So, You Wanna Be a Game Designer?

Why Is This in English?

Let’s get this sorted immediately. We are Italian and many Italian students are asking us for this guide, so we could have written all this stuff in our language. It would have been easier and it would have taken far less time. But we chose English. Why?

Because as a game designer you will need to be able to speak, read and write in English at a pretty good level. English is the main language in the game developer community. All the most important books on game design and game development are written in English and – so far – no Italian editor is interested in translating them. And almost all the people making games and talking about games on websites, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks are writing their thoughts in English.

So, lesson one. If you can’t understand all this stuff, you simply aren’t ready to become a good game designer. Learn English and then come back here. We have something to tell you.

What Is a Game Designer?

Now, if you want to be a game designer, the first thing you need to know is what exactly a game designer does. Apparently, this could be very simple, but, as it frequently turns out, people dreaming about a future in games don’t really get what this means and what is expected from a game designer.

NOT an Idea Person

A game designer is a professional specialised in conceiving and delivering games. The job of a game designer doesn’t stop with having a good idea about a game. This is a myth that needs to be debunked. The idea constitutes probably the 1-5% of a game designer’s job. What is really challenging – and what truly defines the job – is all the work the designer does to put the game together, from the early prototype to the final release. The lead game designer is in charge to maintain and direct the general vision of the game.

Everything Starts with a Concept

As we have said, the game designer is not just an idea man. Actually ideas are really cheap, and can come from anyone in a game developer team. The game designer’s first task is to translate the first raw idea into a concept document. This document is meant to describe the general idea of the game and to start reasoning about the technology the game will need, the costs and the timespan the development of the game is going to take. The concept document is a first treatment of the game, and it’s just the very first step of a miles-long journey.

The Game Design Bible (Well, Almost)

The concept document is sometimes further detailed in into what it’s known as the game bible. This is a massive document detailing every tiny aspect of the game. This should work as a reference for the other team members. Every possible answer to their questions should be addressed here.

In the last few years, though, the game bible has changed a lot; since a more flexible workflow is preferred, the documentation is written by the designer during the multiple iterations of a first prototype. In this way the game grows in sync with the observation of the team. For more information or ideas about this kind of process, you should read Daniel Cook’s Game Design Logs.

However, whatever the development process is, the game designer has still the responsibility to keep the documentation updated, and to maintain the documentation and all the game related knowledge base updated.

Prototypes and Iterations

Whether a team decides for a more traditional workflow or not, the creation of a prototype is a constant in game development. Often this is a way for the game designer to try out and show the basic game mechanics and to understand the general direction of the game. The first prototypes can often be non-digital and the game designer should be able to build prototypes from scratch in a fast and efficient way. The game idea won’t be real if it’s not prototyped first.

The very first prototype is usually iterated more and more until the game mechanics work effectively. Here the game designer should direct all the iteration cycles and possibly self-implement new solutions and possibilities by themselves. The prototype iteration can go as long as the entire development cycle.

Putting It All Together: Scripting

Scripting is a big part of the game designer’s job. The game designer is usually in charge of using a script language (or a visual editor, or both) to decide character behaviours, to create the levels of the game, and to generally set up the actual runtime gameplay.

Putting It All Together: Tuning

Directly connected to scripting is the fine tuning of all the in-game values. How high will the character jump? How fast will the enemy run? How many shots does a gun carry? What is the damage dealt by that particular sword? All these values are often formalised into an excel document, so the game designer can freely change them and run simulations. But ultimately they will be put into the game and fine-tuned at runtime.

Final Roundup

So, the job of a game designer includes (but it’s not necessarily limited to) making paper and digital prototypes, writing documentation, deciding the game general mood, cherry picking the game rules and deciding what to ditch, scripting the levels and the characters' behavior, running the game again and again and again fine-tuning every little value, keeping an excel file with all the game values and their relationships and so on. While doing this, a good game designer should always be up to date on the latest games and game design discussion, read a lot, watch movies, play games, constantly expanding their personal culture.

