Jump to content
  • Advertisement
  • 07/24/19 12:28 PM

    A Day As A Game Designer

    Career Development


    Well known game designer Hideo Kojima


    The fabled game designer. The man, the myth, the legend behind the game. An inspiration to young creatives who wish to one day work in the games industry. But really, what does a game designer actually do? And how do you become one?

    Let’s get one common misconception out of the way first: Game designers are not “idea guys”. Sure, they come up with ideas which often translate into features, but 99% of their job seeing to their realization in agonizing detail. You certainly won’t be sitting in the “idea circle” pitching “A Zombie Survival Shooter RPG” and patting yourself on the back before going home.

    Instead, you’ll spend three hours deciding if the cooldown of a double-jump mechanic with a height of 400/200 units, velocity of 550 units/s and stamina cost of 30 should be 2.5 or 3 seconds. And if you’re unlucky, you’ll get hate mail from angry gamers whose main you just nerfed when the patch hits.


    The Basics of Game Design

    Game designers are responsible for the rules, systems, mechanics and content of a video game. They work in teams and are often divided into specializations such as system design, level design or game balance.

    While I perceive game design to be more of an art than an exact science, it’s still in the domain of software development and you’ll be using standardized applications for the most part. Here are some I’ve come across:

    • Spreadsheet of choice such as Excel or Google Sheets
    • Documentation tool such as Word, a wiki or pen & paper
    • Game engine such as Unreal or Unity
    • Version control such as Git or Perforce
    • Scripting Language such as Python or Lua
    • An in-house level editor such as Hammer Editor or Fallout Creation Kit

    You’ll likely start out as an intern or junior designer in the games industry. A degree in game design or software engineering are a plus, but the quantity and quality of projects you have in your portfolio carry a much higher significance. Having coding knowledge or writing skills helps you set yourself apart from raw designers, and if you’ve shipped an actual game or app before you’re already well ahead of the competition. More on this later.

    Having played games and being into games should be a given – this is not a skill.


    The 5 Stages of Grief Game Development

    Video games, like any other piece of software, go through distinct phases during their development and the game designer’s job changes accordingly. Keep in mind that methodologies and philosophies differ from place to place, so even a general overview like this may not apply to every production out there.



    After sitting through game pitches, meetings and shower thoughts, higher-ups will decide on the genre, budget, scope, target audience and rough release date for the next game. A small team is then tasked with creating a prototype.


    Your job here will be to conceptualize and actualize the core gameplay. Think taking the idea of “flying around with cars to hit a ball” or “free-for-all shooter where the map gets smaller over time” to a playable stage where you can clearly see why it is fun.

    This prototype highlights the core mechanics, the look and feel of the game as well its commercial viability. It should also shed some more light on the actual work required to develop the title. Most importantly though, it has to convince management. For a more detailed view on prototyping, check out this article.



    After the prototype gets approved and funding is secured, the project will move into full production with the appropriate amount of personnel assigned to it. As alluded to previously, game design has a lot of specializations which I’ll try to break down here.



    Systems design refers to the conceptualization and design of entire game systems, such as the combat system in Overwatch, the crafting mechanic in Minecraft or the leveling system in World of Warcraft. You’re also responsible for documenting said system in extreme detail, so that everyone who has to work on it knows exactly what to do. This is commonly done in a Game Design Document.



    Systems designers also decide how their system will interact with other game systems and set the basis for what game mechanics and features can be designed around it. Due to the scope and importance of systems like this, it’s a job most often left for more senior game designers.



    Feature design refers to the design of smaller, standalone features such as a daily login bonus or guild house customization and will see you touch on a variety of features rather than a specific system like the systems designer.

    Feature design is usually not a comprehensive enough specialization to be a job in itself, so when you see a job listing for a “Game Designer” it often refers to feature design with the expectation that you will also do general purpose game design, like play testing and balancing for example.



    As an entry level game designer you’ll likely work on content for existing systems, such as creating a set of healing items or designing skills for a character. The most common type of content design is level design, which involves mapping out the playable area and sprinkling it with cover, obstacles and other doodads.

