If there’s one question I get asked more than anything else, it’s this: “how do I become a game designer? “. I get emails from kids and teenagers and people bored of their jobs who would love to turn their passion for games into a career and be the ones who actually design the mechanics, systems, and levels that I talk about on this show. Unfortunately, I’m not really equipped to answer this question. However! I do have some contacts who can help.
So over the last month, I’ve been talking to an enormous number of game designers, level designers, employers, recruiters, educators, and students – all in the hope of answering the most fundamental questions about getting into the biz as a designer.
Salary of a game designer
The average salary of a game designer is $67,604/ year according to payscale
Starting with the most important question of all… What does a game designer actually do?
The answer to this question is going to depend entirely on the size of the studio, the type of games they make, and the structure of their teams. Because depending on where you work, the design role might be a very general position – or an extremely specialized one. On a very small mobile game, for example, the game designer might be responsible for every aspect of design. But on a larger title, the role is likely to be split between game design and level design.
Go even bigger, and those roles might be split up even further. There are gameplay designers, who focus on second-to-second interactions, and systems designers, who look after over-arching concepts like progression. Level designers might be split into quest designers and open-world designers. You might have a narrative, UX, economy, and technical designers – who are a bridge between design and code. There’s no saying how specific these roles can be – on red dead redemption ii, there were people who focused exclusively on designing systems for the horse.
But, okay – what do these people actually do?
Well if we look at game designers, their job is to come up with ideas for mechanics and systems. If those are approved by the creative leads, the designers will create detailed design docs and asset lists to help programmers and artists turn those ideas into reality.
Once those features exist, designers will be given tools to manipulate the mechanic further: perhaps a simple scripting language to plan out interactions or a spreadsheet of stats to change. Level designers on the other hand are going to be creating environments for the player to explore and traverse – using the toys provided by game designers.
In most big games, levels are made in a “grey box” – simple, untextured geometry that will be dressed up by artists. Level designers may also do scripting for specific encounters, or to tie missions together in an open world. Both roles are highly collaborative because designers will be working closely with artists, animators, programmers, writers, and others to turn their ideas into something pretty and playable. And highly iterative, as ideas will be endlessly tweaked and changed in response to play-testing. Okay, if that sounds interesting to you – let’s ask the next question.
How do you become a designer?
It’s the million-dollar question. And from speaking with my industry experts, I reckon you really need four things to get a job as a designer. You need to be able to think in terms of design. You need soft, or interpersonal skills like communication. You’ll need a strong portfolio to show what you can do. And for a lot of roles, you’ll need some level of experience in the games industry. I’ll come back to the first two when I’m talking about interviews.
But for now, let’s chat about portfolios and experience.
If there’s one piece of advice I got from pretty much everyone I talked to, it’s this: make stuff. Show people that you have the ability to design a game or level – and then put that together in a portfolio. For example – this is purses, a super short game with fully destructible environments, which helped Zachary Preece land a job on watchdogs: legion. So if you want to be a game designer, your portfolio should include small projects like this that show your ability to come up with an interesting mechanic or system.
These days it’s entirely possible to actually make these games, using tools like unreal engine and unity. But if you really don’t want to learn how to code, you could use the PlayStation 4 game dreams, or use the tabletop simulator to make board and card games. These don’t need to be full games – they can be vertical slices, game jam projects, and prototypes.
You can also work with others to make a game – but when it comes to your portfolio, you need to clearly explain which bits you personally came up with. Whatever the case, you’ve got to show your work – make sure you have clear documentation for how you dreamt up, designed, implemented, and refined your ideas, so you can show potential employers proof of your design thinking skills.
For level designers, it’s all about making an actual level. Again, you can use something like unreal or unity, but it’s perfectly acceptable to use modding tools and level editors for existing games. And if you can make a level that’s relevant to the company you’re going for, even better – I spoke to one designer who got the job because they’d made a level for the firm’s previous game. Whatever’s on your portfolio, make sure your stuff is finished – even if it’s incredibly short.
Try to focus on your best work, and always pick quality over quantity. And while downloads and documentations are great, employers can’t play and read everything so pack your portfolio with videos and screenshots. Now let’s talk about the experience. While some studios will absolutely have entry-level positions for design, they’re uncommon and highly sought-after. So you can boost your chances of getting hired by getting experience in the industry.
One way to get this is through placements like internships, trainee positions, and work experience posts – which can absolutely turn into full-time roles at the company if you do well. Another common approach is to start with quality assurance (or QA, or game testing). This gives you experience in the biz and a first-hand look at how studios operate. Again, it’s not uncommon for QA testers – especially those embedded in the development team – to impress their bosses and get moved into design roles at the same company.
But remember that QA is a vitally important role in itself for game designer, and shouldn’t be seen as just a stepping stone to design. Perhaps the best advice is to remember that your first job probably won’t be designing games at Blizzard or Bungie. You can’t be picky at this stage, so get experience at places making mobile games, kids games, or even gambling games before making the leap to the studios making your favorite blockbusters.
Now, there’s one pretty stellar way to get both a portfolio and experience. And that’s a university (or college). In 2021, there’s a huge number of courses for game designer all around the world – like digipak in Washington, Teesside university in the UK, Breda university in the Netherlands, and RMIT in Australia.
If you take these courses you’ll be taught game designer theory and enough programming to get you started, by people with industry experience. You’ll make a strong portfolio of work, using your end-of-year projects – purses from earlier were actually zac’s project at Staffordshire uni in the UK. You’ll also get to meet friends to build games with and you’ll make connections in the industry. And you’ll often get access to work experience posts and graduate positions.
