Posted by: Tj'ièn | January 10, 2010

Designing a game designer

What makes a good game designer? How is it possible to judge a game designer? The game design profession is traditionally not something that you’re hired for straight out of school. Game designers start out as programmers, testers or any other field within the game development process. As game designer you’re responsible for the core experience of a game, of its rules, goals, progression structure, balance and feel of the game.

Usually it takes a lot of experience in the game industry to know what makes a good game and what makes a bad game. Industry professional, academia and fans of games all struggle with the same question that a game designer is supposed to know by heart!

But if that’s not enough, what other – and maybe more tangible – skills should a good game designer own? Or at least strive to possess?

Originality

Originality is more and more appreciated by the game buying public. Clones and sequels have dominated the market but it is taken its toll and although the press and game industry professionals always were in favour of more original designs, the gaming public didn’t share this vision and bought what it knows was worth the buck.

But the gaming audience is maturing and people get tired of playing the same games. Different kinds of platforms, like Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network and Steam all provide ways to get more creative ideas in the open because of the relatively low financial risk involved. Let alone the internet gaming craze that’s happening at the moment where people create original and fun games by them selves and distribute it via internet, mostly free of charge.

So yes, originality, thinking outside the box, or lateral thinking as DeBono calls it, is becoming a more and more important skill to own as game designer. You need to be able to create new and interesting game ideas, usually within a strict time limit. Where do you find the inspiration?

Focus

Another really, really, really important skill to possess is to know how to focus. Trust the fact that you do not need a million features/weapons/USPS/graphical wizardry/or what have you. No, you need a solid foundation. A foundation based on core principles that apply through the whole of your game.

A game designer should be THE person that is able to focus (and keep the focus) during the project. You need to TRUST your own creativity and that of your co-developers.

Limits and boundaries are your best friend! Most people seem to hate these qualities, but a game designer should love them and create them. Limits and boundaries stimulate creativity.

Knowledge

A game designer should have knowledge about what is happening in the world of games. Game designers should know the games on the market, although this is highly overestimated in my opinion. Also a game designer should have knowledge about game design theory, which is rapidly growing as an academic research field.

Communication

A game designer should possess excellent communication skills, both verbally and written as these are the tools to get your ideas across to the rest of the team. An idea, a design can only get you so far.

Design is interpreted.

People interpret everything, the better you are at communicating your ideas and designs, the more likely it is that your ideas and designs get implemented the way you want.

Game design documents are another great example of the way a game design can communicate to the team. But is a design bible of 500+ pages really the way to go? Are there any ways of improving the readability of your design documents? Do we even need to bother with design documents at all? A designer should feel responsible for the way the design is communicated to the rest of the team. In this respect, a designer facilitates the way a design is communicated.

Interaction expert

What kinds of interactions are satisfying to the player? What controller layout suits the game best? How does the player get around and do stuff in your world? A game designer should now when the player needs to be in control and how. Let’s not forget that a game is not an ATM. Sometimes it’s good that the player doesn’t know the outcome, sometimes it’s bad, you decide.

Pragmatic

As a game designer it is important to think of problems as challenges. I know this may sound like ‘management bla bla’, but a positive attitude towards the problems that arise during development is essential. Don’t forget, as game designer, you are supposed to be the person with all the answers.

There are always answers to all problems and usually they need to be found yesterday. You need to be able to make though decisions and stick with them.

Leader

This should not come as a surprise, a game designer responsible for the core of the experience should have a vision for how the game should be and be able to carry that vision.

A game designer should be a natural leader that respects the whole team, who listens to and encourages other ideas and can explain every decision made during the development process. A game designer should have authority without having to claim it.

Motivator

A game designer should also be able to motivate the team. The guys and girls working on the project may not always have the same amount of pleasure; some may even hate what they are doing at times, especially during crunch time.

If your passionate about your game, your design, than you want the people on the development team to share your passion and create the absolute best they can. You need to explain why this project is going to be fun.

As a profession game design is quite new and there are probably more skills to be a good game designer. Some interests such as social studies, psychology, motivational theory and semantics would be helpful. But also an education in architecture, traditional arts or industrial design would be of great benefit. And it never hurts to be able to create a solid presentation!

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