How to become a Video Game Designer / Developer for PC or Console? Concept Art of Starcraft Protoss is NOT game design

Introduction

Teenagers always wonder how to be a game designer. However, they have a mistaken idea what exactly is a game designer. This article will explain in plain words what exactly is a game designer, bust some myths regarding game designers, and how one can really train to become a game designer.

But first, here are six game designer myths evaluated. The reality may be very different from what you expect.

Game Designer Profile: Sid Meier

Sid Meier is probably best known as the game designer for the original "Civilization" on computers, but he designed games for many years before that. His game design history goes back to Spitfire Ace, F-15 Strike Eagle, Decision in the Desert, Solo Flight, Covert Action, Gunship, Railroad Tycoon, and many more.

He programs "prototype" games to test gameplay ideas to make sure the design works before he works on the overall game.

Myth 1: Game Designer is the Most Important Person on a Game Development Team

False.

While there would be no game without a game designer, he is actually NOT the most important person on the game creation team. That would be the producer. Once game designer designed the game (usually by writing a "design document") game designer no longer have much input on the game. The Executive producer and producer will be making all the decisions from there on.

In fact, in most modern games there is no 'single' game designer, but rather, a lead designer, a level designer (or "environment" / "world" designer), a gameplay designer (or game mechanics designer), and finally, writer(s) who are hired freelance from outside to flesh out the background of characters, world, and so on.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the lead programmer / developer is also the game designer, but as games get more complex, the responsibilities were separated.

Origin of Mario

Mario first debuted in Donkey Kong, where he is already jumping. Originally, he was just referred to as "Jumpman". Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to call him "Mr. Video", but that didn't work very well. When the landlord, a Mr. Mario Segale knocked on Mr. Miyamoto's room demanding that month's rent, history was made... the portly plumber will be named Mario.

For more about the history of Mario and the rest of his realm, see History of Mario

Myth 2: Game Designer Sits Around Dream Up Game Stuff All Day

False.

Some people think game designers sit around all day dreams up crazy ideas like "I'll make a game about a plumber who jumps around". That is very far from the truth. Game designer's main job is to design the game "mechanics", or in other words, the "rules of the game". After all, what good is a game with no "rules"?

In a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game such as Starcraft or Command and Conquer, the rules are you have to harvest resources, build buildings to make units, and use units to defend from enemy and attack enemy base to destroy them. But what about the details? How do you balance the units? Attack? Defense? Speed? Special Capability? Build time? Cost? It sounds simple, but the little variable are incredibly complex. When to introduce certain unit? How do you make the different sides different, yet balance the gameplay? Two sides are difficult enough, but when you make THREE sides... Or even FOUR sides...  Yet you do NOT need different sides, or harvest resources. "Ground Control" have no resources at all. Z: Steel Soldiers have same units on each side, and automatic resources simply by controlling sectors and factories. BattleZone series mixes first-person shooter with real-time strategy. Hostile Waters limits the units you can make to only a few AI profiles with personalities. Yet these are ALL real-time strategy games.

For a First-Person Shooter, it sounds simple, but a lot of things like physics (shoot "through" certain things and not others, breaking certain things with certain amount of damage and not others), different weapons (that do different amount and types of damage), what sort of enemies, what sort of environments... again, "rules" of the game. You also need to define when which weapon gets introduced, how different are the weapons, and so on. Wolfenstein is 2D only, Doom introduced a bit of pseudo-3D, and Quake is full 3D. Later you have Unreal Tournament, Quake: Enemy Territory, Far Cry and Crysis, Soldier of Fortune series (reputed to be the most violent 3D shooter), to cheap budget shooters, or even ultra-realistic ones like Ghost Recon series or SWAT series. You also have military / unrealistic shooters like Delta Force Xtreme, Call of Duty, Battlefield 1942 / 2042, and more. They are all FPS, yet completely different game rules.

Game designer have to define all those rules. And you better get it right early on as it will be incredibly difficult to fix later on. In other words, the game designer is more about balancing the game than to just "create" the game.

Game Designer Actually Earn...

From Wikipedia: In 2010, a game designer with more than six years of experience earned an average of US$65k, $54k with three to six years of experience and $44k with less than 3 years of experience. Lead designers earned $75k with three to six years of experience and $95k with more than six years of experience

Myth 3: Game Designer Makes a Lot of Money

Usually false.

