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How to Become a Video Game Designer from Novice to Pro

Picture of 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.

So… you wanna be a video game designer, eh?

It’s simple, just make a video game, and voila! You are a video game designer.

However, you most likely won’t be a good one, since your game most likely won’t be good nor monetarily successful.

If you want to turn video game design into a profession where you can make a living doing it full time, then you have to have certain level of game design knowledge and skills.

Throughout my two decade game design career, I’ve witnessed a common pattern of steps that separates those who successfully broke into the video game industry and start their game design career and those who don’t.

And I’ll share them with you in this post.

By the way, as you read this post, feel free to join #career-guidance channel in Funsmith Club Discord where you can seek advice from game devs of all levels including me on

  • Breaking into the industry
  • Your resume/CV, Portfolio, design skill test, interviews, negotiations
  • Navigating your current career path

You can also get notified each week on the latest game design job listings and actionable tips here 👇

How to become a video game designer (starting from scratch)?

Here are the 6 practical steps you can take to become video game designer:

  1. Make sure the video game design profession is right for you.
  2. Learn the foundational game design knowledge and skills (and a degree is optional).
  3. Learn to communicate and showcase your skillset effectively.
  4. Apply and get hired in an entry-level game design gig.
  5. Network with professional game developers in the gaming industry.
  6. Turn the entry-level game designer gig into a full on career.

Now let’s break each one down in details, so you can actually take concrete actions and implement each step. 👇

Step 1: Make sure the video game design profession is right for you

Video game design is a challenging enough profession that you don’t want to get in if you don’t have a true passion or curiosity for it.

First, make sure you understand and can see yourself enjoy what video game designers do – and not just the idea of being the ideas guy or the one in charge.

To summarize, you need the following traits to thrive as a game designer:

    • Expect that you cannot keep everyone happy and make a strong, memorable game.
    • Find options and making ambiguous decisions is an essential part of game design.
    • Have a tireless sense of curiosity
    • The ability to put your ego on the back burner
    • The ability to cooperate and communicate with others

Next, make sure you enjoy making games. The simplest way to find out is to make a simple game.

Here are 2 easiest ways to start:

    1. Participate in game jams.
    2. Take the Build a Game Challenge.

If you find you enjoy it so much you want to push past the part where it’s hard… you’re off to a great start.

And if you’re not really suited for game design, but still want to be involved in making games there are many other ways you can participate:

  • Game Art
  • Programming
  • Production
  • Marketing
  • Finance
  • Legal

Games are built upon many, many people collaborating to make a single product. Find your niche and get in there!

climbthattree

I first started as an associate game producer, then I got fired because I was simply doing a crappy job and the responsibilities of the role didn’t match my strengths.

The guy who fired me even took the time to tell me that I didn’t fit the role and the game designer role can be a better option. And rest is history.

Till this day, I’m still grateful for the direction he pointed me down.

Step 2: Learn the foundational game design knowledge and skills

Here are the 4 parts you’ll need to develop in order to be competitive in the game designer applications pool.

1. Play games (and break them down) – By “play” I don’t mean just for fun as a “civilian.” Instead, observe and analyze how the games are put together.

This will help you build a library of patterns of how different developers implement design principles and develop the insights into the problems in a game.

When I first got started, I spent 20-25 hours per week playing games prescribed by my mentor Tom Cadwell (Riot Games’ current Chief Design Officer).

This important enough where Riot even has a Play Fund that provides employees with a budget of $25/month to spend on games to study them through play.

2. Develop a design decision framework – Skilled game designers objectively operate off of a process and framework, they don’t just play make guesses and hope for the best based on their personal player archetype.

Having a framework allows you to

  1. Deduct and identify the root design problems base on first hand play tests and player feedback.
  2. Provide practical, yet meaningfully impactful solutions to those problems.
  3. Be able to effectively communicate the problems and suggested solutions to the team to make the necessary implementations.

When you’ve not only found problems, but solved them and can show people the quality of your iteration and execution — you’ll earn trust, respect and the ability to do even more.

