So You Wanna Call Yourself a Game Designer

Like writer – a word that can mean a wide variety of things – game designer is a catch-all title that can mean you do one or more of a great many things related to the design of games.

Like novelist – a word that implies the successful production, and often publication, of at least one long-form work of fiction – game developer implies that you have had a hand in the production of at least one piece of interactive entertainment software.

If you’re trying to get into the industry and want to put something other than your name and contact information on a business card… go read Darius’s posts on the subject, I don’t want to talk about that here.

What I do want to talk about is calling yourself a game designer.

Just as someone who has ideas for stories but never writes anything has no business calling themselves a writer, if you’ve 100 great ideas for games, but have never sat down and actually designed anything, you’ve no business calling yourself a game designer.* So, if you’re not a programmer and are looking to get into the industry, how do you go from dreamer to game designer? How do you gain the confidence to look an industry vet in the eye and say, “Yes, I am a game designer,” without feeling like a total fraud?

Obviously, you design a few games. And I’m about to tell you how to go about it. You start by building a prototype kit. You can scrounge and re-purpose components from other games and uses, but I strongly suggest you put together a kit that you never borrow back components from, so that it’s always ready to go. Keep it in a shoe-box, a sewing box, tackle box, or the drawer of small cabinet, whatever drawer or space you can dedicate to just holding your kit. Some suggestions for what your kit should contain:

  1. Two near-identical decks of cards with different colored backs. Blue and red Hoyle decks are perfect.
  2. A small notebook–something that fits in a pocket is awesome. Or, if you’re a visual thinker like I am and you want to draw diagrams and such, an 8 1/2 x 6 notebook is okay. At this stage, anything larger takes too much focus away from the actual important bits of the design process and puts the focus on the notebook, so avoid massive sketch pads. Good pencils and/or pens are obviously needed as well.
  3. Buy tokens of some sort–poker chips, Go stones, a few colors of 20 packs of game stones, whatever you can find for cheap at the local game shop.
  4. Buy some dice, don’t care exactly how many or how many sides they have, but don’t go too overboard – 40 dice is really unnecessary.

I’ve seen a lot of people suggest adding a number of expensive and highly representational items to your prototyping kit, from using a 3D printer to print whatever you need, to buying bags of green plastic army men. I advise against this. Keep your components abstract at this point. While the aesthetics of the game are ultimately important, they can often distract from pretty serious flaws in your design.

Okay, ready? Here’s the next step – design a game. Not that game you’ve been dreaming about for years. Design something new. Something challenging. Something, perhaps, foreign to you. I’d suggest by starting this way…

  1. Go to Wikipedia and hit the Random Article link.
  2. Design a game using the assembled components that communicates the core idea or theme of the first article Wikipedia serves up.

Design using the components, not the notebook. You should record your ideas in the notebook as they formulate, but work directly with the game components that are laid out before you. The notebook should record where you’ve been, not map where you’re going. Use the cards as a game board if you need to, take up some space on the floor and get up and walk around the game, looking at what you’re building from different angles. Imagine playing the game as your favorite cartoon character and your least favorite professional sumo wrestler. Go for long walks outside. Read a book. Deconstruct an episode of The Sopranos or The Wire. Solve a chess puzzle. Play some Shinobi. Listen to some Beyonce. In other words, give yourself time to think about it. Do not try to attack it all in one sitting as that will most likely just lead to frustration, self doubt and, eventually, some really damaging self-talk.

Now for the hard work.

  1. Introduce the game to your friends. Teach them to play. Watch them play. Watch their faces. Do they frown a lot? Do they get confused? Do they get excited? When do they get excited? When do they suddenly start talking about something else mid-game?
  2. Go back to the design process and re-tool until you think you’ve solved any issues that came up during play. And by ‘issues’ I mean any point where people weren’t having the emotional response you’d hoped for while they played.
  3. Repeat until you’re satisfied you’ve got it.

Now for the really hard work.

  1. Write a manual.
  2. Give the manual to a friend who hasn’t played the game yet.
  3. Have your friend run a game for other friends who haven’t played yet.
  4. Watch and take notes, answering absolutely NO questions. Take particular note of where their interpretation of your rules is different than yours, particularly if their idea is better/clearer than yours (and BE HONEST with yourself about this).
  5. Retool the manual.
  6. Repeat

Once you’ve got a manual that people can use to recreate the game experience you were aiming for, you’re done. Export it to a PDF and distribute it online. And voila, you’re a game designer. Whether or not you’re any good, or whether you’re hirable, is another issue, but the more you repeat the above process, the more likely it is you’ll be both good and hirable. Once you’ve got the hang of it, include another designer in the process and you’re bound to further increase both your quality and hirability exponentially.

*Furthermore, if all of your ideas for games are heavy on plot and character, but light on gameplay… perhaps you should consider a career as a game writer, rather than a game designer.