    Next up is scripting – the act of placing triggers inside the level which make it move forward. An example would be making a door open when the player is carrying a keycard and having enemies spawn when they move through it.



    Certain companies may refer to this as Quest or Mission design, where you will also be responsible for the writing and narrative context of the level – say a side quest in Witcher 3.



    Whether we specialize in it or not, we’ll all have to do this one day. Balancing a game is an iterative process and involves a lot of number crunching which is usually done via spreadsheets.

    Players who purchase “Big Ass Sword” as their second item have a 62% winrate in arena mode. Why is that? What ranking bracket does it affect? What do we need to tweak? Will this have unintended side-effects?

    Decent math skills are required for this, and you need to be able to read and correctly interpret raw data from analytics. An understanding of high level play is also important, especially if your game has a competitive scene built around it.



    This is an aspect handled often handled by the UI designer, but you’ll be expected to do at least some basic wireframes here and there. This means sketching out the menus, buttons and user flow that the player will go through while interacting with your feature.



    Good systems can fall apart due to bad UX, and being able to not only spot minor annoyances but also identify solutions is a great skill to have. Images are also a lot simpler to understand than a paragraph listing technical steps, so try to make it a habit to visually represent your designs whenever possible.



    Designing a cool feature and thinking of how to monetize it afterwards won’t work. What you monetize, why people would spend money on it and how you avoid community backlash has to be an integral part of the design from the start.

    This is where the monetization designer comes in, who will conceptualize new systems and optimize existing ones alongside the designers responsible for the game’s progression system and economy.



    A good grasp on numbers and being able to interpret analytics is paramount, as you’ll be constantly monitoring KPIs and adjust price points, drop rates and events to further optimize the performance of your systems.

    You may have apprehensions about certain monetization practices, but try your best to stay on top of new trends in this field, especially if you’re going to work in the mobile games sector.



    While you may be able to write a few lines of dialog here and there, most games have a team of dedicated writers who own the script and work with the design leads to tie it to the game, making adjustments whenever needed.

    This workflow doesn’t always work out though, and can result in ludonarrative dissonance when players get slapped in the cutscene after one-shotting the final boss two seconds prior.

    To combat this, certain companies have started to adopt *narrative designers, which are game designers responsible for incorporating the game’s narrative directly into the gameplay. This is a highly specialized and sought after senior position requiring years of experience in both fields, so don’t expect to have this title on your resume any time soon.



    Unfortunately, developers can’t just go into a cave for 3 years until the game is done. Publishers often set out milestones which the studio has to reach in order to get paid, such as “vehicle physics done” or “working player camera”.



    These milestones usually dictate what concretely the team should work on next, and serve as mini-deadlines within the actual deadline. Sometimes you’ll also get pulled aside to create a trailer for an event or having a playable demo ready for a convention.



    This is the final phase in a game’s production, and almost no new content will be added during this stage. The focus is instead shifted to removing redundant clicks in the UI, ironing out odd difficulty spikes, wrapping up the tutorial and addressing feedback from Quality Assurance. This work often continues after the game goes gold in the form of a day 1 patch, as it takes time to print, certify, and finally ship the game.

    The ninety-ninety rule absolutely applies to game development as well, and taking your game from good to great can be an agonizingly slow process. It’s extremely important though: When this step is skipped, you end up with a game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Mount & Blade. Good games, but not very usable and thoroughly janky.



    Most games today are supported well beyond their release via DLC and balance patches. Working on a content update like this is just like working on a very small game – you’ll go through all the same steps.



    Live games take this a step further and often have a dedicated LiveOps team, which is responsible for keeping the game alive and profitable for as long as possible. This means planning in-game events, adding new content or nurturing the competitive scene.

    If you’re not on the LiveOps team and you haven’t been laid off by this point, it’s time to move on to the next title.



    If you’re an aspiring game designer, here are some things that helped me out when I was in your shoes. But just like I mentioned in my previous post, these are personal anecdotes and not representative of everyone, so make sure to read up on the experience of others.



    • Your game design degree means jack shit. There will be hundreds more with the exact same degree wanting the exact same job. You have to stand out in another way. Finish a quality project.
    • Give 110% when working on game projects during school. It will be what matters most when a potential employer compares you to a classmate. Finish a quality project.
    • If you don’t have the opportunity to do student projects, make games by yourself. I started out in RPG Maker and moved up to Unreal. Board games count too. Finish a quality project.
    • Go ham in a level editor, make a mod or write an essay deconstructing a game mechanic. You want to demonstrate a wide range of knowledge with a good amount of depth to it. Finish a quality project.
    • Teach yourself basic coding. This will allow you to create prototypes by yourself and participate in game jams by not being a complete dead weight. Finish a quality project.
    • Before I forget: Finish a quality project.



    • You have to be a strong communicator. Apart from being diplomatic, learn how to write clear, concise text that can be understood by outsiders and make it a habit to write down whatever you’re thinking about regularly.
    • It’s good to have some ego about your designs, but you must to be able to let go. If you can’t handle the thought of having your ideas torn to shreds by a dozen other people, this job is not for you.
    • It’s paramount that you expand your horizon to stay competitive in the games industry. You’ll likely work on different projects in different positions in your career, so read up on trends and play games you’re not normally into.
    • You probably have strong opinions and maybe you made fun of games, companies and developers in a comment section before. Don’t do that in front of people working in the industry – you’ll burn bridges.
    • Don’t be a “Gamer” with a capital G.



    • Make a portfolio website with your projects, bio, CV and an optional blog if you can write professional, insightful posts on a regular basis. You can shitpost like me once you make it in.
    • Make a nice business card, print out multiple copies of your CV and visit some conventions. Talks are mostly useless, so spend time chatting with the HR people who likely have a recruitment booth around.
    • Start growing your network today by setting up a LinkedIn profile and adding classmates as well as new people in the industry you come across. Having a point of contact will come in incredibly useful one day.
    • Get in touch with actual game designers and ask for feedback about your projects and resume. We can also refer you to the proper recruiter within the company so you’re not starting your cover letter with “To whom it may concern.”
    • I can’t speak for the internships in the states, but they’re well worth in here in Europe. It sets you apart from other graduates, counts as experience on your resume and the chances of getting a permanent job are decent.
    • Keep your expectations in check. Getting a job as a raw designer is hard, and the chances of you getting a specialized senior position like narrative designer fresh out of school are nonexistent.
    • AAA developers are highly organized, and you’ll likely end up working on a very specific thing in a very specific manner. Job security is decent, and the game will carry weight on your resume.
    • Startups on the other hand are high-risk high-reward: They offer you a lot more influence on the project, pay less, tend to run out of money and often suffer from a chaotic workflow. Don’t pick up bad habits here.


    Closing Thoughts

    I hope this post was able to give you a better understanding of what a game designer does. I can only speak for myself, but game design is a highly rewarding creative experience akin to setting up a scene for a movie or writing a stage play. Plus, having shipped an actual video game does allow you to humblebrag here and there. But be prepared to work hard – this is a job a lot of people want and you have to stand out to get it. Good luck!





    Kai Wüest is a game producer currently freezing in Iceland working on a game called Starborne: Sovereign Space. Check out his blog over at kreidenwerk.com to find more articles like this and see what he's up to next.

    Website | LinkedIn


    Note: This article was originally published on the author's blog, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

      Report Article

    User Feedback

    There are no comments to display.

    Create an account or sign in to comment

    You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

    Create an account

    Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

    Register a new account

    Sign in

    Already have an account? Sign in here.