I remember while I was working on World of Warcraft, when I found a way to make the Netherdrakes fight while flying in the outside world.

wow netherwing drake
(Credit: WoW Head)

Keep in mind, that this is something the programming team insisted was impossible outside of a locked raid zone. It earned a lot of respect on the design team and I was asked to do even more ‘impossible’ things in the future.

As a result, I used this credibility to build better tools, including a designer menu that made every designer’s daily life easier.

Resource: You can use the Player Centric Design Framework that I used throughout my entire game design career.

3. Be hands on and make games (don’t just theory craft): Game design is ultimately a maker’s craft, which means you have to make things.

In addition to be one of the most effective ways to learn, studios will specifically look at your portfolio to see what you’ve made in order even consider you as a viable candidate.

Here are the 5 ways you to “get your hands dirty”:

  1. Participate in game jams – Even if you don’t have someone who can program per se, there are tools like Blueprints, Playmaker and more that will let you put some simple game ideas together without coding!
  2. Projects with friends – Even short week-long game-making projects with a couple of friends are great to develop your skills.
  3. Non code-based prototyping – Make a board or card games to skip the coding hurdle completely. You can learn most of the fundamental principles that applies to video games as well.
  4. Use AI to generate code and art – Ai has lowered the barrier to entry to asset and code creation. If you can familiarize yourself with these amazing tools, you can focus mainly on the learning the design skills.
  5. Mod games – This is a very effective practicing tool, especially for content design. You’re essentially using same native development tools a the game devs use to make changes to the popular games with established player base.

    cosmos ui
    (This is the “Cosmos UI” I made using the WoW editor that got millions of downloads and got me hired in Blizzard)

And if you’re a complete novice and feel intimidated by all the above option, take the Build a Game Challenge I mentioned earlier.

I created this resource to help you get started as easily as possible. It includes

    1. Templates
    2. Step-by-step guidance
    3. Examples to reference
    4. Discord support channels to
      • Get feedback
      • Playtest your prototype (with others)
    5. No coding needed

Everything you need to turn an idea into a virtual playable table top game in 6 days.

4. Get mentored by practicing professionals – It’s not a really a secret that having someone experienced to give you guidance and feedback can drastically cut your learning curve.

I was pretty lost until my mentor Tom Cadwell (the current Chief Design Officer of Riot Games) started to point me in the right direction and which led me to work on the right things that eventually got me hired by Blizzard.

You can get feedback and advice from experience game devs by joining online game design communities such as

5. Learn a single game engine – For me, that was Graal Online’s editor when I was 13 years old, later I picked up Unity.

If you’re not sure which one you want to learn, check out these game engines for beginners breakdown to make an informed decision.

Most of the engines provides free tutorials and resources for you to adopt their platform:

Step 3: Learn to communicate and showcase your skillset effectively

In parallel to honing your game design skill stack mentioned in the previous step, start working on getting hired part of the puzzle.

Even if you don’t perfectly match the application, the moment you hit several of the key factors mentioned in step 2, go ahead and apply.

☝️ The experience will help you iterate and improve your job hunting process, which is a skillset of its own.

Keep in mind: you can be an amazing game designer, but if you can’t effectively communicate your capabilities, then no one will know how good you are. Therefore, you won’t get hired.

Game design skills + Get hired skills = Job offers

As a candidate, these are all the ways used to determine whether you’re good fit:

  1. Game design cover letter – To see if your resume is worth checking out.
  2. Game design resume – To see if your portfolio is worth checking out.
  3. Game design portfolio – To see if you have the evidence of experience and skills matching the.
  4. Game design skill test – To check your action to see if it’s worth interviewing you.
  5. Game design job interview process – Your potential future team mates vet your soft skills, hard skills and personality in detail.

Here is a detailed breakdown of how the game studio talent filtering process works for game design positions.

Here are 4 resources that’ll help you improve your odds of getting hired:

Step 4: Apply and get hired in an entry-level game design gig

To start your game designer career, the first job you’ll quality for will be one of the following entry-level game design roles:

  • Game design intern
  • Assistant game designer
  • Associate game designer
  • Junior game designer
3 tier vs 5 tier game design position heirarchy wireframe scaled
(Difference between ‘junior’ vs ‘assistant’ vs ‘associate’ positions)

Eventually you can grow into any of the specialist design positions such as a level designer or narrative designer based on your skill development and interest.

