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  • Why Design Games?

    [01.13.09]
    - Lewis Pulsipher
  • 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.

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