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What Does a Gameplay Designer Do? And How to Become One

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

In my previous guide on gameplay design, I’ve covered what the craft is. In this guide, I will dive into what a gameplay designer actually does and how you can become one realistically.

What Does a Gameplay Designer Do?

For example, the gameplay designer is the person who crafts Mario, Master Chief, or Sonic—not just a single aspect of that character like fireballs, frag grenades or turbo mode.

Future gameplay designers often start as mechanics designers. As they grow in empathy for the players and skill at creating content, those mechanics designers level up and are assigned to general gameplay.

After this Pokémon-style evolution to gameplay designers, they now oversee enemies, environments, and player skills all together.

This is a “mid-level” perspective: you’re zoomed out enough to understand how everything works as a whole but are still involved with the details of these individual elements.

This article focuses on the key skills, mindsets, and essential game experience that game companies are looking for in a gameplay designer.

Key Gameplay Designer Skill Requirements

Here are the essential skills that you’ll need to take on a gameplay design role:

  • Empathy for players, deeply understanding them in every moment
  • Game mechanics design, knowing how each individual piece works
  • Encounter design, understanding how enemies are meant to test players
  • Game engine experience, so you can constantly tweak and adjust gameplay elements
  • Communication and diplomatic skills to clearly explain your ideas and negotiate effectively
  • Broad gameplay knowledge; you need a deep library of games played
  • Deconstructive mindset, the ability to break down what exists into its parts

From my experience here is what this role actually look like in practice in a AAA game development setting.

The first pure gameplay designer I remember working with is Tony Hyunh on R&D at Riot Games (who also worked on God of War: Ascension and Multiversus).

However, many people end up working in gameplay design without that technically being part of their job title. I’ve personally entered this area several times during my career.

image1 2
(Every aspect of WoW Pet Battles came from a design decision—usually one of mine!)

I developed the World of Warcraft pet battle system from scratch, worked on League of Legends champions, and developed systems and content for No Rest for the Wicked alongside Chris McEntee and Joe Sopko.

This gameplay design work can be a beautiful dance between player and opponent. The designer wears the double hat of problems and solutions, using them to construct the holistic game experience.

By the way, as you’re reading this post, if you have any questions or issues implementing you can get free help in the #game-design channel in Funsmith Club Discord, or you can DM me there.

Get notified each week on the latest game design tips, guides, templates, and workshops that I don’t share anywhere else here 👇

How to Become a Gameplay Designer

The route through game development to become a gameplay designer is fairly straightforward, but requires incredible depth of experience and investment in craft.

The routes are also very different depending on whether you’re aiming for AAA or indie development.

Here I’m focusing on the technical skills and knowledge you’ll need to succeed, but check out this series to help you through the job search and application process.

The Path to AAA Gameplay Design Roles

If your game design career happens in AAA studios, you’ll start by working on specific details, and your gradual path to gameplay design might look like this:

  1. Balance Design: Make small tweaks to existing gameplay
  2. Interactive Design: Create new simple devices or elements for use by level designers
  3. Mechanics Design: Add small, focused features for use across the game
  4. Enemy Design: Combine mechanics to create challenging, replayable content
  5. Encounter Design: Combine multiple enemies into sequences of engaging play
  6. Class Design: Create combinations of abilities that play well together
  7. Gameplay Design: Combine all of the above elements together into the core experience

To make this progression happen you’ll need to develop a deep understanding of gameplay systems.

You’ll also need to understand how to work closely with a gameplay programmer, an artist, or any other member of the team—and build up enough trust to make this happen.

The Path to Indie Gameplay Design Roles

The recommended steps for indie or solo designers is very different:

Make entire games yourself. You’ll do everything listed in the steps for AAA gameplay design, but all at once and with minimal help

In practice, it’s not possible to figure out everything at once, but you will cycle constantly between all of these skills.

Game engines do not create gameplay on their own, but as a game designer, you have to solve the chicken and the egg problem by inventing both from scratch every time.

I started out in computer science and focused heavily on how to make the machine do what I wanted. However, it took many years working with game designers to start to form my own philosophy about why I wanted the things.

A strong understanding of both your audience and games is absolutely required before you can direct the gameplay so heavily. However, indie and solo work don’t give you the time to master every piece.

image4 2

If channels like Mix and Jam are all about unpacking single mechanics, then we have yet to see an equivalent for gameplay design.

However, I am taking signups for my upcoming course on video game mechanics, which I specifically created to help provide a bridge into that role since there are no other resources out there for this. Sign up for the waitlist here if this is interesting to you!

Related Game Design Roles to Apply For

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(Gameplay designers need to know how all of this works together, but there are many other people who work on a single piece of it.)

If you’re interested in gameplay design, keep in mind that many other roles fall under this umbrella, including:

  • Content designer
  • Quest designer
  • Class designer
  • Mechanics and combat designer
  • Game controls designer

If you’re contemplating starting your career in game design, first explore and understand the differences between different types of game designers and figure out which ones suit you best.

That said, the taxonomy of game designers is still a work in progress, and as a result, the exact title and role is rarely consistent from studio to studio.

So don’t just go by the job title, please read the whole job description and see what you’ll actually be doing.

For instance, a junior design role with the gameplay designer title is most likely really a mechanics design role (though this might still be a good starting point).

Hopefully, as we learn, the industry as a whole will use more accurate and consistent language.

Career Path, Progression, and Potential

This can vary from studio to studio, but the average career path to a gameplay designer role typically look like this:

  1. Start in a QA role. Some times you can get directly into a junior designer role.
  2. Progress to a junior content design role where you work on smaller and fundamental pieces of gameplay on average for 5 years (unless the studio is well structured to mentor junior designers).
  3. Once you understood and mastered all the interconnected pieces in the context of the studio’s team and game, then you’re qualified for the gameplay designer role.
  4. Then you progress to the lead and principal roles where you’re entrusted with bigger responsibilities.

The only professional “gameplay designer” roles available are mid to senior level in large video game productions because no serious studio will entrust bigger responsibilities that determines the larger parts or entire part of their players’ interactive experience to an entry level or junior designer with little experience.

That’s why these roles are very rare and competitive for a gameplay designer to be hired outside of a studio unless you’ve held a similar role on another title or if you just launch your own game, which is not unheard of.

For example, my colleague Chris McEntee had designed Rayman Legends, so it was an easy transition for him to step into the lead gameplay design role for Ori and the Will of the Wisps.

How Much Does a Gameplay Designer Make?

The average salary for a gameplay designer is about $115,000 a year (according to Glassdoor).

Final Thoughts on Gameplay Designer Role

As a gameplay designer, every skill I’ve developed—programming, game engine creation, graphic design, UI design, rules crafting, technical design, tool design, leadership — has made me a better implementer and team member.

The more I understand how every piece of the design fits together, the better I can support every team member with diverse skills across the board, and as a result the better we can deliver unforgettable gameplay to our players.

It’s been a long journey from my start in computer science, and I honestly thought it would take a lot less time to get here, but it’s a job that requires a level of passion, commitment, and dedication that no amount of tutorials can ever convey.

If you want this role, you need to deeply love it and be willing to do the work to bring the best out of the people around you.

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Level-up your game design knowledge, skills, career, and network

Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest

All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan