Friday, January 24, 2014

You are a Game Designer (Part II)

In Part I, game designer Bud Leiser unveils the mystery behind what a game designer does on a project.  In Part II, he lists the skills needed to be a successful game designer.

What do game designers need, in order to be game designers?

Math! (and Excel)

Games are mostly interactions of math. Speed, height, distance, currency, levels, experience, weapons, timing, arcs. It’s all math really. Let’s assume we agree Richard Garfield is a good game designer…He has a PhD in Mathematics. Magic the Gathering was a thesis project to show that people could be addicted to performing simple math equations! I’m not suggesting game companies should run out and hire a bunch of mathematicians to become their game designers. Remember that “artsy feely thing” from before? Good luck finding that in a mathematician!

Instead I’m suggesting that if you want to be a game designer you should study Excel. Learn how to create tables, and formulas. Ask yourself “Ok, instead of pricing each one of those individually, how do I make a formula to price it for me?” At the very least, go learn about the Fibonacci series and learn how to use it in a spreadsheet.

(Greg Damiano said it really well “At the heart of most games are 2 underlying formulas. Those 2 formulas have to pair perfectly together. Then pretty much everything else in the game is built on top of those 2. I’d never said or heard it that way, but he’s spot on.)

Technical Skills
It’s hard to work with other super talented and technical people if you can’t “speak their language.” It’s not just about understanding their linguistics, it’s about gaining their trust. It sucks, it’s a pain but eventually you need to invest some serious time into learning a programming language and a development tool (such as Unity or UDK) Even though: You will never be as good of a programmer as the real programmers on your team. Suck it up and do it. Besides once you learn those things then if you ever really have to: You can make your own games!

Communication Skills

You have to write documents. Lots and lots of documents. Somehow they need to have a magical mix of all of these qualities:
  • Detailed
  • Concise
  • Clear
  • Descriptive
You will also need to include lots of examples. This means charts and tables from Excel. Also diagrams, sketches, mockups and wireframes from Photoshop. Here’s the great news (sarcasm): after you write that document, you have to write it again, in even more detail multiple times! One for each and every department! Yes it sucks. Being a game designer is not about playing games, it’s real work making games. Get used to it!

Management Skills

How can you be a designer…if no one is following you (and your designs)? This is another one of those “sucks but you gotta learn it” things. Some of us would love to just play around in Excel, create lots of mathematical formulas, think up cool characters, stories and features and for all those ideas and objects to just magically make their way into the game on their own. Let me know if that job ever exists. At some point somewhere in the project timeline you will have to “help people” understand and implement all of the elements you spent so much time thinking up.

Other helpful things:
  • Storytelling
  • Character Development
  • Imagination
  • User Interface Design
  • User Experience Design
  • An understanding of color (how they create mood, what they mean in different cultures)
  • Interesting life experiences to draw upon
  • Play lots of video games
  • Keep up with industry standards
  • Ability to handle feedback
  • Ability to correctly give feedback
If your dealing with social games (or games that have in-app purchases), you would also find great benefit from the following because these things need to be “baked” into the game design itself:
  • Sales experience 
  • Marketing
  • PR 
  • Customer Support
And that my friends is everything, that I think, folds into the giant cluster we call “Game Designer.” It’s a very complex role. But at the heart of it, it comes down to 2 formulas right? Create good games and help others along the process of making it. Everything else is built on top of those 2 things.

[This article originally appeared on Bud Leiser's personal blog.]  

Bud Leiser beat Nintendo’s original Zelda when he was just 3 years old. Then went on to win money and prizes playing: D&D Miniatures, Dreamblade, Magic the Gathering and The Spoils. He’s just returned from Vietnam where he helped manage Wulven Studios as their Lead Game Designer. He was responsible for creating internal projects, game design documents and communicating with clients to help them succeed in the post-freemium app market.


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