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  • Game Design, An Introduction

    [08.20.07]
    - Jill Duffy
  • DESIGN
    What is game design?

    In the broadest sense, game design refers to the idea behind a game. But it's come to mean a whole lot more than that. In large immersive games, game design refers to the central theme or point, as well as the story and plot and the characters' back-stories. In smaller games and in games in which there are no significant characters or plot (for example, in a racing game), game design refers to how one plays the game. What are the rules? How is the game scored? How does the level of difficulty change with play? What makes the game fun or challenging?

    What do game designers do?

    Game designers are creative decision makers. Some "designers" are actually writers who come up with a script for a game or pen the character dialogue. Other designers specialize in level-design, making maps of the various locations in a game. In the wider sphere, people tend to think of game designers as being the creative genius behind a game, the person who thought it all up in the first place. But few video games are actually made with one sole person at the creative helm, and few designers will take all the credit for coming up with every great feature, character, and detail of a game (though sometimes their egos get the better of them and they do).

    Still, the few designers who have made a name for themselves in this industry are viewed as being in a position not unlike the director of a film.

    What does a designer need to know?

    Game designers love to say that to work in their profession, one needs to know something other than video games. Most game designers are dedicated video game players, yes, but they emphasize the importance of having other interests, too, a vast amount of knowledge about non-game things -- the kind of stuff that amounts to "life experience." Game designers couldn't come up with ideas for new games or new inventive ways of playing if the only things they had a deep knowledge of were existing video games.

    Rooted in the "designer" part of the term, a game designer also needs to know about design, or why things function the way they do. Think of a light switch as an analogy: An electrical engineer (like a video game programmer) wires the switch so that the bulb illuminates or turns off depending on its position, whereas a designer would determine whether that switch would be a vertical one, or a knob-based dimmer, or a sliding dimmer, and where it should be positioned so that it's easily accessible to people of varying heights while groping around in the dark. Programmers think about how to make things work and designers think about how people will use them and what the effect or outcome will be.

    In other words, game designers need to know about design, and the more, the better. Occasionally, more technical artists will know a thing or two about systems design, and they'll work with the game designers to use that knowledge to the project's advantage.

    One misconception about game designers is that they are 100 percent creative and not at all analytical, which couldn't be further from the truth. Game designers use math and logic to compute how different parts of the game will work. They might not use quite as much math as a programmer, but they very often devise algebraic formulas when deciding how different parts of a game should work; for example, a game designer might have to come up with a formula for how the increments of power a character should receive in relation to the missions she has accomplished. Is the ratio exponential, or a simple one-to-one ratio, or something else?

    How much money do designers make?

    The average salary for a designer, across all levels of experience, is $61,538. The average salary for a designer with three or fewer years experience is $44,574. Both of these statistics are taken from the Game Developer Salary Survey, reflecting salaries reported at year-end 2006.

    What job titles can a game designer have?

    • Junior game designer
    • Level designer
    • Game designer
    • Lead designer
    • Content designer
    • Creative director
    • User interface designer
    • Writer
    • Scriptwriter

    See also "Types of Game Designers" for a more complete description of different job titles.

    What types of people or personality traits make good designers?

    A strong game designer usually has unbridled enthusiasm for new ideas, which she will stand behind no matter who bats them down. Unlike producers, who must be highly practical and willing to negotiate at every turn, a game designer needs an ounce or two of what some would call tenacity and other would call stubbornness. Designing games is one of those jobs where it actually helps to have a little bit of an ego, as a big part of it is convincing others that your ideas are spot on.

    Whether most game designers have type A or type B personalities is not all that clear, and it's probably a moot point. Noah Falstein, a long-time game designer and columnist at Game Developer magazine, shared an observation that he and some fellow game designers saw among each other: they mostly had a Meyer's Briggs personality type of INTJ: introverted, intuitive, thinking, judging. INTJ personalities are extremely self-confident and usually have specialized knowledge in a few areas. They are known as idea people, but are also perfectionists.

    Designers do have to be practical, too, of course, but not ever for the sake of the game's potential. If there is one team that can never lose faith in the project, it's the designers.

    What other resources does GameCareerGuide.com have for me if I want to know more about game design?

    "Designing Video Games ... Sometimes," by Jill Duffy

    "Game Design Career Preparation," by Tom Sloper

    "Academics for Game Designers," by Michael McCoy

    "On Game Design: The Designer," by Jason Weesner


    "So You Want to Be a Game Designer," by Marc Mencher

    "Tips for the Working Designer," by Sylvain Dubrofsky

    "Types of Game Designers," by Brenda Brathwaite

    "Designer Advice: A Beginner's Guide" by Jill Duffy with Mike Moore and Marc Mencher

    Design forum in our Community section

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