(with a capital D)
By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
wo columns ago, I wrote about what game designers do, and not surprisingly garnered a lot of requests for more information on how to become a designer. Given that since that time Iíve been really busy practicing what I preach at a new job and havenít been able to respond to anyone yet, and have also been having trouble finding the time to get some better column ideas together, the obvious answer was to take the beginnings of the mail I was going to send to you all and spin it into a whole column, so here it is:
First of all, the process of actually getting a first-time game design job is not a whole lot different than getting any other first job. Entering any new profession or industry requires a lot of research, to determine exactly what the work is, what positions there are, and what companies exist. After the research comes the actual search, which can consist of many months of rejected applications and unsuccessful interviews.
This is the kind of stuff which you should already be familiar with (or will become familiar with) from other job searches, college career planning centers, any of the numerous books on the subject, or first hand accounts from your friends. If you are looking for any "secret" method to get in easily, I donít have it. Furthermore, there are already many good articles on Gamasutra on this exact topic, and I prefer to stay away from well-trod ground in the Bent.
In fact, what this article is going to cover is the information it seems you really want to know: what it takes to become a Designer with a capital D, the person who comes up with the ideas and takes them through to completion. The difference between being a level builder or mission creator or gamescript writer and being a high-level designer is tremendous. I would say that just about every failed game has failed because its Designer(s) were not prepared for the responsibilities of their position.
I myself am not a capital-D Designer as of yet, though like most of the people who wrote in after my last designer article I thought, before I entered the industry, that I should become one almost immediately. A few years down the line and Iíve learned that before becoming a Designer, I need to know how to avoid the glorious failures of the accelerated-career-path Designers Iíve observed in action and sometimes even worked for. After all, whatís the point of being given the opportunity to pursue my own vision only to botch it famously?
If you agree that the position is no good without the skills to shore it up, then the first step to becoming a Designer is to find a way to prepare yourself for the job. I mentioned in the previous design article that there is no (worthwhile) formal training for designers (or even Designers). Do not make the mistake that many of the industryís worst Designers have made and assume that since there is no training available, no training is necessary. Instead, the lack of formal training means that prospective designers need to take the difficult path of educating themselves as well and as thoroughly as possible.
A knowledge of and fondness for computers would seem to be an obvious first step in this self-training. Yet I am constantly surprised at the number of people throughout the gaming industry who canít even support their own computers and have little idea of the basics of computer hardware and software. So let me say it bluntly: become a computer geek. This does not mean just playing a lot of computer games or spending all weekend browsing websites. This means understanding boot sectors and BIOS, knowing what a recursive operation is, grokking the difference between TCP/IP and IPX, and a million other things like that: in short, whatís going on in that magical box that you play Quake on.
In his GDC speech this year, Shigeru Miyamoto gave a brilliant explanation for why a designer must be so technical. Paraphrased, he said a designerís job is to figure out what can be done best with the technology available. Until I read this statement from the man who is possibly the best games maker in the entire world, I might have soft-pedaled the following proclamation: if you do not understand the technology, you can not be a good game designer. In my opinion, the non-technical game designer with a brilliant ability to write or an innate organizational ability or a great architectural sense might as well be untrained.
Designers must also have incredibly polished communication skills. This has been the weak point of many designers Iíve worked with, and there is nothing more frustrating than working with someone who seems to have good ideas but canít describe them to you, or form a coherent argument as to what makes their ideas better than yours. Like a depressingly large percentage of the population, many of your team members will have neither achieved a reasonable level of skill with spelling, grammar, nor the ability to describe technical details of their trade to a layman. It is a Designerís job to be able to understand as well as make him or herself understood by any member of the team, no matter how undeveloped their communication skills are.
In general, even if you are just a small-d designer or even a programmer or artist with design aspirations, you should work every day on polishing your reading and writing skills. There is nothing more sad than reading a game proposal (or, even worse, in-game text) written by someone who doesnít know how when to use "your" and "youíre," or who thinks that almost any word which ends in an "s" needs an apostrophe before the "s."