While the few famous game designers like Miyamoto, Sid Meier, and so on do make a comfortable living, they got there by making a series of games that sold well and they were able to negotiate better deals for the later games, including loyalties (i.e. portion of earnings per game sold). It took them many many years to get to top of the heap and a string of hits (and a few misses) along the way.

Most of games nowadays on the market are actually designed by people you never heard of, and they earn nothing beyond their regular salary in the game company.

Starcraft 2 Protoss Hero by ProlificPen, from 50 Game Concept Art
Starcraft 2 Protoss Hero by ProlificPen, from 50 Game Concept Art | Source

Myth 4: Game Designer Designs Cool Looks and Cool Worlds

Usually false.

The background material are often written by outside contract writers, though they *can* be based on the the general background given by the designer. However, game designer's PRIMARY responsibility is to design the GAMEPLAY, not the background "filler" info.

Cool looks are even less related. Cool looks are usually the domain of contract artists. The designer would probably have some idea what the look should be, but will probably not design the look himself, unless he had artist training. Think about it... James Cameron didn't draw all the aliens in Avatar himself, right? Or designed all the trees and stuff of Pandora?

Myth 5: You Can Learn How to Become a Game Designer

Usually false.

Gameplay is not something you can study in class, nor is game design and play balance. Most "game design schools" are actually game development schools. Big difference. There are schools such as Full Sail, ITT Tech, Art Institute, Academy of Art, and such that will teach you Digital Design, or Computer Game Programming, and even "degree in Game Design". However, they really are "fast track to Game Development", not "game design". It's basically how to DEVELOPED / BUILD a game, not how to DESIGN a game.

Some of the better schools will assign student projects where a team will pick a design and implement it, so someone will have to design a game. However, the majority of attention is on how to DEVELOP a game, not how to design a game.

The best way to learn game design is by actually doing it. Tweak the game rules. Do they work?

Full Sail University Logo
Full Sail University Logo

Myth 6: You Can Be a Game Designer If You Go to Special School

False.

There is no such thing as "entry-level game designer". Companies do NOT hire game designers unless they have a portfolio of successful games or proven portfolio. Most game designs that are considered came from internal sources. So it doesn't matter where you went to school, what you study, or such. Nobody will hire you as a game designer off the street. You may be qualified for some of the "minor" game design positions, such as level designer, but still nobody will hire you without experience.

Yes, there are schools that teach game development and digital arts. Full Sail is probably the best known, but there are many others... Art Institute, Academy of Art, Expressions, College, and many more. All those schools do is get you into the game development industry, nothing more. They do NOT get you hired as game designer, but as somebody in entry-level position, such as tool programmer, animator, and so on. From there on it is up to you.

What is a Game Designer?

A game designer, by definition, designs the game. However, he does not implement the game. He is similar to the car designer designs the overall look of the car, but doesn't actually do the mechanicals inside, and the scriptwriter for a movie writes the script, but doesn't decide on how it will be shot or which actors to use.

Wikipedia describe Game Designer as "a person who designs gameplay, conceiving and designing the rules and structure of a game". Game designer writes general rules on how the game runs, and the specific rules such as combat, interaction, puzzles, and so on. He can describe some game concepts that mixes together. For example, "Command and Conquer meets Mechwarrior" (that would be MechCommander series).

Game Designer Profile: Peter Molyneux

Peter Molyneux was a game designer that was best known for being creator of Populous, the first well-known "God" game, Dungeon Keeper, Black and White, and more recently, Fable. He was founder of Bullfrog Productions (later acquired by Electronic Arts) and Lionhead Studios (later acquired by Microsoft).

Peter Molyneux tries a lot of new concepts. Populous was a God game where you have to manage a civilization against rival Gods. Dungeon Keeper is a game where you manage a dungeon of nasty creatures and defend it against pesky heroes and forces of good, and is considered as the first hands-off RTS where you do NOT manage the units directly. Black and White is a heavily AI driven game where you manage / teach one giant creature and based on your decisions that creature will be benevolent, or malevolent... or somewhere in between. Fable is known for having a lot of decision points where the effects are not that obvious at first, but have profound effects later.

What are the Qualifications of a Game Designer?

The qualifications? To have designed games.