So start searching for job posts specifically for these positions and start applying.

Step 5: Network with professional game developers in the gaming industry

This is where you source exclusive game design job opportunities and potentially even get referrals.

If you’re in a major city, go to game development meetups! Some will just be hobbyists, but others will have actual game developers who you can talk to, ask questions and develop friendships.

In addition, showing that you respect, understand, and are actually doing the work goes so far as to develop trust.

Be careful not to just glue onto one specific developer who has the job you want though – meet lots of different developers and learn about their lives, struggles and interests.

If you aren’t in a major city, groups like the Funsmith Club, IGDA, the Indy Games Industry, and many other online groups are available to help you meet others in the same situation.

Google is your friend, as are other social media sites and platforms like Reddit.

Check out the Games Industry group over there to meet game developers and listen to the conversations they have with each other.

Step 6: Turn the entry-level game designer gig into a full on career

Holy sh*t. You got accepted and an offer! Congratulations, you’ve beaten the curve.

However, now the real work begins. When you start in a junior position, the worst mistake you can make is to not ask questions and assume you know exactly what to do.

(Remember, they don’t expect you to know everything as a junior designer)

Try to spend your first month and ideally the first year, learning the tribal knowledge of your design team while developing your own game design methodology and philosophy because everything is contextual.

Once you understand why things are done the way they are currently, THEN you can start questioning how to change things up!

Remember, it’s a many-year process to grow in design.

This doesn’t mean you should put up with a toxic or dangerous working environment though, so take care of your physical and mental health.

You won’t be at your best if you burn yourself out.

If you find yourself working too hard, step back and check that you’re not dealing with imposter syndrome.

If you happen to be in a field that isn’t game design, network with the game designers at your studio and see if you can help out from time to time or listen in on their discussions.

You have a lot of opportunities to learn from them, even if you aren’t ready to do the work yet!

👇 Now let’s address some frequented asked questions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need a game design college degree?

Here is a fact: You can get hired if you have a portfolio without a degree. However, you definitely won’t get hired if you have a degree without a portfolio.

So no, you don’t need a game design degree, a computer science diploma, or even a bachelor’s degree or one of many online degree programs.

However it’s a nice to have. The more important question is

Are university game design degrees worth your time and money to start a game design career?

So let’s break down the pros and cons:

Pros:

    1. An academia approach – This can be both a pro and a con, since some thrive in this structure, while others wither.
    2. Credibility for resume – The main purpose of getting a degree is to be able to put it on your resume, which implies that. However, here are the two caveats:
      1. Game designer is a maker’s role, which means your resume only gets your portfolio reviewed. So you have to make things any ways in addition to the work you’ve done in college. And your cookie cutter college projects alone just don’t cut it.
      2. Credibility matters if you go to a university with a top game design or development program (i.e USC).

Cons:

    1. Very expensive – On average game design bachelor’s degrees are costs ranges from mid 5-figures to low 6-figure and you’re not guaranteed a job after. For example:
      1. [High End] USC B.S. cost: $342,592 ($85,648 / year)
      2. [Mid to Low End] FullSail University B.S. cost: $88,000
    2. Time consuming – It will take you 3-4 years to finish the curriculum and a huge part the average curriculum requires many courses outside of the core competency. All that time can be invested on building game projects that can be added to your game design portfolio.
    3. Becoming obsolete – It’s becoming a trend for companies to not require a college degree for employment. According to study from Federal Reserve Bank of NY, only 27% of college graduates work in a field related to their major

So, it depends whether the pros above out weighs the cons for you, then fantastic! But there are definitely other more pragmatic ways to get hired as a game designer.

And if you really want to get a degree, I’d recommend you to get a computer science degree than a game development or design degree.

For example, mine began with writing silly fanfics about Final Fantasy 6. This leads to me making websites and teaching others how to write HTML and java games.

It snowballed and I found early-level editors to make my own levels.

I eventually went to college, got a CS degree, and took all of the game design classes I could… which weren’t many… but I ended up in the industry when a lot of my colleagues didn’t.

This happened because the work I did outside of my classes mattered more. My passion, creativity, and focus resulted in something they could actually try and see how good I was at design.

