Monday, January 13, 2014

Becoming a Designer

I recently spoke to someone who was applying for a design position with us at Frogdice, and when it was all said and done, I realized he had a ton of misconceptions about design. I won't go into the whole discussion. It was pretty traumatic, but the most important thing to come out of it is that there's really no good guides about design and how to get into it out there. Thus, I'm attempting to write a very, very quick one. (This applies to video game design mostly, but you can adapt to other types of design.)

Here's my quick guide for starting down the path of becoming a designer:

1. Read at least 20 books a year, especially sci-fi, fantasy, or alternate reality books. Riot Games has this as one of the requirements of their Senior Design positions. I had an applicant who told me once that he considered that a ridiculous requirement. Here's why it isn't at all ridiculous.

In order to design, you are, essentially, creating something from nothing. You're not dissecting existing systems; you're creating systems that don't yet exist.  Authors do that every day in amazing ways. It's really important to study the systems that other people have created and to start to understand which ones work and which ones don't. I guarantee you that your favorite author will also inspire your game design.

2. Play a game you're pretty sure you're going to hate, and play it with an open mind. Do it at least once a month if not once a week. I play so many games I'm convinced I'm going to hate. I've played games my husband has vowed we would never purchase. I've played games where I outright laughed at the graphics before I played them. I held out against playing Plants vs. Zombies for months. I was sure there was no way I was going to like Minecraft. I meet so many people who refuse to play a specific game for whatever reason. Usually, they cut out whole genres of games, or they pigeon-hole themselves into one type of game.

"I'm a console gamer."

"I only play AAA games."

"I'm not a casual gamer." (Imagine that one with a hefty sneer and lots of black clothing.)

If you're not intent on just making something that's already been done 224,324,596 times by better, smarter, and more established studios, you have to expose yourself to as many game mechanics as possible, especially for games that are popular and you just can't see why.

3. Write a lot, and learn to write well. It's all good to be able to verbalize your game design. You have to be able to write, especially in this day and age when so much is done in a global manner and remotely. When you are designing a game, you need to be able to write your designs down in a concise and explicit manner for the sole reason that you WILL forget decisions that you made in your game if you don't write it down. Your team (even if that team consists of one person) will forget a decision that was made or misunderstand it. So, make sure you practice your writing skills. If nothing else, you will be expected to create a developer's blog.

4. Learn a graphical program, or find an artist who shares your mind. No, just learn the basic tools of a graphical program. Words are great and necessary for game design. It's also important to be able to show your team what you are thinking in terms of UI and how your systems fit together to create a whole game.

5. Be ready to have your ideas and systems torn apart, and make sure that you don't take it personally. When a system already exists, it's much easier to analyze it and see the flaws. You'll hear a lot more of "That doesn't work" or "I don't like that" rather than, "Wow! What an amazing system! You're a genius!"


Michael said...

It is important for people to also understand that if your goal is to be a designer at a major company, you better have some other major game dev skill (programming, art, *maybe* QA).

You aren't going to start in the industry in design. Everyone has game ideas. Game designer is not an entry level position.

Diane Carlisle said...

I can't tell you how many times I've had to tell a person you don't just become a programmer or designer. It's not like when you go out and buy a pet and now you're a pet owner.

I thought it funny when my son asked me to teach him how to program in Java. And I'm like, but you're not even a programmer. He's like, "But they're hiring one at my job and since I already have my foot in the door, I might have a good chance to become a programmer/developer."

He's technical support. Don't get me wrong, he has the potential to learn it, but I'm not so sure he realizes the complexities and headaches involved. And let him discover his first design review among several experts? Talk about hurt feelings at such a young age!

Now, he's my son, and I love him to death, but I had to break it to him gently. "You're not a programmer, and I'm not a teacher." Then I sent him a link to a free Java course at If he has the true desire to learn programming rather than the desire to get a programming job, then he'll go down that path and learn it.

How do you tell someone that you cannot teach them quickly all the things you've learned in the past 15 years? And there is no such thing as a cable we can attach to our brains and download from one to the other. You actually have to wrap your head around it and learn it, and you don't do that on day one of your new job.