    Sign In Now

  • Advertisement
  • Advertisement
  • Latest Featured Articles

  • Featured Blogs

  • Advertisement
  • Popular Now

  • Similar Content

    • By Wush
      As a hobby programmer I am slowly working my way up project by project to make a game. However I am currently stumped on what to do with what I call the communication layer.
      To explain: you have an ability, a technology or a building first you need to communicate to anyone effected to apply the effects. Also abilities might need to know when a certain activity is started or ended to trigger or alter their effects.
      Events are a tool to handle this, but:
      1) You still need an effective filter, so only those recipient are called that fulfill certain requirements(nationalities, race, class, locality etc)
      2) You need to know/write beforehand what  method  needs to trigger an event.
      I would be thankful for any advice on these two points, is there any way to elegantly append a methodcall with another methodcall? 
      I mean I could write some kind of wrapper containing a delegate  of a method  and then only call the wrapper, having the wrapper contain a list of additional method calls and their inputs to be executed?
    • By jb-dev
      This is the third level's title card.
      All title cards will have its colours matched with its level. Every levels also have a unique level seal.
    • By jb-dev
      This is the first level's title card.
    • By SpencerG
      My name is Spencer Goold Executive Director of The AGIF, a startup nonprofit with the mission of advancing the missions of other nonprofits (aka NGOs: Non-Governmental Organizations) worldwide and to connect changemakers for a better world. We're developing a mobile game app to help raise awareness on global issues and to create more funding opportunities for smaller nonprofits around the world. This will be a 16-bit strategy-based, city building game in the artistic style of the SNES title, “Zelda: A Link to the Past” or the SNES “Final Fantasy” series. 
      You play as a customizable avatar from an alien, yet familiar world, where your community is deeply impoverished. Your character receives an educational scholarship and, upon completing their education and making valuable connections, decides to return home and apply their knowledge to help their community thrive. 
      You’ll begin with building a small education center where you can offer further education to the local youth. From there, they can begin contributing in new ways to the economy. As your resources grow, you can build new facilities such as sanitation, water, and medical structures. Once your population begins to stabilize and grow, you can upgrade your facilities to accommodate a larger populous. 
      As the gameplay progresses, you’ll begin to deal with new issues such as the spread of disease, famine, and natural disasters, to name a few. Once this begins, you’ll need to reach out to your friends who are also playing for resources and volunteers to help tackle the issues together. 
      The hope is that we can do this in a way that will educate players on some of the more prevalent issues that we face in the world while inspiring the spirit of giving and volunteerism. The game will be free-to-play with in-app purchases, where the money will go to charity to help people in real life.  
      I am now seeking game designer for my new team who can help me develop a 10 – 15 minute gameplay demo with one complete level. So far, we have a fully fleshed-out game doc with concept art, but would be open to interpretations and new concepts. 
      If you're interested, please comment to this post below or send me a PM. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read through this.
      With gratitude.
    • By Unlock Audio
      Communication can be the hardest part of any collaborative creative process. Many times the most difficult part is understanding the other party. This is especially true in art, and it’s definitely true in audio.
      Every community and discipline has their own language, their own slang, and their preferred way of communicating. So today, I’ll be talking about some of the ways us audio folks like to communicate and some of the ways you can be awesome at talking about audio.
      Now before I begin, I do want to say that any audio person or composer worth a grain of salt has (hopefully) realized that part of their job is to act as an interpreter and translator for non-audio/music people. This is true even within the audio community - composers need to know sound-design and non-musical audio terms just like sound-designers need some basic music lingo. If your audio people aren’t trying to find different ways to communicate and understand what you want/need, they’re not doing part of their job!
      Alright, let’s talk about some things you can bring to the table that will make audio communication easy.
      If you take only one thing away from this article, please make it this! References are incredibly helpful for any type of audio person. Again, so much of the difficulty we’re discussing is communication. You can take out a massive amount of potential miscommunication by being able to hit play or send a link and say “like this.”
      Phrases like “make it sound heavier” , “bigger” , “higher” , “darker” , “harder” , all make perfect sense to the person saying them, but there are a myriad of ways to make something sound “higher” or “darker”, etc. On top of that, it’s not only a matter of executing the idea, but understanding the idea of the intended sound itself. Don’t be the person that says “it should sound more blue” and think you’ve effectively communicated. It may make perfect sense to you - but trust me, your audio people have no idea what that means. This is especially true when talking through emotional content and experience for music (there are LOTS of different types of “sad” music!).