This is a strong and increasingly popular route into the industry, but almost everyone I spoke to – including the lecturers themselves – warned that the college diploma itself isn’t the important bit. Instead, it’s about making the most of the opportunities and connections you’re provided. And it’s about having the time to really focus on building out your portfolio.
So ultimately, a game designer degree is not a guarantee of a good job in the industry. And it’s also definitely not a requirement for many positions: which is good, because depending on where you live university can be an expensive proposition. If you do decide to study game design, make sure you research the school carefully. Look at who is teaching and their credentials and experience. Look at which studios the university has good connections with, and where graduates have ended up. And definitely look out for predatory for-profit colleges in us. Always do your research before you enroll.
It’s worth mentioning that other skills and educational backgrounds can help you stand out as a candidate. For example, while coding is rarely needed as a designer, some ability to program will help you communicate better with engineers, and help you understand the scripting tools you’ll be using. The same goes for understanding other roles and pipelines, like art and audio. Also, knowledge of relevant disciplines such as economics, architecture, art, and psychology could make you a better candidate when going toe-to-toe with those who have exclusively studied game design. And finally, we can’t discount the social side of things.
The classic “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. Making strong connections in the industry through networking events and social media can open up doors that others can’t even see. But okay – you’ve got your cv, your portfolio, perhaps some experience under your belt, perhaps you’ve even got a degree in game design. You’ve applied for a job and you’ve got an interview. Congratulations! And so…
How do you ace a design interview?
When you’re interviewing for a design position, employers are really looking for those two skills I mentioned earlier – design thinking and interpersonal skills. For the latter, you’ll get questions that are all about judging your personality to see if you have the right attitude, and will fit the studio’s existing culture. So the interviewer wants to know if you’re a team player who can resolve conflict, and adapt to someone else’s vision.
Do you have good communication skills, including confidence in pitching your ideas? And are you resilient to feedback on your work? Don’t be surprised if the employer dismantles your portfolio pieces to see how you’ll react to criticism of your ideas. For design thinking, the employer really wants to know if you can think about games on a deeper level than a typical fan or consumer.
Do you get how game designer work? Do you understand how changes can impact other aspects of a game? I’ve heard more than one studio ask candidates “what would happen if you remove one of the options in rock paper scissors? ” to see how they’d work through the problem, and show that they understand game balance. It’s common to be asked about the games you’ve been playing lately. This isn’t small talk – it’s a chance for you to show some analysis, criticism, and understanding of design! Practice this by analyzing, reviewing, and breaking down the games you play – like some kind of knock-off gmtk.
If you nail the interview, you may be given a design test. This is where you’re asked to prove your design skills – usually on paper, but perhaps in a scripting tool or level design tool. For a game designer position, you may be asked to take an existing game and add a new mechanic or show how you would change some aspect of the game.
For a level design test, you may be asked to plot out a map for a short level that includes a new mechanic or an enemy encounter. It will usually involve the studio’s existing games, so be familiar with their back catalog. These can be pretty stressful – especially if you’re asked to do it on-site at the studio, and if it’s under a time constraint. Now, if you don’t get the job – that sucks, make sure you get some feedback so you can improve in the future.
But if you do get the job, hooray! You’re in the industry! And so the question to ask is… Is game designer a dream job? If you follow gaming news at all, you’ll definitely have seen some headlines that might put you off the games industry for good. Working in game development involves crunch – which is when you work extremely long hours before major milestones.
Game studios frequently have mass lay-offs or full-on studio closures
Game designers may receive threats and abuse online. And there are even stories about sexual harassment in the workplace. And it’s certainly true – game development is volatile, extremely hard work, often thankless, and not as diverse or as inclusive, or as safe as it needs to be.
But, when I posed these issues to people in the industry, they told me that while these problems exist, they should not discourage you from joining the business and that strides are being made to improve these practices, across the board. You can also protect yourself, to some extent, by carefully researching studios before taking a job to see how you’ll be treated.
Look to sites like glassdoor, and talk to former or existing employees. Another challenge for game development is that you may not have opportunities where you live. There are few game developers and even fewer game designer courses in places like India and South America, for example. So you may need to move around to get the best jobs – but you could potentially get experience in the small studios where you currently live. But, then again, it’s worth remembering that you don’t need to work at Ubisoft or rockstar to be a game designer.
The thousands of indie games released every year are proof that individuals, tiny teams, and small companies can put together games without industry involvement. And I promise you that the solo designers of axiom verge, stardew valley, and gunpoint had way more creative control than the dude working on red dead redemption’s horses. That’s not to say that the game designer route is any easier than getting hired. And it’s not a guarantee of making a living wage let alone becoming a millionaire. But, maybe this is how you want to be a game designer? For now…
So… Hopefully, that helps!
If you want to become a game designer you should make stuff, do game jams, download modding tools, practice your design thinking skills, make friends and connections, and maybe get started with a different role, or study game design at school. It’s a difficult and competitive industry to enter. And it will be different for every company on the planet – the advice in this video is the best.
The most general advice I can provide for a game designer-
but it’s not going to apply 100% to every game designer
Game designer is a job that’s not without its challenges and hardships. But it can be a very rewarding career: you won’t just be playing games, you’ll be helping make the experiences that the next generation of players will be obsessing over.
A huge thank you to everyone who helped me with this blog. If you’re a game designer in the industry and have the advice to share, please drop it in the comments below and I’ll pop a heart on the best stuff.
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