The type of communication a Designer must master goes beyond writing skills, however. With increasingly powerful 3D engines, the worlds that we are creating for our games have become far too complex to be represented with a simple text description. Just as a Designer should have almost as much technical knowledge as a programmer, a Designer should have the visualization skills of at least an amateur artist. Even 2D maps are becoming too restrictive to plan the look of a modern 3D level and the ability to think and plan in 3D, either through isometric drawing or 3D modeling, is moving from a useful additional skill to an utterly necessary one. Any additional training in visual arts will be gravy, especially film-related skills like direction, production design, and cinematography. Given the still largely god-awful nature of game cutscenes (pre-rendered or in-engine), it is clear that very few people with any knowledge of or feeling for the language of film are working in games right now Ė be the first on your block to have some.
Beyond communication, there is organization. A Designer with a capital-D is almost inevitably a high-ranked management job, and even as a small-d designer, much of your job may include tasks like "balance all weapon damage" or "make sure monster difficulty ramps well." If you donít know how to make and track lists of all sorts of information, you will make mistakes. You can bet that the one monster who you accidentally ship that has a 1 in 4 chance of killing the player instantly on level one will slide through playtesting unnoticed, yet once the games hit shelves will in practice make it impossible for the average players to ever get through that first level. Much like the distinct lack of knowledge of film aesthetics common throughout the game industry, you will find good management skills a real rarity. As you work towards becoming a Designer, you will almost certainly be managed by a maddening succession of people who make Dilbert characters seem rational, so you owe it to the industry (and yourself) to not become one.
Finally, and most difficult to achieve, a designer needs critical thinking skills. In an extremely simplified manner, "critical thinking" is the ability to analyze problems/ideas/pieces of work and figure out what makes them tick by what similarities they bear to others of their kind, where they went wrong, and how they can be improved. I feel that a certain amount of critical thinking is necessary in any field whatsoever, right down to flipping burgers, but game designers need to be especially skilled at it, because our job is so complex and continually evolving that it may never be possible to just read a book on game design or take a course in it and come out at the end of it as a great designer.
Critical thinking, in my opinion, is something which is best learned in college (and possibly your high school years, depending on your school), as part of a non-technical course of studies. Game designers would do as well, if not better, to go to liberal arts schools rather than trying to get into science schools like MIT. If you arenít able to, or didnít receive a solid foundation in critical thinking in a college, then your other option is to do your best to read some basic works of literary criticism, psychology, philosophy, and sociology, and search out people to whom you can talk about more intellectual matters than what kind of renderer Quake IV will use or what happened on Buffy last night. This may sound intellectually elitist, but I can guarantee you that you will find surprising ways to employ stuff that you thought was useless when you first learned it.
To sum up, a Designer is extremely technical, a great communicator, an excellent organizer, and a critical thinker. Notice I havenít actually mentioned anything about the creative aspect of the job at all. This is because to me, a designerís creativity Ė their ability to think of unique situations and characters and types of gameplay and amazing-looking levels - falls into the realm of "talent," not "skill." I come from the school of thought that "talent" can not really be learned, whereas "skill" can. However, I also feel that a skilled person without a lot of creative talent can make a more successful game than a talented person with no skill. This is why you will commonly come across the statement in games (and movies) that ideas are almost worthless, and why you will not impress any game maker by coming up to them with a 2-page printout of your "greatest game idea ever" if you have never worked on a game before.
I have come to realize that it is better to sit on your idea until you have worked your way up to full Designer (or get to know a Designer so well that you can convince them of its value). Even if you are the next Miyamoto or Sid Meier, if you have never made a game and have none of the skills that Iíve listed out, you will not be able to do justice to your idea, and it is unlikely that youíll even be able to explain to anyone in the industry what is so cool about it. By the time you have gained the skills that every Designer needs, you will have learned so much more about how to use your talent that your idea may have evolved into something completely different.
This hasnít been a traditional "submit lots of resumes and play lots of games and network your way into a design job," but I hope that my underlying message was clear. It is possible for anyone to become a famous, successful, capital-D designer, realizing all their wildest game ideas. But it really canít happen overnight, and it canít happen without a lot of hard work. Designing games is incredibly challenging, and I might even say that it is unlike any other kind of job you can imagine, because it combines all the technical problems of making computer software with all the creative challenges of making a piece of entertainment. If you want to become a Designer because you want to make your wild visions into reality, and not just because you hear that making games is easy money (it isnít), then you must accept the amount of effort it takes to become a good Designer. It took me a while to get over my dreams of instant gratification, and your time in the industry will be easier and more enjoyable if you drop yours before ever entering it.
- Rich Wyckoff is a professional game designer.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|