Sponsored Feature: How to be a Game Designer Right Now

By Michael Dawson [07.22.09]

[In a new LA Film School -sponsored Game Career Guide feature, faculty member Michael Dawson discusses great entry paths into elementary game design, from paper designing to simple 2D game creation tools.]

As someone who has designed computer and video games, I often receive email from aspiring designers who don't know where to start on their journey.

Many think that in order to design games they need a PhD in Computer Science, a mastery of computer art, and a team of one hundred game developers at their disposal.

These misconceptions are simply untrue. The fact is, you can start to build some of the key skills it takes to be a successful game designer right now - and you can probably do it with what you have on your desk and in your closet.

Design Defined

If you ask two game developers what a game designer does, you'll likely get three different answers. So while the issue can be of great debate, I'll define what a game designer does simply as the act of communicating how a game should work. There are a number of different game components that a designer must consider when describing how a game works. These include:

As a concrete example, take the classic computer game Doom. The aesthetics of the game center on a world presented in 3D graphics and seen from a first person point of view. The story of the game revolves around the player character of a space marine who must single-handedly stop hordes of demons flowing out of a gateway before they reach earth. The key mechanic of the game involves shooting enemies while acquiring more powerful weapons to match the growing strength of the enemies.

Of course, these three game components usually intertwine. For example, one of the aesthetic elements of Doom is that the grunts and groans of approaching enemies are heard in stereo. This aesthetic element affects the mechanic of shooting since hearing an enemy in stereo allows a player to better estimate an enemy's position.

As a new designer, it's probably simplest to work with one game component at a time. And since mechanics are arguably the essence of a game, I'll focus on that component.

Going Analog

If you want to learn computer and video game design, what should you do? Break out the Parcheesi, of course. Yes, analog games - non-digital games, played with materials like boards, cards, dice, pencils, and paper - can provide terrific learning opportunities for computer and video game designers. By working with these kinds of games, a designer isn't limited by technology. There's no need to worry about whether or not you have the latest hardware. You aren't restricted in your designs because you don't know how to program. Your game isn't put on hold because you're not an expert game artist or an audio guru. In short, working with analog games takes away the excuses for a designer and asks him or her to simply design. 

Here are three specific analog game design exercises you can use to hone your skills in developing and modifying game mechanics:

Make sure to put your games through playtesting, a process where a game is played and evaluated. Be honest with yourself about whether your modifications were successful. If they weren't, go back to the drawing board and try again.


Going Digital

You can learn a lot about design by working with analog games, but if you want to create digital games, you should definitely work in that medium. Luckily, there are a number of powerful yet easy-to-use game-making software tools that let you do just that - and at no cost to you.

All of the following free 2D game-making tools have a drag-and-drop interface and allow you to share your creations online. Best of all, each lets you open and modify anyone else's game. This provides a great opportunity to change an existing game's mechanics before you create an entirely new game of your own:


Going, Going, Gone

While I started out by saying that a game designer doesn't need an advanced degree in computer science or killer art skills, having some experience in the other disciplines - such as programming and art - can go a long way to help a designer realize his or her designs on a computer or console. It can also help a designer to better communicate with other members of a development team.

My final bit of advice is simple: Start designing right now. Create new gaming experiences that will engage, surprise, entertain, and even move people!

[Michael Dawson has produced and designed games for both computers and consoles. He currently teaches as part of the Game Production program at the Los Angeles Film School (www.lafilm.edu ). For comments, questions, and game invites, he can be reached at mdawson@lafilm.com.]

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