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How to make the move from game developer to game designer

Designer Soren Johnson outlines 5 ways to make budding game designers transition from game developer to game designer in this column that originally appeared in the November, 2012 issue of <a href="http://gdmag.com/issue/2012/November">Game Developer magazine</a>.

Soren Johnson, Blogger

February 5, 2013

8 Min Read

Designer Soren Johnson outlines 5 ways to make budding game designers stand out in this column that originally appeared in the November, 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine. People enter the games industry for many different reasons. For some talented artists, programmers, and musicians, a games job is a great way to employ their talents in a vibrant and creative field. Others simply enjoy being involved with one of their own hobbies and personal passions. However, for many, there can be only one reason to join the industry – to become an official Game Designer. The simplest way to become a designer, of course, is simply to start making games. More powerful tools and distribution channel exist now than ever before to help individual developers create great games. Andreas Illiger made Tiny Wings. Brendon Chung made Atom Zombie Smasher. Vic Davis made Armageddon Empires. Jonathan Mak made Everyday Shooter. No one needs permission to become a game designer. Nonetheless, not everyone has the resources, or simply the guts, to go it alone. Unfortunately, for established companies, starting game design jobs are nearly mythical; the job simply requires too much experience, and the competition is too fierce. Most game companies are already full of developers who want to be designers, so most new recruits are hired because they possess a specific skill, such as code or art. One needs to earn the position of game designer, and one earns that position on the job. If a developer is positioned correctly to do design work, opportunities will present themselves. I earned my first design position by being ready when the Civilization 3 team lost its design and programming staff to the founding of Big Huge Games. The team lacked a pure gameplay programmer, and our company president, Jeff Briggs, was filling in as lead designer. I was never officially titled as a designer, but I accepted every design task that was available. By the end of the project, my contributions were clear, and Jeff shared his design credit with me. Thus, the big question for a working game developer is how to position oneself to take advantage of the opportunities that emerge to work as a designer. Here are a few suggestions that might help.

1. Learn to Program

Games are a very broad category, often encompassing multiple art forms at once (words, music, visuals). Some games have strong story elements. Some are almost pure abstractions. However, the one aspect they all share is that they are all based on algorithms. Code is the language of games, and knowing how to code will qualify one for a great variety of roles. Perhaps someone needs to script enemy behavior? Does the team need a scenario editor but no one has time to build it? Maybe the game needs more random map scripts? Does a senior designer have an idea for a new game but needs a programmer to prototype it? All of these tasks could grow into more established game design roles, but only a programmer can undertake them.

2. Work on the UI or AI

There are two areas of game development that are not strictly thought of as “game design” but actually are – user interface and artificial intelligence. Because artificial intelligence,  which controls the behavior of non-human agents in the game world, is so inseparable from gameplay, working on AI is impossible without daily interaction with the designers. If an AI coder does a consistently good job and keeps asking for extra responsibility, game design is the obvious next step. This path is even more clear for interface work, which is on the very forefront of the user’s experience. Game mechanics are useless if they cannot be communicated to the player, and UI is the most important tool for solving that problem. Thus, interface design is game design. The best part of the “interface track” to game design is that very few game developers want to work on the interface. Senior artists and programmers often view interface work as only suitable for junior developers. Use this prejudice to one’s advantage and volunteer for the job; game companies are always looking for capable developers excited to work on interface design.

3. Volunteer for DLC

Another nice path to game design is downloadable content. The stakes are inevitably lower for these smaller releases, and a game’s official designers are usually too burned out from the final push to even want to think about the DLC. Thus, DLC is a great opportunities for aspiring designers to step forward and demonstrate their ambition and potential. Companies want to see their employees grow into the role as hiring new designers is a huge gamble; DLC provides a great, low-risk opportunity to train them internally. Working on the design for an expansion also has a huge benefit for the aspiring designer. Namely, one avoids the challenge of creating fun from a blank slate, which can trigger crippling pressure for a new designer. Instead, one can simply continue iterating on the core design, applying lessons learned from the game now being in the hands of thousands of players. Most games have plenty of low-hanging fruit that only becomes obvious after release; focus on these improvements, and the players will respond positively.

4. Focus on Feedback

Game design is part talent and part skill. Noah Falstein once postulated that a disproportionate number of designers are INTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale (meaning Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, and Judging), which suggests that some personalities are better suited to game design than others. However, talent will never be enough; one should actively develop one’s design skills, and there is only one true way to do that – implementing a design and then listening to user feedback. My own design education didn’t really begin until the day Civilization 3 was released when many of my assumptions about how the game played were proven completely false. A game is not an inert set of algorithms; it is a shared experience existing somewhere between the designers and the players. Unless a game is constantly exposed to a neutral audience, its design is only theory. Games should have as much pre-release public testing as possible; the designer’s skills will only grow stronger with each successive exposure. Aspiring designers must find some way to experience this feedback loop. Releasing a simple mobile game or a mod to a popular game and then learning from the public feedback is much more valuable than working on some mammoth project which is unlikely to ever gain an audience before release. Even creating a simple board game can improve one’s skills as long as the designer can find a testing group for feedback.

5. Be Humble

Personal humility is a key attribute for success in today’s game industry. A designer must accept that a majority of his ideas are not going to work. Indeed, the game designer’s job is not to follow one’s muse or ego, but to choose a vision and let the team lead the way. Designers need to be humble listeners, not persuasive orators. If a designer ever finds herself arguing why a playable game mechanic is fun to a skeptical audience, then the game might be in big trouble. Designers still need to be assertive and confident – or else no one will ever take them seriously – but humility gives the clarity to see things as they are, not how one wishes them to be. For aspiring designers, of course, this rule counts double. Coming across as arrogant or too certain of one’s ideas is a sure way to appear unready for the job. Having a great idea that no one takes seriously can be immensely frustrating, but the key is to maintain the right attitude. If one’s idea get implemented, don’t think of that idea as having won but as being tested. The real work begins once the idea is playable, and then it belongs to everyone. All game teams have more ideas than they will ever be able to implement, so developers should all ensure that the best ideas are pursued, regardless of their origin. Indeed, the origin of an idea is usually forgotten; what is remembered is who put in the hours to get it right.

Who Should Be a Designer?

Finally, all aspiring game designers should answer these simple questions: Have you ever made a video game? A scenario or a mod? A board or card game? If you answered no to all of these, then you should ask yourself if you really are meant to be a game designer. Painters start drawing when they are young. Musicians learn to play instruments in grade school. Writers start to write. Actors act. Directors direct. Young game designers make games. If it’s a passion – and it has to be a passion to succeed – then designing games is something that you absolutely have to do, not just want to do. A true game designer cannot be stopped from creating games. Designing games is not the same thing as playing them. The set of people who enjoy making games is much, much smaller than the group of people who enjoy playing them. Designing a game can mean years and years perfecting a single concept and demands the strength to learn from all the criticism which will be heaped upon the design. Ultimately, the mark of a true game designer is that, given free time on some random weekend, that person will sneak in a few hours of what he or she enjoys most – making a new game.

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