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Everybody Wants to Design

Originally appeared in "The Games Game" column on The IGDA website was massively redesigned in 2013, making old columns unavailable, so select columns are now being reposted here on an as-needed basis. This article originally appeared in January, 2013.

Dear Tom,
I want to work in games, but I'm no good at computers or art. I realized, though, that I could be a Game Designer. I could be the idea guy. The one who figures out what the game will be, and tells everybody else what to do. That would be perfect for me! Besides, I figure the industry is in desperate need of new original ideas, since games today basically suck. Is my reasoning sound? What are my chances?
Woody B. Adesigner


Dear Woody,
Would it surprise you to learn that Game Designer is, like, everybody's dream job? I mean, seriously: it is the single most-desired job in the game industry. So that's the first problem with your aspiration: you face dauntingly high competition.

The second problem is that game design is not an entry-level job, and there is no surefire path to the job. That's the bad news, but here's the good news: any entry path you get can lead to game design. All you have to do is get hired at a game company, then work hard and enthusiastically for several years. Do great work, and look for opportunities to help with design decisions and take part in brainstorming sessions. Show that you have good ideas, and you can work your way into the design role.

The third problem is that you misunderstand what the job entails. A game designer doesn't usually get to decide what games he'll work on. Sure, a designer is often full of ideas for games, but unless he owns the company where he works, he usually has to work on whatever game he's been assigned to. It's publisher executives who decide what games are made; the designer works out the details. The job is about problem-solving, and then selling others on the solutions he or she comes up with.

The fourth problem is that you think game design is the easy alternative to having a skill, or training, or experience. A game designer needs training and a skill in order to get hired, and at least two years of experience in the industry, before he'll get the designer role. And these days, many game designers start as level designers: a fairly technical job.

And there's a fifth problem: your attitude. It's easy to condemn today's games. It's easy to imagine how they could be better. But it's really hard to take that imagined vision and execute it, when you have to deal with investors, CEOs, CFOs, Marketing, Sales, P.R., Studio heads, IP owners, and platform holder reps along the way. Plus, every programmer, artist, producer, and tester on the project has their own ideas for your game. Besides, if you really think today's games "basically suck," why do you still play them, much less want to work in the industry? And one last thing: when you apply for a job at a game company, I recommend you not mention that you think the company's games suck. Keep that opinion to yourself. Don't insult the hand that hires you.

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© 2013 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.

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