's hard to get a job as a designer right away. Most designers start out doing something else at their studio. I started as an engineer, and with my engineering skills I was able to make prototypes and features that exhibited my game design sense. 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
It sounds obvious, but I've given plenty of interviews where candidates can't get specific enough about what makes certain games (and aspects of them) great designs or terrible designs. 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
And for that matter, know what makes a bad game. It sounds easy, but it takes a lot of intentional reflection on all aspects of games: their character progressions, stories, loot systems, control schemes, interfaces, visual feedback, behavioral motivators, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, level designs, forms of creative expression, goal systems, strategies, game loops, reward schedules, difficulty ramping, economic balance, social interaction, player types, and on and on. There are plenty of ways to start building a wealth of this knowledge:
Play lots of games. Don't spend all your time on one game. If you've been playing WoW for nine years and haven't played much else, it's time to diversify.
Keep a game journal. Do it. For each game you play, record 10-20 bullets about aspects of the game that stick out to you – what tweaks your emotions, what's super fun, what's annoying, what makes you laugh? It's sometimes a pain, but it helps you reflect on your games as you play them, and your journal can be a great source for ideas in the future.
Write game reviews. Play a game, then write a critique of it as if you were going to publish it (or go ahead and publish online). Compare what you've written to professional reviews so you can see what professionals consider the salient aspects.
Read, read, read about game design. There's plenty available on the web. For starters, try these articles: > Behavioral Game Design by John Hopson > Good Design, Bad Design, Great Design by Raph Koster > Finishing a Game by Derek Yu > The 4 Player Types by Richard Bartle Also, I highly recommend Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design textbook.
Attend the Game Developer's Conference. If it’s too expensive, sign up as a volunteer ("conference associate"). Go to all the inspiring design talks. Also, check out the GDC vault for free design lecture videos.
8. Lastly, Know your Target Company's Catalog
When you go for an interview, you should know the company's prominent games. Play them. Be able to critique them, have suggestions for improving them, and be excited about the possibility of working on them or similar titles.
Breaking into game design isn't a breeze. It's hard work, just like any other job, but fortunately, the hard work can be a lot of fun. Don't expect to just waltz or gangnam-style your way into a game studio on a whim to secure a game design job. Study games, immerse yourself in design literature, and, if you can, make something! Then, you'll be on your way, and a rewarding career will be within reach, where you can make millions of players happy every day.