That’s quite a lot of work, isn’t it? And the game idea is just a tiny part of the job.

What Should I Know?

Game design implies a very broad range of knowledge. While everything is ultimately useful, there are some pretty important things you should know in order to be a better designer. Remember, this is not an easy path, but for sure a fascinating and challenging one.

What Should I Study?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions about how to become a game designer. The answer is not that simple, though. First of all, does an aspirant game designer need a university degree? I’d answer yes, definitely. But let’s be clear on this matter. A good game designer should have a wide general knowledge, plus some kind of in-depth knowledge about a few topic. This means that even if you didn’t attend a university, in order to do this job you will need to have a personal knowledge at least comparable to the one provided by a university degree.

Now, which topics are the most important for a game designer? I guess that pretty much everything counts. But if I had to choose, I’d say literature, art, history, maths and media studies could be the most useful topics.

Then there are the universities offering specific game design tracks. I’ve got mixed feelings about those. While I’m certain that a specific game design competence is almost mandatory, these courses don’t often offer so much more than a good book on the matter. If you want to follow a game design course, I’d suggest to carefully select the ones focusing on guiding you through a complete project. Look at the course portfolio to see what projects came out in the previous years and try to stick only to tracks that put you in charge of actually accomplishing something. Game design is mostly learnt by making games, so, if a course could help you in that quest, it can’t be bad for you.

Bottom line: you have to study a lot if you want to do this job. You’ll need both to learn game design theory and to improve your general knowledge. Everything will be useful sooner or later. If you lose interest in the world and in all of its marvels, you just can’t be a good game designer.

Do I Need to Learn How to Code?

Hell, yes. DON’T RUN AWAY, COME BACK HERE RIGHT NOW. First of all, you don’t need to be a coder. But your work will dramatically improve if you’ll learn at least the basis of a coding language. This is obviously true only if you want to make digital games. But I’m going to assume that yes, sooner or later you’ll be interested in that.

With a basic coding knowledge you will be able to do more alone, without having to rely on other people: you will be able to write and complete basic prototypes, and be ready to show what’s in your head in a more efficient way.

Then, you will be better at scripting, and you’ll be able to fine tune the game faster and see immediately the results of your changes. You’ll even be able to understand the code written by others and to propose changes or tweaks in a more rational way.

Last but not least, you will communicate better with coders, you’ll be able to write documentation in a way that will be more useful and understandable for them. You’ll make their job a lot easier, by describing each game element in a way simpler to be translated into code. And you will be more aware of the limits and the opportunities raised by your design.

Sure, you won’t have to be able to write the low-level code, but you will be able to put your hands under the hood and make changes to the game on your own. And that’s a really precious skill.

Do I Need to Learn How to Draw?

Hell, yes. Wait a minute, why aren’t you running away? Art is something that some game designers just love to ignore. After all, a game is made up of mechanics, and art is just a superstructure, right? It’s the artist’s job, right?


As much as the hard work in art and asset development is responsibility of the artists, a good game designer should at least be able to sketch or visualise ideas in some way. Remember: Shigeru Miyamoto, possibly one of the greatest designers of all time, started his career as an artist.

Your job as a game designer, especially if you occupy a lead position, is to have the aesthetic vision of the game: this element is not at all detached from game mechanics, but works in sync with them to generate emotions. That doesn't mean the art director and the lead artists have no word in this matter, but you have to be able to work with them in the most efficient way to get the best possible results.

So, if you can at least sketch something you will be even better at communicating ideas. And when working in teams, communication is extremely important. Plus, a basic art knowledge will greatly improve the quality of your prototypes.

Finally, like code knowledge will help you communicate with coders, art knowledge will make your way of working with artists smoother.

Where Do I Start?

