12 Tips for Starting Game Designers

Starting designers have often asked me what steps they should take in order to improve their projects and/or designs. A lot of the time it comes down to fundamental flaws that I see in a wide variety of projects. While I love giving one-on-one to help to every person that I can; I thought I would take some time out to make out a list of the things I wish I could have told myself when I first starting taking a career in game design seriously. I do this in the hopes that it may help anyone else who is just starting out. Some of these things may seem like common sense, but it is surprising how easy it is to forget things once you start working on projects. This paper is targeted towards newcomers to the game design field, but there may be little nuggets of wisdom that even a veteran may find.


12. Never Stop Learning

“If you never stop learning, you will never stop seeing the possibilities.”

– Bill Gates

For people, having a desire to learn new things is very important. It keeps you well rounded, and makes it easier to pick up things quickly. In the game industry this is an excellent trait to have. If current trends are to be believed, technology doubles every 3 years and there are no signs of it slowing down anytime soon. There will always be new consoles, gimmicks, and middleware that will tout to be the “next big thing”.

Anyone that wants to stay ahead the industry must always be willing to learn new things and expand the horizons that are available to them. This is why I am currently working with Unity on some personal projects as well as expanding and reaffirming my current toolset in many different ways.


11. Do Things Outside School or Work/Have a Hobby

“A hobby is only fun if you do not have time to do it”

-Leo Beenhakker

There is an entire world out there waiting to get ideas from. Each person is made up of his or her own experiences and it is that which makes them each so special. Having other hobbies broadens what you are experienced in and you never know when having different bits of knowledge can be useful. For example, I worked on film and edited several different video projects before I started game design so my projects typically have a lot more of a cinematic flair than those of my peers. This doesn’t make my games necessarily better, but it provides uniqueness. Exploit what makes you special and make it shine.


10. Keep Up to Date with Industry News

“Individuals and nations owe it to themselves and the world to become informed.”

-Paul Harris

The game industry is one of the most competitive industries. There are many people with creative minds that are trying to get noticed. What can make you stand out from the crowd? Knowing what trends that are going well and being able to know what is going on is key. With the Internet, there are numerous websites at your disposal to know anything you could possibly want to know. I spend an hour everyday catching up on the news from Kotaku, Destructoid, Gamasutra, and VGCharts with other sites getting visits periodically such as Board Game Geek. If you are more of a magazine person, Edge magazine is my favorite consumer magazine with Game Developer being a good source for industry specific needs.


9. Don’t get Trapped in the Details

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

-Dale Carnegie

Everyone has a lot of great ideas that can used to create games. Being a game designer, you can create a finished product that uses ideas from all sources including your own and your future employer/teammates. One of the things that can hinder the completion of a project if left unchecked is getting trapped in details. There is always a desire to add more detail and complexity to things you work on which will often be referred to as “feature creep”.

When creating a new level in Unreal or Hammer it is very tempting to finish the room that you are working on before moving to the next one; but it will be much harder to move on to new things and slow you down. Regardless, a finished and simple product is far superior to a complex uncompleted game. When a potential employer looks at the level if included in your portfolio, they will believe that you do not complete projects and this can harm your chances dramatically.

I currently employ creating content in different passes when actually building levels. I first “orange box” a level after completing a level design document and begin playtesting it before going in passes with detail. This guarantees that you will have a much better idea of how fun your finished level will be in the early stages of the development. This can help you scrap anything that isn’t working and focus on the best bits. In addition when completing a pass the entire level will be at the same level of polish which can help immensely in finishing a piece.

These principles can also be applied to other aspects of design such as perfecting one mechanic and having it shine before trying to add as much content to a game as you can.


8. Plan Before Starting a Project

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. “

– Benjamin Franklin

Though some people seem to hate it, writing design documents are a large part of a game designer’s job. In fact, it may come as a surprise to some that most of a designer’s work will be in writing documents and plans instead of executing a project. Publishers like knowing that a project is well thought out and you have evidence to prove that you had a thought process behind what you are doing in a game. Whether a publisher is going to fund you or not is dependent on how well your pitch document is made, so it makes sense that a designer should do them as best as they can. After a game is green lit there are many other documents that need to be created for developers and artists as well highlighting what exactly how things should be before your next milestone.

The sad fact is that a majority of game design documents are only read by a handful of people. One Page Design Documents are a possible solution to that and are detailed elsewhere on the site, but in some ways these documents are more difficult to work on because you have to condense a lot of information into a digestible format that people will actually take the time to read. Once completed though, concise documents will be read and will save anyone working with you a lot of time.

That’s not to say that things will not change from your initial game design document. My sophomore game, Tim-E, was originally a much different game than it developed into. However, the planning enabled us to get to the position that we were able to make changes quickly and create the product that we finished with.


7. Play YOUR Games

“The man who has no problems is out of the game.”

-Elbert Hubbard

I’ve seen this as a problem far more on the board game side of things, but it is something I’ve seen way too often in my time as a designer. Enjoying your project is one of the most important things that you could possibly do. After all, if you don’t want to play your game then something is horribly wrong.

When building the concepts of your project, it is incredibly important to prototype as early as you can and get a feel if what you are working on is actually fun. As of now there is no secret formula to create it (and thankfully so because we would be out of a job) but you can apply principles that you have learned from other products, as well as your own creativity, to see if it works. You should playtest your game more than any other person before you set the game in front of your gaming group. After all, if your gaming group doesn’t like what you’re doing it is going to be hard to convince a publisher otherwise.


