Game design has many twists and turns. Of course, the subject matter is very complex. There are so many industries wrapped up in creating a single game. With that said, there is a big difference between a game designer and a GOOD game designer.
At this point, I have seen roughly 300 students walk through my door saying they want to be a game designer. Most of them want to pursue it as a career. I believe I have had many that will eventually go on and do exactly that. The students that often performed the best, received national awards. What exactly is it that is the difference though between the average game designer and the best?
A few things that it’s not first. It’s not artistic ability. Some of my best artists often do not lead to being the best game designers. They certainly have some very special ability, but they often lack other abilities that lead to success.
It’s not just being great learners. I have had students who excelled academically. They could not only listen to what was being told, but they often could apply it. Still, they were not the best game designers I have ever had.
In fact, I would argue that it is not always just about presenting your game idea either. Although very important when working with others, there are additional factors involved in being successful.
What about being great gamers? I have had many parents say that their kids belonged in my class because “they are great at them computers and love video games”. At times, those students have found that there is a major difference in playing video games and making them. I believe there is almost no correlation in being a gamer and making games for success.
Here are the five qualities that I believe make up a really good game designer:
1. Be Open Minded
This is first on the list for a reason. I often look towards the end of the development process to figure out who I believe were among the best game designers I have had. Honestly, I have had quite a few. That being said, those that I would list in the top five were all extremely open-minded.
An open minded game designer will welcome constructive criticism. In fact, they are often critical of their own work in many ways. They are always willing to listen to that feedback.
In my program we have a lot of people that often walk through the class. This could range from young students who might be interested in the game development program in the future, to those that have no interest in games and are looking at career options that we offer.
They often have opportunities to review, look at, and play students games. It’s great for them to see the quality of work produced, but also great feedback for those students.
The students who excel are open-minded to what they hear. They may be heading in one direction, only to realize that someone provided a nugget of information that they need to revamp some things.
Of course, it’s important that you look at the information and decide what is accurate, versus what isn’t. A few instances that come to mind are one game that was based off of time. The developer and a good portion of gamers found the game to be relatively easy. Difficulty was increased significantly by reducing the time allowed to complete.
What ended up happening is that the game was reviewed by myself, someone not used to the genre, and I said it was a bit too frustrating for me. A few days later, someone else came through and said something similar. The student made some modifications so that the game at earlier levels remained fairly simple so that early success would encourage players to continue.
Those students that listened to the feedback had a better game at the end. At times it was difficult to hear it. When they could push their frustration aside, or realize that people were not being critical just to be critical, it allowed them to apply some changes that were crucial to how the game was perceived later.
2. Good At Analyzing
I believe being open-minded is part of the equation of feedback, but analyzing is the other half. As noted before, with people walking through the classroom and playing games created by students on a regular basis, being able to analyze players actions is also crucial.
I encourage my students to watch others play their game. A good game designer will analyze the players actions. If you have a sequence of events in a game that you want to happen, but they aren’t happening in the order you want them to, why did the player make that decision? Sure, there are definitely some instances where players simply overlook things. If that happens consistently, why is that? Is there a way to improve that?
A good analyzer will quickly begin to ask some of these questions about their video game. What generally happens in your average gamer to your good game designer is that they can then make the necessary modifications. Perhaps there is a need to highlight a specific clue a bit more. A good designer will think about certain rules that might be able to help them do that.
If a player got stuck, what can they do to help alleviate that problem? Early projects or incomplete projects often have this hurdle. A player gets stuck, but there is no way to fix that for the player. A good game designer will focus on a shorter segment of the game but leave the player smiling at the end.
Also, in terms of analyzing, a good designer often will say that games are no longer fun for them. Why? Because the analyzing side of them is never ending. When good designers play games, they often want to understand why decisions were made.
Exactly as above, they look for the “what happens if” to see how others solved some of the complex issues. The average gamer doesn’t do that. For this reason, I believe good game designers lend themselves well to great game testers too.
3. Great at Teaching
Have you ever beta tested a game and had no clue where to go or what to do? Yep, so have I. I am certainly not saying that when this happens that those designers are automatically bad, but I do believe that those that rise to the top often have great teaching ability. I am not saying this because I am a teacher. I believe I have had students that far exceed my own abilities in this area.
However, a good game designer understand certain complex things such as scaffolding which we see in education all the time. Think about how you learn things in most of your favorite classes. Without getting too technical, many teachers will start with a story or relate the concept to something a student is familiar with. After this point, they might show the student a couple of examples of the concept. From there, they might walk the student through an example of their own. Finally, students are maybe on their own to complete simple tasks before going to more complex ones.
