How to start a career as a Game Designer

The rising popularity of gaming has drawn intense interest in game development as a lucrative career option. But what does it take to be a successful game designer?

Published Date
23 - Jul - 2013
| Last Updated
23 - Jul - 2013
 
How to start a career as a Game Designer

Nearly all of us have played video games as children and some of us continue to do so as adults. But have you ever wondered how such a complex piece of software is made? What kind of knowledge and skills are required to make a “good” game? Well, if you have ever wanted to get into the game of making a game, maybe you would want to look at game design as a career. Interested? Read on!

What it is, what it isn’t

Game design is the craft of knowing how hurling disgruntled birds on a stack of pigs can actually be fun for millions of people on the planet while making a franchise worth billions of dollars. Well, kind of.

Academically speaking, you could say that Game Design is an art and a science. It is the art of envisioning the storyline, content and rules of a game; while it is the science of examining the psychology of the player and his relationship with the game. In short, game design involves figuring out what will get a player hooked to a game and what won’t… and creating games that will work.

So who is the mastermind that uses game design theories to create a successful game? (drumroll please): the Game Designer!

A Game Designer is someone who has a vision of what the game is as it goes through iterations during its development cycle. Any game you see in the market is usually the brainchild of a Game Designer. You could say that he is the one who makes sure that a Half life game plays and feels like a Half life game. He doesn’t design the artwork or do the programming: he is to a game what a director is to a movie—he can make or break a game concept.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, Game Design doesn’t just mean designing video games for PC/Consoles... it could also mean designing board, card or live action games. Game Design is also used by companies to ‘gamify’ less interesting activities for their employees or customers.

Myths and Expectations

So, first things first: Game Design isn’t Programming. Game Design isn’t Character Design or Animation. Game Design isn’t Story Writing for Games and Game Design surely isn’t Game Testing. If you have been a die-hard gamer and you think you would want to make games because you can play games—you would be disappointed to know that it doesn’t qualify you to become a Game Designer. Yes, being a gamer does help. However, a Game Designer has to enter the industry with minimal bias towards all kinds of games; Games that are played by players from varied age groups, genders and geographies; on varied platforms and with varied play times.

As a Game Designer it’s unlikely that your first project will be a God of War 4 or a similarly huge AAA blockbuster title. It’s likely, that at the start you may be working for studio as a Trainee or Associate Game Designer. Most Game Designers have to start off on smaller design tasks like balancing how much gold a player gets in a certain area of a game or designing levels in projects before they are given the responsibility of envisioning the entire game. Let’s face it, you are new and a lot of time and money is at stake.

State of the Gaming Industry

The gaming industry in India is about to hit a boom. However, the production houses in India are mostly into smaller scale projects on platforms like Web / Mobile / Flash / HTML5. But no need to be disheartened, there are some bigger studios who work on cutting-edge 3D games for PC / PS3 as well. And the rest of the studios have essentially applied the Indian IT industry model of taking outsourced projects to sustain their businesses.

At the same time, the global gaming industry is pretty much awaiting a massive change. Social gaming on Facebook has already jumped the shark. Mobile gaming is gaining a stronghold as smartphones become cheaper and more powerful and more and more people are connected via 3G. Today, India and China are seen as the next targets that need to be specifically cracked. While publishers may argue that localized games and content are needed to pierce such a tough market like India with such diverse demographics, there are designers who say that there is nothing that can be called “Games for India”. Games are games. When my mom played Temple Run, she didn’t look at the obvious references to media like Indiana Jones or Uncharted, and still she plays it much better than me and enjoys the game fully. The reason being, the game didn’t alienate her. So, such a market barrier can be resolved by making the game more accessible.

The Position of a Game Designer

So, what is it that a Game Designer is supposed to do? Well, the Game Designer is like the MBA of the gaming industry. An MBA graduate goes through 36 subjects over 2 years ranging from Mathematics to Economics to Taxation laws. The same holds true for a Game Designer. Apart from knowledge of designing games, a Game Designer is expected to have understanding of Art / Aesthetics, Programming, Project Management, Culture, Languages, Sound Design / Music etc. You will be the only person who will have a complete vision of the game in the team and you will have to work with Programmers, Artists, Project Managers and even other Designers to bring the game to life. Knowing a thing or two about such topics removes unwanted friction in communication. And since you are a creative person, it is desirable for you to also have a reasonable amount of exposure to varied media such as Movies, Music, Comics, Anime / Manga, TV Shows etc. At the end of the day, making games is a business and you are supposed to make a game that people will be willing to pay for. Games are cultural products and you cannot even accidentally offend people of a certain country because you didn’t know something in your game is considered distasteful in their culture—cultural awareness is necessary.


The Ubisoft campus in Pune (image courtesy MCV India)

Your typical work routine

Every designer has a different style of work and every game studio will have a different work-culture and expectations. But, at the end of the day, a major chunk of your work is actually communication. Before the start of any project, Game Designers typically make documents called Game Concept or Pitch Documents which are small 1 or 2 page documents describing - say - a new idea for a Shooter game. This is the time when a Game Designer has to be an excellent salesman with remarkable showmanship—enough to convince his peers and the investors alike. Every studio has its due process of selecting game concepts which could be produced. Yes, there is no lack of ideas in this industry. You work with teams of extremely talented and creative people and everyone has their own ideas of the game they would like to have made and work on. Normally, peer review and business feasibility are benchmarks for selection of such a game. Once a game enters production, Designers work on a document called the GDD or the Game Design Document. A GDD, is sort of like a bible of the entire game. It describes everything about the game right from the story to the UI to the Characters to the Gameplay. The purpose of such a document is to communicate to the team as to how the game will play. So, your Programmer is confused how high the character should jump? The Level Designer is confused how the Boss level will play? The Artist wants to know how big the boss is? All these questions would be normally answered in a GDD. And as teams grow to numbers in the hundreds and the production spans for 3-5 years for the bigger AAA games, it becomes crucial to have a one-stop ready reference for such games. Also, it is handy for newcomers in the team to be able use the GDD to know about the game rather than approach the Game Designer for every little doubt they may have. Point to be noted - apart from tuning the gameplay and brainstorming with your team for ideas, most of your time would be spent in documenting details about the game in relevant document using Microsoft Word.

