Why Design Games?

By Lewis Pulsipher [01.13.09]

Title boxWhy do we game designers design games?

Some who think they would like to design games for a living think, "I'm going to make a lot of money designing games."

While it's a common notion that game designers make a lot of money, but it's rarely true in practice.

Even in the video game industry, few game designers get rich. They usually work full-time for a game developer, putting in fairly long hours and not getting paid particularly well for it (there are exceptions), because so many people want to be game designers. In fact, on average they're paid less than game programmers, and about the same as game artists! They're not usually paid royalties, though they might get a bonus for a game that sells very well.

Moreover, in the video game industry, lead game designers are rarely hired off the street. Instead they must serve an apprenticeship of many years as testers or (if they're lucky and good), as level designers, or in other non-designer positions in the video game world. Is the money they might eventually make worth it?

In non-electronic games, most designers are freelancers (like novelists) and barely make a profit. A few of the most famous, such as Klaus Teuber (Settlers of Catan) and Reiner Knizia (Lord of the Rings board game, Vampire card game) have actually become millionaires as freelancers. A few work for big companies such as Hasbro, which owns Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, Wizards of the Coast, and Avalon Hill, amongst others. The typical board game, card game, role-playing game, and collectible card game does not bring in the same kind of revenues as video games do, and royalties are low, so most freelance designers have a "day job" just as most novelists do.

Amongst novelists, Glenn Cook, most well known for the Black Company fantasy novels, wrote while commuting to his day job at a General Motors assembly plant, a job he worked until retirement. Alan R. Moon, a well-known board game designer who has won two very important German Game of the Year awards, has said he would have had to get a part-time job if not for his second win with Ticket to Ride.

It has even been suggested that if the average game designer gave up designing games and instead used that time to pick up cans and bottles for deposits and recycling fees, he'd make just as much money.

In other words, don't design games in order to make a lot of money, because you probably won't. You may not make any money at all.

But please, if you're going to call yourself a "game designer," then design seriously. Don't be a dilettante. Don't dabble in it rather than do it half-heartedly. Or if you do design just for yourself, don't call yourself a "game designer."

Game designers as a group suffer from people who call themselves game designers, but work on just one game, produce a weak (though possibly pretty) prototype, don't alpha test it, and then inflict it on volunteer play testers who walk away with the opinion that so-called game designers are amateurs, or that "heck, anyone could design a game that weak." If you can't play your game solo, why expect anyone else to play it?

Get your game to a decently enjoyable state before you inflict it on others, or you'll give game design a bad name.

Recognize also that in the outside world, you won't get much respect. People who don't play games or who only play traditional games on holidays (as many older people who aren't into video games do) tend to assume that game design is easy, that it's kid's stuff that any adult can manage to do -- so why respect someone who designs games? Or worse, they may wonder why any adult would be "playing with games" instead of doing something productive with their lives! My 80-year-old English mother-in-law cannot understand why I spend my time teaching young people how to design games, even though I'm paid to do it. To her it's just not an adult occupation.

Title box Even if you do well, you won't be famous -- again with a few exceptions. Yes, many people know who Will Wright (discussed in mainstream media from Time magazine and Entertainment Weekly) and CliffyB are (Cliffy Bleszinski was the subject of a lengthy profile article in The New Yorker last year), but mostly, people know designers by their works. How many people who aren't game enthusiast know who Carmack and Romero are? But mention their works -- Doom, Quake -- and they're recognizable.

A game designer may be the "least unfamous" person among his friends and acquaintances, but he'll never be famous the way an athlete or actor can be.

So if it's not for money or fame, what is it for? Why design games?

There's the thrill of making something out of nothing, as an artist does with pen and paper, a composer does with an instrument, a painter does with canvas and a brush. It may not be quite like how a woman feels when she bears a child, but it can be something like it.

Perhaps you're driven to do it, the way some people are driven to write novels even without an expectation of publication. Perhaps you enjoy being creative and this is your chosen field. Or you may love the thrill of seeing your game on the shelves, or of being asked to sign a copy of your game. It can certainly be a rush.

When I came back to designing board games as an older person after being away from it for 20 years, I had a realization that designing games was the best way I had to touch a large number of lives, if only through entertainment.

At Origins Game Fair 2008, as I was sitting at a booth talking to a board game publisher. Then someone walked by, evidently saw my name tag, shook my hand, said something to the effect of, "Britannia is an excellent game. Thank you for getting it back into print," and walked off.

There's no substitute for that, folks, or for hearing someone say, "I love this game," of something you designed, or having someone tell you they've played your four-to-five-hour game more than five hundred times. Not many people get to experience that.

You can love game design for many reasons. For me, it is truly fascinating to play your brand new prototype for the first time, not because it will be all that much fun (at this point it probably won't be), but because it's fascinating to see how things work or don't work the way you expected, to see what happens, to puzzle out how to improve it. It's also fascinating to watch the first time other people play and perhaps see how different the game works than when you played it solo.

Design because you like to design games, and like the "incidents" that happen when you do it. It's rarely a living, but it's cool.

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, was described in an "Armchair General" online review as "one of the great titles in the world of games."

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