Is being a Game Designer the most mysterious job in the universe?
I have the wonderful pleasure of introducing myself as a Game Designer. But then comes the follow up question. “What does a game designer do”? Surprisingly that’s a very hard questions to answer. And if I can’t answer it, if it confuses me sometimes, how can I expect anyone else to get it?
Well, at least that is not as bad as these responses:
- Oh so you are an artist? (Not really…)
- So you are a programmer? (Not really…)
- What programs do you use to do game design? (Because they look positively shocked when I answer “Mostly excel”)
- Can you fix my computer? (Sadly yes… I probably can. But I don’t want to.)
So what do I do?
In a short sentence “I create systems”. That doesn’t really tell the listener (Or HR Manager) anything he can use or wrap his head around though. So I usually have to go deeper and give some examples. You have played (Insert game) right?
Ok so someone had to come up with all the different weapons in there.
- And who do you think came up with all those prices for them?
- Did you notice there is a formula for those prices?
- Did you notice that each sword is slightly better and even feels different than the last sword you were using?
- How about those EXP points, notice how it always takes more and more to level up over time?
How about the physics for your world
- How fast you can attack
- How long you can sprint before you need to rest
- Notice you deal damage at a certain point during the attack animation?
Somewhere at some time someone had to make all of those individual decisions. Hundreds and hundreds of small details and decisions that somehow all lead to a unique experience. That’s the role of everyone on a team to contribute to, but it’s the Designers role to lead the way.
A game designer: Designs, tests and tweaks systems. He has to make systems work and *feel* right. Not just by themselves but also with other systems!
That “feels right” part is really really important. I’m not knocking programmers they are super smart and talented. But they are also the first person to say “I don’t need a designer, I can do all of that myself!” 6 months later when their game has no direction, no end in sight, and they can’t “find the fun” they figure out that maybe working alone sucks, and everyone benefits by working together.
It’s that artsy fartsy “feeling” part that makes a designer special, stuck somewhere between technical and artistic (or autistic am I right, high five!) Sadly it’s also that part that lures would be designers in. Making them think they are special without getting the technical or managerial balance to go along with that artsy feely stuff they love so much.
So now let’s ask our follow up question:
What do game designers need, in order to be game designers?
Math! (and excel)
Games are mostly interactions of math. Speed, height, distance, currency, levels, experience, weapons, timing, arcs. It’s all math really. Let’s assume we agree Richard Garfield is a good game designer…He has a PhD in Mathematics. Magic the Gathering was a thesis project to show that people could be addicted to performing simple math equations! I’m not suggesting game companies should run out and hire a bunch of Mathematicians to become their game designers. Remember that “artsy feely thing” from before? Good luck finding that in a mathematician!
Instead I’m suggesting that if you want to be a game designer you should study excel. Learn how to create tables, and formulas. Ask yourself “Ok, instead of pricing each one of those individually how do I make a formula to price it for me?”. At the very least go learn about the Fibonacci series and learn how to use it in a spreadsheet.
(Greg Damiano said it really well “At the heart of most games are 2 underlying formulas. Those 2 formulas have to pair perfectly together. Then pretty much everything else in the game is built on top of those 2. I’d never said or heard it that way, but he’s spot on.)
It’s hard to work with other super talented and technical people if you can’t “speak their language”. It’s not just about understanding their linguistics, it’s about gaining their trust. It sucks, it’s a pain but eventually you need to invest some serious time into learning a programming language and a development tool (such as Unity or UDK) Even though: You will never be as good of a programmer as the real programmers on your team. Suck it up and do it. Besides once you learn those things then if you ever really have to: You can make your own games!
You have to write documents. Lots and lots of documents. Somehow they need to have a magical mix of all of these qualities
You will also need to include lots of examples. This means charts and tables from excel. Also diagrams, sketches, mockups and wireframes from Photoshop. Here’s the great news </sarcasm> : after you write that document you have to write it again, in even more detail multiple times! One for each and every department! Yes it sucks. Being a game designer is not about playing games, it’s real work making games. Get used to it!
How can you be a designer…if no one is following you (and your designs)? This is another one of those “sucks but you gotta learn it” things. Some of us would love to just play around in excel, create lots of mathematical formulas, think up cool characters, stories and features and for all those ideas and objects to just magically make their way into the game on their own. Let me know if that job ever exists. At some point somewhere in the project timeline you will have to “help people” understand and implement all of the elements you spent so much time thinking up.
Other helpful things:
- Character Development
- User Interface Design
- User Experience Design
- An understanding of color (how they create mood, what they mean in different cultures)
- Interesting life experiences to draw upon
- Play lots of video games
- Keep up with industry standards
- Ability to handle feedback
- Ability to correctly give feedback
If your dealing with Social Games (or games that have In App Purchases) you would also great benefit from the following because these things need to be “baked” into the game design itself:
- Sales experience
- Customer Support
And that my friends is everything, that I think, folds into the giant cluster we call “Game Designer”. It’s a very complex role. But at the heart of it, it comes down to 2 formulas right? Create good games and help others along the process of making it. Everything else is built on top of those 2 things.
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