I know someone who is thinking about getting into game design, and I wondered, what does the job game designer entail? what tools do you have to learn how to use? what unique skills do you need? what exactly is it you'd do from day to day. I may be wording this a bit wrong because I'm not sure if the college program is become a game designer or learn game design. but I think the same questions apply either way.
What does the job game designer entail?
I always explain design to people like this:
What's the difference between Black Jack and Poker?
They both involved players and the same deck of cards, but are entirely different games because the rules that define how the games are played are different. In essence that is what a designer does, writes a series of rules as to how a game plays.
These days as games get more complicated, the job often includes narrative elements in the areas of story/setting/characters. Although many parts of that are given to people dedicated to writing and not design.
Design is a pretty broad term in the industry and it covers everything from high level system design (rules) to narrative design (story/character) to level design (the placing of assets and scripting)
What tools do you have to learn how to use?
Getting a job directly as a designer is hard. Many of us came from either Programming or Art backgrounds or in my case both. On smaller teams, it'll be expected that you can do something other than design full time as well. The tools change depending on the type of design you are doing.
System designer/Creative Director - Most time spent in Excel, Word, and Powerpoint.
Narrative designer - Word, maybe Final Draft. These guys are mostly writers.
Level Designers - Excel, custom level design software or common 3rd party tools (UnrealEd, and so on) Typically should be comfortable navigating the popular 3D-art packages (Max/Maya)
What unique skills do you need?
Communication, both writing and verbal is probably your most often used skill once you get to the higher levels of design. Coming up with a design is a pretty small part of the job. You spend most of the time communicating how to build that design to the rest of the team.
Critical thinking, ability to break down a problem into a series of small discrete steps. It's not enough to play a bunch of games. You need to be able to clearly understand how the parts of those games work together. When/why they combine and work, and why they can fail when combined.
Level designers benefit from an art background. An understanding of composition and architecture both help.
A basic psychology understanding is also helpful for designers. The more you understand about how and why people respond to stimulus the better your can predict their response to future designs.
Hardly anyone A select few (see comments) do game design full time: but more typically game design is only part of a job. Some designers are also producers: they manage the personnel, schedules, budgets, and contracts of the games they design. Others combine game design with development (programming, art, audio, etc).
So if you want to do game design as a career, you should become expert at a related skill and find some way to move into design. There are different career paths: for example, you might join a big company, demonstrate your design talents, and move up into design. Or you might join a small company (or start your own) where everyone has to do a bit of everything by necessity.
The key skills, in my opinion, of being a game designer, are:
- A wide knowledge of games of a lot of different types, so that you have a lot of background to draw on for solutions to problems ("Our game has become unbalanced because it's too easy to accumulate health, but I remember how they solved that problem in Foobar RPG VII, they gave you the option to exchange health for experience, which created an interesting trade-off...")
- The analytical skills to be able to determine why games have particular qualities. ("Even though they have very similar gameplay, Ico creates a much more effective sense of peril than Prince of Persia because ..." [Well, I won't spoil it for you: let's say it's an exercise for the reader!])
- The communication skills to explain to artists, programmers, level designers and other developers how to achieve the effects you want. Big projects need big game design documents and you are going to want to write good ones. ("We need to give the player enough warning of the attack that they have a chance to establish their guard, so the boss attack sequence needs to have a distinctive motion at least 1 second before the damage is dealt. Also, we need to arrange the camera angle so that this signal is visible.")
- The discipline to realise that you are not the only person the game is aimed at (or even necessarily part of the target audience at all), and that your own intuitions about what is fun are not an infallible guide. You have to be able to look at data from real players in the market you are aiming to reach. ("In the office, we all loved the hyper-death-mode, but when we tried it out, we found that 72% of beginners turned off the game in disgust when they were killed after 30 seconds and all their equipment was stolen.")
- An awareness of your own limitations as a designer. Perhaps you know everything there is to know about balancing unit types for a turn-based strategy game, but you wouldn't know where to start when it comes to a racing game. Better to be humble than make a bad game!
There are indeed game designers out there, and it seems like a pretty interesting job. Usually folks are attracted to this job because they want the creative and leadership aspects of game development but aren't ready for the many years of hard work and preparation needed to do game programming or 3D art. There's some expectation that there are programmers and artists out there just waiting for somebody to give them a great idea and tell them what to do. That's not been my experience.
Unfortunately, a lot of college game design programs teach exactly this illusion. Students pay a lot of money for a program that teaches a skill that may not really be in demand.
Game programmers are usually game designers too. Programmers with the skills to work on games could often make quite a bit more with a lot less pain working in more traditional sectors. Game programming requires much more knowledge of math and physics than traditional business and database programming, for example.
Game programmers usually started out as designers who learned an important truth:
You can become a game designer in two ways - write the code or write the check. If you can pay somebody to implement the game you design, you're a designer. If you can't pay, you probably need to learn some programming.
To be fair, 3D art (especially the more challenging aspects: rigging, texture-mapping, animation, and lighting) is another great way to work yourself towards design, but the competition is much more fierce than in the programming arena.
The surest path to working in the game industry is to get a solid degree in computer science. Take all the math and physics he can, as well as the theoretical classes like data structures and algorithms.
This hard-core CS background can provide a significant competitive edge. If the person decides that the gaming industry isn't such a perfect deal (my students sometimes meet a girl, and everything changes) then they have a 'backup' that starts at 60K a year, has six openings for every applicant (at least in my state) and they'll still have the skills to write the game they really want to write on their own terms.
One of the best things I've reading describing the evolution of the job title video game designer - as distinct from programmer, artist, composer, etc., all of whom also design games - and what they do is Jim Mummery's Tightening up the Graphics on Level Three (and part 2, not as good).
It's worth noting that designer is an overhead position. Meaning, it's not completely necessary to have a person dedicated to design when making a game.
People who make games, programmers and artist, they have some idea of the design of the game, the team designs the game that they want to make.
Only when the project is large enough that design becomes a burden is a designer really needed(usually).
That being said, the designer is the one who manages, not controls, the design of the game. What ideas work, how to implement certain features. They work with the programmers and artists to figure out what works, what can be done, what it feasible and then they put it all together so that everyone can get in on it and get it done.
Programmers and Artists are machines dedicated to their ability of creating what they get as input. The ultimate idea comes from the Designer. He has the vision. He his the mastermind, but no brain can function without body, so you need a team.
The job "Game Designer" has no real profile, each project / company defines what this person's tasks are. A game designer can be a writer up to a visionary like Will Wright or Steve Jobs.
The fine thing about the "Game Designer" is, that this job currently does not exist. Because even if you can tell me what a game designer has to have as skills, tell me how to teach a person to be creative.
I have read once a quote that said: "To become a (Game) Designer is impossible, either you are one or you are not."
This might sound very final, but the core part of this quote is in my very honest opinion right. There is a component, a combination of social and scientific that you must have to be a real "designer".
Let's say that a designer has to own the skills he needs to design what he wants to design. Because there is a huge difference between designing a small level, or game and designing a real game.