When people think of a game designer, they might imagine the villain of Grandma’s Boy or Free Guy – an ideas man with lots of tech and a penchant for video games.
However, the reality is a lot more nuanced…
At its core, a video game designer are responsible for the game design responsibilities of the game development process, which focuses on crafting the game mechanics, systems and content that define how a game is played.
Game designers make games as part of multi-disciplinary teams, with the player’s experience at the forefront of their minds, using an iterative process to systematically improve the core player base’s fun factor.
If we take a simplified high-level perspective of the process, it looks something like this:
Game designers will take the code from programmers, the art from video game artists and the schedules from producers, and glue them all together to create gameplay.
Using proprietary or public game engines, they set up behaviors, adjust balance and communicate the goals to the rest of the team.
This means it’s a mixture of communication, writing and data entry work!
So… what makes a great game designer?
Through my 2 decades of experience working, hiring, training, and leading game design teams I noticed 2 main consistent core skills that makes a game designer fundamentally great:
- The ability to shift his/her perspective effectively back and forth from the needs of the project to the needs and wants of the players.
- The ability to listen to the players and team members to find the best ideas for the game! A game designer does NOT need to be the source of all of the great ideas.
Video game design isn’t magic, but it does take time, dedication and focus to pick up these two skills.
The best games comes from the balance between having a clear vision and a flexible mindset to find the “fun” in the game.
What do professional game designer job requirements look like?
- Have a strong passion for gaming
- Enjoy making games (it’s not a profession you get in if you don’t)
Be able to perform the following duties:
- Design levels, characters, and environments
- Develop game mechanics (i.e combat, puzzles, and exploration)
- Balance the gameplay experience to ensure that it’s both challenging and fun
- Ensure that the game is delivered on time, within budget, and meets the vision and expectations of the studio and its target audience.
- Consider the player experience, incorporating user feedback into the game design process to make the game more engaging and enjoyable.
- Work closely with other members of the game development team, including artists, programmers, and producers towards a common goal.
- Have excellent communication skills and the ability to work effectively in a team environment
- Understand market and gaming trends to ensure that their game is competitive and successful
- Objectively see through different types of players’ perspective, not just your own player type’s perspective
- Come up with practical design solutions
Note: You don’t have to be good at all of them to get an entry level game design job.
What are the different types of game designer?
Of course, there’s more than one way to be a game designer.
Most people think of a single person writing a 100 page master plan in the form of the holy game design document for their game and game vision.
While documentation and communication are essential, this isn’t the only flavor of a designer!
Here is a list of different types of game designers and their contribution to the overall experience:
- Narrative designer helps ensure the environment, character and quest content matches the story and theme of the world.
- Level designer makes interesting challenges and clear flows for the player to take as they explore.
- Mechanics designer creates features which allow players to affect the world, enemies and allies around them. Here that’s a beginner’s guide I put together on what is video game mechanics.
- Combat designer uses animation, timing and visual effects to clearly communicate success and failure in combat.
- Systems designer creates interlocking parts to encourage the players to grow, explore and experiment.
- Balance designer ensures the game is healthy and that diverse play styles exist at a competitive level.
- Sound designer makes the experience feel natural, comfortable, scary, or mysterious.
… and so many more, depending on the size, culture, and context of the studio and game you’re working with.
The term content designer, for example, is a catch-all term for designers who fill in the game after the core is built. On League of Legends, a champion designer is a type of content designer, while in Legends of Runeterra, it would describe a designer who makes new cards, while in World of Warcraft, a content designer would create quests and spawn monsters created by the combat team.
What’s the difference between game designer vs game developer?
From experience, many people I’ve encountered think the hard part of making a game is designing it.
While the design is hard, design is only one of many disciplines that work together to produce a game in the process of game development.
The holistic process of “game development” includes every role:
- Game designer
- Architecture & tooling engineer
- QA engineer
- Playtest coordinators
- Community manager
- Social media manager
- and more…
Video game development is about the process of producing the entire game.
However, the definition of the term game development is also interchangeable with the definition of game programming.
So if you’re a game developer you do the coding in the process of making the video game.
Video game design is focused specifically on the kind of emotional, technical, and intellectual experience you want the players to partake.
Many disciplines use game engines, but game designers will often get deep into scripting, logic, behavior trees, and balance numbers and visuals while communicating their ideas to the players in.
When I was younger, I believed that you had to do everything to be a game designer.
