So you want to be a designer? - Advice for those dreaming of designing a game

When you start out, you’ll look to what others have done and attempt to copy them. You’ll look to published games and attempt to make something like them, only better. You will fail. Expect it, embrace it, learn from it. So fail. Fail until you succeed.

Image: Flavio Takemoto/FreeimagesYou’re going to design crap. There’s no way around it. No matter what you do, you’re going to design crap.

When you start out, you’ll look to what others have done and attempt to copy them. You’ll look to published games and attempt to make something like them, only better.

You will fail.

You will look to the surface and copy the boards, the cards, the text, the graphics and it won’t work. You will look to the theme and you’ll copy the tropes and clichés and it won’t work. You will look to the mechanics and you’ll copy the dice, the combat, the area majority and it won’t work. The reason it won’t work isn’t that the mechanics are wrong or the components are bad. The reason why it won’t work is because you won’t know what you’re doing.

That’s right. You, the player of games, the player of many games, the winner of many games, won’t know what you’re doing.

Let me ask you a question: do you enjoy ice cream? Yes? Do you know how to make ice cream? Good ice cream?

Do you know how to ride a bicycle? Do you know how to build a bicycle? A car? An airplane? Would you be able to do it now, without blueprints, without the internet to look things up?

Same thing with games. Playing games and designing games are two different skill sets. Yes, you’ll have a very hard time becoming a good game designer without being a game player. But you don’t need to be a good game player to be a good designer just as being a good designer doesn’t mean that you’ll be a good player. They’re different skill sets.

So when you start to design you’ll design crap. Live with it. Everyone designs crap. Meyer, Knizia, Gygax, Wright, they’ve all designed crap. But they didn’t give up. They kept at it and designed more and tested and failed and failed and failed. Until they didn’t fail.


They went from failing all the time to not failing one time.

That’s right. They didn’t go from failing all the time to not failing. They went from failing all the time to not failing one time. That’s the time they made a game. But they still kept failing.

They still do. That’s why they playtest, that’s why they collaborate, show their designs to others, shop them around. So that others can point out their failures and say “hm… this could be done that way”.

If you’re persistent this will happen to you too. You will have people look at your game and say “this is ok, but”. You will manage to get to the point when you make a playable game, then the point when you make a re-playable game. If you keep at it you’ll reach the point when you’ll make a good game.

But you’ll still keep failing. You’ll start with a good idea and transform it into a broken game which you’ll work on and make to a playable game which you’ll work on and make into a re-playable game. Which, perhaps, will become a good game. You won’t know. You won’t see it, won’t be able to see it. You’ll see the game as it is in your head, your imagination. It will be up to others to tell you when you’ve succeeded.

That’s right. You’ll know when you’ve failed but not when you’ve succeeded.

Live with that. Learn to live with that. You’ll need to apply yourself to making games even though you’ll never know if you’ve succeeded. You’ll need to fail and fail and fail until you don’t fail, when you can’t break your game.

Then you’ll give it to someone else to break.

That’s the life of a designer, an artist, a creative professional of any kind. You think software programmers have it any other way? They fail. And fail and fail. With time they develop tools that help them find out if they failed faster. You will too.

You’ll learn to fail early and fail often. You’ll learn to accept that you’ve failed and know that this isn’t the end of the line, that you can still try to salvage your game, work on it, move it forward. You’ll learn to recognize your weaknesses and to search for them in your designs. You’ll learn to persist through failure after failure after failure.

Let me give you an example: Brandon Sanderson, the guy who got chosen to finish the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan died, wrote six full length novels before using the seventh as his master thesis in English. It hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, gotten published. His first novel, which was critiqued on the Writing Excuses podcast, was horrible. Really, really, horrible.

He didn’t quit. He failed for nine years before selling his first novel. He wrote full time, failed full time, for nine years before making it. He didn’t quit.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a suitcase full of stories (some sources claim 50 books) that he failed to sell. Then his wife packed everything to bring to him and lost the suitcase on a train. Everything gone, in an era when there was no backups. Hemingway later said that the loss of his “Juvenalia” [sic.] made him a better writer. “Who would have wanted to publish their teenage love poetry?”

You will lose your suitcase too. That’s all right. As long as you’ve got the one thing that Hemingway and Sanderson and every other successful creator before them had: persistence.

So fail. Fail early and fail often. Fail and learn, fail and thrive.

Fail and succeed.


Filip Wiltgren blogs about game design, writing and motivation every Monday at This post has been previously published there.

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