      Have some references - know what you like about them - and say “like this.”
      Even with references, having some basic terms in your pocket that audio people know will help you immensely. In the game audio courses I teach at DePaul University, we spend a considerable amount of time getting students to talk about audio in a way they haven’t before. There are lots of words used to describe audio and music, but below are some of the most common and universally accepted. Use these, and your audio discussions will be much more efficient and productive.
      Pitch - the psychological perception of frequency. AKA, playing different notes on a piano. Don’t just say make it “higher.” Say “higher pitched” or “raise the pitch.” Your audio folks will know exactly what you mean.
      Loudness - how loud we perceive a sound to be. Using words like louder and quieter do a pretty good job of communicating this, but it happens all the time that non-audio people will try to talk about loudness and use terms like “lower” , “higher” or “softer.” These words can have lots of different meanings in the world of audio. So, anytime you want to talk about how loud or quiet something is and want to be super purposeful, throw the term loudness in there.
      Timbre (pronounced tamber) - the tone quality or “color” of a sound. If you play middle C on a piano just as loud as playing middle C on a viola, the difference between these sounds is their timbre. Similar to loudness, people use “higher” , “lower” , “softer” to describe timbre as well. This is fine, but you can see how easily these words can be misinterpreted. Want to be extra sure you’re communicating what you want? Use timbre into your sentence.
      There are many other terms us audio folks use to be very specific when talking about audio, but if you begin to use the three I’ve listed above, you will save yourself (and your audio people) so much time and headache!
      Your Game!
      No, you don’t need to wait until the game is almost done to bring in an audio person. Quite the opposite, actually! But you do need something to help you communicate your game and the world you’re creating to your audio people, even if the game is in its early stages. 
      (Quick side note, you should totally bring in your audio collaborators as early as possible. You will be so much happier with your end audio experience. If you do this already, YOU ROCK!)
      For more emotional types of audio such as voice acting and music, having character, concept or environment art can be a fantastic resource if actual gameplay isn’t available. Also, if you have a significant backstory or lore you’ve created, this can be great for helping decide how this character should sound and/or how the world should “feel.”
      But even with these, audio folks need to know a basic outline of what the gameplay is going to be like and any sort of progression to it. There are many ways we can tailor audio to closely “fit” the game and gameplay experience, but we need to know these considerations as early as possible.
      Consider a stealth-action game: knowing that there is a stealth mechanic with different stages of intensity can open up a world of possibilities for composing and implementing an interactive score.
      For less-emotional audio, the best thing is to have video of animations or events. When I worked at a large corporate developer in the past, sometimes I would literally walk over to an animator or programmer’s desk and take video with my phone to begin the sound design. Because of the processes in place, they couldn’t send the animation to me as “final,” but I could begin the experimentation process. Plus, 90% of the time, it was the final version anyway.
      Realistic Expectations
      Audio and music are both a process - and that’s ok! It rarely happens that the first version of a sound or piece of music is ready to go into the final game. Exploration, experimentation and sometimes failure are just part of the gig. Knowing that you are always getting closer to your goal is important - especially when you’re excited to hear what your audio people have been cooking up, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
      That being said, if version 15 basically sounds the same as the previous 14 versions, that’s just a terrible audio person or serious lack of effective communication. Each version needs to be trying another interpretation of your notes or adding to what they had before. Creating multiple versions and using the differences between them can also be very helpful to communicate. But in order to do that, we first need to create those couple different versions.
      Overall, if you take the time to think about and purposefully communicate with your audio person instead of improvising descriptions and goals on the spot, you should be in great shape. Pair that with good references, some basic audio vocabulary and game materials (art, animations, gameplay) and your audio folks should be able to dive right in.
      Be sure to check out Unlock Audio!
      Want to reach out? hello@unlockaudio.com

Important Information

By using GameDev.net, you agree to our community Guidelines, Terms of Use, and Privacy Policy.

GameDev.net is your game development community. Create an account for your GameDev Portfolio and participate in the largest developer community in the games industry.

Sign me up!