Beyond the Game: Advice from Top Video Game Designers

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If you’re an aspiring video game designer, you already know a ton about games. And if you’re anything like the ones I know, you probably spend more time playing games than you’d like to admit to your parents, or your friends… or maybe even yourself.

But if you’re preparing for a video game design career, you need to do more than just play games and read design books. Just knowing how to build games isn’t enough. You’ve got to know how to build experiences.

I spoke with some of this decade’s top game designers to get their unfiltered advice on how you can prepare yourself for a game design education. Follow their advice, and one day you just might follow in their footsteps.

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Kim McAuliffe, Senior Game Designer

Project Spark | Kinect Nat Geo TV | SOCOM4

I recommend that aspiring designers read as much as they can, in addition to reading game design books. Watch movies – dig into the classics, so that you get the cultural references.

Stay current with what’s trending in the industry. Follow your industry idols on Twitter. See what they’re talking about, and what games they’re playing.

Obviously, play games of all kinds, and decide what does and doesn’t work well in each one. But also experience life as much as possible and take note of the “design” that’s all around you – good and bad.

Follow Kim on Twitter:

Hal Milton, Senior Video Game DesignerHal Milton, Senior Game Designer

Marvel: Avengers Alliance | D&D Online | Ultima Online

Ultimately, I advise folks to start playing and making. This could be playing with and learning the basics via Microsoft’s upcoming Project Spark, creating simple content with a tool like Game Salad, diving into Unity 3D and working through sample projects, or engaging the Steam Workshop to create content for any of your favorite games that support it.

There are robust online communities for all of those examples that will provide support, should you need it. By creating, you’ll learn far faster what it means to realize an experience from concept to tangible content. Also, you’ll learn that there is work involved – unavoidably hard, tedious, frustrating, nerve-shredding, yet unbelievably joyful work.

Connect with Hal on LinkedIn:

Mandi Grant, Digital Artist and Game DesignerMandi Grant, Lead Designer

The Princess and the Frog DS

Design is a sense, more than anything. My advice to aspiring designers is to get over the “cool factor” of being a game designer and learn how to generate ideas, weed out the weak ones, and compromise with teammates on the best ones.

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This goes double for solving “boring” problems. Most of game design is “boring problems,” not inventing cool characters (those often get handed to you by the client anyway).

Be interested in everything – a designer doesn’t get the privilege of not liking things. If you only enjoy one genre of media, then you won’t be able to design outside of that box.

A game designer is an experience designer, so study life experiences. Try new things and go new places and pay attention to the experience. What did the “designers” choose to “hide” from you and why? What kind of experience do you think they wanted you to have? If there’s a learning curve, is it well explained or is it confusing?

Internalize it all, and you’ll be ahead of most designers.

Connect with Mandi on LinkedIn:

Brad Lansford, Senior Video Game DesignerBrad Lansford, Senior Gameplay Designer

Cyberpunk 2077 | The Matrix Online | Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions

My early knowledge from the process of game design and level construction doesn’t come from many educational books. When I was young, there wasn’t much written on game design so I took to learning in a completely different way.

First, RPG source books. They taught me much about how rules and systems are designed, combat systems might play out in code, and how I as a future designer could start to think about the mechanics, gear, and character statistics to drive a game experience. For me it was West End Game’s Star Wars RPG, Shadowrun Second Edition, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition, and Cyberpunk 2020 Second Edition (second editions were all the rage in the late 80s and early 90s, it seems).

I still think there’s much that designers can learn from these ancient tomes, but more so from the pen and paper systems being designed and expanded today. They’re full of gameplay concepts, mechanics, and worlds that can still teach much to future designers interested in the myriad of systems that underlie the games being developed today.

