Becoming a Game Designer: Skills to Pay the Bills

In my career as a writer, I’ve worked with hundreds of game companies in creating worlds, mobs, characters, lore, weapons – you name it. I’ve seen game developers with brilliant ideas fold and melt away into nothing and I’ve seen some games that really just weren’t all that great go on to full production and stick around for years. So, what makes the difference in being a great game designer and one that ends up fading away? Well, here is what you need to know about skills that game designers need in today’s world if you’re considering heading into this massive field:

Where to Start?

I’ve heard a lot of people say “Oh, I love gaming, I should totally be a game designer!” – or something similar – throughout my career working with game designers. Usually, it’s people who play a ton of games that say this. And, on one hand, playing games is a requirement for a game designer, but there is a lot more to creating something new and unique that will make it to full production than just gaming. It’s like saying that you love flight simulators so you should be a pilot. Or saying that you love to eat, so you should be a gourmet chef. While those things are requirements, they aren’t the main area that you need to focus on for a career in those fields. I’m going to go through some of the main things that you need to do and skills that you must have in order to become a successful game designer:

Studying Games

One of the main things that you need to do is study games – not just play them. Successful game designers are able to dissect games and figure out what makes them fun. They are able to pull out pieces of the game that are working and those that aren’t, in order to learn what makes that particular game great or makes it fall flat with audiences. By having this skill, they are able to then take what they’ve learned back to their own drawing board and use those positives and negatives in their own game creation. You want to be able to use examples from games that you’ve played, and dissected when you’re proposing a new game idea or concept.

Actual Book Studying

On top of studying games, you also need to learn game mechanics. If you aren’t familiar with them already, there are tons of great books out there that can help you learn what game mechanics are and what they do. I also highly recommend that you take classes on game design as there is so much that goes into developing game mechanics it’s actually overwhelming when you first look at the list. I say this because, over the years, I’ve learned how different game companies use different mechanics in their games. If you don’t know them all or at least are familiar with them, then you may get shut down before you ever get to the good part of your proposal.

Reading About Games and Mechanics

Yes, another blurb about reading and studying – because it’s vital to how you develop and design games. On top of learning how to dissect games and studying and taking classes, I highly recommend that you take the time to read online as well. There are thousands of great articles out there by game designers and developers about how to create games, game concepts, characters, storylines and more. In fact, a lot of these articles and written works are used in US Patents and college level textbooks over game design. Throughout my years in working with game companies, I’ve written thousands of articles myself and have had them used in college-level game design textbooks and the US Patent over virtual character design. Articles and white papers over game design are used in game companies as well to help foster new ideas and new innovative techniques when developing games. So, you can never learn too much about something that you want to do for a living – especially in an ever-changing field like game design.

Even More Writing

Ok, so we’ll move out of reading for a bit and move into writing. No matter what aspect of game design you are the most interested in, write stories. It doesn’t matter what kind they are, it doesn’t even matter if they will ever be shown to anyone at all – just write. Writing gives you an outlet for creativity and can actually help with blocks when it comes to game design ideas. While it sounds weird, you would be amazed at the ideas that you can come up with if you just sit down and write.

Terminology and Technical Jargon

Every game has different terms players use, every game company has different technical jargon they use and every developer has different wordage they use when they are creating games. You need to learn as much as you can when it comes to gaming and coding language. If you have a specific type of game or even a specific company that you potentially want to work for, I recommend that you learn all you can about the games and the company in terms of the wordage they use in their games, on their websites, in their forums and so on. Sometimes knowing the correct language can mean the difference in a successful game and game pitch and not even getting in the door.

Know Your Audience

As you’re studying games, writings and so on, you’ll start to learn how to choose the audience you want to target with a game you design. For example, do you want to design FPS games for hardcore gamers who love other games like Halo? Or do you want to design an innovative new children’s game for kiddos learning to read? You’ll start to refine your ideas of who you want to create games for as you learn. You will also learn how to get to know that target audience. You have to know what your target audience wants and needs in a new video game to make it successful. You also have to be able to adapt any current ideas to that particular audience so that a game company would be happy to produce it.

One other aspect of knowing your audience is to attend game conferences and go to any gaming-related events around you. Networking is key to both knowing your audience and meeting those in the industry. At these events, you’ll learn so much about the gaming audience as a whole and about the one that you want to create a new game for. I highly recommend sitting in on Q&A’s with developers as the questions that the crowd can ask will give you a lot of insight into what matters to your audience – which is exactly why they hold these at large events.

I also recommend that you join forums that related to games similar to what you want to design. For example, if you love World of Warcraft and want to design a similar game for a steampunk audience, you might keep an eye on the forums in WoW and see what matters to gamers. Learn all you can about what the gaming community is doing and what the audience out there wants in games. It will make you a much better game designer and will give you a huge advantage over others that might be applying for the same position.

Build Your Own Games

With today’s technology, there is no shortage of great software that will allow you to design your own game. By designing a game from the ground up and playing it, you’ll see all of the work that goes into creating a game as well as how it’s tested, how it’s received (if you let others play it) and it will show any potential game companies that you are serious about becoming a game designer for them. I highly recommend that you tinker with different software until you find one that you like.

2 popular game engines that are also used for real games are Unity and Unreal Engine.

Check out these 2 books to get started:

  • Unreal Engine 4 Game Development in 24 Hours
  • Unity Games by Tutorials: Make 4 Complete Unity Games from Scratch Using C#

Remember these are just recommendations there are tons of books and lots of other game engines out there.

Learn How To Pitch

This is where college-level classes and game conferences go hand in hand. In college classes, you will learn how to write well and articulate what you want to convey to a game company. You can also take classes on technical writing (which I highly recommend for anyone that wants to go into game design) as that will boost your skill set and will help tremendously in-game proposals. At game conferences, you’ll get to hear game companies pitch ideas for upcoming games to see how the crowd reacts to them. These pitches have been written, refined multiple times, practiced and changed yet again before they ever hit the stage with a developer. Hearing how these pitches go can be an invaluable part of learning how to pitch your own game ideas.

Learn How to Read People

While this might sound weird, learning how to read people can make a massive difference in how you word things in your games, how you form your pitch and everything else about your career in game design. Classes like psychology, creative thinking, body language and so on will help you learn about your target audience and the psychology of the emotional and cognitive aspects of games that draw us to them. It can also help you create richer game experiences and boost a good game into the ‘great’ category.

It Isn’t An Easy Path

You might think that just playing games is enough to start a career in game design, but that is so far from the truth it’s almost crazy. The truth is that to be a good game designer and work for a larger company, you need to learn everything that you can. You need to be on top of your game (literally and figuratively) to make sure that you stay competitive in the market – which is huge. However, don’t take that as a reason to not follow your passion. Learning everything you can and taking classes is really fun when you enjoy what you’re learning; and if you’re passionate about games and game design, you’ll be surprised at how fast the time goes.

Trying not to melt away in the heat of Oklahoma, MD Weems has been a writer and artist for over 20 years. Her written works over all types of gaming have been used in college level game design textbooks as well as in US Patents over virtual character design. She has worked with gaming companies all over the world and is even cool enough to have her own Korean cartoon character.