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Friday, 26 August 2016

So you want to be a game designer?

I spent more than ten years working as a designer in the games industry and, although I've also been an author, comic book creator, scriptwriter and TV producer, it's game design that I get asked about most often. In particular people want advice about courses and ways into the business. Well, everybody's story is different, so anything I say probably won't be usable as a route map. Even so, if it's a career that appeals, maybe some of the following will be of interest.

I think of game designers as being "interested in everything" and in particular in straddling the arts/science boundary that tends to divide the majority of people. My college degree was in Physics but I'd always been interested in English too. After college I started writing role-playing game articles, and then choose-your-own style gamebooks, and that got me into writing novels and comics. And then I got a job as a game designer at Eidos (working on Warrior Kings, pictured below) and that seemed like the job I'd been training for without knowing it.

But there are other experiences. My senior assistant designer at Elixir Studios, Sandy Spangler, came into it from a quite different direction. She studied Fine Arts, went from there into character design and animation for TV, and then into art direction at a game developer, and from there into design.

As the game designer is really the "show runner", you need to be able to communicate your creative vision to the artists, coders, writers, voice and mo-cap actors and so on. Design is almost by definition the thing that unifies those disciplines into a new coherent opus. Of course, you have to be able to nudge people to do their best work without coming across as a supercilious know-it-all. Charm, humour, passion and a collegiate manner - what I used to describe as a "bridge of the Enterprise" attitude - will all help.

I'd always been a movie and comics buff right from earliest childhood, so over the years inevitably I picked up some visual skills by osmosis. Two weeks into my time at Eidos, I was showing one of the artists how giving his Tyrannosaurus rex a low, forward-leaning stance with its body parallel with the ground made it look a lot more threatening than an upright Godzilla-style posture. A decade on, working on Dreams (pictured above) at Elixir, I was drawing on rules from cinema to create a game with the focus on character interaction. If I could rewind now, I'd probably add a cinematography or photography course somewhere in my school years.

A designer doesn't need to be able to code but it won't hurt. Coders can be pretty superior types until you earn their respect by proving that you at least understand the architecture of the system. My degree-level maths, rusty as it is, counts as mad skilz in the games industry. Likewise, while you'll probably be hiring writers rather than doing most of the game dialogue in person, you should know enough about storytelling and drama to manage that part of the process. If you like acting or role-playing, that'll help both with narrative structure and performance.

So the skills needed are:
Creative writing
Visual sense (cinematography/narrative art)
Some maths
Some code
Some drama and storytelling
Communication and leadership skills

- and I guess the angle you come at that from (whether science/maths first like me, or art first like Sandy) really depends on what you find most inspiring. Then fill in the other skills as and when you get the opportunity.


  1. I instantly thought of my friend's 10-year old daughter (if I had children, I'd want a daughter like her), who wants to develop games. This isn't surprising, since she grew up playing video games with her mom, and is now obsessed with Minecraft and Pokemon Go. She's smart, is learning coding, and loves drawing, on both paper and computers. I'd ask you for more advice to help her out, but I suspect her mom would have a handle on things. My friend is an app developer and talented photographer.

    Still, I wonder about the storytelling aspect, and if there's any way I could help/inspire her. Do you have any thoughts on getting a child interested in storytelling? I could show her Necklace of Skulls on my phone, and I'd love to give her her own copy of Heart of Ice one day.

    1. I know what you mean, Todd. I don't have kids myself, but if you could pick and choose then there are a few I'd have been willing to take off their parents' hands.

      I find that kids don't really need much encouragement to get interested in stories. My friend Leo's daughter, Freya Hartas, was making her own comic strips and storyboards from a very early age.

      I learned about storytelling from Stan Lee (I was lucky enough to be the perfect age to enjoy the great Silver Age comics of the late '60s) and movies and novels. Often these were the sort of influences that a teacher or librarian would try and steer a child away from (Robert E Howard, for example) but the best way to get a deep love of story technique is to start with those simple yarns spun with verve.

      These days there aren't many comics like the ones I was formed by. They're all either dark and gory (yawn) or they're a bit too kiddie. Stan Lee never talked down to me when I was ten, and I appreciated that. I'm trying to do the same with my Mirabilis comic, and she may be just a year or two too young for that, but she can look at it here:

      Other than that, you can't do better these days than Pixar. A full set of those movies provide a masterclass in storytelling that even Robert E Howard and Stan Lee would be hard pressed to match.

  2. Thank you so much. I'm sure she's seen a bunch of Pixar, and will again as her younger brother gets older. I'll check out Mirabilis.

    Also, something that may seem incomprehensible to you and me: she may actually like watching people play video games on Youtube, while they provide commentary, as much as playing games herself. Seems silly to me, but then I'm getting revved up to play fantasy (American) football, so I won't judge. There are apparently a lot of kids who do this, and I wonder if this will influence future video game development.

    1. I do that myself. So many games are being released, it's often the only way to keep up with interesting design ideas if you don't have 10-30 hours to spare. Not really any different from watching movie reviews, after all.