Second, early strategy guides. I have fond memories of poring over page after page of visual representations and textual content that explained the ins and outs of early NES and SNES games. The Final Fantasy 1 guide from Nintendo Power and Nintendo’s guide for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past let me walk through the dungeons and worlds of those fantasy settings when a controller wasn’t in my hands.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but those colorful guides are extremely close to much of the information you might find in a design document for the various levels and maps in those games. Maps are shown in great detail with every nook and secret clearly labeled and called out. The Link to the Past guide taught me how two similar worlds can be built to complement one another and how I can design an open world with a multitude of items that supports re-using sections of a world for a plethora of gameplay goals and objectives.

Just the act of sitting down and genuinely reading the guide, as opposed to walking through a game with every secret already revealed, provided me invaluable information on how I could approach the worlds of my own creation in the future.

Connect with Brad on LinkedIn:

Beyond the Game

If there’s a common thread through this advice, it’s that you need to get out of the game and into the real world. Study other types of games. Think about how the experiences around you are designed. From classic board games, to classic movies, to the places you visit on summer vacation, everything you do is a potential source of inspiration.

The only way to truly innovate in design is to have a rich and full life outside of video games. Observe. Analyze. Learn. And then bring those unique insights into your virtual worlds, for your players to experience and enjoy.

Getting your head out of the game really is the best way to get ahead of the game.

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12 comments on “Beyond the Game: Advice from Top Video Game Designers
  1. kevin says:

    Did you go to school and for how long? I’m asking cause schools are pricey and just thought you might know which to look into.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Kevin, I originally went to school for a different industry, not video games. Once I became a tester, I took a one-year Game Programming certificate course from the University of Washington, where I really solidified the my self-taught programming skills with some serious study.

      I can’t tell you which school to look into because it depends on where you live, what exactly you want to do, how much you can get for scholarships/grants/etc., and more. You and your parents should work together to explore schools and try to find one that works for you.

      You can start by requesting free info from a few schools using our game school search page. But you’ll want to continue your research from there.

      I know there’s a lot of work involved in picking a school, but it’s well worth the effort. Good luck!

  2. BK says:

    I was wondering if Video Game design Diploma is good or would it be helpful. The Diploma will take 2 years and i live in Atlantic Canada. Im looking for some Advice in what I should do?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi BK. This is a really good question.

      In general, going through a degree program is good and helpful for these reasons:

      1. You’ll end up with a portfolio of games that you worked on, and can show to potential employers when you go looking for a job after graduation.
      2. You’ll learn about the process of creating a game, and will learn specific skills that will look good on a resume and enable you to work professionally.
      3. You may make some game-industry connections that could help you get a job after graduation. Sometimes it’s not “what you know,” but “who you know.”

      Those are some good reasons to get a design degree. But getting a degree does not guarantee you a job, and if the school you’re thinking about is overly expensive and/or is not well-regarded then you could end up with a lot of student loan debt and trouble finding a job. So be sure to research the school, and make sure it gets good reviews before you spend a lot of time and money there.

  3. Elian says:

    Hey I was wondering if full sail university is a good college for game disigner

  4. Alex Gonzalez says:

    Hi, I’m really interested in working in the game industry, but I don’t know what to study. I’ve been researching some majors but the ones I’m the most interested are computer science and game design. However, I don’t really get the difference between both of them except that computer science requires math. Thanks, any help is recieved.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Alex, if you’re not sure what to study but you’re interested in computer science, then I’d suggest taking computer programming courses. If possible, find courses that focus on video game programming. To read about the differences between programming and design, check out the interviews with game developers at the Quest for Your Career series.

  5. Saurav says:

    Hi sir,I have recently completed my HS final exam in Science(PCM)and i want to be a game designer what courses would be helpful to me?? plz,guid me…

  6. Ganez says:

    Hi, My name is Ganez, I’m from India, so i’m interested in doing some game coding course but i don’t know what to do so i need your help and some advice

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Ganez, you could start by taking any computer programming courses as those will teach you the basics. From there, you could either learn game programming online, or try to find a college that offers game design courses or degrees. I don’t know of any big gaming schools in India – I’ve heard Indian designers mention Supinfogame, but I don’t know much about it so you’d have to do some more research.

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