What is game design and how to become a game designer
Game design sits under the broader field of video game development and refers to the use of creativity and design to develop a game for entertainment or educational purposes. It involves creating compelling stories, characters, goals, rules and challenges that drive interactions with other characters, users or objects.
Game design is an exciting, rewarding and multi-faceted field with promising job prospects. However, becoming a game designer can be a challenging journey. Passion, patience, and persistence are essential!
See what it takes to become a successful game designer and get first-hand insights from Troy Dunniway, an award-winning AAA game designer and executive at major studios like Microsoft, EA, and Ubisoft.
Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII, Activision
What does a game designer do?
A game designer is the creative driver responsible for bringing a game to life. They are generally a cross between a writer, artist and programmer.
“It’s a multidisciplinary job that often requires you to understand a little of everything,” says Troy, who has shipped over 100 titles on almost every platform and genre. GAME DEVELOPMENT16 minute readHow video games are made: the game development processBy Nadia Stefyn
Get articles like this in your inbox every month
Plus artist interviews, free resources, career advice and special offers from CG Spectrum’s film and game experts!Email
“It’s not just about playing games and having ideas. You need to not only understand how to apply your ideas into many different, and often conflicting, areas of game design; you must also understand HOW to design, WHAT to design, WHEN to design each feature, and WHY you are designing what you are designing.”
“Every game is comprised of a number of different gameplay systems, mechanics and features which all work together to create a fun and engaging experience for players.”
Almost EVERYTHING in a game is a conscious choice by a designer or someone on the team.
Troy, who is a mentor and co-creator of CG Spectrum’s Game Design Diploma, adds: “Understanding how to develop game systems, the theory of what makes something fun, plus how all these systems work together are the most fundamental requirements for being a game designer.”
The gaming industry is staying strong, as per the global market revenue 5-year growth forecast (Source: Newzoo)
“Not every designer is super technical, but to get a job on most teams you need a strong background in some basic aspects of technical game design and game programming.”
Dota 2, Valve
Besides technical skills, you must also be an excellent storyteller with some level of artistic ability.
“At the heart of most games and player experiences are the worlds, maps and levels which players interact in,” Troy says. “These are the magical places which capture our imagination, the places we love to explore, sometimes battle through, take on challenging quests as we adventure and eventually slay the evil villain in our hopes of saving the Universe from some terrible fate.”
“To go from a ‘good’ to ‘great’ designer, learn how art and game design intersect and what art skills you will need to do your job well. Art and visual skills are not only important for ideation and concepting, but have many different uses beyond just looking pretty in the final product.”
While the job varies depending on the size of the studio, responsibilities may include:
- Developing the storyline, character back-stories and dialogue
- Developing gameplay, rules and the scoring system
- Determining the level of difficulty
- Building interfaces and environments
- Level and world design
- Digital editing
- Image rendering
You also need to be a great communicator who can clearly convey a story or message that engages your player and motivates them to take action. You must know how to express simple ideas, convince people of your ideas, and give and take feedback.
It’s cliche, but great ideas are a dime a dozen. Being able to execute those ideas and do it well is really more important.
“You need to learn how to not just have an idea, but how to validate your ideas and express them for your teammates to help you build it on time and with any restrictions you will face.”
Troy adds that “As a game designer, you are usually in the middle of everything, and most people think they know how to make games, which means that almost everyone on the team and outside the team will likely try and give comments, advice and feedback on your work.”
An understanding of marketing will also help you excel in this role.
“At the end of the day, the product has to make money,” adds Troy who has worked on titles like: Rainbow Six Vegas, Munch’s Oddysee, Mercenaries, Age of Empires 3, and Command & Conquer 3.
You need an understanding of marketing and sales, especially how to sell and market a game. Consider how to attract people to your product, how to keep them playing, and how to monetize your product. This is applicable to everything from indie to mobile to AAA.
Fortnite Battle Royale, Epic Games
Genres and sub-genres
Action, shooter, combat, MMO (massively multiplayer online), sports, adventure, RPG (role-playing games)… The list is long, especially once you factor in sub-genres! (See detailed explanations of all genres)
Designers tend to specialize in a certain genre.
“One of the biggest challenges is that every platform, genre and type of game has a different set of rules, requirements and game language.”