There’s a seed of truth there – but knowing the right terms will help you focus in on the design role that fits you the best!
What part do game designer in the game development process?
The design team will work with the creative director to define the sort of experience they want to create.
Early on the design team will work with the programmers to define the genre to build and the features to build for the game.
Then as the features come in, their job is to test, experience the features and provide feedback to the rest of the creative team.
So if we were to put all the roles in the context of the game development iterative process, here is how I would visualize it:
This can come in the form of personal conversations, emails, zoom calls, discord or slack messages — at the end of the day the communication, not the form is the key.
However it happens, the game designer is still responsible for making an amazing, memorable and focused experience.
Afterward, the game designer will shepherd the feature the rest of the way through the game by
- Taking player feedback
- Making small changes themselves
- Explaining larger changes to the leadership and programming teams
- Being a cheerleader for the ideas of both the team and themselves
Finally, if a game is a success, some designers may interface directly with the community to gather feedback, explain their thinking and try to ensure the long lifespan of the game.
Now, if you become a director-level game designer, your role is more closely associated with the vision of the product than other roles, but even so, the fundamentals are the same!
A lot of your time will be spent achieving buy-in and alignment, not just generating ideas for others to implement!
What does the career path of a video game designer look like?
There’s two common paths for a game designer.
Path 1: Work for a video game studio. There are types of studios you can work in with different pros and cons:
Type 1: Large studios(often referred to as AAA studios) like EA, Ubisoft, Activision, etc. In this type of studio, your role is much more specialized.
You will be responsible for just designing certain small parts of the game such as revamping a character.
When I worked in Blizzard I was assigned projects such as revamping the Warlock class.
Type 2: Smaller independent studio. Unlike the larger ones, in indie studios, you will likely wear multiple hats or take on a bigger sub-piece of the game.
Path 2: Work on your own game. Think of
- Stardew Valley
- Cave Story
When you make your own game, you are responsible for everything. So you have to know how to source talents for the skills you need (but don’t possess) to complete your vision.
Each pathway is viable, but has different risks and rewards.
- Working for game development companies brings lots of resources but also rigidity.
- Making your own game means you have all of the control, but also all of the burden to deliver.
There are a lot of nuances in each optional path. I’m going to further clarify in detail to better help inform you on what you can expect.
Work for game studio
Working for a studio is the path with the most structure. There are many different ways to enter game design and each one leads to the next.
Internship – While rare, an internship will allow relatively inexperienced aspiring designers to work alongside more senior designers to learn the craft, tools and philosophies of the studio.
However, these positions are highly contested. You will be judged heavily on your understanding of the studio, their products and the critical thinking skills you apply to those design problems in the test.
Entry-level design, called ‘assistant’ or ‘associate game designer,’ has similar requirements as an internship – with the caveat that applicants who have developed their own games, performed an in-depth analysis of existing games in the genre, or formed online communities to discuss these types of games are heavily favored.
Entry-Level Work Experience Requirement: While college degrees are nice, ultimately showcasing your technical and critical thinking skills via portfolio, projects and interviews matter more than any specific work experience.
Anyone who showcases a blend of communication, critical thinking and design-focused thought patterns can apply for these positions.
Mid-level design, called “game designer,” kicks in when you’ve shown that you can consistently handle small or moderate sized projects with occasional input and direction from your leads.
You should also have enough social skills to be able to communicate effectively without aggravating your colleagues.
Mid-Level Work Experience Requirement: In general, you would need 3 years of game design experience to get a job as a game designer.
Ideally, you would also have shipped or significantly contributed to shipping a game to obtain this title.
In my case though, it took me almost six years before I went from ‘associate game designer’ to ‘game designer’ at Blizzard Entertainment.
…This had a lot to do with my stubbornness though 🙂
SENIOR LEVEL POSITION
After another six to seven years, many designers will reach the ‘senior game designer’ level.
It’s not guaranteed though – senior game designers not only can consistently execute on projects without supervision, but also are aware of the social and political environment on their teams and consistently use relationships to ensure projects go over without drama.
They also mentor and perform as role models for newer designers on the team, often mentoring new associates.
Senior Level Work Experience Requirement: Senior-level game designer experience can vary widely here. 7-10 years of design experience isn’t unreasonable here.
However, designers who are more in tune with the working environment or had significant experience working in other organizations may reach this point sooner.
Senior level is not a guarantee though – some people are content to remain at just the game designer level for most of their careers, focusing on creating content rather than mentoring or training new designers.