Step one, consider a game, where a good game designer understands this process well. You want the player to understand how to craft an axe from wood and stone picked up. You might have an NPC say something to the player such as, “Boy, I bet you could make a lot of things with that wood and stone you are carrying.” Immediately the player can recall what they know from real life to relate to this.
Step two, a small dialog box appears explaining that the player can use wood and stone to craft an axe. Similar to a teacher explaining exactly what they want the student to know.
Step three, the game pauses and walks the player through the process of creating an axe with wood and stone. Similar to a teacher walking a student through a math problem or a question.
Step four, the player is tasked with needing to do this on occasion with a couple of tips reminding them how to do it. Similar to a teacher giving students a few example problems to complete.
Step five, the player now knows the skill and needs no additional assistance and might be able to craft other items using this skill. Much like a teacher expecting a student to apply what they know to other problems that are often more complex.
Good game designers can evaluate this process quickly, teach players what they need to know to be successful. They can do it at a rate that feels comfortable to players, but not so slow that players grow bored. Honestly, I believe most good game designers would make great teachers.
This one feels a bit cliché to me, but I do think it is extremely important. This not a quality that a lot of people have. We live in a society where things progress rather quick. Unfortunately, game design might be one of the slowest progression industries I can think of, often taking several years to complete some of the biggest titles we are familiar with. Considering films might take around 850 days to complete from announcement to post-production, there are many games that have five years or more to make.
In my program area, creating far smaller games, students realize that it takes a long time to make something that is really small. A couple of game levels might take several months with a small group.
I give students up to five months to create a project. If you want to work under pressure, game jams are a great place to start. If you have never participated in a game jam before or are unsure what they are, I wrote an article explaining what a game jam is and how it may be helpful to you. They are working on average two hours per day on their project. Some will take it home and work on it on occasion.
What starts out is a group of students working at a similar pace. There is a lot of progress happening early on. They are excited on what they are working on. Perhaps they have been tasked with creating a small portion of an environment that contains trees, some buildings, and a handful of props.
By the time they get to the fourth week, they have hit a problem they have not encountered yet. A model isn’t cooperating. A texture doesn’t look quite as good as they had hoped for in Unity. A programmer has been banging their head against a problem for a few days.
Those that are resilient will push through those barriers. Those that aren’t resilient will move to another task, only to never come back to that again or revise the game in an effort to not address certain problems.
What the good designers have in the end is a game that they set out to create. What a mediocre game designer ends up with a game that qualifies as a game, but misses the special pieces they wanted it to have in the beginning. It may be missing the unique factors that would make it work from a commercial standpoint.
I believe that one quality that goes unnoticed in a good game designer is empathy. You would think that this one would be reserved for nursing industries or teachers, but empathy is really a needed quality in game design too.
I know there are quite a few theories out there. Some will help game designers create good games. However, I don’t believe there is any substitute for being able to place yourself in the players’ seat, a quality that requires empathy.
When a good game designer sits in that seat, they try to understand emotions of the typical player. If you think about games like Fallout with NPC’s such as Dogmeat (a terrible name for such a sweet doggo), the game designers did a nice job of letting you interact with the dog. It plays on your heart strings a bit at times. A good game designer understand that emotion and creates elements in the game that enforce that emotion.
You cannot speak about games that are great with emotions and not talk about The Last of Us. The interactions, animations, the way the characters speak, everything about it lends itself to make the player feel specific emotions. You cannot do this without first understanding the player.
A decent game designer can create realistic environments, difficult puzzles, and beautiful animations. A GOOD game designer can create realistic environments that make the player feel happy or scared. A GOOD game designer can create difficult puzzles that make the player feel accomplished and satisfied. A GOOD game designer can create beautiful animations to tell a story that makes the player startle if they want, or maybe have a sense of endearment towards an NPC in a game. It begins with understanding the players emotions.
I would like to think that being a good game designer just comes down to hard work. What I have come to realize as I work with students, that there is a combination of internal qualities that really set the difference. Sure, a process certainly helps. Ultimately though, developing some of these qualities are going to be far more beneficial.
I know I do not have it all figured out. I know there are some qualities here though that I could work on. I believe dedication and learning will only get you so far. Ultimately, most people will read this article because they want to go from being average to great. Likewise, I am vowed to improving these qualities as well.