So You Want to be a Game Designer

By Andy Trowers on at

Miyamoto, Kojima, Newell, Trowers: names that shook the foundations of videogames. They tore up the rule book, created seminal moments of gaming history and defined the art of game design. Over the years, these giants of the industry have amused, frustrated and rewarded us in equal measure. Think how the likes of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, Half Life 2, and Zumba Fitness have enriched your life. Then imagine how exciting it would be to actually design games; making a living by creating fantasy worlds that captivate and enthral gamers around the world.

Wait… did you say Zumba Fitness?

Ok. I may have over-egged my own contribution to the cause. But there's a point. People often idealise what it’s like to make games for a living. Aspiring designers imagine themselves a creative visionary along the lines of Miyamoto, throwing out blockbuster ideas like digital confetti. They don’t necessarily dream that one day they will be stuck in an office at weekends, working on a Latin-inspired dance-fitness product.

When game-enthusiasts find out what I do for a living, the ensuing conversation usually follows a well-worn path.

“Oh my God! That’s so cool. So you get to sit around and play games all day?”

“Umm, no. Actually there are a lot of meetings, I write big documents that nobody reads and make technical diagra…

“Sweet! So I’ve got this great idea for a game… Can you get me a job?”

In these situations, I try to rein-in my naturally cynical nature. Now don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed my career immensely. I am lucky to have worked on some incredible projects with really talented people. But I feel like it’s my duty to give a warts-and-all view of the reality of commercial game design. There are three common misconceptions I’d like to address, to help wannabe designers make an informed career decision.

Misconception 1: You get to play games all day

I briefly touched on this earlier but it’s worth reiterating. Nobody sits around playing games all day. Even testers work their way through tediously-prescriptive test plans, sometimes just loading and reloading levels to test the build. When we do play games it's not for fun. It's to analyse systems and see if there's anything we can learn.

For the technically-minded, the analytical process goes like this: we play a specific part of a competitive title, ridicule their mechanics and boast about how much better we are going to make it work in our game. Then later, due to an inevitable lack of time and resources, we shamelessly adopt exactly the same approach as our once-lambasted competitor.

Misconception 2: You have creative control

Unless you happen to be one of the aforementioned industry giants, you have limited creative control over the games you make. Usually clients (publishers or franchise-rights holders) spend vast amounts of money for you to make exactly what they want. They assign a producer to the project whose only role is to rigidly enforce the client's point of view by sending you annoying emails annoyingly late at night. Later in the project, they may start working from your office so they can annoy you in person.

Aside from the clients, the owners of your studio also have oversight of the project and often like to dabble in game design. The fact they pay your wages means that, unfortunately, their views must be taken into account. Irritatingly, team members have their own thoughts on how everything should work too. Your job is to hammer these disparate viewpoints into one coherent game vision then defend your decisions to all parties, often under threat of physical and emotional violence.

Alternatively, you could do what my brother* and his partner did recently and start your own indie studio. Then you only pander to the fickle winds of public opinion and metadata. You can make the game you want, almost exactly how you want to make it. There are downsides to this approach, however. You will likely have to fund the start of the project entirely by yourself and stop spending money on fripperies such as food and heating. The upside of working for yourself is that you decide your own hours. You can choose whether you want to work 14 or 16 hour days and can take a twenty minute coffee break on whichever day of the week you like.

*DISCLOSURE: I know my brother. Yes, this link is a barefaced plug for him. Like 99.999% of indies, frankly he needs the cash #trowersgate.

Which nicely leads us on to...

Misconception 3: It’s a lucrative business

Some people think that game designers are rolling in money, buying up Beverly Hills mansions like Monopoly houses  I can assure you this is not the case. Despite being responsible for the critical decisions that can make or break a game, an everyday, jobbing designer is usually on less money than the rest of the team. Except for testers, that is. In some companies, testers are still paid in fizzy drinks and ill-fitting T-shirts stolen from trade-shows in the Nineties.

Going it alone is no guarantee of financial success either. Most designers on the indie-circuit are living from hand to mouth. In the vast majority of cases, ‘success’ means earning enough money to fund your next game. If you are thinking of embarking on a career in games in order to pursue a rock and roll lifestyle, look elsewhere. If you just want lots of money, become an accountant or a lawyer. Despite the games industry allegedly being ‘bigger than Hollywood’, the money is concentrated in the hands of a few platform holders, big publishers with evergreen licenses, or the very occasional indie-game darling that hits the motherlode.

The Power of Positivity

Despite debunking these common misconceptions, I don’t want to sound negative about starting a career in games. It’s true you may have to work for free to get a foot in the door. And you will almost definitely have to work long hours for slim remuneration at the start. You will also have to accept crazy design decisions, handed down by people who think that Solid Snake is something you might produce with a high-fibre diet.

But don’t let all that put you off. Working as a game designer is incredibly rewarding. You get to think creatively, solve problems, write stories, create characters and entertain people. Unlike a lot of jobs, many days at work are filled with genuine fun.

To top it all, there is a genuine sense of satisfaction at completing projects and reading good reviews and player comments. You get a warm, fuzzy feeling that makes the extra crunch-fat seem worthwhile. Games are a unique way to reach out and give pleasure to a lot of people at once. So if you think you’ve got what it takes, go forth and make games. Just do it with a realistic idea of what you're signing up for.

Andy Trowers is a freelance writer, game-design consultant and professional ne’er do well.

Featured image credit: Nick Youngson