If you want to design games, you should start designing games. You can design games with a deck of cards. With index cards. And a pen, don’t forget a pen. You can do it with some poker chips, with some Lego bricks, with an old chess board. Your first lesson is: “games are not their graphics”. Or their framerate. They are their rules. You can start making games with whatever you have to hand. Raph Koster

That’s pretty much it, really. Raph Koster nailed it. If you want to design games, you should immediately start by making games. Making games is NOT writing concepts. Making games means to take your concept and bring it to a finished status. If you still don’t know how to code (mind you: you should learn), just put it on paper, as Koster says. There’s plenty of shops selling wooden game bits and dice and other stuff you can use to start making games (and if you can’t get some of those you can just look into your dust-covered tabletop games.

A game designer should always be making games. Plus, your first ten games will probably suck (it’s not your fault), so it’s better to get them out of the way as soon as possible.

How Can I Make My First Game?

There are a lot of ways to do it. If you can’t code, you can just start on paper. Creating a board game will teach you a lot, and you won’t need a lot of stuff to start (but if you do, head to Spielmaterial to get some nice game bits). Creating a board game is a great way to start designing games. There’s always time to get digital.

If you still want to use your computer screen, though, you can start with semi-visual tools like Game Maker or Stencyl. They are both pretty good to learn the basics about how a game works. Sure, they are pretty limited (especially Stencyl), but right now you have to learn how to make small, fun games. Leave the complexity for later, when you will have gathered enough experience.

If you are more into 3D games, Unity 3D is a popular choice. It’s quite simple to learn and there is a huge community to call upon if you’ll need help.

Please note that these are just mere suggestions: there is a huge amount of tools and engines dedicated to create games and the landscape is ever changing. Use what you feel comfortable with. Remember: this is your first game, so, don’t bite more than you can chew. Stick to something very very simple. You aim to finish a game. It won’t be a masterpiece (it will probably suck) but you’ll learn a great deal of things in the process.

If you need to stay simple and be motivated, you may check the Tiny Game Design Tool, which was conceived exactly to maintain your idea simple and to motivate you towards finishing a game.

How Do I Get Known?

First of all, start a project. Work hard to make at least a good prototype. Even better: do some small games and start showing them around. Don’t start empty handed.

Three words for the job: use the Internet.

No, seriously. The best way you have to get known is to live into the Internet. Follow interesting people on Twitter. Read their blogs. Comment them. Engage in the discussions. Subscribe to the most interesting bulletin boards and start asking and giving advice about what you’re doing.

And even more important, start building your identity on the web: put a website/blog on; open a Twitter account and start using it at least daily; make mood boards on Pinterest. When you have a definite project start writing about it in a devlog. Release often screenshots, videos and updates. This will help you getting real about it and help you to get known. Show what you’re doing as much as you can. Don’t fear to have your ideas stolen. Remember: ideas are worth nothing until they are realised. The more you talk about yourself and your work, the more help you can get. And you’ll start knowing people who matter and get known by them.

Then, you can think about going to conferences and events. This is extremely important to meet like-minded people and to get advice from them. You can even make them play your game and see how they react. When you travel, always try to find if there are developers in the area you’re staying. Contact them and try to hang out with them. As for what events are the most relevant to be attended, the first choice should probably be the Game Developer Conference. It is by far the most important event for game developers, and you could get in touch with a lot of very cool people and game developer legends. Now, if you can, I’ll suggest to aim for the central event in San Francisco. But the European instance could still be a great choice to start. If you are overwhelmed by the ticket price, don’t get discouraged. All the GDC instances have a great volunteer program: they will ask you a part-time commitment (you’ll basically have to help people find the right conference room, or to check badges at the entrance) and offer in exchange a full access to the conference. You’ll still have plenty of time to follow conferences and meet people while working there. It’s a refreshing and very cool experience. And don’t forget parties! Traditionally, a lot of parties are thrown during the GDC days. There you can get to know people in a far more relaxed mood, play their games and hang out. You’ll have a lot of fun and you’ll take away a lot of important knowledge.

Getting known is extremely important. If you choose to go indie and self-publish your game, knowing people will greatly help you spread the word (obviously, you need a good project). If you are looking for a job in some company, having a good presence on the web can greatly help.

