Being and Becoming a Game Designer

A couple of days ago I was co-hosting a live stream of War Robots, an online PvP mobile game that I’m currently working on and one of the viewers asked me about being a game designer — what it entails, what key skills are required and how somebody not in the industry can become one.

I’ve gone over a few key ideas during the stream but, as we were limited in time, I wasn’t able to expand on the concept as much as I would’ve liked to. That question is actually what made this article a reality — I figured that I would be interested in reading something like this a few years back, when I had no idea about ins and outs of being a game designer.

I’ll try to cover some of the most popular questions on the topic down below.

What It’s Like

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I personally think it’s an amazing profession where you can explore a lot of different areas of game development and implement your creative ideas. You get to try a lot of different things in practice and you’re almost never doing the same thing twice because the game is constantly progressing and improving, so you always have to come up with new, unique features.

We have a whole team of game designers and there are people responsible for various aspects of the game — designing maps (level designers), actual robots and weapons (content designers), economics and in-game features (system designers), user interfaces (UI/UX designers) and more. You might specialize in just one of those areas, or be good in all of them — it’s up to you. A game designer works closely with both programmers and artists and other employees to ensure that concepts, mechanics and ideas are accurately implemented into the project.

I started as a system designer myself and worked on the game’s economics while also doing some minor errands related to quests and features. I was always interested in implementing game content and eventually, with enough time and effort invested, I became a lead content designer. I learned to work effectively with both Git and Unity 5 engine. I plan to try out other areas of game design and increase my expertise even further.

People in our team come from all walks of life — I hail from nuclear physics, one of my co-workers is a mathematician also certified in microbiology, there’s a guy who used to be involved in foreign intelligence (yeah, really) and there are people on the team without formal education, too. Most (if not all) of my co-workers have learned the ropes from scratch themselves and have a what one may call an unrelated background.

Do I think that education is necessary? No. To be honest, I personally trust into online courses and self-education more than into traditional education, although I do formally have a degree. And I also believe that if you love and want something, you can get it if you try hard enough, whatever the starting conditions. I would say that people with technical education (or mindset, rather) would probably be more successful in this role, though, so it might be desirable.

Where To Start

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As of this moment, there aren’t a great many educational institutions that can teach you game design. Those that exist can be difficult to gain entrance to because of the location or prerequisites. And if we assume that you can’t just land a job at some decent company without any skills or knowledge in the area, this might seem like a typical catch-22 — a situation in which you’re faced with contradictory rules (in order to get a job you need experience, in order to get experience you need a job).

So, how do you proceed towards your dream and what can you put in your CV when applying for a job in game industry?

Go through online courses

Online education is definitely a thing now and there are more and more courses on the topic of game design and development popping up all over the place. Just try to do a little research about the course you found and make sure it’s recommended (or taught) by someone in the industry before jumping right into it, as it might be not so relevant.

Look for internships

A lot of employers realize that hiring someone with experience might not be an option sometimes — simply because of the lack of employees on the market, or for some other reason. That’s why many companies prefer to raise their own professionals by giving people a chance to enter the game development industry as interns. You just have to look out for those opportunities.

Some might require that you study or have studied in a more or less relevant field, however some are just looking for bright individuals without harsh formal requirements.

Find a mentor

Another viable way is finding someone who already works in game development to teach you and help you get all the necessary skills and knowledge. It’s somewhat similar to going through online courses, although it’s a more personal and tailored experience.

Try modding

A somewhat easier way than creating your own game from scratch is modding (creating a modification) a finished product. Modding community for basically any modifiable game is an amazing and welcoming place where you can learn a lot of things by simply asking and going through a little bit of trial and error. Some of the most popular titles that have huge modding communities are Skyrim, Fallout, Mount & Blade, Dragon Age, The Witcher and more.

If you didn’t know this already, Counter-Strike and Garry’s Mod were originally mods for Half-Life just as DOTA and DayZ were mods for Warcraft 3 and ArmA respectively. I know right? These are one of the most played games right now and they were originally developed by just one person. There are more examples of how simple mods came to be well-known standalone projects. Besides, more than half of Valve employees are former modders.

It’s actually the way I went. While I was still a student, I joined a mod team working on A Song of Ice and Fire modification for Mount & Blade. Having signed up as translator first, I quickly moved on to writing quests and dialogues and working on characters. After that I also showed interest in implementing my ideas into the project and was taught by the team lead programmer on how to actually code stuff into the project. When he had to leave the team due to moving to another city, I was the only one able to do the work he did and was appointed team leader. It was a wonderful time and I gained some basic understanding of how things work in game development.

Create your own

With all the necessary technical tools just lying out there, one of the options is either assembling (or joining) a team of people willing to create their own game or doing this all by yourself. Whether in the first case you can be responsible for game design and maybe a little bit more, the second scenario will require a lot of different skills from you — including programming, modelling, texture mapping etc. It’s not actually bad, but it will take a lot of time and effort to learn and do right.

There are indie games out there made by teams consisting of as many as three people — usually a programmer, an artist and a game designer. Are you still reading?

My Story

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Basically, it all started when I got fed up doing something I had been educated for simply because I had the knowledge and skills to do it. I had no passion for what I was doing and for this very reason my occupation quickly started to feel meaningless for myself. One day I just sat there at work and thought, I simply have to do something I love, otherwise my life will be worthless. I have been an avid gamer my whole life and I always dreamed of working on games, too. So I started looking for a job in IT sector and game industry in particular.

It took me a few weeks back then to find my current job. I almost landed a job at NVIDIA — got turned down the last moment because somebody from the company decided to take the position they were hiring for and obviously they preferred one of their own. I don’t regret that (I never do). I recall that the interviews there have been extremely useful and educational for myself. That taught me not to be afraid of being turned down — what may seem as a negative experience is still a valuable experience and you can make use of it.

When I came to the interview for my current job, I’ve been given a few problems on probability theory, combinatorics and game design — this was expected as the position I have applied for was related to designing economic models and such. The problems weren’t too hard, yet I had to use logic and some very basic knowledge of math. My creative thinking and problem-solving skills have also been put to test.

What felt great is that those problems and questions actually were supposed to attest my ability to think rather than some abstract knowledge. I’ve passed the interview and was hired a few days later by a company that became my second home. I am fairly certain, however, that my prior modding experience has played a big role in me being invited to the interview in the first place.

If you liked this story, you may find some of my other stories relevant:

How to balance your game using statistics and math

Content design in a nutshell

My thoughts on virtual reality