No, that's not a joke. Could YOU have came up with Tetris? The fact that nobody saw it coming demonstrates the genius that is Alexei Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris. It is so simple, easy to implement, yet so new and intuitive... AND challenging. And it is easily scalable, and even adaptable for multiplayer. Have you tried his later creations? Such as Welltris or Faces? They don't quite feel as fresh.

Or Civlization. Sid Meier wasn't the first to have a game simulating a whole civilization. There was Avalon Hill's boardgame, and others. But Sid Meier was the first to get a working game up and running, complete with a world generator, and relatively balanced units yet different flavor for the different civs, resources, alternate win conditions, and so on.

Not all concepts need to be so revolutionary as Tetris. Technically Tetris is a combination of multiple concepts such as "Connect-4", Tangrams, and so on, but it is indeed a new combination. A lot of new games are basically a remix of older games. Diablo is Rogue in real-time with isometric view. C&C Red Alert is C&C meets World War II alternate history. MechCommander is C&C meets MechWarrior. MechWarrior itself is Doom meets Battletech. XCOM is Laser Squad (turn-based combat) mashed with a "real-time" world mission generator and economy. Elite Force is Quake meets Star Trek: Voyager.

However, it takes a lot more than just randomly mashing two or more ideas together to design a game. You have to make sure the game mechanics you plan to use actually works, and if there are multiple genres mixed, do they mix well together? You only know by learning games theory, what makes a game "fun" (and not fun), and create games to highlight those mechanics.

So the actual qualifications are rather abstract and hard to define: ability to know what is "fun" and what is not, ability to define a game system that "works" and is fun based on realistic limitations, and ability to describe and/or help implement the system. This is not something that is taught in school, but comes from mostly experience.

Game Designer Profile: American McGee

American McGee (real name) worked at id Software (Doom, Quake, etc.) in various aspects, including level design, music, sound, and so on. He then moved to Electronic Arts where he was able to get his game "American McGee's Alice" made. Later he help produce "Scrapland" and "Bad Day in LA" and founded a new games studio in China.

McGee worked his way up from tester to level design, then sound and music, tools, then co-producer and then producer / designer.

So How Do I Become a Game Designer?

There are three paths to game designer: producer, staff, or indie.

Most game designers go through the producer path. Basically they go all the way up to producer, produced a few games, and was given a chance to design a game. Producers often came up from the Q&A (i.e. game testing) ranks, where they learn first hand the problems with gameplay, though they can also come up from the staff positions.

The other way to get to game designer position is through the staff path. Basically, you are either top level programmer or artist, and worked for a producer. You were called upon to make some minor game design decisions, such as level design and so on, and did a good job, that you are called upon to make more contributions, such as submit a design for consideration.

The final path means you just go ahead and do it... design small games and expansion packs and mods and total conversions. If you do it well you may get noticed and be hired as a game designer.

A chance to design a game does not mean you automatically become a game designer. Game designer must write a game design document, that describe the game with all the relevant details on the "rules" of the game.

What is a Game Design Document?

A game design document can be short or long depending on the complexity of the game. Ever seen the design document of Tetris? You may be surprised how long it is, and how many obscure rules that it has. Did you know that you can "slide" the pieces over even when you have dropped it to the bottom for a small period? That's a "rule".

The document basically is used to define the general requirements (DX10 required, DX11 optional), a general look (desolate urban landscape, ruins of New York City), as well as actual gameplay rules (phased time instead of real-time or turn-based, hex instead of square grid, etc.). It allows the team members to see how they will be contributing to the game instead of work in a box not knowing what their contribution actually do.

For more details, see the Gamasutra Feature article: Anatomy of a Game Design Document. It's quite old, but still relevant.

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3384/the_anatomy_of_a_design_document_.php

Successful Game Design: XCOM: UFO Defense

Also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe, it was designed by Mythos Game for MicroProse UK, then exported to US and the world.

The game started as only turn-based tactical combat based on their previous game "Laser Squad". The prototype was finished in 1991 and Mythos Game approached several publishers, who turned down the game as they see no market for a turn-based game. MicroProse UK recommended that they add a "strategic layer" to generate missions for the tactical combat, to make it similar in scale to their hit at the time, the original Sid Meier's Civilization PC game.

Mythos Game then wrote "GeoScape" real-time globe, changed the background to be about UFO invasion of Earth, and ability to capture alien technology, including psionics. This development took a while, but was finished in 1994. The result was possible one of the best PC games ever published.

