There is no straightforward answer to this, as different studios will be looking for different skills and qualities when hiring designers. But here’s some of the things the games designers that I know and have worked with, have done to become designers.
Before I do, I want to put out this disclaimer: This isn’t a “you should do this if you want to be a designer” list, and I certainly cannot guarantee that you’ll get a job as a games designer if you do some or all of this. So please don’t burn yourself out by doing everything here, or later come back to me saying “I did all this and I’m still not a games designer!”. This is simply some of the ways myself and other designers have gotten into games industry, and I thought it would be good to share them with you.
Game Degrees and Courses
There are courses that cover a manner of games subjects including art, design, technology, animation, and so-on. I myself did a degree in Games Technology, but as you may have read in a previous blog post, I did this because I initially wanted to be a games programmer.
Whilst that course touched a little bit of design, it didn’t really give me enough of an understanding of how to become one. Hence the self-learning I did whilst working as a games tester (which I’ll cover later).
Back then, there wasn’t very many courses that specialised in games development. But now, it is a subject that has become more and more widely available. I’m not going to call out any inparticular institutes or courses, or make any recommendations, because in all honesty I can’t.
I also cannot tell you if they’re worth pursuing or not either, but if it’s something that you think that could be useful for you, do some background research into the course and the establishment; See if there are any reviews for the course and the institute itself, and see if you can find other designers on professional sites like LinkedIn that have taken that course, and try to judge for yourself if it’s right for you.
Degrees and Courses in other subjects
Shortly after I finished my degree, myself and some friends from university went to a Games Career Fair in London to speak to companies and to try and find out what else we could do to get our dream jobs. As part of this, there were talks from various studios about what they were looking for when hiring new recruits with no previous industry experience.
In one session, a guy was talking about the types of courses and studies he was looking for when reading through an applicant’s CV. He went on to say that he would rather hire someone who had completed a maths degree over someone who had studied a games course. As the talk went on, he was giving the impression that, to him, games courses were useless and that games companies would rather hire someone who had a more specialised degree in maths, english, or science, than someone who had taken a course that loosely covered bits and pieces on game development.
At the time, this really angered me; was he really telling us that we had wasted the past four years of our lives on a degree that was useless and that meant for nothing?
Looking back, and after working alongside professionals from a wide array of educational backgrounds, I understand what he was trying to get at; With a specialised degree, in maths for example, the mathematician would understand that topic fully, and if that mathematician was asked to create a formula or algorithm for a particular feature in a game, then they would be able to whip that up fairly quickly and more efficiently than a programmer may have. But that programmer would know how to put that algorithm into the game’s source code, whilst the mathematician may not.
However, computer programming is a subject that can be taught in a course or through self-learning, so an individual with a strong maths background may be able to learn how to write code, whilst still retaining their mathematical knowledge from their previous studies.
Other examples of non-gaming courses that could lead to – and assist in – games design, could include:
- Architecture, which can give the designer a better understanding on buildings, structures, and room layouts, which gives them the advantage of creating more sound and realistic playable indoor areas.
- Geography, which can give the designer a greater understanding on how land is formed, how weathering and environmental factors could affect the outdoor space, to create a more realistic, and relate-able, outside experience.
- History, which can give the designer a solid background on historical events and behaviours, to make a game based on something historical more believable.
- Psychology, which can give the designer an insight to how players would react to a particular scenario, and give them an idea of what to implement if they want to manipulate the players emotions in a particular way.
Self Learning and development
There are lots of resources available that you can read, watch, and use to teach yourself how to develop games now, but you need the self drive and motivation to do it. I won’t list any recommendations here, but if you sign up for my blog or follow me on Twitter (@designer_vickyb) I’ll try and point out some good books to read or videos to watch that may be of some interest to you.
Level editors, toolkits, and game engines are also very useful when learning for yourself how games design works, and many of these were most likely used to make the games that you enjoy playing.
For example, the Unreal Engine is a very powerful game engine that has been used to create games like Fortnite, Gears of War, and Bioshock. It can be downloaded for free for educational purposes, and comes with plenty of examples and tutorial videos on how to set up levels for yourself.
A lot of the editors, toolkits, and game engines that are freely available for educational purposes will have documentation and guides to help you get started with them, and often have forums and online communities that can also provide support too. Even if you choose to go into a course of some kind, I feel that it’s always worth having a look and exploring these tools for yourself.
Studying and analysing existing games
I remember one of my lead designers telling that one of the qualities they looked for in a designer was someone who could play a game and analyse what made it good and engaging. And I agree with them;
When playing a game, look for what is compelling you to take a particular path, what is making you choose to perform a specific action, and what the reasoning is for why something looks the way it does.
When you find yourself answers for these, then you can ask yourself how it’s done, whether it’s done well, and if there’s anything you would change or do differently to make it better.
As a designer, this is something I keep finding myself doing without realising it when I’m playing games, or when I watch others play games. And I think there are a lot of designers out there who find themselves doing it too.
When working on a game it’s not unusual to look at other games in the same or similar genre, or has a theme or setting that is similar, to see how that feels, what others particularly liked or disliked about it, and if there’s anything that was done previously that could be improved upon.
If you read game reviews, it’s common to find the reviewer comparing the game they’re talking about to others within the same genre or theme: at the time of writing this, a game called Apex Legends was recently released, and because it was a Battle Royale game it was automatically compared to Fortnight and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (or PUBG), as they are (or were, depending on when you’re reading this) the most popular Battle Royale games that were released prior to it.
So studying and examining other games is a pretty common task to do as a designer, and it’s something you can start doing right away alongside any other forms of training you want to do.
If you’re reading this for some advice or guidance on what you can do to become a games designer, then I hope this has been of some use to you.
The most important thing that I’d like you to take away from this, is that what method is right for you may not be right for someone else, and likewise – what was right for others may not be right for you. So go with your instinct, do some research, and if doesn’t land you in a job straight away then don’t see is as a waste of time and effort; it is all experience, and although you may not realise it by the end of it, you will in the years that will follow.
I felt so much heartache when I didn’t get a job as a games programmer, and felt ashamed that I had studied for so long for nothing. But looking back now I know that it wasn’t a waste of time and effort – that course gave me a good technical background and understanding of how code works, and I feel that has made me a better Systems Designer.
And I’m sure are other ways of being a designer that I’ve not mentioned here. So if you’re a designer, and have a different story to tell on how you got into this line of work, then please get in touch so we can all learn from it: leave a comment, send me a tweet at @designer_vickyb, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feel free to also get in touch if you’re need any more advice support into becoming a designer.