Game Design, Part 1

I've been toying with the idea of doing a "How to Design a Game" YouTube series, where I do a couple short-ish videos about game design, and how to design a game. I figured I'd start by writing some posts, because it'll be a good way to flesh out thoughts on where to start.

First, a bit of background:

I'm not an artist, or a software engineer. I took a few classes in college about programming, and did really badly in all of them. I used to draw like crazy through middle school and high school, but never had any directed instruction, and as a result, never got past a certain level. At the time, I attributed it to a lack of innate skill, but looking back on it, it's clear that what I needed was feedback from someone who was significantly better than I was.

I'm a mechanical engineer, by schooling, but after a few years of working as a mechanical engineer, I realized that if I wanted to build giant robots, making videogames was a better route than mechanical engineering.

I got into game development (relatively) late, at 24. My second job, where my career really started, was at 27. I've been playing games since the launch of the Commodore 64, however, and even back in those days used to type in game programs from the back of Compute! magazine. So it's not too late for you. However old you are.

Over the last 15 years, I've done a fair bit of scripting (writing logic for games using custom tools), a ton of system design, a little bit of level design, a good deal of management, and since 2009, I've founded & run a pair of studios - Self Aware Games in the past, and now Wonderspark.

So my background isn't "Always knew I wanted to make games, got an engineering degree and jumped right in." It was a bit of a meandering path, and I think honestly, that's a good thing for a designer, and it leads me into a good place to start.


I know, maybe a description of exactly what a game designer does might make sense to go here. But I think that's better later. Instead, let's start with this. What do you need to be a good game designer?

  1. Communication skills: Far and away the most important tool a game designer needs is the ability to communicate with other people. Why? Because a game designer is responsible for understanding what it is that the team is going to make. They have to be able to communicate abstract concepts that don't exist yet to a team in a way that gets the entire team on board with the same vision.

    You know the old game, "Telephone", where you whisper something in someone's ear, and they whisper it in someone else's, and so on, until finally, the person at the end of the line then says out loud whatever they heard, and it's nothing like what you originally said? Part of your job is making sure that everyone in that chain has the same understanding of a game that doesn't yet exist. Communication is, without question, your number one problem.
  2. Massive experience with games: There's a huge difference between playing a lot of games and understanding a lot of games. People who are interested in game design can play tons of games, and when you're playing games as research, it's an interesting situation. You're not playing specifically to have fun, though you need to be "loose" enough to let yourself have fun, because knowing when something's fun or when it's not fun is an important skill to have. So first, you need to have an accurate "fun detector". But that's only the very beginning.

    Because next, you have to be analytical and figure out why you're having fun. And for most people, the answer is simple. "It's fun." That's not an answer, though. Why are you having fun? What pressure is being exerted on you? What kinds of decisions are you making? What kinds of information are you seeing? Why is something aesthetically pleasing? How does this fit into the overall pace and flow of the experience? "Fun" is like "flavor". To most people who don't think much about it, it's an abstract concept. But to a chef, flavor is something they build, piece by piece. It's about more than just the flavors, but the texture, and the atmosphere, and the ebb and flow of a meal. "Fun", similarly, is built out of parts, and it's something that's extremely complicated, and deserving of its own (multiple) posts.
  3. Ability to speak many languages: I said I'm not an engineer, but I can speak to an engineer "in their language". I understand the basics of programming logic. I understand the basics of what technology requirements we're dealing with. I understand the general scope of the amount of processing power we have available to us. I'm not an artist. But I can understand when an animation looks wooden, and talk about easing, and squash. Or when a character's silhouette is indistinguishable from another's, and the need for a character to be "readable" and easily differentiated from others. We can explore different styles using references we both understand. I'm not a musician, but I understand the basics of musical theory, and we can talk about a broad spectrum of influences, or instrumentation, or whether I'm looking for something a major or minor key, and I can sketch out a melody to provide as a starting point.

    I'm not good at any of those things - but I'm good enough to be able to converse. It's like knowing a foreign language. You don't have to be fluent, or appreciate the subtleties and nuances of the languages, but being able to break the ice "natively" changes the nature of the following conversation, even if people know you're a foreigner.
  4. Business savvy: This may be one of the more controversial entries - no, it's definitely going to be the most controversial - but it's absolutely vital for modern games, and not just in a mercenary way. If you want to design games for yourself, based solely on the things you like, personally, by all means, go for it. But don't expect to be commercially successful, or do this as anything but a hobby.

    Ultimately, what most people want is they want to reach an audience. Being able to understand how to figure out what that audience wants is one of the biggest challenges of game design. And knowing how and why someone will pay you to make it is vital to making games as a sustainable business.

    You also need to understand how important scope is, and why it's important to keep your ideas as small as possible. It's so important that a very early spinoff of this will be "Why Your Game Should Be One Idea." One idea, articulated in a sentence. That's part being a great designer, but it's also fundamentally an issue of being business savvy.

I think those are the four big things that a designer needs in their toolbox. They need extreme depth of experience analyzing games. They need to be able to communicate their abstract ideas effectively. That means being able to speak many languages. And they need to know how to decide what to make, how to make it, and make sure their concept is scoped correctly.

What Does a Game Designer Do, Anyway?

Oh, well, hey. Look at the time. Come back next time for more. :) Leave me a comment if you'd like to see this continue!