Game Jams

Game Jams are extremely precious to get started (and to keep yourself motivated!). A Game Jam is an event in which game developers try to complete a game, often following a given theme, in a very short span of time (usually 48 hours), but there are longer jams as well as crazy 2-hours jams). The International Game Developers Association hosts once a year a Global Game Jam, an event organised in several cities throughout the world, taking place in the same weekend. The GGJ is a live event, so it’s a good chance to know people and find someone to work with. Similar jams are held in Sweden (No More Sweden) and in Norway (Nordic Game Jam), so you have plenty of possibilities to attend.

If you cannot travel, well, there’s no problem at all! You can always attend one of the many online jams held periodically. One of the most important is Ludum Dare, which is held every three months. Another pretty interesting jam is the Experimental Gameplay Project, which runs for an entire week and challenges game developers to try something new and completely different.

Often the aim of game jams is to give you some time and motivation to explore something new and original. So they are a great way to make games and to hang out with likeminded people. If you want to be a game designer, you should try to attend a jam every time you can, because you’ll learn a lot from them. Try to do a jam as soon as you can. And don’t feel inadequate! And don’t feel inadequate: the first times it will be almost impossible to create and finish something playable, but rest assured the next time you’ll manage! And if you need ideas or just want to know what to expect, you can read The Game Jam Survival Guide. It’s a great book, full of useful advice.

Finding a Job

So, let’s say you’ve done everything. You have studied a lot, you have even made two or three small games, you have several working prototypes, a good website and stuff. Now you want to get a job in game development. Maybe you’re looking at the super shiny big industry. How can you get a job there?

Well, let’s start by saying that, right now, staying in Italy won't get you into the big industry. All the most important companies are located abroad (currently Canada, USA, UK and Japan are leading the way, but northern Europe is catching up), so you must be ready to move. If you are, before you can even think about getting started and sending out job applications and CVs, there are some things you should know.

First of all, getting a job as a game designer is extremely hard. Traditionally game designers are former testers, programmers or artists that change their job profile while working in the industry. Even with a good portfolio it’s still quite difficult to land a first job directly as a game designer. If you look at the listings for game design positions, you’ll often notice how a several years experience plus a certain number of delivered titles in the industry are required. Why is it so? Because the game designer must demonstrate to be able to effectively complete a game. A good game.

So, what to do? Well, if you really want a job in the big industry, there’s no harm in trying to show your prototypes and your small games. Although difficult, landing a junior position is possible if you can show people that you know how to work. Plus, in social and casual game companies being selected could be a little easier. Or, you can look out for testers positions.

Being a tester is often the first step for a designer. By testing games you could see how the company works and learn some useful stuff. Unfortunately testing could be a tedious and very consuming activity (but game design is not less consuming, to tell the truth). And you shouldn’t stop making games in your free time.

What If I Cannot Find a Job?

Well, that’s tough. Sometimes you just won’t be able to do it. Finding a job in game design is often very very hard. Fortunately, if you have worked well, there are a lot of jobs you can still do. For example:

Going Indie

You can also choose to avoid looking for a job both in the traditional industry and in another company: you can try to be independent. This could be really difficult and you are probably going to have a hard time earning enough money until you can make a successful product. But more and more people are trying this path, and the chances to make it alone (or, better, with a small team) are higher than just five years ago.

Going indie, on the other hand, means that you’ll often have to wear several hats to get things done. You probably will have to code something, to do some basic art, and so on. Please, don’t think you can go in forums and communities asking for help based on the fact that you have a great idea. As said, ideas are a dozen a dime. And all the people hanging out in indie communities are probably still involved with their great project. So, there’s just one thing you can do: start doing your own game with what you have and show it to other peers: they will get a better chance to evaluate and it will be more likely to get someone involved.

When your game is at an alpha state, you can start thinking about signing it for some indie competitions such as Independent Games Festival which is held inside the Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, IndieCade which is one of the most important showcases of experimental and innovative games and Fantastic Arcade. This competition are all located in the United States; in Europe you can check out A MAZE, which is held in Berlin.