Also, in this industry you have to keep up with the rest. Strength wise, it is a very small industry and everyone knows everyone. You will almost certainly work with a lot of people you meet in one or the other form. Later on in your career, you would essentially need to network with other Developers around the world and go to events like GDC, Casual Connect, PAX etc. to get some exposure.

As of today, in India - NASSCOM Gaming Forum on Facebook is a hangout place for the local Game Developers. It’s a nice place to talk to professionals and get advice and even share ideas.

When do I start becoming a Game Designer? Is it too late for me?

OK, so you are finally starting to get a better picture in your mind about this and you think you want to make games. But wait... you are already working somewhere and it is not a game studio. Is it too late now? The simple answer is NO! Back in my Game Design school, we had students aged 17 to 32; one student being a lawyer-turned-Game Designer with a PhD. All that matters is passion coupled with practicality. If you are determined, you could always explore by learning things on your own. There are a lot of books, resources and videos on this topic. One could easily experiment with the wacky new ideas one may have and even prototype them if they know a programmer or can program themselves.

How do you convince your parents if you are too young?

“And how much does your girl / boy earn?” This is the age–old question parents (especially in India) dread. There is one thing the better part of this industry expects you to have - an attitude where you don’t work for money but for the craft of it. Of course, it’s not like they are not going to pay you. But you will be hired for your work. No certificate from any school or college is going to get you into this industry. Your 98.23% in SSC will not ensure a job in this industry and neither will being an IITian. Nothing but your work can. You develop your skills, your score a nice job, you get paid handsomely, it is that straightforward. Especially in India, unlike Engineering, there is NO standard pay scale for a Game Designer. It may range between 20k a month to more than a lakh depending on your skill. And if the very first question you ask is “What is the package?” you won’t be treated very well. It could be your second question, this industry expects passion first!

Options: Schools, Self-Learning, Mentoring?

Now then, what are your options if you want to train yourself to be a Game Designer? The good news is that there is no predetermined path to this career.

In India, your options are limited. An unbiased personal recommendation as an author of this article would be DSK Supinfogame, Pune which happens to be my alma-mater. The reason being their approach towards educating you in this craft is 100% practical. They train you via projects (that become a part of your portfolio) and by the time you graduate - you know how to work in teams and make projects possible and design really good games. Their faculty comprises professionals from western gaming industry and they seem to know what they are doing. I can’t recommend any other school (most Indian schools confuse Game Design and Game Art themselves!). Digipen, VFS and CMU are other schools abroad that will provide the kind of education that you need. Also, try to make sure the program is practical and that it is at least two years in duration.

What to avoid

1. A school that says that they will teach you Game Engines (Let’s describe these as “software/middleware used to make games”) should sound alarms. A Game Designer knows how to be resourceful enough to learn things on their own. Approach a school that teaches you how to work with the tools rather than just teaches you the tools.

2. Any guarantee of salary packages, getting jobs, internships and placements should sound alarms. There are a lot of ‘Diploma-mills’ cropping up in every nook-and-corner of the country trying to make a quick buck off kids who are just excited about gaming and parents who are worried about salaries. A lot of such institutes even end up hiring their own alumni for meager pay-scales. A good school will have enough reputation in the market to not need to shout from the rooftops. Check their alumni and their achievements. They expect you to be good enough to score internships and jobs on their own. Remember, there is no scarcity of jobs, only scarcity of right people for the jobs.

3. Avoid schools which rely a lot on theory. You can get that anywhere for free, even YouTube. The job of a good Game Design school is to not to teach you but rather provide conditions for you to learn in and at times, even pressure you. There is a lot more to Game Design than just design, there is people management, project management, ego management and so much more. All of this will make you ready to work on a live project in a Studio.

Alternatively, you could go head-on and join as a trainee or a Game Tester and work your way up the ladder. That gives a totally different kind of conditioning and working style. And relies heavily on learning using low risk live projects and proving your mettle.

And lastly, you could go lone wolf, where you try to do as many things as you can on your own (with some collaboration) and release games on your own too. This involves a lot of investment and patience and it will keep you hungry for a while before your hard work starts paying off. In any case, all three approaches rely heavily on self learning and differ only on the basis of how much time and money you invest and what you expect from yourself.

Future Opportunities – Is the sky really the limit?

So, you are a Game Designer now. Where do you go from here? Well, two things come into play at this stage. The first is knowing that you will never stop learning as a Designer. The second is knowing what you want from your career. Do you see yourself making this unique game no one else seems to have made? Go ahead, gather a team, inspire others with your idea and start a studio. Get a prototype running and approach a publisher (in the same way a writer would approach one for funding / marketing / development / distribution) to pitch your game to. Even though this stage normally comes in at 3-10 years of work experience, depending on how enterprising you are, you don’t always need to start your own company to see your ideas come to fruition. If the idea is good and you sell it well, your studio could fund it. But nothing should stop you from doing the same either.

Good luck!

The writer is a professional game designer working in the Indian gaming industry.