How to be a video game designer? Play games, don’t play games. A contradiction? No. Here’s why.
First the yes. Playing games is where you begin for a very simple reason. You’re going to be designing games people play. So a basic understanding of what is good gameplay and what is bad gameplay is critical. An ugly game with great gameplay will do a lot better than a great looking game with mediocre gameplay. So understanding the difference is step number one and the best way to learn is break out the controller and play. And play. And play.
Okay, you played all the way through school and became a game ninja, and now you have to pay the rent. Bummer. What are you going to do? Become a video game designer, right? Okay, but what does that mean?
Well, in a very fundamental sense it means stop playing video games.
Let me explain.
The goal is not to become a video game designer, but to become the absolute best video game designer you can possibly be and to do that you need the very broadest range of skills you can possibly get.
But not only skills, knowledge. Knowledge of art, design, architecture, music, writing, planning, thinking. Thinking is the most important thing, understanding conceptual thinking, how artists think, how filmmakers think, how they pose and answer conceptual problems. How business people think, how they budget, forecast, work financial deals across global borders. What don’t you need to know? You need to know everything, so start opening yourself up to all sorts of things. If you can do that and play games be my guest, but most likely you can’t, and increasing your knowledge base is critical if you ever hope to conquer the world of video game design.
Trust me. Every skill you acquire will be put to use in your career. Nothing is ever wasted. It’s just the way it works. So put down the controller and experience things, travel, sing, walk, run, learn what is meant by the phrase abstract thinking. It separates the bees from the wannabees.
That’s what I meant by yes and no. Play games and don’t play games. You need to do both.
So, you’re cramming all this wide world of things into your head (that never stops, btw) now what?
Let’s talk t-pose for a sec. T-pose is a concept that in any career you need one fundamental skill you can build on and rely on as you go forward. See? Like standing on one solid leg and all your other skill spread out from there. It looks like the letter T. So you begin there. Master one thing. Art. Programming. Producing. Writing. Wherever your career takes you (and if you’re talking video game designing it can bring you to a million different places,) you have that one core skill that anchors your entire career. Whatever that skill is master it. Not only will it provide stability in your career, but it will also serve as a key to get you going, to get you in the door, and ultimately, that’s your first goal: To get a job.
I guess that’s another way of saying master your tools. Learn several code languages, find out how to use Unity, learn how to build a budget in Excel. Like I said, what do you need to know? Everything.
I like to end with a little story. I met this guy at GDC earlier this year, nice guy, an old hand like me, and we were talking about designing, the difference between working in games and maybe something else, like graphic design. This guy had done both and more. In fact, at one point he’d been a draftsman in the Navy. He’d done a lot of stuff, so I asked was there one fundamental thing that worked across all designing disciplines? He thought about it a moment and then grabbed a pad out of his bag and threw a pencil on top. “Always start by working things out with pencil and paper.”
Don’t get hypnotized by technology. Great design is more fundamental. The most awesome design tool ever invented is a #2 pencil. Master that first.