While it’s not uncommon to move between genres, someone with 20 years of experience with shooter style games who then moves to sports will face a big learning curve and need to invest the time to learn a new language, do research, figure out the rules etc.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ubisoft
Getting a great job in the industry requires hard work and dedication. The reward is of course, getting to make video games for a living!
You’ll be required to have some technical knowledge and artistic skill, as well as an understanding of how to make something fun, appealing, monetizable and addicting to players.
Being such a diverse industry, you may be required to wear many hats. In a large studio, your job focus may be narrower than at a smaller studio with a handful of employees. For example, a team of 5-10 employees is going to run very differently to a team of more than 1,000 people like at Ubisoft or EA.
It’s also important to note that if you’re studying game design, you won’t necessarily become a “game designer”. There are many different jobs to choose from, and with technology evolving so fast, new jobs are being created all the time.
Some of the roles include:
- Game writer
- Storyline developer
- Game artist
- Content designer
- Programmer/system designer
- World or Level designer
- User interface designer
- Junior or lead designer
- Creative director
Dragon Ball FighterZ, Bandai Namco Entertainment
Software (game engines)
There is a range of software to choose from, some requiring more coding skills than others.
However, if you want to make games professionally, aim to learn industry-standard game engines that major studios are using, like Unreal Engine or Unity 3D. They’re free tools that will lessen your learning curve and may increase your chances of getting hired.
Here are 5 free tools to get started with:
How much does a game designer make?
According to Payscale, the average game designer salary is USD $63,838, while a lead can make in excess of USD $93,926.
Salaries depend greatly on experience, location, size of studio and industry, and can vary above or below these averages. Senior and technical designers may exceed the top of that range with their years of experience and knowledge.
4 tips for getting into the industry
- Know the process inside out
“Games designed with a process have a much more likely chance of success than those which are randomly thrown together,” says Troy. “By understanding the tools as well as the overall design process and the “big picture” of the game, you will be much more likely to create a great product and have success in the industry.”
“MANY people, especially smaller developers, like to utilize more agile development techniques which are less about process and documentation and more about just building things,” adds Troy. “However, big companies like EA, Microsoft, Sony, and Ubisoft are highly process-driven and require heavy documentation which is a big part of how they’ve achieved success over and over again.”
Start thinking like a AAA pro by reading as much as you can on the game development pipeline, the various phases, and how the processes change with different genres, platforms and team sizes.
Learn how and what documents and prototypes you should build, and how to go from an idea to prototype to completion and beyond.
- Stay on top of trends
Every platform, genre and type of game has either a totally different, to slightly different set of rules and requirements. Get familiar with the nuances by playing different types of games, subscribing to industry news and reading reviews (check out sources like Kotaku, Gamasutra, and 80Lv). Make the most of the content available to you on YouTube and Twitch too.
- Have an amazing demo reel
Your demo reel is your passport to the industry. Pick a few pieces of work and perfect them as best you can for your demo reel. Show versatility and your process. Keep it short (under 2 minutes!) and make sure your contact details are on there!
As you gain more practice with the different types of game design, you may find you’re more drawn specifically to building levels or worlds for example. If that’s the kind of work you’d like to end up in, include work which reflect your main interests.
Ensure the work you’re including is allowed to be publicly shown, and is not subject to an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Also consider your soundtrack choices carefully, as you don’t want the music to distract from your work.
If you don’t have enough great content yet for a demo reel, consider upgrading your skills.
Online tutorials are a great place to start learning, but if you want to get your skills to a professional standard and want feedback from an industry expert who knows what employers are looking for, research more formal game design and game development courses.
CG Spectrum’s Game Design Diploma is taught by industry mentors who have worked on AAA titles at studios like EA and Ubisoft. It’s a career-focused curriculum that helps you prepare for a successful career in the industry. You’ll learn advanced game design for console, PC, mobile, esports and multiplayer games, and get hands-on experience making your own playable levels using Unity and Unreal Engine.
The future of game design
With an estimated 2.5 billion gamers worldwide, the gaming industry is strong and continues to grow year on year. According to market research firm Newzoo, global market revenue is expected to total $152.1 billion in 2019 (that’s up 9.6% from 2018).
In a trend-driven industry that’s constantly changing, it’s hard to predict what’s around the corner. However, today’s technology has resulted in greater accessibility for people all over the world to get into gaming, as well as more opportunities than ever for individuals to create and release their own games.
It’s a booming industry, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.