The game is not without flaws though. The inventory management is tedious, there are bugs that disappear certain inventories when the aliens invade your base, the beginning is notoriously hard, and so on. However, the game endured as one of the top games ever published for the PC, over a decade after its publication.

(Full disclosure, I was the editor of XCOM FAQ available on GameFAQs.com)

Not Quite Successful Design: XCOM Apocalypse

XCOM Apocalypse was the "true" sequel of XCOM: UFO Defense. However, the retail release was severely cut down in scope and vision, resulting in a game that is playable, but somehow never quite felt right.

Originally the game was supposed to have multiplayer (didn't happen), political intrigue (diplomacy between you and the dozen different factions around the megacity, didn't happen), special skills for the "agents" (reduced to just scientists and agents with generic rating), multiple alien dimensions (ended with just one), and so on. The retail release shows some vestiges of these features but disabled.

Perhaps the designers were a bit too ambitious with their design, and was pushed into releasing something that didn't quite work. However, it was clear the overall design was too ambitious and the cut down version didn't quite work.

Can I Submit a Game Design to a Company?

Or in other words, I have an idea for ______. Can I submit the idea to company ________ to get it made?

No. Game companies already have enough design proposals and documents internally. They don't need any outside input. Also, they don't want the legal trouble. All game developers have a standing policy: the secretary will take a look, and if it is game proposal, dump it into the circular file (i.e. trash can), or if they are nice, mail it back with a nice note that explains they do NOT accept external submissions.

The reason is simple: they don't want the legal liability. If they opened your idea, did not use it, but then later they made a game that is somewhat similar to yours, you can sue them for stealing your idea. Whether you will win is a different problem, but why take the chance? Paramount was sued by Art Buckwald many many years ago regarding Eddie Murphy's movie about an African prince coming to America. And every major blockbuster movie have charges of "plagiarism"... Some whackjobs have claimed that "The Matrix" was theirs first, or even Harry Potter.

And why would a company listen to you, and outsider, instead of people they know, i.e. employees?

Can I Just Submit an Idea to a Company?

Again, no. They don't need ideas. They need actual game designs that they can turn into a real working game. One with actual game mechanics and such already worked out.

An idea is NOT game design. Any one can have ideas. It takes real work to create a game design.

Any one can say "let's mix Command and Conquer with Mechwarriors". But it takes a game designer to create the gameplay rules. For those who played MechCommander 2, the mech building/customizing system is quite different from the comparable system from Mechwarrior 4 (its FPS cousin). The pilot system is also quite different (MC2 allows "specializations" to certain weapons and chassis class), and so on. However, they do share the same weapons, defense structures, and such. There is a LOT of work beyond just mixing ideas.

How is a Game Design Document Used?

A game developer will usually solicit several game design documents from internal sources (no company would accept external design documents due to liability issues), such as producers, head programmers, or head artists as explained in the 3 paths above.

Once the design documents were accepted, the company committee (usually the company president, the executive producers, and the top producers and designers) study the documents and they will pick one or more designs to be developed, based on their resources. That would be fleshed out into a full "game proposal" which would include estimates of what resources are needed to make this game (time, labor, money, and other costs), what sort of market would it have, and so on. This proposal is then sent to publishers, in order to entice the publishers to purchase the rights to the game.

Once the proposal is accepted and funded, it is assigned to a producer, who then assembles the team to make the game. The team will include some or all of the following: engine programmer, user interface programmer, level designer, background artist, 3D model artist, 2D artist, sound engineer, and many many more. The producer will write a schedule, assign milestones, and using the design document as his basis, assign teams to start fleshing out the design document to create the game.

What Should I Study Then to Become a Game Designer?

You need courses in math and logic. You also need to play a lot of games, and learn how the games actually work. That means you don't just play, but play to learn the system.

Writing FAQs for the games would help if you actually analyze the game and explain why certain tactics work and others not, instead of just listing tables and such. A lot of lazy FAQ writers essentially plagiarize the manual and call that a FAQ. A real FAQ would provide tables, then analyze the tables and explain why certain things are good, others bad, and so on.

You need to understand gameplay, and what is state of the art in certain areas so your game design don't end up too ambitious and impossible to implement (so cutting it back to something achievable broke the game design).