6. Other Designers are Your Friends

“Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose.” – Tennessee Williams

Everyone thinks that they have come up with the “next big thing”. Some designers also have the idea that their ideas are special and feel it’s a good idea to save their ideas because they are afraid that other people are going to take it. Sadly, chances are far greater that your “amazing idea” has fundamental problems with it.

It is a good idea to get a group of people to play what you work on. Who would be better than other people trying to do the same thing that you are? A fresh set of eyes looking at a problem can help you find things that are obvious. Other designers are eager to let you know what is wrong with your game and what you should be doing to make it better. It is your job to be able to determine which parts if any of what they said is valid and make changes to your game accordingly.

Designers are also great to brainstorm with and can provide insight into things that you may never have thought of. Help out other designers whenever you get a chance, as most likely they will help you out sometime down the road. It is also very important to never burn any bridges. The game industry is a tight-knit group and it’s important to know that you can learn something from every person you meet even if what you learn is what not to do.


5. Network, Network, Network

“The two most important requirements for major success are: first, being in the right place at the right time, and second, doing something about it.”

– Ray Kroc

As a game designer, most of your time at work may very well be not at your desk. Being comfortable in talking to people is a key skill that if you don’t possess you may wish starting to work on. If you are interested, I have a list of books that I recommend on that subject in my resources section.

Be a part of your industry. If you are out of school, be a member of the IGDA. Follow other designers on twitter. When looking for a job, get an account on LinkedIn. Most importantly, attend conventions whenever you can. GDC is an excellent opportunity to meet people that are in the industry and that are also trying to break in as you are. If money is an issue, volunteering at GDC is another way to attend while working off your badge.  I must say myself that the CA community is one of the best groups of people that I’ve ever met.

While networking, it is important to remember that you are always making an impression of yourself. It is important to be your best as often as you can in public. Make sure that you present yourself as a person that you yourself would like to hang out with.


4. Play New Games and Review Them

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
– George Bernard Shaw

If you were a movie director, you would watch movies other than your own. It makes sense as well if you’re a game designer to play games that you did not work on. After all, the reason you are in this business is because you loved games in the first place, right? Yet it can be all too easy to forget that.

I personally try to keep up with current and classic releases while attempting to play games that are not within the genres I normally play. Services like GameFly make it a lot easier for someone on a college budget to still have the ability to play all of the latest games for a fraction of the cost of what they retail for. Then, once you’re in the industry full time you can start owning the games you want to play; after all, it’s important to support your industry.

I am not just referring to video games either. Our board game, card game, and sports brethren are just as, if not more, viable resources and with each you can see possibilities that you may not have thought about before.

Playing games also helps lower the risk of working on something that matches an existing project.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

-Socrates

After finishing the game, write down your thoughts of it. I find it a good exercise to see what parts of the game work well and where they need to be improved in. You’ll find many of these reviews on my website and see how I’ve grown as a designer because of it. It is also a good idea to play games that have bad reviews. When playing these games, being able to criticize a game is one thing, being able to provide insightful feedback and showing ways of improving a failing game can get you a job.


3. Playtest Soon and Often

“ We need to tighten up the graphics on level 3”

– Westwood College Online

In my opinion a game designer is a player’s advocate that’s main responsibility is to make a game that your target audience will like and because of this playtesters are a designer’s best friend. They are the voice of what the normal person is going to react to your game and as such it is important that you take what they say seriously. They are also the people that are going to find and exploit anything they can get their hands on within your world and you will find things you never thought of possible in your game. They are going to suggest changes and it will be a your decision whether or not those changes are really worth having or not. There are times when for a player’s own good or for balance’s sake that things are the way they are. Also the time left in the dev cycle has a great impact on what can be done. For instance, changing a player’s jump height in a platformer game would require the levels to all be redone. At beta, chances are you are going to keep things the way they are.

It is also very important that you have people play your game without your input. Most designers believe that they have covered every possible thing in their rulebook, but it is almost guaranteed that something has been forgotten. In level design it is important to see what directions that players go in and if they are being guided in the correct way. At no point in a game should players feel stupid. Having games that are not complete is a sure way of making a player feel that they just wasted their money on an incomplete product. There have been times that I have played a game that had no way to actually win if you followed the rules included.


2. Spend your time Wisely

“Time = life; therefore, waste your time and waste of your life, or master your time and master your life.”

-Alan Lakein

I know I’ve talked a lot about things that a good designer should spend time doing, but I’ve been in your shoes and I know how things can be sometimes. Make a list of your priorities and place them in order of importance to you. That way you remind yourself just what it is that you want to do. People that set a plan for themselves are far more likely to succeed than someone who just “plans for the best”. If you are in school, it is obvious that your classes should come before these things. But if you want to be a game designer I’m sure that you would make certain things a priority.


1. Don’t be Afraid to Make Mistakes / Never Give Up

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.”

-Robert F. Kennedy

When starting out it is impossible to get everything about a design perfect the first time you work on it. I have failed countless times while designing games and that is only counting the number of times I’ve actually prototyped something up to actually play. However, it is only by making mistakes that we are able to become better and know what not to do. It is also important to note that as a designer it must be important to know that not everyone will like what you do and you must be able to take criticism well. When I was starting out, I had a lot of trouble in this area. I had to work extremely hard to become better at it.  Knowing that you are going to be able to make your stuff better is more than enough incentive to keep making more projects.

“You just can’t beat the person who never gives up.”

-Babe Ruth

It is hard to break into the game industry. This is more relevant now than before due to the economy and the state that it is in. However, if you seriously want to be a designer; you aren’t in it for the money.