Whether or not your game is selected for one of these events, you’ll still need to effectively sell your game. To do so, you should keep in mind that being an indie means that all the work to market the game will be your responsibility. Being in the loop and getting known is obviously the first step to market your game, but it’s just the start. You should keep contacts with journalists in order to have them speak about the game. You’ll have to be creative and find ways to make people speak about it. And you should start pretty soon: having people follow the development of the game since the early stages (not too early: be sure to have something good to show!) can make them more involved and greatly enhance the buzz around it.

Then, you have to choose the right marketplace. If you are making a mobile game, there’s not a lot to do. Just publish the game in the relative app store and start fighting your battle to be noticed. But if the title is multiplatform, you should choose where to publish it. Obviously, you can try to sell the game directly, maybe using PayPal, or you can upload it on a free marketplace like Indievania. Other marketplaces like Steam for PC and Mac or Xbox Live Arcade for Xbox have to select your game before offering you a contract to sell it on their spaces. The same goes for interesting new models like the Humble Indie Bundle which periodically offer a batch of selected games in a pay what you want fashion.

Quite recently Steam opened to the public Greenlight, a platform where you can show your game to the community and, if it gets enough positive votes, it can be chosen to be included in Steam.

Remember, being indie could be difficult, but you will be free to experiment and try more original stuff. That’s why a lot of developer choose the indie way. If you want to, do yourself a favor and watch Indie Game: The Movie; it shows quite well what the life of an indie game developer can be.

The Italian Market

Making games in Italy is currently more difficult than in other countries. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t occasion and possibilities to work here. It’s clear that if you want to do this job, you should be ready to travel abroad; but you can still accomplish a lot while staying.

You should keep in mind that the Italian industry is really small (almost nonexistent) and that the few existing companies here struggle to remain active. But a new independent generation of game creators is growing, and it has started to show interesting things.

To go indie, you don’t need a lot: a computer, an Internet connection and a few other (often inexpensive) tools. But you need to know how to do almost everything: some art, some coding and obviously a lot of design. An indie team is almost always made up by a few people, so everyone must be able to do as much as they can.

Don’t bother forming immediately a company, this can be a pretty hard step in Italy: you’ll have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy and you’ll need a constant stream of revenues to pay all your dues. The best thing, here, is to start making something and to care about getting yourself a company structure when you are in the position to sell it, or to get financing rounds.

Keep in mind, though, that games are often disregarded in Italy: you won’t be able to get a bank loan just to do games (because you won’t be able to meet their guarantee requests). Private venture capital is just a little easier to obtain, but it’s still quite difficult: in general, Italian VC are more interested in Internet startups than in game companies. Sometimes the two concepts can be overlapped, though.

The best thing to do, if you cannot get a financing, is to start making pretty small games, try to make them as playable and polished as you can, and then try selling them on marketplaces like Flash Game License or the various smartphone app stores. Even so, it could be extremely difficult to earn enough money to be sustainable, but, hey, that’s how it goes. Another thing you could try is to crowdfund your idea. Kickstarter is the most famous crowdfunding engine around there, but it’s unfortunately still limited to USA and UK.

Stuff to Read

Read A LOT. You should read as much as you can, about games and about every other interest you could have. As said, reading is really important for this job. First of all, here are some good articles to get started.

And then, you may find really useful these books.

Which Games Should I Play?

As a rule of thumb, you should play A LOT. Play everything you can, try as much things as you can and go deep on few of those. Don’t limit your gameplay to blockbuster games, though. Try to find the hidden gems. Use a lot Kongregate, take advantage of the deals in Steam, buy Humble Indie Bundles. Play board games as well.

Just remember. Try to play critically. Always dissect the games you play, try to understand how they work, deconstruct them. A good way to do this is to look for game postmortems on the Internet. Postmortems are documents that tell you how a game was made, why some decisions were taken, which problems the developers encountered. These are extremely useful for you.

Stay Up To Date

These are websites dealing with game design, development and gaming in general you should read every day (well, almost).