Game Toolkits

The Games Factory 2
The Games Factory 2

Clickteam's Game Factory is for creating 2D and semi-3D type games similar to Flash-based games you may have played

 

What Game Design Software Should I Use?

There is no such thing as a "game design software", because game design involves designing gameplay rules.

"Construction kits" and "engines" are NOT "game design software". They are merely tools you *can* use to implement a design, but you have to have a design first. There are many such construction kits, such as "3D Shooter Construction Kit", RPG Toolkit, "Game Maker", and so on. They are good for getting a prototype together to test your gameplay, and they can be fleshed out to full games, but they are not really "game design software", because the game rules are already set in the engine. You're just filling in the blanks using existing rules.

Again, they are useful to prototype the gameplay, such as 2D mockup of a game to test the combat system. So they do have some use, but they are not "game design software".

The "real" game design software is a word processor, where you assemble the design document. And even before that, you use pen and paper to design the system in your head.

Books on DIY Game Making

Half Life 2 Mods For Dummies
Half Life 2 Mods For Dummies

How to develop mods for Half-Life, including level design, manipulate textures, modifying weapons, and more

 
Quake 4 Mods For Dummies
Quake 4 Mods For Dummies

How to develop mods for Quake 4, mainly level / map design.

 
The Game Maker's Apprentice: Game Development for Beginners
The Game Maker's Apprentice: Game Development for Beginners

Introduction to game development, from the ground up, using GameMaker. Make 9 different games.

 
Beginning Mobile Phone Game Programming
Beginning Mobile Phone Game Programming

Introduction to mobile phone game development using Java Micro Edition (J2ME) and Jave Game API.

 
iPhone Game Development (Animal Guide)
iPhone Game Development (Animal Guide)

How to develop game for iPhone (and iPad) using the official Apple language Objective-C

 

How Can I Become a Game Designer If Nobody Will Hire Me?

By designing your own game of course. It's easier than you think, if you limit your vision somewhat.


Route 1: Mods

Counterstrike, arguable the most popular multiplayer action game, started as a Half-Life Mod, and Sierra actually published several other Half-Life mods as full games. Remember Gunmen Chronicles? That started as a mod as well. Design a mod, gain experience, then upgrade to full conversion, and you may get a chance to move onto a full game.


Route 2: Indie Shareware Games

With the Internet it is easier than ever to spread games, and if you make your game simple and cheap enough, maybe $4.95, or $9.99, and offer a good demo... Look up a game called Immortal Defense sometime. It's a "fixed-path" tower defense variant with very simple graphics, but very interesting gameplay.  The game is made by just a few people.


Route 3: Mobile Games

Smartphones and cellphones don't run full-scale games, so they have special challenges in game design, and plenty of new developers are making games for those platforms. Gameloft, Digital Chocolate, Rovio, and more are making mobile games, and even big names like EA, RealArcade and so on, have a presence in mobile arena. Android OS SDK is free and all you need is a PC and download the free Eclipse IDE to start development, so barrier to entry is very low.

Conclusion

Game Designer is an often misunderstood position that somehow is the dream of many children. You can be come a game designer, but only if you actually learn what is involved in becoming one, and gain those skills.

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6 comments

Abzolution profile image

Abzolution 5 years ago from United Kingdom

Hey, Great Hub. I'm a games designer and know this to be too true.


kschang profile image

kschang 5 years ago from San Francisco, CA, USA Author

Yeah, most kids have no idea what is involved. I was an in-house tester once upon a time, so I know the process pretty intimately. :)


Abzolution profile image

Abzolution 5 years ago from United Kingdom

I went to college and uni with so many people who thought that they could be games designers because it was cool. Needless to say , not many of us graduated.


daniel 5 years ago

how do get to the game computer vs animator


kschang profile image

kschang 5 years ago from San Francisco, CA, USA Author

@daniel -- to be a computer animator? For THAT you go to art school or one of those "new media" schools that teach computer animation, 3D design, and that sort of stuff.


j-u-i-c-e profile image

j-u-i-c-e 5 years ago from Waterloo, On

Great introduction to game design, kschang! Personal recommendations for people who want to get into game design: learn the ropes by modding a game first, then move on to making your own games using a free game engine. The first will set you up to succeed at the second, and the second will set you up to succeed in the industry.

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