Here are the title modifiers:
- Assistant – Essentially someone else is responsible, you’re just learning the tools
- Associate – You’re usually responsible, but there’s always someone else who has your back.
- Senior – You’re the one who has someone else’s back.
- Lead – Managing others is your primary role.
- Principal – Focusing on your craft is your primary role.
- Technical – You have the ability to code in addition to design.
- Director – Your job is to set the goals and vision for the design teams.
- I, II, III, IV – Larger companies have multiple levels within game design to help people have a clear sense of progression through their careers.
Branching decision trees for senior roles:
When you reach senior game designer, you reach a fork in the road where you have to choose to specialize in leadership or craftsmanship.
In other words, do you want to be a manager or a maker?
Those who choose to refine their skills to a polish are called ‘principal designers,’ while those who choose to help lead teams are called ‘lead designers.’
How do I become a video game designer professionally?
Like many jobs, getting the first role is the hardest one and your first paid position will most likely be an entry level game design job that begins with junior, assistant, and associate titles.
Once you’ve worked for a couple of years at the same job, switching companies, tracks and responsibilities are relatively easy if you’re not afraid of change.
Here is a guide on how to become a game designer.
In fact, I strongly encourage young designers to jump ship after 2 or 3 years with the same company, particularly if you’re not moving up the ladder, as often other company cultures will teach you new lessons.
When I went from Blizzard to Riot, I learned a lot about prioritization, cross-team structure, and more effective ways to integrate QA and testing into my work since Riot has a very different culture.
Make your own game (the entrepreneurial path)
If the idea of working with lots of people inside a rigid structure sounds constraining — you aren’t alone.
Many people decide to take the higher risk, but potentially more rewarding, a path of creating a game of their own invention.
The people who go down this path need to be capable in multimedia – a mixture of technical, artistic and design skills – as well as being able to schedule, plan and budget their own time.
Many people start down the route, only to pivot into working in larger studios to learn some lessons from more experienced designers, as well as learn the tips and tricks of the industry from other developers.
However, the reward for taking your own ideas from inception to finish is the ability to craft a vision that is created by you and your team alone.
There are several major challenges you will need to overcome on this journey.
Funding: You will need to be able to feed, clothe and home yourself while you are developing your game.
Many developers spend part of their time developing games and part of their time working other jobs – often better-paying ones – in a contract or part-time role.
If you go down this route, you will need a strong sense of boundaries to keep your part-time work from leaking into your game development time.
Alternatively, some developers develop small prototypes, raise money from publishers — an often competitive and challenging process that can take years — then are able to focus on delivering their game within the constraints of the project.
Tech: You will need to be able to build the game and the features you want in your game. This may mean a mixture of:
- Blueprints (Unreal Engine)
- Playmaker (Unity) scripts
Or if you have limited coding chops, then you can reuse an existing game and just modify the game art (aka modding) and gameplay (scripting).
However, you cannot escape that you need to be able to communicate the rules of the game to the computer so they can be enforced.
Alternatively, you can create board or card games where the human being is in charge of enforcing the rules.
Scope: It’s simply not enough to just have great ideas and the capability to build them.
You also need to be able to define exactly how much game you can make, in what amount of time and to what quality.
A major novice mistake is to see how much work you can achieve in your first week on a project – when you’re fresh, enthusiastic and energized – then use that as a measuring stick for the rest of the game.
You’re going to get sick, tired, burnt out, exercise, need doctor’s visits, time with friends and family. These are an essential part of a human life of self care.
If you don’t factor those into the amount of time you’ll need to develop your game, you’ll become demoralized when you slow down, need to debug a tough issue or otherwise get stuck. Proper scoping protects you here.
“Making a successful game is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Don’t be afraid to cut down your scope to improve quality or quality of life.
Iteration: You’re going to need to iterate. Even if you have nailed your core mechanic, you’re going to need feedback on what you’ve built and the places where your gameplay is unclear if you aren’t a part of the design.
Everyone has blind spots – so creating a culture of iteration is essential. Raw ideas need to be evaluated, modified and updated… until it hits the goals and quality level.
Working with your team to playtest your game regularly and frequently is absolutely essential. You WILL get bored of your game, which is why playtesting it frequently is a lot of work.
Remember the game design iterative cycle I showed you earlier?
You need to remain determined, focused and able to see the issue — or find the team members who can see the issues — and appropriately resolve them!