When I’m hire for junior game designers, it’s a red flag if the applicants has a degree without any meaningful projects to showcase in their portfolio.

What if you want to make your own game?

If you want to make your own games, it’s worthwhile to learn about software development in general.

1. Learn from online tutorials and courses – Mainly for scripting for the particular game engine you choose and how to make games fun.

Here are some resources:

  • Code your first game This one teaches you how to code a basic game from scratch just with your browser.
  • Player centric design framework This is a practical framework that I use to improve the fun factor.
  • The list of game engine tutorials I mentioned earlier.
GDS ad course direct3

See How You Can Learn the Gameplay Design Abilities Game Studios Are After To...

2. Learn the techniques, like software engineering, which will teach you about

  • Structure
  • Architecture
  • Requirements
  • Testing

These are an essential part of the process most game developers learn the hard way – through years of trial and error.

3. Develop robust problem-solving skills: Ask yourself to come up with three different solutions to the same problem before I pick one to start executing.

This helps me break free of the assumption that I have the perfect solution from the get-go.

Narrative Design for Indies by Edwin McRae4. Check out different learning resources: There are many game design books and blog posts to help you learn all the game design concepts.

For examples, Narrative Design for Indies by Edwin McRae is an easy to read resource and to the point to help you craft storylines.

5. Try out different game engines, then just pick one. It doesn’t matter which, as all of them have distinct strengths and trade-offs.

Practice, practice, practice until you can make a simple game from scratch. Many studios use these tools to build their games.

6. Make a small game first. The smallest game possible means the best chances of finishing.

In addition, you want to optimize learning for your initial projects. Don’t worry about monetizing, just figure out how to get people to play, so you can get feedback and iterate your game.

7. Publish your game on Steam – Once you’re confident that your game will stick, then you can worry about publishing it on Steam and monetizing it, so you can stand out from all the noise.

What are some complementary skills that a game designer should hone and why?

Scripting skill: As a game designer, you don’t have to learn to code things from scratch.

Learn scripting based on your choice of game engine is enough to use the tools you need to execute ideas, no need to learn the full programming language, unless you decide to get into game programming.

Here are the differences between the two.

Collaborative skills: Most of games are make by a team, which means you need to be a good collaborator.

adam grant softskills

Here are the specifics you need to work on to be a better collaborator are

1. Communication skill – Be able to communicate your ideas clearly so the other person can understand you.

Keep in mind good communication involves a combination of different formats including writing, verbalizing, visualizing, and prototyping.

2. Listening skill – Be able to understand what your team mates communicate to you.

Poor listeners often find them selves in unnecessary misunderstandings. You can use techniques like Active Listening to become a better listener.

3. Conflict management skill – Be able to disagree productively with your team mates and resolve conflicts.

This is important if you want to work in any team setting. The book Crucial Conversations really helped me when I first got started.

crucial conversations gds article image

Final thoughts…

Becoming a game designer is a journey of gathering many skills. I think of it like Aang’s journey in Avatar.

  1. You will start with one skill that comes easily to you. For me it was programming. For you it might be listening or communication.
  2. Then you have to go on a journey to learn the other skills. The next one won’t be too hard, but will challenge you – and you’ll need mentors, allies, and friends along the way to help you grow.
  3. Each skill after that will get a little harder, as you push outside of your comfort zones.
  4. The last major skill will probably require you to deeply inspect your ego, beliefs, habits, and fears.

For me, taking care of my own health came pretty late for me, and I ended up incurring deep, permanent injuries before I got help and started retraining and repairing my body and the mind-body connection.

I hope these steps will help you start your game design career more effectively than I did and I believe you can do it.

But… will you?

Feel free to ask any questions or share any thought in the comment section below.

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6 Responses

  1. Thank you, I’ve recently been looking for a guide written by an actual game designer for a while. Thank you for this write up!

  2. Great post! I’m interested in get into the game design industry. However I’m more developed on the artistic and musical side. Which positions do you recommend for me?

    1. VFX, game concept art, 3D modeling, animation are great disciplines for music and arts background.

  3. Pingback: Unity ftw

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The Funsmith Tavern

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

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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